One of the great things about tennis is that there are many different ways of playing it. Even if you struggle with some shots, you can sometimes find a way to use your strengths to beat a dangerous opponent. Intelligence and determination can win a tennis match just as easily as technique and power.
For most spectators it is also far more entertaining to watch a clash of styles than to see two power-hitters playing non-stop aggressive tennis. There are 8 types of tennis players you are likely to come across.
The 8 Different Types of Tennis Players
Type 1: Aggressive Baseliner
Over the last few decades, racquet technology has improved to such an extent that players can now generate power and spin far more easily. As a result, a large number of male players, and a very high proportion of females, tend to rely on hitting powerful groundstrokes from the back of the court. This also applies in seniors tennis in the younger age-groups, although older players will tend to prefer a less physical style.
Aggressive baseliners will generally hit the ball flat or with topspin. Male players will tend to hit more topspin than females, as they typically have the strength to develop greater racquet-head speed. This in turn allows them to hit with both heavy topspin and pace, as exemplified by Rafael Nadal. Female baseliners will tend to hit flatter shots, still developing plenty of pace but losing some of the control that spin can offer.
Aggressive baseline play has the advantage that it allows you to dominate matches against many opponents. Consistently hitting aggressive shots allows the baseliner to keep their opponent under pressure without taking undue risks, and to choose their moment to go for a winner. It is a very simple plan, which does not require a lot of thought or tactical flexibility, helping players to stay focused and resolute under pressure.
Disadvantages of playing aggressively from the baseline include the lack of variation. If an opponent gets into a rhythm against the aggressive baseline style and begins to win most of the points, what does our player do then? Equally, what about those days when one or more groundstrokes are not working well? Unless the player has a Plan B, they will probably lose when things start to go against them.
Aggressive baseliners are not generally very tactically flexible, and their one-dimensional style can be a serious limitation. Fast, low-bouncing court surfaces can also cause difficulties for these players, as their consistency tends to suffer.
Type 2: Serve and Volleyer
This was very much the traditional way of playing the game, favoured by the court surfaces and racquet technology used throughout much of the 20th century. Serve-volleyers like to take charge of points with their serve, moving to the net to (hopefully) finish the point off with a volley.
Players who adopt this style tend to be tall and athletic, with powerful serves. Modern racquet technology and court surfaces do not favour a serve-volley style, as they give baseliners the opportunity to hit aggressive returns that will seriously challenge most volleyers.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many top players served and volleyed regularly: just watch some video of Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Billie-Jean King or Martina Navratilova.
These days, no top female players serve and volley more than occasionally, although some of the better servers will use it as a variation.
On the men’s tour, there have always been a few players who play this way. Michaël Llodra had some success with it, as did Mischa Zverev. The great Ivo Karlovic really had no option, as his groundstrokes were never top-class, but he has had a great career serving and volleying. The latest leading exponent of serve-volley is French-American player Maxime Cressy.
These days, serve-volleyers are considered a bit of a throwback, but the best of them are a threat to anyone on a fast court. There is little more entertaining than watching a dull aggressive baseliner being frustrated and forced to change their game by an athletic and resolute serve-volleyer. In seniors tennis, there are still some players who learned to play in the 1980s or earlier, and who have retained a serve and volley style. Some others change to this game style as they get older, as it allows them to keep the rallies short.
The advantages of a serve and volley style are based around the pressure it allows you to put on an opponent. If your serve is effective and difficult to read, you will win a lot of quick points by following it in to the net, especially as you will intimidate your opponent by substantially reducing their shot choices. This style of play also limits the number of times an opponent who may have superior groundstrokes can engage you in a rally, which they will find frustrating.
The disadvantage of serving and volleying is primarily the extent to which you commit yourself by moving to the net. If your serve was not good, or your opponent read it, you are likely to be faced with an extremely difficult volley and will probably lose the point. The likelihood of this happening is increased on slower courts where, in addition, it can be more difficult to finish the point with a volley.
Type 3: Counterpuncher
A counterpuncher is a player who does not generally take the initiative early in a rally. They will be prepared to play patiently, retrieving their opponent’s shots until that player commits to an attack by hitting an aggressive shot from a poor position or moving to the net. At this point, the counterpuncher will see their chance and attempt to hit a winner or passing shot. A counterpuncher needs to move well, and those who use this style regularly will often be smaller players who finds it difficult to dominate rallies.
In modern tennis, the best players can switch between styles, and whilst Djokovic and Murray, for example, can use a counterpunching style, they can also take charge when they want to. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of counterpunchers around, especially in the women’s game.
Diego Schwartzmann and Simona Halep are examples of top players who generally rely on counterpunching. In seniors tennis, some of the fittest players will use this style, as they are aware that it is very difficult for players who may not be as fit, and who are not as powerful as they used to be, to combat.
The advantages of counterpunching include the fact that by playing patient tennis you reduce the likelihood of making errors. If you are fit enough, this style will make the game extremely frustrating and physical for your opponents.
The disadvantages of this approach are firstly that if you play an aggressive player who is hitting the ball well, you give them confidence by allowing them to dominate the rallies and can encourage them to play even better. Conversely, if you play another cautious player, the rallies can become interminable and dull, as well as exhausting- a plan B is very useful! Finally, to use this style you need to maintain a very high level of fitness and mobility.
Type 4: All-Court Player
The all-court player is theoretically the complete tennis player. They will be comfortable at the back of the court and solid at the net, with a good enough serve to allow them to serve and volley. In other words, the all-court player can do everything that Types 1 to 3 above can do, although possibly not quite as well as the specialists.
The prime example of an all-court player in recent years has been Roger Federer. The great Swiss player has a strong serve, which he can follow up with either high-quality volleys or telling groundstrokes. He is strong enough from the back of the court to have won the French Open on its slowish clay courts, but prefers to shorten the points with attacking play when possible. In his youth he was also an excellent defensive player.
The most recent example of a genuine all-court player at the top of the women’s game was probably Amélie Mauresmo, although others such as Svetlana Kuznetsova and Amanda Anisimova certainly have the shots. In seniors tennis, there are all-court players, but they will tend to use a primarily attacking approach as they get older.
The main advantage of an all-court game is the tactical flexibility it allows. If your aggressive baseline game is not succeeding you can begin to move to the net more frequently, or counterpunch. If you choose the right option you theoretically have a way to win almost any match.
The downside of being an all-court player is the number of options you have. If you can play any game style you have to make regular tactical choices, and these may not always prove to be correct. A one-dimensional aggressive baseliner may be limited, but they are never in doubt about how to approach a given point. This commitment to one approach can sometimes work against a more flexible player who is uncertain about the best way to play.
Type 5: The Pusher
A pusher is basically a player who focuses on retrieving their opponent’s shots and waits for them to make a mistake. The pusher will not attempt to hit winners: they will simply rely on their fitness and mobility to extend the rally and keep their opponent moving. They win through fitness and determination, and by the increasing frustration of their opponent.
At the highest level, a player who relies on ‘pushing’ will not get very far, as the ball-striking of the leading players is just too good. Nonetheless, there are examples of matches where a player has used this approach against a top player and done well.
For example, in 2016 the French counterpuncher Gilles Simon identified that Novak Djokovic did not like having to constantly make his own pace in rallies, so, when they met at the Australian Open, Simon basically pushed for 4 hours 32 minutes. Djokovic eventually managed to come through in 5 sets, but this was something of a tactical triumph for Simon, as Djokovic is almost invincible in Australia, yet Simon almost beat him and tortured him into making over 100 ‘unforced’ errors.
In seniors tennis you may well encounter pushers, but as they age they will become less effective.
The advantages of being a pusher are based around the fact that you don’t need to take chances. Pushers rarely make unforced errors, and are happy to let their opponents take all the risks. They do not require any particularly strong shots. An impatient opponent will often gift them a win.
The disadvantage of ‘pushing’ is that stronger players will dominate to such an extent that you are simply running up and down for no benefit. Beyond a certain level, players will not award you many points simply for getting the ball back. Pushers also need to be extremely fit, and the style is very hard on the body.
Type 6: The Slicer
A ‘slicer’ is a superior version of a pusher. As the name suggests, the slicer puts slice, or backspin, on almost every shot, sometimes combined with sidespin. They will also tend to be athletic retrievers and will lob effectively if their opponent tries to take the net position. The spin a slicer applies can take some getting used to, and can force their opponent into error far more readily than the simple shots of a pusher. Slice is particularly effective on faster courts, where the ball will keep low and may skid a little.
Whilst there are few pure slicers in the professional game, both Tsvetana Pironkova and Monica Niculescu have attained very good rankings using sliced forehands, although both use a fairly orthodox double-handed backhand. As might be expected, grass has proven to be a good surface for both. In seniors tennis, slicers will sometimes be found, but they will only be effective in faster conditions.
The advantage of playing a lot of slice is that it can make things difficult for an opponent. In combination with the other attributes of a pusher, using slice and sidespin can force an opponent to play shots they are not really comfortable with, and this causes errors. In addition, a slicer can play effective drop-shots and lobs with good disguise, so they are not as limited as a pusher.
The disadvantage of being a slicer is that it gradually becomes predictable and can be combated by a good volleyer. Sliced shots are generally far less effective on slower courts. A slicer generally needs to develop other options to be consistently effective.
Type 7: The Highly Strung Player
Some players are highly emotional on court. When they are playing well, and the crowd is on their side, they are extremely difficult to play against. Such players normally adopt an attacking style, and like to keep the points short. They find it difficult to handle situations where officiating decisions or the attitude of the crowd do not go their way. They might be viewed as ‘inspirational’ players, who are almost unstoppable when the mood takes them.
Prominent highly strung players include Nick Kyrgios and Fabio Fognini. They can be extremely controversial when they are unhappy. Kyrgios has sometimes completely lost interest in parts of matches, disappointing the crowd, and Fognini has been known to challenge the umpire to settle their differences in the car park. Both are nonetheless very popular and can play great tennis when they have the right mindset.
Surprisingly, there are also some players in seniors tennis who are very highly strung, verbally taunting their opponents, or losing interest when faced with opponents they do not enjoy playing.
The benefit of being a highly strung player is that when everything comes together for you, you feel that you can beat anyone. Your antics can also help by unsettling your opponent.
The disadvantage for players who are highly strung is primarily seen in the number of winnable matches they lose because something or someone has upset them, or they are just not in the mood.
Type 8: The High-Volume Player
There are some players, most notably in the women’s game, who have taken the concept of grunting when striking the ball to a whole new level. Originally, the grunt was simply a means of ensuring that you were relaxed when striking the ball, as it forced you to breathe out. Later, a number of players translated this grunt into something much louder, with a view to intimidating or distracting their opponent. When a match gets tense or physical, high-volume players grunt more loudly to illustrate how much effort they are putting in, or how hard they are trying to hit the ball.
Male players like Rafael Nadal use grunting to demonstrate their physicality and emphasise their dominance. The Williams sisters have always used their grunts for big moments in matches to intimidate opponents. For Maria Sharapova it was always part of her game, again designed to intimidate. The unchallenged queen of the grunt, however, was Portugal’s Michelle Larcher de Brito who once achieved a mighty 109 decibels. Although grunting is not always liked by audiences, it is accepted as part of the game today.
In seniors tennis, grunting is sometimes observed, but it is not such an issue. Anyone grunting like Sharapova or Larcher de Brito would just be laughed at.
The advantages of being a high-volume player are that it is an effective intimidation tactic, and it can make your shots more difficult to read by masking the sound of the ball on the strings.
The disadvantage of grunting loudly is that it tends to alienate audiences, which can help your opponent.
Types of Tennis Players: Summary
1: Aggressive Baseliner– positive and intimidating, but one-dimensional.
2: Serve and Volleyer– athletic and entertaining, but needs a quick court.
3: Counterpuncher– patient, waiting for the moment to attack.
4. All-Court Player– the complete package, but needs a clear strategy.
5. Pusher– effective at a low level, but doesn’t do enough to get to the top.
6. Slicer– better version of a pusher, but needs more variety.
7. Highly Strung Player– awesome when in the mood, but often controversial and off-form.
8. High-Volume Player– loud, especially when it suits them: can be off-putting to play.
Which one are you? Have you come across other types? Tell us in the comment section.