No two tennis players have exactly the same game, but most of the opponents you're likely to face can be placed into one of several major categories. Learning to adapt your strategy to a wide variety of opponents is one of the keys to becoming a tough competitor. If you succeed at becoming this adaptable, you'll enter an elite minority -- those players who can be any one of the major player types as the situation demands.
The Dinker, a.k.a. Pusher, a.k.a. Human Backboard: The dinker almost never hits hard, but gets everything back. "Dinker" is a somewhat misleading name, because one would normally think of a dink shot as something short and soft. The best among this breed can keep most shots deep, lob effectively, and aim fairly well. Dinkers drive a lot of opponents crazy, because they win by getting you to make all of the mistakes. (It's a lot more frustrating to make a mistake than to have an opponent hit a brilliant shot that no one could have got.)
- Attack at the net. Even the quickest players, who can run down almost anything you hit from your baseline, won't be able to run down an aggressive volley or overhead. Tennis is largely a matter of time, and by being at net, you cut in half both the time between your opponent's hit and yours and the time he has to react to your shot.
- Get him to cough up a short ball. This might not be easy, but experiment. One tactic very likely to work is making the ball bounce above his shoulders on the backhand side. Most players can't hit deep off these shots effectively.
- Be patient. He can't hurt you with his shots, so wait for the right ball before going for a winner or attempting an approach shot.
- Pull him to net with a drop shot or good, low short ball. If he's not much good at hitting an aggressive response, you'll have an easy opportunity to pass him.
The Moon-Baller: Once a major contingent on the pro tours, especially on the women's side, the moon-baller is like a more skilled and specialized human backboard. She won't hit hard, but she will hit high, deep, and with strong topspin. If you're not used to this kind of shot, it can be tough to handle, and she can keep hitting them all day long.
- Attack at net, but be ready to hit a lot of overheads and to chase a lot of balls back toward your baseline. You'll need to come in on a better approach shot than you would against an ordinary dinker.
- Try some sneak volleys. Start trading moonballs back and forth, then, when you've hit a nice deep, high one, sneak in toward the net and take the next ball in the air. It's hard for your opponent to see what you're doing while watching a deep, high ball, so she might not see you until you're about to pound the smash or swinging topspin volley.
- Learn to hit on the rise. Moonballs are toughest if you let them bounce way above your comfort zone. By hitting them on the rise, you'll take them at a more comfortable height, your ball will come back at your opponent earlier, and the ball will bounce off your strings harder, giving your shot more power with less effort. The timing required to do this is tough, though.
- Pull her to net. She won't be able to hit a moon ball off your drop shot or low, short ball, so she'll probably feed you an approach shot you can handle with ease.
The Power Baseliner: This is the most common type on the pro tour today. As opposed to an all-court player, the power baseliner would much rather go for winners from near his baseline than at the net.
- Keep your shots deep. If you give a power hitter a short ball, you'll have less time to react to his shot, and he'll be able to create sharper angles.
- Try to keep the ball out of his "wheelhouse," the height at which he can most comfortably hit the ball. Either slice the ball so that it skids quite low or use a fairly high topspin that kicks up above his shoulders.
- Make him hit a lot of balls. Keep running his shots down, because a hard hitter doesn't have much margin for error, and he'll eventually miss one.
- Pull him up to net with good drop shots or low, skidding slices. This is a risky play, because if your short ball sits up at all, he'll put it away. If you hit a good short ball though, you'll force him to try to play the net, and a lot of power baseliners don't volley well.
- Mix up the speeds and spins on your shots. A power hitter needs good timing, and the more variety you throw at him, the more difficult his timing will be.
- See what happens if you attack at net. A lot of baseliners aren't used to hitting passing shots and make errors such as hitting the net by aiming too low.
The Serve-and-Volleyer: A good serve-and-volleyer has a big advantage: rarity. Even among the pros, this is a diminishing breed. At the typical club, only a handful of advanced players serve-and-volley. A true serve-and-volley player will come in behind virtually every first serve and most second serves, and when you're serving, she'll often try to come in behind either her return of serve or another approach shot early in the point.
- Concentrate on aim. Don't look at the incoming opponent or at where you want the ball to go. Keep looking at the ball while you aim either down the line, at the corner of the service box crosscourt, into her body, at her feet, or lobbed over her head.
- Use topspin to make your returns drop in. Topspin allows you to hit harder at a given height without hitting long. It will also make your sharply angled crosscourt passes drop before they go wide or make the ball dive down at the feet of the incoming opponent.
- Try some low chip returns at the server's feet.
- Step in on the return to take the ball early. This will get the ball back sooner, giving the server less time to set up for a volley.
- If your opponent is coming in behind her returns, too, try some serve-and-volley yourself. Take the net away from her by getting there first.