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The Slice

Q. I am the No. 2 singles player on my high school team, but now that I’m a senior, I want to take the No. 1 spot. I can’t seem to beat the current No. 1 player because all he hits with is slice. It’s a low soft shot down the lines most of the time. All I hit with is topspin and slice when it is needed. How can I manage to play against him?

From Nikita Petukhov, Webster, NY

Have you tried hitting deep loopy shots that have lots of topspin and depth? He will have to either make contact high or make contact at a normal height from far behind the baseline. Both of these are hard shots to make. Remember to not get discouraged when he hits winners or good shots. Instead, try counting the shots he misses. Good luck!

From Chris, Orlando, FL

It sounds like your greatest weapon may be his predictability. Anticipating his low, soft slice will allow you to prepare early and perhaps take the return earlier. Once you effectively return a few of these for winners, you should be able to rattle his game and cause him to start making more errors.

From John D., Baltimore, MD

Playing against slice can be difficult. It tends to be a slower shot, and this can be frustrating to players who like pace. It’s tough to generate a pace from a slow ball, as you’re doing all the work. However, you mentioned that your nemesis plays most of his slices down the line. I’m presuming that he’s hitting these from the baseline. This is an error that you can immediately exploit. The down-the-line slice shot is a low percentage shot. He’s hitting across the highest part of the net and along the shortest length of the court. And with a slice he can’t be going for a winner.

I’m guessing that he’s not really beating you, but you’re beating yourself… mostly with unforced errors on those tricky slices. You should primarily be returning his slow down-the-line slice shots with cross-court shots. This way you’ll be maximizing the angle, which will make him run farther, and you’ll be adding consistency to your shot by hitting over the lowest part of the net and the longest part of the court. Play conservative and don’t try to hit winners. With his slower traveling slice shots, he’s probably not going for any, so don’t risk it. Just make him run himself from side to side. If you’re hitting cross court and he’s hitting down the line, he’ll be running a lot farther then you do, and when he starts running, he’ll make the errors you need to win. Good luck and have fun!

From Josh N., Colorado

Try hitting the ball deep with topspin, preferably to his backhand. I think it’s a lot harder to hit a good slice when the ball is high and deep. I serve and volley, so I’d try to hit a good approach and come to the net. Good luck.

From John, Richmond, VA

My biggest challenge most of my life were pushers that used soft underspin shots. There is only one way to beat a pusher, and that’s to take them out of their game. You can never play their game; they are too good at it. I find using heavy, deep topspin, forcing them back, while difficult to do on a low incoming ball, is very effective against a slice pusher. It puts them further and further back on the court, lowering their margin for error with a low trajectory slice. It also gives you a good margin for error. As you push the slicer back in the court, the angles now open up for you, and you can put some balls away. The best put-away shots to attempt are those that make him or her move up, like short volleys, preferably cross court.

From my experience, pushers like to move side to side, but not up and back. And if you’re pinning him deep and then hit a sharp angle, it tends to make them hit up to you at the net (due to his open-faced slice shots). As far as his shots going down the line, that is an even better reason for you to hit cross court. As your heavily spinning ball comes in cross court, he has to not only change the angle at which it leaves his racquet to keep it in the sideline, but also to counteract the topspin, as it will tend to pop up off his open-faced racquet.

If you can combine a good topspin cross-court game with crisp, low volleys, you can take the strength away from a slice player. Also, remember a cardinal rule for tennis, as for any other sport: Take away their strength and make them beat you with something different. Try coming to the net and camping the down-the-line shot. Make him change and hit it cross court.

From Michael Gan (USPTA), Baton Rouge, LA

Try serving and volleying more. Slicers will have a difficult time passing you if you put more pressure on them to hit passing shots. Also, try coming in off of his serve. This again puts more pressure for him to pass you, and if all he has is slice, then his only options are to lob you or try to pass you with slice. The slice passing shot can be effective if the player has perfected it, but if he/she hasn’t, they will have a difficult time passing a serve and volleyer.

From Kent R., Loveland, CO

This type of game is common at 4.0 level and with older players and, unfortunately, is quite effective. It is difficult for a western-gripped, topspin player to “pick up,” drive and keep in court a well-struck, underspin shot. If you go up the line, you must go over the highest part of the net with either a penetrating drive or a drive with sufficient height over the net to be able to recover to cope with a cross-court reply. If you fail to accomplish either shot, you’re in trouble, as the opponent runs you cross court or goes behind you.

The safest, or best percentage, answer to a well-struck, down-the-line slice shot is a deep, cross-court drive with good height over the net, essentially to neutralize and recover to optimum court position. Then wait for the right opportunity to do more. Bear in mind that the player going down the line is covering more territory than the player going cross court. Wait for a ball that sits up a bit higher and shallower in the court that is more in your comfort zone to strike with more authority and try to get into the net.

One would think that if you possess a solid transition game, you’ll be successful at the net against an opponent whose choice is slice. The relative lack of speed over the net of a sliced pass enables reasonable opportunities to volley. You must have the patience to get to the right opportunity to set up a sequence that promotes winning the point at the net with a volley or an overhead.

From Soorya, India

Your opponent is using slice to win matches because it’s in his comfort zone. Take him out of the comfort zone by angling shots to make him run for the ball. Aim your returns on the sidelines with power. Tit for tat is another technique. Slice can be tackled not with topspin but with another deep slice. Reduce the speed of your shots. Lob more without power. A slow, dull ball is very difficult to slice from the baseline.

From Chris L., Savannah, GA

One of the things I find most amusing about tennis is the common perception that certain styles or levels of play are superior, even if they lose to “inferior” styles or levels. Sure, the trend in tennis these days is loopy topspin played almost exclusively from the baseline. And sure, a 4.0 should beat a 3.5 player most of the time. But if someone can beat you with slice, or by getting to net, or with lobs or dinks, then they are the better player for that match. Even if they carry a lower rating and are considered more of a “hacker” than a classic stroke producer, the question that matters is whether they found a way to win.

I’m not saying that is your perception of your slicing nemesis. But if it is, the key to beating him is acknowledging what he does well and figuring out how he beats you. Only by analyzing these issues can you find the path to beating him. Tennis is about minimizing your opponent’s strengths and maximizing his weaknesses. You need to understand his strengths and then start exploring possible weaknesses. What is he doing to you and how can you handle or prevent it? What happens when you draw him in to the net? What happens when you hit moonballs close to his baseline, especially to his backhand? What happens when you respond to every slice down the line with a lob or a drop shot? What happens when you hit wide angles or move him side to side?

If you can’t find weaknesses and exploit them, then maybe his “inferior” style is actually superior in this case. Good luck, and remember the best fun in tennis is searching for and finding the answer to beating a difficult opponent.

From Alexei Prilepine, USPTA certified tennis professional, Los Alamos, CA

To effectively counter low, down-the-line slice shots, you must make sure to set up your footwork properly. Every time, you must anticipate and see the low underspin ball and prepare to go low with your knees to counter that shot. It seems to me you play with a two-handed backhand that will be difficult to use against low slices. Instead, try to develop one-handed slice that will keep the rally going until you get the short sitter that you can put away with a winner. Just remember always to use extra footwork to be in a balanced position to counter any off-pace slice shots.

From Tony S., Boulder, CO

My advice, Nick, would be to take the net. If you can’t beat him from the baseline, try beating him from the net. Try serving and volleying, or chipping and charging, off the return. If you aren’t comfortable with these strategies, play consistent from the baseline until you get a shorter ball that you can hit a slice approach off of and then take the net. Anticipate the soft slice down the line, and if he keeps hitting this to you while you are at the net, this should allow you to attack the volley, keeping your feet moving through the volley, and drive it cross court. Or if you have good hands and touch at the net, try an occasional drop shot cross court. Best of luck.

From Robert P., Ottawa, Ontario

Since I am a person who almost constantly plays backspin slice, the only things that I can suggest are: A) Play the slice right back on him, preferably on a drop shot. B) Force him to play baseline rallies by taking it to him right off the serve. C) Play up at the net to cut off any angles that he may have.

From Michael D., Houston, TX

So you’re telling me that your opponent only uses slice? Never Topspin? That’s pretty hard to believe. But what I need to ask is what is your problem when faced with slice? Can’t get to it in time? Can’t make good contact or good shots, thus giving him an easy ball? Just don’t know how to counter it?

If you can’t reach it: Try the split step, develop better foot work. Since its slice, all his hard shots will be deep, and all his weak balls will be short. Try to anticipate his hard swing to his soft swing.

If you can’t make good contact or good shots: Try countering with hitting on the rise. This would take a lot of speed, footwork and anticipation. Or, try bending lower than you usually do. Bend your knees and twist your wrist for a strong topspin. Try not to slice a slice, it usually comes out to be weak and a win for your opponent.

If you don’t know how to counter it: You know that it’s slice, so you can make a few general assumptions. 1) It’s going to be low. 2) Strong, fast swings usually equal balls that are deep. 3) Weak, slow swings usually equal balls that are short. 4) Be ready to run around. Don’t slice it back. Bend your knees and generate topspin with your wrist, knees and arm. Swing up for more topspin. Slicing is hard to keep doing, so you need to keep returning the ball with good speed so that you force him or her to make an error. The only time you can slice is when you drop it or you’re desperate to get it back over. Make them run. Good placement is key.

From Arianna C., Corona, CA

Hitting a high, topspin shot to his backhand makes it harder to slice the ball. Don’t moonball it, but don’t hit it too low. The harder you hit it, the easier it is for your opponent to slice.

From Nancy B., Lexington, KY

I am not a high school player, but as a 3.5 woman I play against a lot of players with slice on one or both sides. They seem to adapt well to topspin, as if it’s at just the right height for them. So I try flattening my shots or hitting moonballs until I find a height/spin they like less. (I’m not ashamed to moonball repeatedly if it works.) Also, you can try coming to the net and getting the ball while it’s higher (and if they lob you, at least slice lobs are a less reliable shot), or drop shot and then lob them. Also, if he’s going down the line, remember your most reliable return on the run is probably cross court over the low part of the net; just keep it deep to give yourself time to recover.

Most of the slice singles players I’ve played are patient baseliners and are just waiting for you to either misread the slice and mis-hit the ball, or try to end the point too soon by going for an ill-advised winner. Do try and break up their rhythm with some of the tips above, but don’t go for the kill too soon – you may have to play some 20-30 hit rallies to finally win the point.

From Dave R., Londonderry, NH

If you don’t think you can beat him, you have already lost. So the first thing you need to do is convince yourself that you will beat him! Don’t think you might beat him, you must know that you will beat him.

Once you have decided that you will beat him, you have to make him uncomfortable. Take his weapon away. If he has a big forehand, play his backhand all day or vice versa. Make sure your first-serve percentage is high, even if you have to take some pace off it. Don’t set yourself up for a lot of second serves that he can pounce on, or worse yet, a double fault.

If something isn’t working out there, try something different. Don’t keep hitting the same shot over and over, hoping for different results. If you have missed three forehands down the line in a row, it might be time to go cross court. Don’t be afraid to win. When you get the lead, don’t act surprised. Act like you have been there before. Close it out like you played the previous few games. If you have been charging the net the whole third set, don’t stop when you are serving for the match!

Q. "How can I cope with slices on my backhand? I have a topspin forehand weapon, and many of my opponents are neutralizing my game by consistently hitting slice shots on my backhand – either low slices or high ones. My backhand (both topspin and slice) is OK but no real weapon, compared to my forehand. How should I return these slices? My normal playing style is "active baseliner," and I win matches by keeping a better pace than my opponents, pushing them to make faults, and sometimes coming to the net. All this comes to nothing when I am pushed back by these slices on my backhand."

From Leslie S.:

I, too, have trouble with people who slice to my backhand to neutralize my game. I do best when I get a jump on it so that I can hit a deep topspin backhand to their backhand.

I have found that slices have trouble if I can get my shot to bounce up high on their backhand side. Once in a while, if they have me stretched, I am able to slice it back low down the line, and that catches them off guard. But it is a tough shot, and if you can hit a deep backhand topspin off their slice, that will neutralize THEIR shot, and they won't know what else to do to you.

Just make sure you DO NOT give them some dinky return to the T of the service line. That is a reward for them, and they can put it away. Hope that helps.

From Dennis B., Rocky Mount, NC:

It sounds as if your opponents will always look for your "OK backhand" to enhance their returns based on what you give them. There are two possible ways to change up your anticipated backhand:

One is to flatten out your backhand down the line and make them generate the pace while transitioning from your previous shot (provided it was played deep cross court). It could force a short ball or an error.

Second, with the time it takes to prep for a topspin backhand, you could run around it and hit an inside-out forehand approach, leaving them with an apparently open down the line, which would play right into your forehand volley to their open court. They'll never expect that from an "active baseliner."

From Dick B., Morrisville, VT:

You have a few choices.

First, you should go to the net when you hit any shot that puts your opponent at a disadvantage, therefore applying more pressure that will force your opponent to hit a different shot or at least a lot better shot to win the point.

Secondly, if you can get your racket under the returned slice, return the slice with a slice, keeping the return low, or you can lob if your opponent comes to the net. Just remember to lob to the weak side of your opponent. You need to get off the baseline and not allow your opponent to come to the net or have a lot of open court to hit into.

From Al D., Olney, MD:

I would advise you to look to run around your backhand and punish those high slices. For the low slices, I would learn how to return low slice with low slice.

From Lindy Lou, Bensalem, PA:

Here are a few things you could try:

1. Run around your backhand and hit your forehand, which you said was your weapon. Try to hit an inside-out forehand to the corner.

2. Can you drop shot off a slice to your backhand?

3. I think the preferred shot is to hit topspin back when a slice is hit to you. (You said you have both, so hit topspin back.)

In general, you want to play to your strengths. If someone is neutralizing you, you must find a way to turn it around. I didn't say this would be easy. A few strategy lessons with a pro may be all you need.

From David M., Mebane, NC:

My advice for Fredrik on how to deal with the slice backhands to him is to go to the net on these slices, which are normally slower than other shots, and put them away for a winner.

The other obvious answer would be to quit hitting to opponents’ backhands if they are slicing you and beat them with the pace you talk about battling forehands. I, too, use the slice backhand to slow down my more powerful opponents.

From Rajiv S., Australia:

Tennis is an overall performance game, and just having one part mastered is not going to get things done.

If you have your forehand as a weapon, you should also be consistent with the backhand, and from the slight description, I am assuming that you might be a 4/4.5 player. At that level, you should be able to handle the pressure from both sides of the court.

Get a partner/coach to hit you the backhand slices with all the variations, and drill yourself to get all the balls back. With the partner, find his weak position, and try to return the backhand slice to his weakness. Practice and more practice only will help.

Good luck.

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

It sounds like the slices you are having trouble with are defensive slices by the other player. You should just keep your grinding on the baseline, and return the ball deep with a topspin or an underspin return. Don't try to hit a winner or change direction on the ball; keep your active baseline game going.

Sometimes you might want to take a short slice and come into the net. One good idea would be to run around your backhand and use your weapon – your forehand. Don't let defensive shots cause you errors; keep focused, get the ball over, and wait for your opportunity.

A little junk added to your game might be a good idea, also -- hitting some drop-shot slices or just a defensive slice, waiting for the right shot to take advantage of.

Good luck to you, and good luck to Bill Lang, Rick Sommer and the rest of the senior Midwest team, as they go to face the nation in Jackson, Miss., this week!

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

Fredrik, having a big gun is great. Some say that without a big weapon, you can’t win today. Only a sucker, as we called him when I was a kid, would let his opponent pull the same thing twice in any game. Try this “Have Feet, Will Travel” approach.

Take a look at where you are with respect to the flight of the ball and its bounce. Remember, no matter how hard the ball is hit, how high a ball bounces or how excited you may be, one thing is for sure – gravity remains constant.

On high bounces, be patient and move to where you need to be. The ball will come down to your power zone. For line drives, when the ball is still falling, move in and take it in your power zone. On deep, low slices, work on your half volleys, and keep them low.

If low and away shuts you down, guess what he figured out.

There are no secrets; not every ball is hit to end the point. Work to the ball, work with the ball, and work your way to victory. The size of the court, the size of the ball and gravity all remain constant, so with “Have Feet, Will Travel,” you will instinctively add positive results to your all-around game by practicing and playing on every part of the court.

An active baseline moves the ball left and right, deep and short, down the line and sharp angles from both sides, all from the baseline region, sideline to sideline. Is that you? How’s it working for you?

“Have Feet, Will Travel” – there are no enemies between you and the net.

From Phil, Briarcliff Manor, NY:

It sounds like you have an aggressive baseline game, like Agassi. Your desire to outpace your opponent with big forehands might mean you need to develop patience. You will have to play cat and mouse with your opponents' slice to your backhand. That is, hit shots that force them to hit to your weapon, such as returning down the line.

If you get a slow ball to your backhand, you can run around it and hit a big forehand, either inside out or down the line, depending where your opponent is hanging out at the time. If you run around the backhand and hit down the line, be ready to sprint to your forehand side and hit another big forehand, however. Recovery to the middle after that shot is crucial.

You can also take time away from your opponent who hits you a high slice by taking it on the rise and driving it cross court. For low slices, you can engage in a cross-court battle of sliced backhands and see who blinks first.

Any way you slice it, it'd be fun and challenging.

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