The following list ranks the core shots of tennis from most to least essential. Some rankings for essential may be quite different from what they would be for useful or even important; an essential shot is one without which you would be stuck with no response in certain situations. Placement is not considered; therefore, passing shots and other important, but placement-specific shots are not included. There's certainly room for debate on some of these, and I invite you to weigh in.
The links in this list lead to step-by-step, photo based lessons.
- Basic forehand and backhand (one-handed or two-handed): Without these, you can't even go out and rally. For match play, the serve would be equally important. Variations will be ranked separately.
- Basic serve and return of serve.
- Basic forehand volley and backhand volley.
- Basic overhead: The overhead would be tied with volleys, except that it's possible to run back and hit many lobs after the bounce, whereas there's usually no alternative to a volley if a lower ball comes toward you at the net.
- Basic approach shot: If you only had to hit approach shots when choosing to attack the net, this would be ranked lower, but your opponent can force you to hit short balls, and those upon which you can't set up sufficiently to go for a winner, you'll have to hit as an approach shot. If you play someone who hasn't learned this shot, hit him short, low balls, then take the easy ball he hands you and pass him!
- Lob: If you can't lob at all, your opponent can close in on the net much too freely. A good lob will prove a major offensive and defensive weapon.
- Bounced overhead: You'll only be forced to hit this on high, extremely deep balls that you couldn't reach otherwise, but it's a great offensive weapon on the few occasions when you get a chance to hit it. Without it, your opponent could hit very high lobs all day, and you'd have no aggressive way to respond. (It's quite difficult to time regular overheads on very high lobs.)
- Backhand overhead: You usually won't hit these very often, but if you couldn't hit them at all, a smart opponent would always aim high over your backhand side when you're at net. You might run around some, but you couldn't run around all.
- Half volley: Unless you want to play entirely behind your baseline, you'll eventually be forced to hit half volleys by opponents who aim near your feet. In doubles, you'll hit half volleys pretty frequently.
- Backspin volley (forehand and backhand): If a low ball comes to you at net, you have to know how to handle it. You have four options, one of which, trying to hit the ball flat (without spin) will rarely result in your winning the point. The only way to turn a difficult, low volley to your advantage is to hit it with backspin, either as a drop volley, an angle volley, or a deep approach volley.
- Sliced backhand groundstroke: For almost all players who use a one-handed backhand, this shot would rank considerably higher, but many two-handers, especially at the beginner and intermediate levels, rarely, if ever, use it. They should. It's a potent weapon for approach shots because it stays low and forces your opponent to hit up to you as you come to net, and it has a bunch of other tactical uses. A slice backhand is also one of the best ways to handle low balls, especially for two-handers, and high balls, especially for one-handers.