Having a “shot” — in the nuances of the English language — means having a chance. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova not only had a shot to upset top-seeded Naomi Osaka on Tuesday at Roland Garros; she had a shot she needed to choose well at 6-5, 30-15. If she had chosen that shot well, she might have had two match points. As it was, she didn’t choose her shot well. She missed it, and she never even gained one match point in her three-set loss to the World No. 1.
Matches involve more than one point. After Schmiedlova’s miss at 30-15, she was still two points away from victory. She was two points away at deuce a few moments later. There is always a “next point” until one player wins match point. Yet, while matches involve more than one point, some matches can feature one point more than others.
This certainly rated as a representative example. One point was truly the pivotal moment in this match. It cast a large shadow over all the other points which were played on Tuesday in Paris.
The instructive point to make about the lunging, off-balance, two-handed crosscourt backhand Schmiedlova overcooked against Osaka is not that she missed it, but that it clearly never occurred to her to hit a different kind of shot. This is a revealing insight into one player in one very important scoreboard moment… and why young players and every tennis coach can learn something from this single shot by Schmiedlova at Roland Garros.
As noted above, the shot Schmiedlova missed was a lunging, off-balance, two-handed crosscourt backhand. In that set of labels, the crosscourt part was not significant. The other labels are all important.
Start with the lunging, off-balance aspects of the shot. The balls inside Court Philippe Chatrier were side-kicking a lot, with the wind whipping and the conditions constantly changing. They were not easy weather conditions to play in; Osaka could not feel the ball or keep it in the court for much of the match, the very reason Schmiedlova came so close to a huge upset. When that ball at 6-5, 30-15, side-kicked to Schmiedlova’s left (her backhand side), she had to jump to reach the ball with a two-handed stroke.
This is where an examination of the shot tells such a profound story for developing players and for the coaches responsible for player development: If Schmiedlova had any real degree of comfort and assurance at the net, the late bounce of the ball — making a controlled, two-handed shot a lot more difficult — would have led her to make the adjustment to a one-handed backhand drop shot or slice. Instead of thinking only about a hard, two-handed drive, she could have played a one-handed finesse shot emphasizing touch, angle or placement (or any of the above in a combination). She would have had more options.
Yet, if you rewatch that sequence, Schmiedlova was always focused on hitting the two-hander. No other shot was considered. She might have weighed crosscourt versus down the line or middle third, but she did not weigh two-handed versus one-handed.
Taking a one-handed shot — dropper OR slice, either one — also took a finesse shot out of play. This dramatically reduced what Schmiedlova was able to do on a very short ball from Osaka at a supremely important juncture of a major-tournament match.
The lesson should be obvious at this point, but I will make sure it is crystal-clear — more for coaches than for players:
You, as a coach, can certainly emphasize your player’s strengths and focus on building the qualities or shots your player can execute the best. Your game plans and tactics should obviously play to your player’s wheelhouse.
Yet, while developing a bread-and-butter approach resting of a few core pillars of supreme expertise from your player, you still have to teach every shot and make sure your player knows how to hit each one with a reasonable level of competence and reliability.
Of COURSE, you won’t ask a relatively small baseline-oriented defender such as Schmiedlova to become Jana Novotna and play slashing, net-attacking tennis on a regular basis. No one is saying or even implying that. However, every tennis player who uses a two-handed backhand and plays baseline-oriented tennis still needs to be able to know how to hit a slice backhand, a backhand drop shot, or a backhand half-volley.
You won’t need those shots most of the time, but you will need them some of the time… on a short ball, at 6-5 and 30-15, two points from a huge upset.
So many players don’t know how to hit certain shots. Phrased differently, so many players don’t know how to hit EVERY shot.
Sure, not everyone will be Roger Federer — that’s not the point. The point is that if you are playing at the highest level of tennis (the major tournaments and/or the main tour), you need to be able to hit any kind of shot when you need to. You might not hit that shot as well as Federer or Serena Williams or Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, but you need to know how to hit it.
If you are drawn to the net by a midcourt slice from your opponent, or your opponent doesn’t hit a return of serve cleanly — as was the case with Osaka at 6-5, 30-15 in set two on Tuesday — you will need to hit a shot you don’t ordinarily hit.
Being a professional involves being prepared for every reasonable situation. Knowing how to deal with a short ball when just inside the service box is a reasonable situation.
Anna Karolina Schmiedlova didn’t have any options in that situation on Tuesday — she felt she had only one shot, a two-handed drive backhand, lunging and off balance.
Tennis coaches don’t have to insist that baseliners must become volleyers, or that two-handers must become one-handers. They do, however, have to make sure their players can hit every shot so that when they need it, it’s there.
That is the lesson of Osaka d. Schmiedlova, and the one shot that got away from the underdog at 6-5, 30-15.