When I was a young aspiring player, I often lost tennis matches by being too adventurous, which is my attempt to avoid admitting I was very impatient. I enjoyed playing the front court as much or more than staying near the baseline, and I never saw a short ball I did not want to attack.
Even by the age of twelve I would try and dominate my opponents with strong shots, or I would even serve and volley. Naturally, a game style with this risk profile produces plenty or errors. (In addition to an occasional spectacular play). After lost matches coaches would always tell me the number of unforced errors I had made. I never knew what to do with this information. (It’s not like it was my intention.)
“You made 41 unforced errors today!” a coach would say.
“What does that even mean,” I would respond rebelliously. “You’re just going for too much.”
I struggled with this feedback. How can I learn from this? In hindsight, I wish the coach would have helped me with situational play. When did the errors occur? How long were the rallies before I missed? When may I give myself permission to attack and when is patience more prudent. Certainly, an unforced error at the score of 40-0 is different from one produced at 30-40, don’t you agree?
Last week I was having a conversation with one of my adult clients about her most recent match. She mentioned that she had made too many unforced errors, and then she added a few more stats that she probably got from watching tennis on television. I told her that I was getting the gist of what she was saying, but I still could not get a good feel for the match as stats do not always paint the entire picture. I said that some stats are completely useless, and others can be counter intuitive.
“What ya talking ‘bout Willis?” (she did not actually say this) I continued by asking my Harvard- educated student the following question:
“After the match, what would yourather have the stat sheet say regarding break points, 2/3 or 4/17?”
She looked at me slightly confused (she suspected it was a set up):
“I want to say 2/3, but it’s probably wrong, isn’t it?”
“Yes”, I continued. "Think about it, a 66.67 percent success rate (2/3) is indeed much better than a 23.5 percent (4/17), but in this case it is still better to break your opponent’s serve four times, instead of only two”.
She agreed to it being counter intuitive. I only mentioned that my client was Harvard-educated to show that intelligence was not in question here. I wasn’t teaching Penny, the waitress from the Cheesecake factory (no offense if you are a waitress, or don’t like The Big Bang Theory).
For some reason we look at all those break point opportunities and consider it a failure. What can we learn from this? The more opportunities we give ourselves, the better it is. A mindset of neutrality will be helpful here, an unattached approach to the outcome:
if the break happens, great. If not, great.
Another stat in this realm is net points won/lost. When you look at a ratio of 4/9, you might judge it as a bad ratio. The player won four points at net, and she lost five points. What if I were to tell you that those four points won were all at break point! Then we might conclude that the nine attempts at net were not enough. If she had attacked the net twelve times for instance, she might not have needed those seventeen breakpoints! Your personal call to courage and to be brave at the right moments is a key strength for a competitor.
In any case, tennis stats are helpful, but have their limitations. Match playwill still come down to being patient at the right times, being courageous at the right moments, and staying disciplined all match. Use the stats to dig into those areas more specifically. Answer the questions ‘when’ and ‘why”!
Full disclaimer: I am a tennis coach and have worked with many junior tournament players. As a player growing up, I received excellent coaching. There is a good chance that I did receive the proper situational feedback from my pro, but that my 12- year-old, ego-filled brain filtered him out as noise. (I will always defend hard working teaching pros).
By the way, at 52 years old, I still haven’t seen a short ball that I don’t want to attack.
I hope this was helpful.
Tonny van de Pieterman
Tonny van de Pieterman is a tennis professional at Point Set Indoor Racquet Club in Oceanside, N.Y.. He has previously been named USTA Tennis Professional of the Year for the USTA/Eastern-Long Island Region. He may be reached by phone at (516) 536-2323 or e-mail Tonny@PointSetTennis.com.