Red Clay Singles Tactics: The Sneak Approach 

 

The height of the Red Clay Court season is here: the French Open has begun!  At Stade Roland Garros in Paris, France, the best players in the world will be fighting it out on the crushed red brick surface for the next 2 weeks.  This is part 2 in this series on Red Clay Singles Tactics.  The focus this time is the best way to attack the net on clay: the sneak approach!

 

Clay court matches, be they on red or green clay, are generally known for being more in favor of counter punchers and aggressive baseliners; 2 types of playing styles built on hitting a lot of groundstrokes from deep in the court.  However, today's ATP & WTA Pros have shown that there's definitely a way to consistently attack the net, even on the slowest of clay surfaces.  Here's how the tactic goes:

 

  • Player A hits a groundstroke that puts Player B in a defensive position
  • Immediately after hitting that groundstroke, Player A recovers behind the baseline, about 2 feet to the cross court side of the hash mark.
  • This is the key point in this tactic. This recovery move makes sure the last thing Player B sees is Player A staying back at the baseline. That gives Player B the impression they can get away with a defensive, safe shot hit towards the middle of the court...they'd be wrong!
  • The moment Player A sees Player B in a defensive position while attempting to return the groundstroke, a full-tilt sprint to the service line is the next move.
  • Player A split steps when Player B makes contact, and then moves to the ball to hit a volley, swinging volley, or overhead smash into the open court.

 

Here's a perfect example of this tactic put on by ATP #9 Stan Wawrinka vs. #7 Rafael Nadal at this year's Rome Master's Tournament:

 

Stan Wawrinka Sneak Approach vs Rafael Nadal Rome 2015

 

Here's the sequence that you see:

  • Wawrinka hits a deep cross court forehand to the left handed Nadal's backhand, and recovers behind his own baseline.
  • The second Wawrinka sees Nadal get forced into a one-handed slice backhand from deep behind the baseline, he goes into full speed sprint.
  • This move gives him what he's after: a chance to hit an offensive volley and end the point.
  • Of course, Rafael is one of the fastest players in the history of the game and still makes Stan hit one more shot, but Wawrinka's still got the offensive advantage and wins the point in thrilling fashion.

 

When I'm training my junior tournament players on this tactic, here's the first question I get: why not just approach the net like you're on a hard court?  Good question! The answer is 3-fold:

 

  • Why not serve & volley on clay? This is the most direct way to attack the net on hard courts. Plus, from my previous article on the clay spin effect, it's easy to think a kick serve would be even more damaging on clay and make serving and volleying a viable prospect. Occasionally, yes. The problem is that because clay is a slippery surface,  the ultra quick changes in direction a volleyer has to make are too difficult.  That means the volleyer will be hitting a defensive volley a majority of the time, which gives the returner time to catch up to the volley and hit lobs and passing shots. 
  • Why not chip/crush & charge on clay? This is the most direct way to attack the net on the return side, and a tactic even baseliners use on hard courts.  On clay, because the surface slows the ball down, it's very difficult to do enough damage on the return to put the server in a defensive position.  More often than not, the server will get a good look at a passing shot or lob, and the shifting sands of the surface will once again work against the volleyer's ability to change direction.
  • Why not come in on an approach shot? For sure, Pros and recreational playes alike can use this tactic on clay. There's just one problem: getting a short ball to approach on.  Because the surface slows the ball down, most clay court players stand 5 to 10 feet behind the baseline, and that gives them the ability to return even the most well struck shots deep into the court.  There's also the fact that because of the slick surface, a player who wants to attack via approach shot may not be able to get to the right spot from which to hit such a shot on time.  In brief, it's easier said than done.

 

In the end, the sneak approach is typically the best way to get to the net because of the deception involved.  The defender isn't aware an attack is under way until after they've hit a defensive shot...and then it's too late!