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May Tennis Tip: The Percentage Game

Tennis Tip: The Percentage Game!

“The Percentage Game – How to Improve the Probability of Winning a Point by Using the Geometry of the Court to Your Advantage
by Cosmin Cotet@United Tennis Academy

In today’s tennis, it pays to be stubborn.
Undoubtedly, tennis has become more physical than ever, so stamina – not just power –is a crucial part of a player’s fitness and success. Big servers…used to be at the top of the food chain in professional tennis. All they had to do was blast through their service games and fight for a break of serve, and the victory would be sealed.
But now, with more emphasis placed on conditioning, players have managed to adapt to the speed of the ball, and the sanctity of the monster serve has diminished considerably.
In the current men’s top 10 rankings, the big server is a rare animal, with only John Isner and Milos Raonic getting a sniff at this exclusive club. But even they, too, can play from the baseline. Today’s top 10 players have enabled themselves to stay in long rallies by improving their stamina, strength and speed on the court. These improvements have played a critical role in maintaining their focus through an increasing number of long, grueling matches.
And that is where the difference is made – playing “percentage tennis” throughout an entire match. In other words, playing the type of tennis that gives you the highest
probability of keeping the ball in play. Playing the percentages, there are two basic mistakes you can make during a tennis match: hit the ball into the net
– the obstacle that stands exactly in the middle of the court between you and your
opponent – or hit outside the court’s lines, either long or wide.
If we consider the geometry of a singles court – a rectangle – a couple of aspects can be easily spotted:
  • The net gets higher as you go from the middle of the court towards the sides (3 feet in the middle and 3.6 feet on the sides),
  • The crosscourt distance is longer than the down-the-line distance (82.5 feet compared to 78 feet, respectively).
  • The service boxes are more accessible for a taller player who can hit the ball harder, since the angle at which the ball is hit by his racquet is smaller than the one required for a shorter player.
From a probability point of view, we can conclude that during rallies:
  • There is higher risk in hitting a down-the-line shot compared to hitting crosscourt. Hitting down the line requires a higher margin for the ball to clear the net, and at the same time, a shorter distance for the ball to travel in the air before the court ends (both of which require more energy to create spin on the ball). And when hit at a high speed, the risk increases even more. It is even more risky when the angle at which the ball is redirected increases because the timing necessary to perform this change in direction is crucial. For example, if an opponent hits a shot down the line, a player would have to hit the ball earlier than usual to change its direction to crosscourt. This action requires fast footwork. Similarly, if the ball comes from crosscourt, in order to redirect it with a down-the-line trajectory, it needs to be hit a bit late, again requiring good timing. 
Thus, the safest way to return the ball is to maintain its direction and increase the number of balls that travel through the middle part of the net.
Let’s consider a regular point during a match, with one player serving and the other

The server has the highest probability of winning the point, as he makes the
first decision and sends the ball to the returner at X mph.
The return of serve points won is one of the most important variables in match statistics to predict who will win or lose a match. To improve this statistic, a player should apply the same rule of percentages in returning as he does in rallying:
Return the ball to the direction it came from.
  • A wide serve requires a crosscourt return, not only to have the ball pass through the lower part of the net and maintain a low redirecting angle, but also to give a player more time to return to the court by sending the ball on a longer path.
  • A serve “down the T” calls for a return down the line or down the middle of the court – as you find yourself inside the court – but you will be returning the ball towards the lowest part of the net at the lowest redirecting angle possible.
  • After the successful return, the rally begins, and the returner’s chances of winning the point have already increased.
Consistency favors percentages.
  • During the rally, it is important to maintain a ball speed that is realistic based on the player’s ability to stay consistent. In other words, hitting a 90 mph forehand inside the lines 10 times in a row has a low probability of success. But if you lower the speed of the forehand, the probability increases. Again, percentage tennis is in play with the safest shots going through the middle of the net at the lowest possible redirecting angle.
It is true that spectators will always remember those amazing shots that Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic hit during a match, and they will learn to judge their genius based on that. But if you study their rallies, those shots were nothing but outliers in an otherwise consistent pattern of play. At this year’s Australian Open, Djokovic was the most able to abide by these rules, a strategy that earned him $2.4 million. In today’s modern tennis, it pays to be stubborn.

The more your body and mind are ready to play by the laws of probability, which favor success in tennis, the more successful you will become as a player. We always hear Federer stating that his fiercest opponents “understand” the game. Top tennis players do understand the game, that is, how to increase their chances of winning. It is a mixture of strength and conditioning, technique, mental toughness and tactics that, when put together in the right way, produces a tremendous display of tennis greatness. I call this right way, being stubborn on the tennis court.
There is an ongoing debate about what is the most important stat in tennis, as more data is now gathered from tennis matches than ever before. So, is it the number of unforced errors, winners, second-serve percentage points won or break points won that separate the champions from the rest? The “win equation,” the Holy Grail of tennis, you name it, is a soup of all the above ingredients, and it differs from one player to another. But it is the stubbornness of constantly increasing their chances of winning that propels them above the rest.”

Get on the Court!