Developing Junior Players Ages 12-14 (14u): Shifting Gears!
This is part 3 of a 3-part series on developing junior players in the 14u age group. In Parts 1 & 2 of this series, I discussed how and where to add POWER to their games and use ball pace to score points. With great power comes great responsibility! For the 14u player, that responsibility is knowing when to add pace and when not to during a point. This skill is typically referred to as playing offense and defense from the baseline.
Here's a perfect example of that skill shown by ATP #1 Novak Djokavic all in one point vs. South Africa's Kevin Anderson (a player known for his offensive hitting skills):
Djokavic starts out this point on offense. Three factors indicate this:
- his court position close to the baseline when hitting the ball
- the direction of his ball towards the corners of the court
- full length backswings for maximum racquet head speed
About halfway through the point, Djokavic hits two neutral shots (a.k.a. shots down the middle of the court), and gives Anderson the chance to go on offense...and he does! Djokavic immediately changes the three factors mentioned above.
- His court position is now well behind the baseline to give himself more time to respond to the powerful forehand to the corner hit by Anderson
- the direction of his ball is now towards the center of the court (cuts down on the angle Anderson has to use against him on the next ball)
- greatly reduced backswing length to insure a contact point is as out in front as possible
Had Djokavic not made these critical changes in response to the hard hit inside out forehand from Anderson the point may have been over right there with an error (or at very least a weak response). He made the key decision to switch from hitting offensively to hitting defensively. After two defensive shots, Npvak reaps the rewards of playing defense: a chance to go back on offense! He does so, and finished with the big backhand passing shot.
The addition of point ending power serves and groundstrokes at the 14u level demands groundstroke pace decision making ability for continued game development. Too often 14u players go into a match with the belief that hitting hard all the time wins the match. With this mentality, results will be clear: a ton of errors! The player who shifts gears at the right time will get the most wins!
Developing the ability to know when to play offense and when to play defense in a match situation is not learned through drills and lessons. Players at this level need to add practice matches into their weekly practice schedule. The offense/defense decision happens at light speed during actual match play, and can only be consistently executed by players who can instinctively know what shot to hit, and when. In the same way race car drivers master the gear shifting speed needed to win a race by doing practice laps at full speed, 14u tennis players have to practice in match situations to learn how to shift gears on courts at match speed.