Seven Basics of Tennis Strategy | ATP

Craig O’Shannessy is a well known tennis statistician.  He recently republished the stats below in the context of the Australian Open.

Our Tennis Whisperer attempts to explain the WHYs underlining Craig’s stats in simple terms of the three primary skills underpinning every tennis stroke: ball watching, balance and rhythm . [See WHY comments in these brackets].

These are the seven basics of tennis strategy and, as always, they will be the key to winning at this year’s Australian Open.

Lesson 1: Forehands and Backhands�

Nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic has arguably the best backhand in the world. But who cares.

When Djokovic last won the “Happy Slam” in 2021, he struck 98 forehand winners and 45 backhand winners. That’s why you see players running around backhands to hit forehands. They desperately seek to upgrade.

The forehand is the sword. The backhand is the shield. The sword accounts for about two out of every three winners from the back of the court.

Forehand and backhand winners

M/W Forehand winners Backhand winners
Men 70 per cent (3228) 30 per cent (1386)
Women 64 per cent (2236) 36 per cent (1247)

[Whisperer: The NADAL VARIATION creates more extreme angles because of the racket position in relation to body.]

Lesson 2: Tennis is a game of errors

The Australian Open features the best players on the planet, who rally back and forth ad nauseam on the practice court with precious few mistakes. Then matches start, and errors flow.

Winners and errors

M/W Winners Errors
Men 34 per cent 66 per cent
Women 30 per cent 70 per cent

Winners are rising at Melbourne Park, jumping from 30 per cent for the men in 2015 to 34 per cent last year. In the women’s game, there was a jump from 27 per cent in 2015 to 30 per cent in 2022.

Because errors are so prevalent, it’s much smarter to make opponents uncomfortable and force mistakes than chase winners. Obsess over the bigger pool of points.

[Whisperer: Minimizing errors by staying in the point has always consistently won more points. ]

Lesson 3: Eight ways to force an error

There are actually eight ways to make the opponent uncomfortable and extract an error.

 [Whisperer: WHY explained in Where column of the three primary skills in any stroke: ball watching, balance, rhythm—strength is NOT necessarily the key.]

Eight ways to force an error

# 8 ways Where
1 Consistency Court:  Watching
2 Direction Court: Balance
3 Depth Court: Balance
4 Height Court: Balance
5 Spin Ball: Watching
6 Power Ball: Rhythm�
7 Court Position Me: Balance
8 Time The clock: Rhythm

These eight elements are the holy grail of tennis. If a player hits a shot that contains just one of these eight, such as depth, they will have gained the upper hand in the point.�

If their shot includes two or more qualities, such as power and direction, they will be standing inside the baseline hitting with authority when the weak ball comes back.

If they combine three elements – such as height, spin and court position – the ball doesn’t come back.

Lesson 4: Rally length

Winning the short rallies is the best way to walk off court with a victory. The study of rally length started at the 2015 Australian Open and shook the foundations of the sport because of just how many short rallies occur.

Rally length

Shots Men Women
0-4 70 per cent 66 per cent
5-8 20 per cent 23 per cent
9+ 10 per cent 11 per cent

[Whisperer: Impact of powerful racket technology and advantage to server.  Corollary: get into the point as much as possible. Use typical Djokovic/Medvedev strategy of deep returns to put server off balance to nullify server advantage.]�

Rally length is predicated on the ball landing in the court, not hitting the strings. So a double fault has a rally length of zero as the ball didn’t land in, and a missed return is a rally length of one as the serve went in and the return was missed.

Seven points out of 10 are contested by players hitting the ball a maximum of two times each (four-shot rallies) in the court.�

The data also blew the doors off the myth that winning long rallies equated to winning matches. There are, typically, not enough long rallies to make a difference.

Lesson 5: Mode

The mode simply means the most common value in a data set. We can predict with certainty that the most abundant rally length at this year’s Australian Open will be the same as last year, and the year before that.  One shot in the court. No more. No less.

Ask someone which rally length is the most frequent, and the typical answers are from four to eight shots.  You can tell them that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray thought they played more four-shot rallies than anything else. They were very surprised, like all players, that they play more one-shot rallies than any other. That equates to a made serve and a missed return.

2015 Australian Open men: Most common rally lengths

Rally length Percentage
1 shot 30
3 shots 15
2 shots 10
5 shots 9
4 shots 8

As you can see from the table above, one-shot rallies are incredibly frequent in a match (30 per cent). The next closest rally length is three shots at 15 per cent.

Notice that three-shot rallies occur more than two shots, and five-shot rallies occur more than four shots. That’s because of the halo effect of the serve, or how long the influence of the serve lasts before things become even in a rally.�

[To repeat. Whisperer: Impact of powerful racket technology and advantage to server.  Corollary: get into the point as much as possible. Use Djokovic /Medvedev strategy of deep returns to nullify server advantage.]�

Lesson 6: You win a higher percentage at the net than the baseline

The baseline seems like a safe haven for players, while the net seems a risky place to win points. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The baseline as a safe haven?

M/W Baseline win percentage Net win percentage
Men 47 67
Women 48 66

If you rally from the back of the court, you are lucky to win half of your baseline points.�

[WHISPERER: Volleys are an ESSENTIAL stroke for any serious tennis player, and particular for junior development,  not an afterthought. Moving forward to the net (from GHOSTLINE) wins about two out of three points.]

The net has always been a fun, prosperous place to win points and nothing has changed statistically to think otherwise.

Lesson 7: Serve and Volley works

No tennis strategy has been more maligned and misunderstood than the serve and volley. Pundits say it belongs to another era and is too difficult to employ in today’s game. It’s simply not so.

Serve and volley works

M/W Played/won Percentage won
Men 709/1053 67
Women 36/57 63

Both men and women won about two out of three points serving and volleying at last year’s Australian Open.�

That is a far superior tactic than serving, staying back and trying to eke out a living from the baseline to hold serve.

[WHISPERER: Enhances probability of winning the point because of the geometry and physics of relative court positions of each player]

Tennis Whisperer

Source: Craig O’Shannessy, SMH