Pros & Cons - What to copy from the stars!

by Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3

November 2023

Let's look at some things we could do well to copy, and those to avoid.

Are you one of the growing number of players wanting to get more competitive with your tennis? Do you want to move on from pick-up games to playing league or team matches, or even entering local or provincial events?

'The Competitive Edge' by lifelong player and coach Adrian Coles, features easy to digest tips and strategies to help keen recreational competitors play smarter. Improving stroke technique certainly helps but that requires a great deal of deliberate practice. A quicker way is to sharpen tactical skills whilst still using the strokes you've already got! He will cover topics often overlooked or even glossed over in on court instruction when hitting lots of balls is what is appreciated most.

This ONTENNIS exclusive series is a must-read for anyone who plays tennis at the recreational level and is interested in optimizing their match-play competitive experience. To access the other stories in the series, visit

The ONTENNIS Competitive Edge Series, Part 6:

Pros & Cons - What to copy from the stars!

How many of us are going to be watching major tennis events wishing we could play more like the pros we admire? My guess is there will be many, including myself. So, are there things we could copy that might help us in our quest to improve? The good news is there are, but we need to choose carefully! Let's look at some things we could do well to copy, and those to avoid.

Rafa runs around his backhand to hit a forehand all the time… but should you?

The Topspin Trap

Top players can hit the ball incredibly hard yet are able to maintain control. Modern lightweight rackets allow players to swing very fast through contact which generates great ball speed. To stop the ball from sailing way out, they brush up on the ball to make it spin forwards rapidly. It is this 'topspin' that makes the ball dip down quickly!

So, maintaining control of a hard-hit ball is the advantage of hitting with topspin. But I see far too many players trying to hit with excessive spin. It is a trap. It takes a more explosive swing. Why? Extra energy is needed to make the ball spin, but it travels forwards slower! And there is a higher risk of injury if you are not in peak physical condition!

If you are concerned about hitting too many balls out, begin with a little topspin. Start the racket head below the ball and brush up and over on contact, and experiment with the speed of your swing.

Low balls are more difficult to hit like this, and balls that you can contact above net height can be hit hard and flat. Waist height balls are the easiest to topspin but remember the more topspin you want the faster you must swing to get the same forward speed. So, be adventurous, and give that a try, and use topspin wisely!

Runaround Forehands

The crowd would gasp when Nadal ran from one side of the baseline to the other just to hit his favoured forehand where a lesser player might have played a backhand requiring less movement. This pattern of play has become very popular with the current generation of stars and is very tempting for us lesser mortals!

The advantage of hitting a forehand from your backhand corner is twofold. First, for most players their forehand is their big weapon, their go-to shot when pressed. Second, the forehand is hit with the hitting arm at the back which gives the hitter a fraction of a second longer to see if the opponent commits to moving one way or the other too early.

It feels great to dominate an opponent with one's best shot but be aware of the downsides to trying this pattern too much. This forehand must be hit forcefully otherwise a big gap has been left on the other side of the court, especially if it has been hit down the line (inside-in). The other 'con' is the amount of extra running you have to do, very tiring, which may prove to be a decisive factor in a close match! Try to give your opponent the runaround, not the other way round!

Don’t always go for an ace on your first serve. Mix in some moderately paced, well placed serves.

Spotty Serving

A clean ace, especially on a big point, is very satisfying. Hitting an unreturnable serve is something to strive for. Great players seem to be able to 'hit their spots' at will. We may feel we need to serve very close to the lines, either wide, or down the centre line, to put pressure on our opponents, but that may be taking unnecessary risks.

All too often I see an attempt at a 'big bomb' which just misses, followed by a 'helium ball' second serve. Repeating this pattern might make it more difficult to hold serve. A safer first serve, not so close to the lines hit slower, is probably more difficult for your opponent than your regular second serve!

Sometimes a 'body serve' is more difficult to return, forcing the receiver to move away from the ball. Notice when the pros hit these, often on big points, and effective against taller, less agile foes.

Try going for a big serve if it is your weapon or if you feel 'lucky', but if not, reduce the risk, go for safer placements, then you won't be labelled as a 'spotty server'!

Are there things the pros do that are easy to incorporate into our own play? Yes!

Use the changeover to collect your thoughts. Time to re-hydrate, refocus and readjust.

Use 6 Balls

Try using 6 balls instead of the usual 3! Why? You spend less time walking around trying to find them, which means more time to play! They will probably be good for a second game, so the actual cost of balls works out the same as just using 3 new ones each time!

Pause before serving

Most pros take their time between points when they are serving to collect their thoughts, plan their next play, recover from the previous point, and refocus. They do this by bouncing the ball a few times. Djokovic bounces the most times. Lesser players tend to rush, especially on pressure points because they want to shorten the time they feel uncomfortable.

Change ends every odd game

It's not just for the adverts that pros have changeovers for 90 seconds after each odd game (except the first game of each set). This is thinking time. Time to reflect on how points are being won or lost. Time to re-hydrate, refocus, and readjust. Tennis is played between the lines, and between the ears! Do you take advantage of this time?

What do you like about your favourite players? What would you like to try and copy? What have you picked up that works for you? We would love to hear your stories. Please let us know your thoughts via email at

Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3 and Tennis Analytics Certified Technical Analyst, brings a wide variety of perspectives to his new series 'The Competitive Edge' based on his decades of involvement in playing, coaching and managing. His success as a top British junior player, plus his time as the touring coach for his world ranked daughter, enable him to offer useful insights to players aspiring to compete in local, provincial or national events. Having witnessed the evolution of the game from the beginnings of Open Tennis to its current iteration, Adrian is familiar with many different styles of play giving options to players of different ages, interest levels and abilities. His passion is to help as many players as possible get the most out of this wonderful sport of a lifetime.

Do you have a favourite tip you would like to share, or a topic you would like us to cover? Please let us know via email at:, and don’t forget to practice your match play! “Good Luck”.