Left-handers are among the most challenging opponents you’ll face. But with a few adjustments, you can make the experience less painful and improve your odds of winning.
By Tracy Austin
Photos by Manuela Davies / Double Exposure
The way you play is probably instinctive and grooved from years of practice. But when you face a lefty, the ball doesn’t do what you expect it to do, so you have to change your habits. You need to start over and think about how the ball is going to bounce. That’s one reason Roger Federer has so much trouble with Rafael Nadal. Federer is an instinctive genius, but Nadal’s lefty strokes force him to think.If you know you have to play a southpaw, the ﬁrst thing you should do is ﬁnd a left-handed practice partner to warm you up. Second, and most important, you must adjust your game plan to neutralize your opponent’s advantages. Here are four ways to do that.
1. BE READY FOR SHORT-ANGLE SHOTS TO YOUR BACKHAND
Few right-handers have really good sharply angled backhands. Consequently, most players aren’t used to handling short, wide balls on their backhand sides. But lefties are often very adept at hitting hooking forehands that take right-handers off the court and force them to stretch for backhands. Be prepared for this shot and develop a reply to it. (See photo at far left.) Don’t do too much with the ball; try to send it back deep and crosscourt.
2. ADJUST YOUR RETURN-OF-SERVE POSITION
In the 1978 Masters ﬁ nal at Madison Square Garden, Arthur Ashe played John McEnroe, a lefty. Though Ashe lost 7-5 in the third, he put together an excellent game plan. One thing he did was move a couple of feet left on his return of serve. Because lefties’ spin breaks to the left, this puts you in a better position to return their favorite serve. It also tempts left-handers to try their least-used serves—the kicker out wide in the deuce court and the delivery down the T in the ad court—and chances are their success rate won’t be as high. Plus, it sends a message that you’re thinking out there.
When lefties swing you out wide, cut off the angle on your returns by hitting the ball early and aggressively. Move forward to make contact before the ball spins too wide and get your weight into the shot. This is an advanced play that requires excellent timing, so be patient and keep trying.
3. SHIFT YOUR LOB PLACEMENT
Before I played Martina Navratilova I always made a special effort to practice my lob. Many club-level players rely on their lobs when their opponents come to the net, and most have learned to keep their lobs over their opponents’ backhand sides. Against lefties, those same lobs will go straight to their forehand sides, and you’ll ﬁ nd yourself on the receiving end of strong smashes. So practice your lobs before you play a southpaw. I ﬁ nd it’s more useful to do this in a live-ball drill. Rather than having your partner feed you an easy ball and lobbing it back, do drills in which your partner hits normal approach shots and volleys and practice your lob off of those.
4. HIT YOUR BACKHAND DOWN THE LINE
Right-handers like to hit their backhands crosscourt because it plays into their opponents’ backhands, often the weaker side. But against lefties the best shot in a right-hander’s repertoire is the down-the-line backhand since it goes to your opponent’s backhand side. Spend time on that shot when you know you’re going to play a southpaw. But be careful: Lefties often have good slice approaches off their backhand wings, so if you hit your down-the-line backhand short, you might be in trouble.