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