Woman hits high volley

“Senior tennis”—a different game entirely—seems to start in the 65s. In later age groups, the specific tactics cement further. The style reflects short court, baseline position and an old-school approach. Less is more. What prevails in the younger game does not in the golden years.

Success in senior singles requires analysis, buy-in, guts and fitness. The drop shot is forever king, and always looming. To have success at the highest levels you must be able to hit this ball, retrieve it, or take it away. And you must hurt your opponent before he or she hurts you.

Even armed with these gems, you probably won’t be aware of what you need to do to win, or comfortable doing it, at first. But the light bulb will go on. Mostly because you’ve played for a lifetime.


If 65-and-above tennis reflects intelligence, then initiating the point requires the most thought. And part of that is always remembering to avoid the killer, signature, senior play: the drop shot. The best players can hit it beautifully, even on returns.

To combat this, over-establish wide targets and paths, but beware hitting the hard, flat serve. If the receiver is fully extended, it’s harder for him to flick it back. But when he doesn’t reach it, the top guys still can feather a dropper. For a righty, slice to the deuce court, kick to the ad court. For a lefty, it’s the opposite.

With the slice, keep it short in the box and have it bounce close to the sideline, going wide of the court. Toss the ball way to your side, and take a tight, wristy stroke. You’ll be amazed at the spin you get and how low the ball stays. For the kick, the same placement rules apply, but the imparted spin makes the ball rebound high, different from the “tomahawk.”

Be sure to take another step forward after you finish in the court. You, too, can always serve-and-volley. You’ll at least get to that devil return.

“It’s almost like the once-biggest hitters are at the biggest disadvantage,” says top-ranked 70s player Alec Roberts, of Tarrytown, N.Y. “They’re naturally disinclined to drop shot or slice. And usually they crave pace, which they might not get in the seniors.”

In older tennis, baseliners perish. Bashing balls from outside the court and extending rallies gets you nowhere. And most of your opponents can volley well.

Expect to see players with huge racquets, excellent hands, sometimes poked strokes and surprisingly solid spin serves. Groundstroke drop shots are mainly down the line. You won’t notice many two-handed backhands, and the ones you see will be dominated by one hand. With these opponents, anticipate more down-the-lines.

You also won’t glimpse extreme topspin or kick serves that bounce to the moon. (Thank goodness.) The grips will be continental or usually one bevel, occasionally two, removed. Sliced backhands abound.


Be sure to stare at the ball from toss to contact. Don’t let your eyes wander; concentrate, focus. Can you make out the seams?

Be sure to stare at the ball from toss to contact. Don’t let your eyes wander; concentrate, focus. Can you make out the seams?

Return of Serve

Set up on the baseline, or one to two feet inside. Take advantage of the lack of extreme speed of your rival’s delivery. Odds are, he’s not going to blow it past you.

Generate your own pace by parrying his. Shorten your strokes. Apply quick blows—slice the ball or go flat, almost pushing—on both sides. Your grip should accommodate. And since most of your opponents’ serves are solid, you’ll won’t have to worry about generating velocity from a soft delivery.

For the most part, first-rate seniors establish cross-court serves. Once you get comfortable returning these angles (and this can be at any moment of a match), anticipate some serves down the middle. Especially on the second serve, after you have your adversary thinking—guessing—deflate your adversary before he deflates you. Run around to hit a forehand; fake running around; attempt a SABR; go way in, then retreat (just not outside the baseline). And, yes, massage a drop-shot return.

Be sure to stare at the ball from toss to contact. Don’t let your eyes wander; concentrate, focus. Can you make out the seams? And when possible, come in a little bit after the hit. (Again, I wonder why?)

Older, first-rate, tennis players ooze cerebral, meaning they are tactical. Despite what they say about just being glad to be here—seniors lie well—they are also ultra competitive. They hate defeat.

Of a frequent opponent, Roberts once said, “He doesn’t care about the score as long as he doesn’t lose.”

And you will see the occasional weird/bad actor. One guy, after losing in a final, when presented with the engraved, runner-up award declined:

“I only take trophies when I win.”

As competitors age, it’s not the side-to-side motion that goes, but the up-and-back. Athletes lose speed and quickness along with power. It’s because of the first two that a staple of the senior game remains north/south, pull/push, play.

The thing players bank is experience, which turns into savvy. They’ve faced so much on the tennis court; not much will be new or daunting. Thoughts of playing badly or losing ring familiar, but combatants can only do so much. Demons no longer haunt. Seniors own that nerves are good—it means the match (still) matters.

As competitors age, it’s not the side-to-side motion that goes, but the up-and-back.



There are few extended hits in high-level senior tennis. Since both players are well inside the baseline, points end quickly via drops, re-drops, passing shots, and some volleys and overheads. You don’t see too many aces or serve-and-volley drop-volleys. Who can get to net that fast?

Again, you don’t want to be defensive. Kill or be killed. Keep the ball deep, then solve your foe’s weakness and strike. If you play with a weapon—your forehand—do so. Move to hit that banger as often as possible.

In your ground game, mix up going wide with hitting more down the middle. Since you’ll be inside the court, hit the ball on the rise and look to hurt your opponent by making him move for a retrieval, and taking time away from any response.

Always, though, beware the cross-court approach to your opponent’s forehand. It usually is not a good shot, especially if he can return it cross court.

If you hit a drop shot—which you should—expect to retrieve one. You’re inside the court and in position to do that.

You’ll see all types of folks in the 65s and older. Guys that look fresh, young, or players sporting so many braces and bandages they look like a mummy. Who knew that competitors could star with double knee replacements?

And don’t be fooled by the warm-up. Just because your foe can’t push you on groundstrokes doesn’t mean he or she can’t win. Don’t become overconfident or underestimate. The prelude can mime the juniors, where sometimes the worst warmer-upper wins.

You may not be comfortable ay first. But the light bulb will go on—mostly because you’ve played for a lifetime.

You may not be comfortable ay first. But the light bulb will go on—mostly because you’ve played for a lifetime.

What Could Go Wrong?

You’re following all the new rules and still getting beat. Maybe he’s just better or fitter, or played at Stanford way back when.

You’re three feet (yes) inside the baseline, controlling play, and then, all of a sudden, your opponent starts to…moon ball. All the low, paced shots you’ve been facing change. Try to hit this ball on the rise—almost half-hop it. It’s not always easy. Some of the time you have to retreat near or behind the baseline—back up. Let the ball drop, maybe hit a moon ball yourself. But be sure to eventually return to in front of the baseline.

And, hey, maybe you can adopt the heavy, heavy topspin play too.

You can always do what another top 70s player, Laury Hammel of Cambridge, Mass., pulled off.

“I was losing to an excellent guy, and couldn’t hold serve,” says Hammel. “So, at 15–40 I hit a backhand, underhand, sidespin serve, wide—ace. At 30–40 I go forehand, underhand, side spin, wide—another ace. Finally, at deuce, I go forehand, underhand, side spin, tee.”

You can guess what happened next.

Sixty-five-and-over tennis is for shot makers. You must have way more of a purpose with each ball or pattern than when you were a kid.

The pressure mounts, especially on the passing shots. Recall, these guys can volley. But knowing you need to go for it—mentally and physically—frees you. Your concentration will improve.

Be sure to get in good shape. Remember you’re running—exploding—forward now. Dart some sprints. And knock off playing too many “youngsters.” Since they truly hit the ball hard, setting up three feet inside baseline is tough, if not impossible. To win against these fellows you probably need to recoil your senior court position.

But remember to throw that thinking out when you play old-timers. Don’t revert to conventional court locations. Leave that for all those western-grip, poly-wielding, fifty-somethings.