by Chase Bartlett

August 27, 2021   

Below, you’re going to learn a rule for changing direction of the ball in singles.

Tennis players have a natural reflex to associate “safe tennis” (playing moon-balls, reducing pace, hitting the ball through the middle of the court) with “high-percentage tennis,” which is playing aggressively but with good margins.

To master high-percentage tennis, the most fundamental skills are to assess the ball that your opponent hit and to then make an educated decision about where to hit your next shot.

Good Shot Selection is Crucial for a Winning Singles Strategy

Before you can decide what type of shot you need to hit, you need to recognize:

  1. How your opponent’s ball is approaching you.
  2. Where your opponent was standing when he hit the shot.

For advanced tennis players, shot selection is always determined by a cause-effect relationship.

This means that the opponent’s shot and position determines where the player hits the next ball. If the opponent hits a good shot, for example, the player will not try to change direction, usually playing a safe, crosscourt shot.

This information might seem basic, but even the best players in the world consistently work on staying disciplined with their shot selection. A majority of errors, even in professional tennis, come from changes in direction and poor shot selection. 

Changing Direction by Playing with “Directionals”

Since there is an infinite number of combinations between the ball that approaches you and the ball you should respond with, it is important to learn a few rules of thumb. In 2008, a tennis coach named Paul Wardlaw came up with a few shot selection tips that he called “directionals.” 

Inside vs outside balls in tennis

Directionals asks you to categorize your opponent’s shot as either an “inside ball” or an “outside ball.” 

What is an Outside Ball?

Outside balls are shots that cross your body, such as in a cross-court rally.

Imagine that there is an imaginary line which extends from you towards the net. Outside balls cross this imaginary line.

If you are standing in the middle of the court, for example, and your opponent hits a cross-court shot, it is an outside shot because it crosses this imaginary line

On outside shots, it is almost always more natural and safe to take the ball back where it came from. In fact, junior and recreational players make the most mistakes by trying to change the direction of an outside ball that is not in their strike zone. 

What is an Inside Ball?

Inside balls, on the other hand, are shots that stay on the same side of your body, such as in a down-the-line rally or when you hit a run-around forehand.

While it is generally safer to play outside balls back to where they came from, inside balls provide much more freedom to change direction. It is safer to “turn” an inside-ball (meaning that you hit it away from your opponent) because it is naturally the way that your swing and hips move.

This is why the inside-in forehand is one of the most effective shots in singles.

When to Hit Down-the-Line in Tennis

Nevertheless, directionals are only rules of thumb—there are always situations in matches where you’ll need to change an outside ball. So here are some rules for going down-the-line in tennis.

1. Don’t hit harder when you go down-the-line or change direction.

Most beginner and intermediate players wrongly think that when you change the direction or go down-the-line that it should be a strike or an attack. Often, this misconception leads players to hit the ball harder and flatter, which results in errors.

Every time you change direction, especially if you are out of position or behind the baseline, you should do so to move your opponent and hurt them—not finish the point. 

2. Be selective when changing direction on an outside ball.

When hitting an outside ball, you should only change direction if your opponent’s ball is short, slow, or in your strike zone.

Additionally, you can focus on pressuring your opponent by moving in and aggressively positioning yourself inside the court, rather than just hitting it hard.

In this video, watch how Agassi makes a mistake by going down the line when he is out of position at the end of the point. He changes direction on an outside ball from a defensive position, which gives Sampras the open court.

3. Use inside balls to run your opponent or set up the next shot, not hit winners.

If you’re standing in the middle of the court and your opponent (who is on the deuce-side) hits a ball to your left hip, then by hitting the next shot to the ad-side you’ve made your opponent run without having to expend much energy yourself.

Andre Agassi was great at stringing several of these shots together. He once even said that he would consciously choose to run his opponents this way rather than finish the point outright.

4. Use height when going down-the-line.

A normal tennis court is 78 feet long down-the-line and it is around 4.5 feet longer crosscourt in singles. On top of that, the net is about 3.5 feet high at the net post and only 3 feet high in the middle. This means that crosscourt is typically the much safer shot because it gives margin for error both from the increased length and the decreased net height.

However, knowing that the court is shorter down-the-line and that the net is higher, players need to be conscious of how much spin they use. A solid, arcing topspin shot is much more consistent down-the-line than a flat drive.

5. Change direction at 90 degree angles.

The best players in the world change direction by hitting in straight lines that are perpendicular to the baseline. By this, I mean that they are effectively creating a 90-degree angle with their shot and the baseline when they change direction. This eliminates the possibility of missing wide.

In this video Federer hits a down-the-line forehand. Pause the recording when he makes contact with the ball. Now, notice where he is standing and where the ball lands on the other side of the net. His shot makes a perfect 90-degree angle with the baseline he is standing on.

Even though this is an outside ball, he is in an offensive position with his stronger shot (forehand), so he is able to change the direction of the ball.

Key Takeaways: When to “Go For It” in Singles

Next time you play singles, focus on these simple tactics to improve your strategy.

  • Change direction mostly from inside balls.
  • From an offensive position, it is OK to change direction of the ball.
  • When you are uncomfortable or in a defensive position, take all outside balls back crosscourt to reduce your errors and stay in the point.

Chase Bartlett

About the author

Chase was an NCAA DII tennis player & team captain. He has played competitive tennis in Texas from an early age and was ranked in college as high as #11 nationally for both singles & doubles. Chase has also coaching experience at Austin Tennis Academy. Chase has a UTR rating of 12.

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