By Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer and Certified National Coach

“Real Tactics” are the tactics that a player should use in a given match to maximize his chances of winning. “Parroting Tactics” are the tactics that many players use because it’s what everyone seems to be doing, and so they figure (consciously or subconsciously) it’s what they should be doing as well. When two players of equal ability play, and one uses “Real Tactics” and the other uses “Parroting Tactics,” guess who usually wins?

The classic example of “Parroting Tactics” would be rarely serving deep to the forehand. At the higher levels, if you serve deep to the forehand, the opponent almost always loops, and the server is at a disadvantage. And so at higher levels you rarely see deep serves to the forehand except as an occasional surprise. At lower levels, opponents often cannot loop effectively or consistently against deep serves to the forehand, and usually have better control on the backhand side, and so are much better if the opponent serves to their backhand side – which most players obligingly do, since that’s what they see stronger players doing.

There is some argument to the idea that a player should play higher-level tactics if he wants to be a higher-level player, and so should avoid serving deep to the forehand since that’s generally not a higher-level tactic. But this misses the point. The higher-level tactics that usually goes on in higher-level matches is not about avoiding serving deep to the forehand because others don’t do that; it’s about zeroing in on the opponent’s weaknesses and going after them. They don’t think, “I’m a higher-level player, and so I shouldn’t serve deep to the forehand.” They think, “My opponent has a strong forehand loop, and so I shouldn’t serve deep to the forehand.” The same higher-level tactics, if applied at lower levels, would be, “My opponent has a weak forehand loop, and so I should serve deep to the forehand.” And that’s what most lower-level players should do, if the tactic works.

You don’t develop higher-level tactical skills by playing weak tactics. You develop them by playing strong tactics, i.e. “Real Tactics.” If the opponent has a weak forehand loop, you serve to it, no matter what the level. Against six-time U.S. Men’s Singles Champion David Zhuang, a pips-out penholder, most players would serve short (which he was very good against) or long to his backhand (allowing him to control the backhand diagonal, which he was also very good at doing), rather than serve long to his forehand, where his pips limited the effectiveness of his receive and where he’d be drawn out of his favored backhand position. A few players figured this out and would regularly serve long backspin to his wide forehand (often “half-long,” so the ball barely went off the end), and then counter-attack effectively to his open backhand side.

I once coached a player who had lost the first game at deuce after serving over and over to his opponent’s strong backhand. I told him he should both serve AND receive every ball to the opponent’s weak forehand until the opponent won two points in a row. I even had him serve from the middle and forehand side so he could get a bigger angle into the forehand side. My player went up 9-0 before losing a point, and won the next three games easily by relentlessly going to the opponent’s forehand side.

Obviously there is a limit. If the opponent knows you are going to the forehand, and you do so over and Over and OVER, he might get used to it. So you would mix in shots the other way, especially if the opponent is camping out over there. But guess what? If your opponent does camp out on the forehand side to protect that side, then his backhand opens up, and so you go there. That’s “Real Tactics.” “Parroting Tactics” would be to continue to go to the forehand because the player read an article that says he should go over and over to the opponent’s weak forehand.