How To Hit Accurately Cross Court And Down The Line

Jul 10

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Since even a tennis beginner can direct the ball left and right after a few tries, you may think that hitting the ball cross court and down the line is something fairly simple to do and that there’s no need to learn anything more about changing directions in tennis.

But, as with everything in tennis, there are better ways and worse ways of hitting and controlling the ball.

What you’ll see is that there are just two principles to keep in mind for hitting cross court and two principles for hitting down the line that greatly improve your accuracy and consistency of these shots.

The Challenge Of Hitting The Ball Down The Line

To clarify, by “hitting down the line” in this article, I refer to changing direction from a cross court incoming ball to a down the line shot.

Just hitting down the line from an incoming down the line shot is typically not a challenge for intermediate and advanced players, but changing direction and hitting the ball accurately down the line IS a challenge even for the top pros who work almost every day on changes of direction.

The difficulty of hitting down the line when the ball is coming from a cross court direction is in the angle of deflection.

Because the ball is coming at your racquet at an angle, it will also leave your racquet at an angle.

angle of deflection

The angle of deflection will send the ball out wide if you don’t negate it. (Image credit: quarked.com)

In math and physics, these are called the angle of incidence and the angle of deflection.

The angle of deflection will always affect the ball’s trajectory, and it sends the ball wide rather than perpendicular to the net.

A tennis player quickly and instinctively realizes that even at the beginner stage and tries to negate the angle of deflection in order to make the ball go straight, meaning down the line.

The most common mistake is to change the racquet angle by movement in the wrist.

The reason this is not a good solution is that the wrist is now not in a locked position and can be shifted to an almost infinite number of angles.

And because even a small change in the racquet head angle creates a big change in where the ball lands on the other side, this solution creates a very inconsistent shot down the line.

The Two Principles Of Hitting Accurately Down The Line

There is a much more consistent way of negating the angle of deflection.

The first solution is to hit very decisively down the line, meaning with more force.

When you increase the speed of the ball forward, and have a constant speed of the ball that pulls it wide, you will minimize the deflection of the resulting down the line shot.

The slower the racquet moves forward, the more the angle of deflection will affect the ball.

I like to use the word DECISIVE to explain to players what they need to do when they hit the ball down the line.

That triggers the right approach of hitting the ball fast down the line and beating the angle of deflection.

But in theory, the ball will still deflect, except its effect will be smaller.

In order to negate the effect completely, it’s best to move diagonally and forward when hitting the ball.

tennis shot down the line

By moving diagonally into the ball, you will negate the angle of deflection.

Instead of angling the racquet head with the wrist in order to negate the angle of deflection, you need to angle yourself.

That way, the wrist can remain in a stable locked position and will not cause any more inconsistencies.

By moving diagonally and forward (as much as you can) into the ball, you have created an angle of the racquet unknowingly. In your hand it still feels locked, but in reality you have created enough angle to counter the angle of deflection.

If you just move sideways to the ball, the racquet angle has not changed – that’s why the ball still tends to go wide.

Moving into the ball is easiest done with the closed stance (or neutral stance as it’s often called) but can also be done to an extent with an open stance.

In summary, in order to hit accurate down the line shots, hit the ball decisively and move into the ball (instead of just sideways).

The Challenge Of Hitting The Ball Cross Court Accurately

The most common mistake tennis players make when hitting cross court is that they hit at the same contact point and with the same foot and body alignment that they use for the down the line shot.

When they do that and want to hit the ball cross court, they can do that only by changing the racquet angle with their wrist which, as I mentioned earlier, causes a lot of inconsistencies.

The player will also often lose balance because he will be hitting the ball too far while at the same time trying to rotate in order to direct it cross court.

The Two Principles Of Hitting Accurately Cross Court

The best way to feel that there is no need to change the angle in the wrist is to drop feed the balls to yourself and just swing through the ball and let it go where it wants.

Alternate the position of where you drop the ball from closer to your body and more in front to further from your body and more to the side.

As you will see, the balls hit further tend to go down the line and balls hit closer and more in front of you tend to go cross court WITHOUT you having to do any adjustments with your wrist.

The first principle is then to change your contact point when you want to hit the ball cross court and just swing naturally without any need for adjusting your swing.

tennis cross court shot

The cross court (left) contact point is closer to the body and more in front than down the line (right).

You need to hit the ball slightly earlier and closer to the body – from the side.

The second principle has to do with aligning.

When you want to hit the ball cross court, the racquet needs to be at an angle related to the net – and not parallel to the net as with a down the line shot.

But instead of angling your racquet, angle yourself again.

Instead of positioning only the racquet face behind the ball (and breaking the wrist stability), position YOURSELF behind the ball in the direction where you want to play it.

cross court and down the line

Foot and body alignment for cross court (left) and down the line (right) shot.

So, the second principle says align yourself in the direction of the shot, in this case cross court.

Think of your body behind the ball and not just the racquet face behind the ball.

In summary, the two principles of hitting the ball cross court are hitting closer to your body and more in front and aligning yourself behind the ball in the direction of the cross court shot.

How To Disguise Your Intentions

More advanced players can attempt to disguise their shots at certain times because positioning differently for a down the line shot or a cross court shot enables the opponent to read where you intend to play.

First, in my personal experience, there is very little fooling of the opponent even at the pro level. Very, very rarely will a pro tennis player not read his opponent and be surprised by the direction of the shot.

In my opinion, about 95% of the time, tennis pros do NOT disguise their shots because that prevents them from creating maximum power and greatest accuracy.

You will fool yourself many more times trying to hide your intentions to the last second because you will break down the fluidity of your strokes and your timing and rhythm.

With all that said, you CAN disguise your shots on certain incoming balls when you have enough time to program your movement and your intention early into your brain.

  • Closed Stance Disguise

You can position to the ball as if you are going to hit down the line, which means you’ll be slightly further from the ball.

Then while you are making the swing, pull yourself or swing yourself on the side of the ball, complete your stroke, and catch yourself with the recovery step.

closed stance cross court

Position as if hitting down the line, pull yourself behind the ball and recover.

With some repetition and regular practice, you can pull this shot well.

  • Open Stance Disguise

You can do the same with the open stance, but when you pull yourself to the side of the ball, you’ll need to do a short shuffle in order to stay balanced after the shot.

open stance cross court

Position as if hitting down the line, pull and shuffle to recover.

With these footwork patterns, you can stay balanced after pulling yourself to the side of the ball and be able to recover quickly to your ideal recovery point.

Note: all these principles also apply for the one-handed and two-handed backhands as these principles are not a matter of stroke mechanics but of adjusting the contact point, positioning, and aligning with the ball.

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39 comments

  1. Alan Vawdrey /

    Thank you Tomaz. It’s never been pointed out to me to re-align my body to hit down the line during a cross court rally, and I will certainly put your excellent coaching tips to practice. Thank you

    • Michael /

      this is a great illustration of the “straight line” concept. Not enough pros talk about realigning your body. Hitting down the line and hitting cross court are virtually the same shot. The alignment of the body rather than using the wrist is the important piece. I liked what you said. I dont necessarily agree with what you said about the open stance.A stance has no effect on direction of the ball in its purest form. The contact point is what directs the ball. Lower and upper body rotation during an open stance can affect contact point. The best example of down the line sucess on the pro level was Jimmy Connors. He effectively went down the line on either the forehand or backhand and he never used an open stance. He never went cross court with an open stance either. Open stances are not fundamental parts of tennis. They are new inventions that bring more excitement and athletic talent to the game while reducing the amount of footwork required to make a shot.

  2. Mike /

    That is an excellent explanation of cross-cout and down-the-line hitting, Tomaz. Well done.

  3. Mons /

    Tomaz, thank you for another excellent tutorial, you always take time to explain all the little details even if they appear evident, your videos have helped me a great deal!

  4. Henry /

    Your explanation is excellent.

  5. Hi! Tomaz.
    Thank You. But i must check all on a court.

  6. luiz /

    Thanks for more one tutorial, useful and very clear.

  7. Reni /

    Very nice. I always wondered why my forehand down the line goes wide sometimes.

  8. Lynda Amortila /

    Great explanation! I have been taught this by my coach and this consolidated these moves which manifest itself during today’s practice by wnning most of my games. The diagram of the angle of reflection clinched the deal. Alternating between sides of court accurately had my opponent confused resulting in total controll of the game! Your video helped me greatly. Many thanks!!

  9. Dan Le /

    Tomaz: You deserve a nobel price for this break down analysis of cross court vs. down the line shot :) I’ve listened/read many tips from all range of coaches but never quite understood how to solve the puzzle of cross court vs. down the line shot.

    The closest explaination I learned in the past was just too simple: “When incoming ball to outside of your body: hit back cross court. When incoming ball to middle of your body: can perform change of direction hit [down the line]. This is not clear compare to your explaination.

    Thank you so much for lessons.

    Dan Le

    • Tomaz /

      Thanks, Dan! What you heard are so called Wardlaw directionals and that’s just the first part.

      The second part says that you can go down the line when you can move into the ball (slightly forward) and that you should play your down the line shot perpendicular to the net.

      These are very good tactical decisions explaining when to go cross or down the line.

      The article above is more about how to go about it.

  10. sarang /

    Thanks a ton , I really appreciate the effort you put into explaining your points both on video as well as in text and images .

  11. Simon /

    Great video as always, but how about the backhand side :)

  12. Arun /

    Really Nice Video ,found good insight

    Thanks a lot

    Arun

  13. Julie /

    Great explaination on how to hit DTL and crosscourt accurately! Angling yourself behind the ball, whether the closed stance for DTL shot or open stance for CC shots, is key to making these shots. Something else I gleaned from this tip is that if you’re the opponent at the net playing doubles, you can use this simple rule to help you judge whether to protect the alley or not. By reading their body angle (closed stance or open stance), you have 2 to 3 seconds to anticipate their DTL shots. Vice versa…you can possibly go for that poach on their cross court shot. Does that make any sense, Tomas? Thanks!

    • Tomaz /

      Yes, Julie, most players do not disguise their shots so if you observe them carefully before the shot, you can read and anticipate their most likely response.

      • Dear Tomaz,
        does Federer appear to be using subtle changes in wrist lag to time whether the ball should go cross-court or down-the-line? cos sometimes it seems his controlled use of wrist helps direct his shots quite a lot. Thanks.

        • It comes down more to a different contact point and that changes the wrist position. Rarely does he use let’s say a down the line contact point and then flick it to cross court and changing the angle more with the wrist or forearm…

  14. Ryan /

    Dear Tomaz,
    Thanks for your lesson and advise, I wanted to ask what more you could when you add more topspin or slice on either side, forehand or backhand, is there any more tips you could provide and maybe a lesson if the information is enough to justify it. Thanks again.
    Ryan

    • Tomaz /

      Thanks, Ryan, will keep your suggestions in mind.

      • Dear Tomaz,
        Do players usually wait for a high ball to drop to a more normal height by going further behind the baseline, or is it more advisable to hit at the peak of the bounce and on the rise? Thanks a lot.

        • The pros usually hit it on top of the bounce but only clay courts some play further back and let the ball drop. That allows you to time the ball better and hit it harder so it has higher speed when it reaches the other side.

          • Thanks! that’s exactly what I always like to do, as it is often harder to time when the ball is descending and by the time we hit, we are standing quite far behind the baseline…
            Looking forward to more video lessons from you, my favourite tennis coach :-)

  15. Larry Buhrman /

    Hi Tomaz,

    Great analysis of how to use your body angle to better direct the placement of shots when returning balls hit from different areas on the court.

    I have observed players with traditional hit through the ball strokes who routinely miss their down the line effort off a cross court ball by missing the target wide of the side line, even as they step straight into the ball and target. I have been able to correct this problem in my game as well as my students, by pulling across the ball rather than hitting through the ball, by playing the ball close to my body and pulling my racket across the ball as I shift my weight from my loaded right leg to my left leg, open stance, rather than stepping my left leg into the ball (I’m right handed). This works for me better, since stepping into the ball sometimes results in too flat a shot that results in a shot that goes wide and out. For the classic flat stroker, your technique is imperative. Since most of our students start out hitting stand sideways and hit through the line of contact to target, your body position technique is brilliant. Those students who want to progress to more modern strokes may elect to gradually experiment with more angular strokes.

    As always, this is another outstanding example of your deep understanding of feel and the most natural way to play tennis!

    Thanks for helping us to better feel and understand the game!

    Larry Buhrman

    • Tomaz /

      Hi Larry,

      Thanks for your feedback and suggestions.

      As I have shown above, you can play down the line with the open stance too.

      The negative tendency I see with it is that because there is more rotation in the shot, balls tend to go more towards the middle than paralel to the side line.

      The final thought I’d like to share is that whether you play closed or open stance down the line, that only accounts for 1% of the success of the shot.

      The other 99% is up to practice. With my advice or your advice or any other advice the player still will not be consistent and accurate with a down the line shot until they have practiced this for hundreds of not thousands of times and also know in which situation it’s correct to go down the line and in which it’s not.

  16. Ravi K /

    Thanks for a great Video Tomaz! I tried by moving into the ball and some of the shots went with so much power and very little effort, wish I could that all the time. What I am curious about is Nadal’s running forehand where he chases the ball and hits down the line, I think its one of the hardest shots to do especially moving sideways and making the adjustments to hit decisively into the ball.

    • Tomaz /

      You need a steel forearm for that and good timing. Just practice it and it must get better…

      • Dear Tomaz,
        is it true that pros, having good timing, can accurately “time” when to throw the racquet face at the ball when they have to hit a passing shot when they are out of position. Eg, Federer’s “flick” backhand passes on many occasions, and his magical forehand against Nadal at Aus 2012. Thanks…

        • The pros are very skilled, they do all sorts of things with racquets that may not be “technically correct”, but they still get away with it.

  17. sukhpreet /

    nice video helped me a lot

  18. Hi
    Thanks for the video. it’s helpful and goes into great detail. although i’m unclear on exactly what you mean by “body alignment with the ball” when doing a crosscourt forehand. can you explain this? when using open stance (not semi-open) the feet and body aren’t quite aligned with the ball it would seem to me.
    joe

    • Tomaz /

      Hi Joe,

      Aligning is meant only for closed stance shots where you align your feet in the direction of the shot.

      • what i mean is, you say that for a cross court shot, one should ” angle yourself again” / “position YOURSELF behind the ball in the direction where you want to play it”. i don’t know exactly what you mean by this?

        • Tomaz /

          Take a look at the third last image in the article above where my friend Urban is playing a forehand in the closed stance – once cross and once down the line.

          • okay, i think i get it. thanks. you mean to have the torso rotated so that it is in the direction to play the shot. thanks again

  19. Hi Tomaz! Just found you earlier this week. I am a rec player who is benefiting quite a bit from your mental approach to the game. You’re helping me not overthink; to simply play the ball. Translated into quite a few winners yesterday. Thank you! I subscribed and am very much looking forward to future posts.

  20. william strain /

    fantastic thank you

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