The Power of Neutral
One of the worst things that can happen to a junior player is be to accused of being a ‘pusher’; and yet, as a coach of competitive juniors for many years, it is impossible for me to recall how many times I have had to console players with technically sound strokes after they had lost to individuals with less than pretty form, but a whole lot of consistency.
Players, so ‘burdened’ with my emphasis on hitting the ball smoothly and gracefully over winning, especially at this formative stage of their development, had absolutely no respect for tournament players who got the ball back one more time with whatever strokes at their disposal. My players had not yet developed the healthy respect for consistency that they would later in their competitive careers.
The truth is that consistency is a key component for success at every level. In terms of tactical play we talk about offense, defense and neutral; today I want to focus on neutral.
Neutral is the least glamorous, and for most people, the least enjoyable of the three possible conditions we find ourselves in at every juncture of a match. During each point and as we hit every single shot, we are in one of these situations. Which situation we are in depends on specific criteria: the height of the ball at contact, the depth and width of the ball at contact, our ability to move and hit the ball, and our opponent’s ability to move and hit the ball.
These determinants are at the very root of intelligent shot selection, which is the bane of many hot-shot juniors who just want to ‘pound’ the ball for a winner at every opportunity. Certainly power thrills, but consistency wins and more than that it allows you to develop a foundation for your game that will ultimately allow you to be the very best you can be; especially if done in the ‘right’ way.
However, consistency cannot come at the cost of developing solid technical fundamentals. Unfortunately, many of the players who focus on consistency at the early competitive stages of the game with bio-mechanically unsound strokes, may well experience success, but are hindering their long-term development with their focus on winning. If the skill level is low enough consistency will win most of the time, but as players develop and as their ability to play offence increases, just being consistent will not be enough.
So what is the ‘right’ way?
Neutral is the foundation of the game and that is why I always urge my developing players to play cooperation games for as long as they need to in order to develop smooth, graceful and fundamentally sound stroking habits. When this foundation is in place, now the players are ready to be exposed to competition.
As I have said before the first thing is to learn a fundamentally sound forehand and backhand and for the purposes of this article we will assume the player has, not necessarily perfect strokes, but basic strokes with no major fundamental flaws. Again, to focus on neutral before this foundation is in place will lead to long-term developmental problems.
So what is neutral and what type of shot do we hit when we are in neutral?
Neutral is when neither player has an advantage in the rally; usually both players are on the baseline and in their comfort zone. Often the player will be a few steps away from the ball and contact can be made in his or her strike zone.
What is a neutral shot? A neutral shot is a ball that is a few feet above the net at a pace that can be controlled and with a little arc. Sometimes I describe it as ‘hitting as hard as you can without missing’. In the first stage of neutral the goal is simply to keep balls in play, consequently, the target is usually the center strap and the ball is hit right down the middle of the court. For new players who are just learning how to stroke the ball this is a great way to begin. Soon this can develop into hitting cross courts from both forehand and backhand sides and away from the center of the court. These games can begin as cooperative games and then move to competitive games.
The next stage of the competitive phase of development continues with what we can call ‘probing’. At this stage we are more adventurous with our neutral. Now we move the ball all over the court; still at a speed we can control, but now our purpose is to elicit a weak response from our opponent so we can go on offense. This phase will ultimately include hitting into the 4 major target areas (deep cross court and down the line; the short angled cross-courts on each side).
I would recommend a player staying at neutral for a long period of time because there is a great deal to learn in neutral. After a player has developed the skills to hit to all these areas consistently, he or she could bring in a mild intention to increase the speed of their shot, thereby hitting a ‘heavier’ ball. Every level of play has a neutral. Federer’s neutral is different from someone ranked 200 spots below him which is different from a top junior’s neutral. The concept of neutral never changes although the neutral ball a player hits will change dramatically as he or she develops.
The important thing is not to force it. Keep playing at your neutral and as you become bigger, stronger, quicker and as your strokes become more grooved and effortless your neutral will often automatically become bigger and bigger as long as fear does not creep into your game. Do not bring in your mind to ‘try’ and hit the ball harder, otherwise your stroke can become distorted or your timing can go off.
This progression, especially at the early stages requires a player to commit to the process of developing his or her game rather than winning matches irrespective of the manner of play.
The value of developing a weapon at the higher levels of this game is evident, but the question is how do we develop it? Too many developing players begin ‘smacking’ balls before their fundamentals are in place and as a result the swing can become forced or muscled. My contention is that even if you wish to develop big shots, the developing stage of establishing a solid neutral or ‘rally’ shot is an essential foundation.
It is impossible to win on offense alone; even the top players who seem to be hitting the balls so hard have a neutral that requires them playing within themselves in specific situations, which happens to be for the majority of the time. One has to earn the right to play offense and playing solid neutral will offer you the opportunity to ultimately play offense.
On the professional level, players who play in neutral all the time or most of the time are called grinders and many of them are quite successful and believe me no one is eager to play them. However, the truly successful players will be the ones who are extremely adept at all 3 facets of the game. They will have a solid neutral; the ability to end the point when the opportunity arises either by coming to the net or with powerful and accurate ground strokes; as well as the ability to play defense and stay in the point when the opponent is on top during a rally.
Finally and very importantly, the patience required to stay in neutral is excellent mental training for the competitive player, as it is often boredom or restlessness that results in players losing focus and committing unforced errors. Hitting the same ball over and over requires one to be focused for longer periods of time and this naturally allows the mind to become more and more silent.