Unless you have a huge first serve or a blistering return of serve, your success as a tennis player is often going to be determined by the quality (pace & depth) of your neutral ball.
To me, a neutral ball is one that is not an obvious offensive position where you are equipped to end the point with a winner or even force your opponent into an error. It is also not a ball that puts you on flat-out defence where you are scrambling just to get the ball back in the court. A neutral ball is typically one that is just continuing the point without much drama. However, I think the ability to understand what phase of neutrality you are in will often determine your success as a tennis player.
There are three different types of neutral balls: Neutral Offence, Neutral-Neutral and Neutral Defence. Most college players/top level national juniors spend most of their time in one of these three phases when constructing points. I believe the key elements that separate one player from the next is whether or not they have developed a keen awareness and commitment to neutral offense opportunities, developed a consistent, “never-miss” Neutral-Neutral ball and possess a quality Neutral-Defensive ball that gets themselves back into Neutral-Neutral or Neutral-Offense with just one shot. Please CLICK HERE to watch a video of point with me hitting each of these three shots.
1. Neutral-Offence (NO): This is a shot where you can take control of the point if you are willing to move up and take advantage of this not-so-obvious opportunity. The best players have no problem recognizing this particular shot, moving up to it and getting the upper hand in the point. As you go down in levels, you will face players that are not willing to do anything with this shot and treat it as a pure neutral ball. Sometimes this neutral offense shot will result in a winner or forcing an error but it is rarely the intention of the shot. Instead it is just a fortunate by-product of the player’s willingness to move up on it and take time away from themselves and their opponent. Your intention is to get ahead in the point, control the point from here on out and look for an obvious attacking ball to end the point. You should be on balance and have taken at least half a step up to this ball. This shot can occur from the middle of the court or either wing. I usually see this opportunity open up on the outer ends of the middle third of the court as players move up in order to take advantage of some better angles and court positioning.
2. Neutral- Neutral (NN): This is a ball where you probably don’t have time to move up or back, but may have moved laterally to one side. You are not under any pressure but you also don’t have time to probe for an angle or get ahead in controlling the point, so you are focusing more on your depth and consistency. Errors on these shots should be rare as you are under no pressure and you are not necessarily trying to put your opponent under too much pressure either.
3. Neutral-Defence (ND): You are forced into a neutral defensive shot when your positioning has been compromised and you have been pushed back or deeper into one of the corners. However, you are still very much on balance. You may still be able to keep your body weight going forward on your shot and getting the type of rotation and racket speed you would in a NN shot. Your goal here is to maintain good depth and put your opponent back into an NN shot in order to improve your positioning. You may even catch your opponent over anticipating a shorter ball, as they feel like they have hurt you a little bit. This will often lead to you being able to get into Neutral Offense on their response. There should be no reason for you to continue in ND or full defence on this ball if you have committed to hitting it with good depth. It is important to understand the difference between neutral defense and pure defensive mode. When you are in pure defensive mode you are scrambling, off balance, using slice or high balls and will most likely be kept in this position for a number of shots while your opponent tries to maintain control of the point.
I believe every tennis player should be looking to become very stingy with errors any time they are in any of these neutral positions as they are on balance and taking limited risks. Making mistakes in offense or pure defence are far more forgivable as the player is either taking more risk or is forced into a compromising position.
Understand the three different phases of neutral balls; they are not all equal and should not be treated as such. I believe the neutral offense ball is where the top players truly excel. These are half-chances that they respond to quickly and efficiently, always finding subtle ways to take control of a point. You would be very surprised to learn just how many offensive opportunities you are leaving on the court. After years of coaching, I see these opportunities almost in every point but rarely see players take advantage of them. Against your better opponents, you have to remember that if you don’t take a chance on these neutral offensive balls to take control of the point, than your opponent most likely will. Remember you are not trying to win the point with this shot, just improve your positioning and take time away from your opponent.