Exclusive tips from Michael Chang, Kei Nishikori’s new coach, on ‘How to surprise your opponent’. Chang hit an underarm serve in a match against Ivan Lendl at the French Open.
Hit an underarm serve. “You don’t want to be predictable. It was Andre Agassi who first showed me how effective an underarm serve could be, and how you could unsettle an opponent. He used to do that in junior matches in the 12-and-unders and the 14-and-unders. He did that very well. You had to watch out for that and be on your guard. It was a spur of the moment decision, really, for me to hit an underarm serve during my fourth-round match against Ivan Lendl at the 1989 French Open. I thought to myself, ‘I could hit a 69mph serve and that would give him something different to deal with’. He was forced to come in and he didn’t like that. But, more than anything, I think that underarm serve changed the whole mentality of the match. After that, he became more frustrated that the match wasn’t going his way.”
Stand close to the service line to receive a second serve on a big point. “I did this on match point against Lendl on a second serve. You have to remember that I was 17 and just out of juniors, and this what we did in the juniors, but it works in men’s tennis too. I found that opponents either double-fault, as Lendl did. Or they drop the ball short, as they don’t want to double-fault on a big match, and then you have a great chance to win the point.”
If you’re a baseliner, try serve and volleying every so often, even on big points. “This can really take an opponent by surprise. Mats Wilander was known for his baseline game, but on really big points, like on break points, he would serve and volley. It’s a good strategy as the opponent doesn’t expect it. So your opponent, who doesn’t have time to adjust, plays the same ball that he’s been playing all day – the ball is floating in the air and you can put it away for a winner.”
Attack the second serve. “This was something I developed during my career, and I think it’s a tactic which guys now don’t do enough of. If you suddenly attack a second serve, it totally throws your opponent’s rhythm off as then the ball is right at them.”
A drop-shot can be the most effective shot on clay. “You get guys pounding away ten feet behind the baseline, pounding, pounding, pounding, and they can end it all by suddenly playing a drop-shot. The mental side is so important. If you can shake a guy up mentally, if he ends up thinking that he doesn’t know what’s coming next, and he’s no longer sure he can win, that’s worth even more to you than one or two winners.”