Shot Selection

The choice of shot depends primarily on three things: where you are, where your opponent is, and where the ball is. It also depends on your skill level, your opponent’s skill level and the score, but I am going to ignore those considerations for simplicity.

The six major offensive shots to choose from are the down the line pass, cross-court pass, wide-angle pass, pinch, reverse pinch, and splat. The two major defensive shots are the ceiling ball and the Z-ball.

Going defensive

You should hit the ceiling ball when your opponent is in good center court position, you are in deep court, and the ball is not in your hitting zone (ankle to waist). You might go defensive even if the ball is in your hitting zone if you are off balance,  you don’t have time to set your feet and take a good swing, or your opponent just hates ceiling balls.

If you are off balance or the ball is in an awkward position in the front court, you should hit the Z-ball or ceiling ball (because of the angle you might hit the top of the front wall first on the ceiling ball, but that is OK). Hit either one of these shots with some enthusiasm, to make it hard on your opponent to cut it off.

Going offensive

If you have an offensive opportunity (you are set up and the ball is in your hitting zone), you should rely on the pass as your primary offensive shot. It is the shot you should consider first.

Which pass you choose depends on where your opponent is located. Since you have your eye on the ball, you must rely on your peripheral vision to see where to hit the ball. Essentially, you should follow the baseball axiom: hit ‘em where they ain’t.

If your opponent is behind you, but you don’t know where, you at least know where he was when he hit his last shot, so hit to the other side. That is, hit away from where the ball came from. A good cross court or down the line pass will draw him into one of the corners, as far away from the front wall as possible which is exactly what you want to do.

The height of the ball helps determine the shot

If the ball is above your waist, you should probably hit a ceiling ball.

If the ball is between you waist and knee, hit a passing shot.

If the ball is below your knee then all six offensive shots are available to you. However, avoid the pinch, reverse pinch, or splat unless the following three conditions are satisfied: (1) your opponent is behind you, (2) you are within 30 feet of the front wall (not in deep court), and (3) the ball is below your knee.

If your opponent is in front of you and you are less than thirty feet from the front wall, you could hit a pinch, but a pass will be just as effective and you don’t have to kill the ball. If you are trying to kill the ball with a pinch or splat from beyond 30 feet, good luck. If you are trying to pinch when the ball is above your knee, you will leave too many up on the opposite side wall as setups for you opponent.

Of course, you can always move your feet and wait on the ball to let it drop into your hitting zone. This shows patience and is generally a good thing.

Pass for Dough, Pinch for Show

Use the pass to set up the pinch, splat, or reverse pinch kill opportunity. Ultimately you would like to be in the front court, with your opponent behind you, and the ball below your knee. It doesn’t get any better than this. On the other hand, if you are not in this enviable position, pass.

I tracked the 2007 US Open quarterfinal match between Shane Vanderson and Alvaro Beltran on the Tennis Channel. The match consisted of five games. The total number of shots was 365 over the two hours that the match lasted. The proportions of the various shots are: Down the Line (32%), Cross Court or Wide Angle (29%), Pinch or Splat (24%), Reverse Pinch (2%), Ceiling Ball (14%). So, these pros pass 61 percent of the time and pinch (including splats and reverse pinches) 26 percent of the time.  They pass over twice as much as they pinch.

What are the high and low percentages shots? While shooting passing shots, these pros skipped the ball 9 percent of the time. On the other hand, when shooting pinches they skipped the ball 17 percent of the time. So, pinches are almost twice as likely to be skipped as passes, even by the top pros.

What is the safest offensive shot? These pros skipped 11 percent of their down the line shots but only 7 percent of the CC/WA shots. The CC/WA appears to be the highest percentage shot. Maybe because the CC/WA travels farther than the DTL, it doesn't have to be as low on the front wall as the DTL to make it a winner.

Additional considerations

Don't re-pinch a left-up pinch. If your opponent leaves a pinch up off the side wall, the appropriate shot selection is almost always the down the line shot. Your opponent was probably near the other side wall when he hit the pinch, so an easy down the line shot should be a winner. If you try to re-pinch the pinch, there is a good chance you will simply send the ball back to your opponent.

Be aggressive on the ceiling ball. If it is short, volley it. If it is long and comes off the back wall, shoot it. However, be smart at the same time. Ceiling balls almost all wind up in deep court. You should not try to kill, pinch, or splat from deep court. Shoot a good passing shot.