I’ve put a lot of thought into this. Here’s my best shot at this -- garnered from over thirty years of playing, teaching and coaching tennis. Tell me what you think.
I describe the styles of play with Major Categories ... and Subcategories. Some of these groupings may surprise you, but please read through it before you fight me. Of course, I’m open to different views ... so long as you can support them.
<Edit> I am removing the examples of Pro Players from my descriptions. I agree with those who have suggested this creates confusion, rather than clarity. (Look at Roddick: When I made this guide he played quite differently than he has the last two years. He's just one example of a Pro NOT being a "pure" example of a style anymore....) </Edit>
My Major Categories of Playing Style are:
1 - Attack the Net
2 - Baseline
3 - Counter Punching
4 - Junk-Ball
5 - All Court
6 - Pusher
1 - Attack the Net should be pretty self-explanatory. This player constantly presses, probes and exploits the slightest weaknesses they uncover. They push forward and try to finish the large majority of their points with winning volleys. They relentlessly pressure you to try and come up with your best passing shots or lobs. They put you on “constant defense.”
What I expect might ruffle some feathers is how I consider S&V to be a subcategory of Attack the Net. The more I thought about it, the more I like this manner of codifying the styles. (I’ve observed many players who S&V ... on “offense”. But when Receiving, they are baseliners. Maybe they lack confidence in their Returns, so the attacker becomes a more patient Baseliner....)
1 a. - Serve & Volley
1 b. - Chip & Charger
1 a & b ^^^ “ought” to be self-explanatory. If they are not, let’s get more detailed.
2 - Baseline is the most prevalent broad category of choice for the last 15 years. Almost all the WTA players are in this category -- as are most of the ATP’s clay courters and even several ATP pros preferring hard courts. These players stalk the baseline and rarely *choose* to come to net.
2 a. - Blasters, as Baseliners, may have a big serve and a big forehand ... or just a reliable serve with big ground strokes. Blasters pound the ball into the corners ... down the line ... inside out. They jerk you from one side to the other putting you in the position of constantly being on the defensive. Any ball is fair game for them to “go for broke.” Most points against Blasters are over in less than ten shots; usually from the Blaster’s winner ... or unforced error.
2 b. - Machine Baseliners are the steadiest opponents you’ll ever meet. They may not have any single stroke which is their “big weapon,” but they relentlessly hit with pace ... running you from one side to the other ... sometimes even prolonging the points to wear you down in the end. They don’t seem to miss. They don’t seem to tire. They demoralize you with their stamina.
2 c. - Soft-Baller Baseliners are tireless players with excellent footwork and anticipation. They always seem to be where they need to be to cut down your angles of attack. You cannot get them to engage you in a power exchange. They seem to absorb all the power of your shots and redirect it with good deep placement, but they won’t give you any pace to work with. You must always supply your own power. This player exhausts you ... physically and mentally.
2 d. - Retriever Baseliners are quick and tireless. He believes he can get any ball back and becomes a “human backboard.” They rely on your misses, rather than any one “money shot” of their own. Their strength is that while retrieving, they keep you pinned to your own baseline. They have good depth and uniformly good pace on their strokes. They just don’t seem to work the corners or angles the way most baseliners do. If you are playing the baseline game yourself, you are in for a long day against the Retriever.
This style rarely exists beyond the club level. In my area, most of the top HS Girls -- and many JV Boys -- play this “war of attrition” style.
3 - Counter Punching players are always looking for the opportunity to *instantly* switch from safe defensive tennis ... to ripping winners. They can “change gears” with a single shot. Their passing shots are “thread the needle” accurate against those playing Attack the Net. Their drop-shots and lobs are deadly. Counter Punchers can detect and exploit the baseliners’ inadvertent openings ... and end the point with one “high risk” down-the-line winner ... or fool you with a short-angle inside-out forehand winner.
Opponents playing both Attack the Net and Baseline tennis are fooled into thinking “He can’t keep that up the whole match.” When do these opponents realize their error? Unfortunately, when -- befuddled -- they are shaking hands at the net and congratulating the Counter Puncher on a 6-3, 6-3 victory.
4 - Junk Ball players can drive the “purists” among us into the Nut House. These players never allow you to get into a rhythm. They vary the height, depth, angles and quantity of spin so much your “strokes” fall apart ... right after your brain explodes. Junk Ballers seem never to be out of breath and play high-percentage tennis when it comes to “court position.” When you do manage to get them on the run, you learn they are also very quick on their feet.
4 a. - Spin Doctor players are the highest developed of the Junk Ballers. They stroke the ball with pace (when they wish) but also with crazy slices, side spins, topspins and some spins we don’t yet have names for. Spin Doctors keep you off-balance, wrong footed and clumsily compensating for their shots by altering your own strokes. They are serious threats to both players who Attack the Net and Baseliners.
Most players would rather have a root canal than play these guys. Their tennis seems as much “psychological warfare” as it is “real tennis” competition. While Spin Doctors’ opponents frequently “lose their cool” during matches, the Doctors themselves tend to be some of the most unflappable players you will encounter.
4 b. - Chop Shot-er Junk Ballers are found all over the Recreational and Club levels of tennis. These players have mastered the Chop Slice shot so well, they rarely bother hitting a flat or topspin shot. Chop Shot-ers can put their chopped slice deep, short, angled and lobbed. They are very good at “working the wind” with their chops and can run the 4.0 and below opponent into the ground with their accurate shooting.
Chop Shot-ers play very good “position” and rarely have to run for your silly attempts to blast them off the court. When you do succeed in running them, you sadly discover they are some of the quickest players afoot. They love it when you try to overpower them ... because they are masters at redirecting your power with their junk.
(A friend near the bottom of our ladder is 74 ... and proudly informs the 20- and 30-somethings on the ladder (after badly beating them) that the rest of us call him “Mr. Chop Shot.”)
5 - All Court players are able to adapt their games to give them the best advantage ... against any opponent’s style ... in any weather condition ... however and whenever needed. They can Soft-Ball the Baseline Blaster. They can Attack the Net against the Junk Baller. They find what works best against the Counter Puncher that day and dismantle *that* game. The All Courter can blow some Baseline Machines off the court with an Attack the Net style. They can exhaust the Serve & Volleyer with Counter Punching.
At the highest levels, the All Courter may choose to play directly into his opponent’s strength. (Bill Tilden was notorious for this tactic. When asked why he attacked the other guys’ strengths, his answer was, “That way, once I’ve broken him down, all he has to fall back on ... are his weaknesses.”)
All Courters tend to be able to change strategies and tactics “on a dime.” They may, within a set -- even within a point -- switch from one pattern to another. They can keep you off-balance ... and unhappy.