Top players use a certain game plan. They first adjust it to their own game, to maximize the use of their own strengths, and then by who they are playing. Regardless of their plan, there is one pattern they know is a must, independent of who they are playing.
They are aware that the safest response to a cross-court shot is another cross-court. There are several reasons for this. One is that it is easier and more accurate to return the incoming ball perpendicularly to the angle of the racquet face than to modify that angle with precision to change the direction of your response.
In general, cross-court shots have more court space to hit to, requiring less precision. The net is lower in the middle. It seems more natural to hit a bigger topspin cross-court than down-the-line unless you master the inside-out shot.
Another reason is that playing the ball down-the-line will leave the court open on the other side, vulnerable to another cross-court shot from your opponent. This would eventually take its toll. If you are not too convinced of this particular aspect, practice it with a friend, or teammate.
Hit only down-the-line while your friend hits only cross-court. You’ll see who loses the breath first. When the ball comes closer to the center and shorter, still on your forehand side, that’s your opportunity to play it inside-out.
In this instance, your opponent is vulnerable to both shots, inside-out and cross-court. He won’t be able to tell your next aim, especially if you disguise it until you make contact, and enforce it with a great “wrapping” follow-through.
Remember that you can hit across the ball, wrapping your finish around your body, as if you were hitting cross-court, and still hit inside-out as a result of the angle of your racquet, dragging it behind your hand.
You can practice the inside-shot with your partner, parking yourselves in your backhand doubles line, and hitting forehands back and forth from there. Then practice from the forehand singles corner, hitting only cross-court shots.
The shorter the ball, the more you can hit it cross-court. Rather than aiming for a deep shot, go for the intersection of the sideline and the service line. In a match, this will drive your opponent farther off the court and may give you, eventually, a bigger and safer down-the-line or inside-out opening.
Topspin is the key to avoid “over-hitting”, which is really a misnomer in modern times, because with topspin you can hit much harder, knowing that the ball will drop in the court.
Pros “over-hit” topspin shots as much as they like. Originally, professionals utilized this tactic mostly with their forehands. Today, having two-handers comparable with great forehands, many excel in using this pattern on the backhand side.
Only a few one-handers have such confidence to hit big topspin in a long rally on every backhand ball.
Analyze these patterns when you watch top tennis, studying how you could use this knowledge with your own game. And if you want to know what many players are using to cause Rafael Nadal some trouble, watch them hit behind him after he hits short.