The One Thing Every Great Player Does, but Nobody Ever Taught You - Part 2
***This article is a continuation of the previous post. If you haven't read Part 1 yet, check it out here first. This post builds off of information in Part 1, so don't miss it!***
Just Follow the Ball
When either player approaches the net, the geometry of the point immediately changes. The person at the baseline is often forced to go for one of his two widest angles. He can also hit a "dipper" or lob, but if his opponent chooses the right approach shot and times his split step in center, these are less of a threat.
As you can see from the illustration above, you (the star) will want to be positioned at the center point, just as before. The difference is that you will now be on the same half of the court as your opponent instead of on the opposite side. This is why many coaches will tell you to "follow the ball." When approaching, you should generally follow the path of the ball you just hit until you reach your center point and/or your opponent makes contact.
There are a few reasons for this:
If you stationed yourself in the exact middle of the court, you'd be disproportionately covering the crosscourt angle and leaving the down-the-line passing shot wide open.
The majority of passing shots are hit down-the-line, and it takes the ball less time to get past you down-the-line than it does crosscourt.
A crosscourt angle pass is often more difficult to execute because the baseline player is forced to change the direction of the ball. Additionally, it requires a good deal of spin control and precision to hit a short angle pass, especially under pressure from an opponent at the net.
How to Practice Recovering to Center
Now that you've had a primer on center point positioning, the best thing you can do is go out to the court and practice. Learning by experience is often the best way to cement tactics in a tennis player's mind--there's only so far an illustration can take you.
Here are some ways we teach our players center point positioning:
Center Point Scenarios - Place cones (or any items) at various locations on one side of the net to represent different positions your opponent can hit from. Walk over to your side of the net and focus on one of those items. Then place a tennis ball at each of the widest possible angles your opponent could feasibly hit from that item's position. (Make sure to place the balls where you will intercept the shot, not necessarily where the ball lands.) Stand in the middle of the two balls, and you've found your center point. Choose another item and repeat.
Shadow Point Play - Play points against an imaginary opponent with an imaginary ball! Concentrate on hitting with good form and getting to your center point early. Sure, you're going to look certifiably insane to anyone who sees you--bonus points for grunting--but tennis players get that reputation anyway, right? Oh, and if you lose to an imaginary opponent...we'll pray for you.
Pre-Point Visualization - The next time you play points, in a match or otherwise, visualize your first shot and where you will recover to. Form a picture in your mind's eye of what your first shot will look like, where your center point will be, and what type of shot your opponent is likely to hit next. This can be done as a server and as a returner.
"Set!" - When playing points, get to your center as soon as possible and say "Set!" right as you split-step. Note where the ball is each time you call out, and make it a goal to get to your center point before your opponent hits. Just know that this is not always possible and will be more and more difficult the harder you hit the ball. (There's certainly a lesson to be learned there--harder is not always better!)
After trying a few of the exercises above, take all of the valuable information you gleaned from your training and improve upon your knowledge. Many of the very best drills I've developed over the years have come from simply identifying a certain situation in a match, deconstructing it's parts, training each part, and then putting the parts back together again.
Making Your "Center Point" Second-Nature
Watch a LOT of high-level tennis matches, on tv or in person. Tv is nice because you can pause, rewind, etc. It's amazing what your brain will pick up without you even noticing it! In my opinion, watching matches is as important for tennis players as reading is for writers. The greatest writers are all avid readers...and great tennis players study other great tennis players.
Look up YouTube clips of professional practices and point play drills. Notice how proactive the pros are with their footwork and positioning, always trying to create opportunities for themselves. It all starts from an awareness of their center point.
Make recovery to your center point a focus of your practices and matches for the next month. By the end of the month, you will have formed the habit of evaluating your positioning and won't need to constantly remind yourself where you should be!