Category Archives: Tactics

Uncontrolled Aggression

Listen to tennis commentary–or a broadcast of any sport, really–and wait for the first mention of “consistency.” You won’t have to wait for long.

“Consistent” is good, and “inconsistent” is bad. Or so we’re told. At first blush, it makes sense. Consistency is a good thing when it comes to following through on your forehand or brushing your teeth every day. But unless you’re the very best player in the world, consistency doesn’t win you Grand Slam titles.

Think of it this way: Every player has an “average” level they are capable of playing. If average Rafael Nadal plays average anybody else on clay, average Nadal wins. If average Richard Gasquet plays average anybody-outside-the-top-fifty, average Gasquet wins. These situations, for the likes of Nadal and Gasquet, are when consistency is actually a good thing. Sure, Rafa might be able to raise him game to previously unheard-of heights, but what’s the point? It’s a matter of winning 6-1 6-0 instead of 6-3 6-2. Nadal’s main concern is avoiding an off day.

Consider the same example from the perspective of Rafa’s opponent. If you’re Tomas Berdych and you play at your usual level against Nadal, you’ll lose. That’s what consistency gets you: thirteen straight losses.

Uncontrolled aggression

Very aggressive players tend to get a bad rap. The guys who always go for their shots–think Lukas Rosol or Nikolay Davydenko–rack up huge winner and unforced error counts. Sometimes it works and often it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, the conventional wisdom always seems to be that these players need to rein in their aggression. They need to be more consistent.

But they don’t. If Rosol stopped unleashing huge shots in every direction, he’d make fewer unforced errors, but he’d hit far fewer winners. He might still hover around #50 in the world, but more likely, he’d still be lurking in the Challenger ranks, looking for the breakthrough that such a passive style might never earn for him. As it is, Rosol’s go-for-broke approach got him that career-defining upset over Nadal, not to mention an ATP title in Bucharest last spring, when he beat three higher-ranked players.

Rather than the pundit’s favored phrase of “controlled aggression,” players score big upsets and major breakthroughs with uncontrolled aggression. (It only looks controlled because it’s working that day.) If you rein in an aggressive player, he may win more of the matches he’s supposed to win, but he’s much less likely to score an upset.

The balance myth

The game of tennis has so much variety–surfaces, climates, playing styles–and so much alternation–deuce/ad, serve/return–that pundits are constantly endorsing balance. Andy Murray needs to get better on clay, they say. Jerzy Janowicz needs to improve his return game. Monica Niculescu needs to learn how to hit a forehand.

It’s a tempting argument to make, because the best players in the game do have that balance. Nadal and Djokovic and Serena and Li have a wide variety of devastating shots and tactics that are effective on every surface. If you want to play like them and reap the same rewards, you need to have that same balance.

Except that, for the vast majority of players–even top-tenners–that just isn’t going to happen. I don’t care if David Ferrer hires a coaching team of Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis, he’ll never be much more effective on serve. John Isner could work all offseason with Andre Agassi and remain among the game’s weakest returners.

What’s keeping these players from climbing any higher in the rankings isn’t the fact that they aren’t more balanced. It’s the simple fact that they aren’t better. By definition, most people will never be a once-in-a-generation talent.

Most players are not balanced. And that’s fine. Rather than chasing the impossible dream of out-Novaking Novak, they need to take more risks to outplay their betters in one or two areas. When it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter–they would’ve lost anyway.

The cluster principle

Tennis rewards the streaky. If you only win four return points in a set, it’s much better to win them consecutively than to spread them out. It’s better to win five matches in one week and go winless for the next four weeks than win one match per week.

Whether it’s points, games, sets, matches, or even titles, it’s better to cluster your triumphs.

If you strive for a balanced game, the best players simply won’t let you go on a streak. Fabio Fognini or Sabine Lisicki might give you a few gifts, but Nadal never will. The only way to cluster your victories over Rafa is to play such aggressive tennis that even he can’t neutralize it. It usually won’t work, but for most players, it’s their only hope. There’s a reason the hyper-aggressive Davydenko is the only active player with a winning record against him.

Stan’s untold narrative

Stanislas Wawrinka probably wouldn’t have beaten a healthy Nadal over five sets on Sunday. But he was winning when Rafa’s back acted up, and he did so by unleashing every weapon in his arsenal.

Whatever the rankings say this week, Wawrinka isn’t one of the best three tennis players in the world. At least “average Stan” isn’t. But that’s the whole point. Tennis doesn’t reward players with ranking points and prize money for consistency. Consistency got Berdych into the top ten and has kept him there for so long … but it has prevented him from spending much time in the top five.

Wawrinka won’t always beat Nadal or Djokovic, and he’ll continue to suffer his share of defeats at the hands of the players ranked below him. The high-risk style of play that earned him a place in the history books won’t always pay off. That’s all part of the package. Stan didn’t get this far by being consistent.

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Filed under Australian Open, Tactics

The Questionable Wisdom of the Drop Shot

More than any other shot in tennis, the drop shot can make the player who hits it look either brilliant or idiotic.  The line separating the two is rarely so fine.

When we combine the brilliance and the idiocy, how does the drop shot measure up?  How much does a player gain or lose with frequent use of the dropper?

In the final match of last week’s Challenger Tour Finals between Alejandro Gonzalez and Filippo Volandri, Volandri hit a whopping 23 drop shots–almost one per game (click the “Shot Types” links).  Volandri is a seasoned pro with an excellent sense of clay court tactics, so he avoided the clunkiest drop shot misses–only three of the 23 were errors.  Yet despite facing an opponent who prefers to camp out well behind the baseline, the Italian won only 11 of the 23 points.  Almost half the time the drop shot landed in the court, Gonzalez chased it down, got a return in play, and went on to win the point.

Volandri’s performance in the final wasn’t an anomaly.  In the semifinal against Teymuraz Gabashvili, he attempted 17 drop shots and won only nine of those points.  The other aggressive drop-shotter at the CTF, Oleksandr Nedovyesov, hit 19 drop shots against Gabashvili in a round-robin match.  Even though eight of those 19 drop shots were winners, Nedovyesov lost ten of the ensuing points.

With my shot-by-shot analyses of five matches from last week’s event in Sao Paulo, we can take a somewhat broader look at drop shot tactics and their results.  While this subset may not be representative of all clay-court tennis (for one thing, the altitude makes it a bit easier to chase down a dropper), the aggregate numbers raise some questions about the wisdom of the drop-shot tactic.

As a whole, the six players who took part in these five matches hit 95 drop shots.  16 (16.8%) of them were unforced errors, compared to an overall rate of about 1 unforced error per 10 rallying shots.  29 (30.5%) were outright winners, while another five induced forced errors, immediately ending the point.  That leaves 45 points (47.4%) in which the opponent got the ball back in play.  Of those, the dropshotter won only 19 (42.2%).

Taken together, the results aren’t bad.  The player who hit the drop shot won 53 (55.8%) of the points, and 67.1% of the points when the drop shot landed in play.

There is a noticeable difference, however, in the success rates of the frequent dropshotters (Voladri and Nedovyesov) compared to those of the other four players, who averaged fewer than four drop shots per match.  While the players of what I’ll call the “infrequent group”–Gabashvili, Gonzalez, Guilherme Clezar, and Jesse Huta Galung–may not be as practiced in the art, it is likely that they chose their moments much more carefully, hitting drop shots when the tactic was obvious.

The infrequent group hit 22 drop shots, missing only two.  Not only did nine go for winners, but the overall results were positive as well, as they won 14 (63.6%) of those points.

Remove the infrequent group from the overall numbers, and the aggressive dropshotters won a mere 53.4% of points in which they used the tactic.

53.4% isn’t awful–if you win 53.4% of the points in a match, you almost always win.  However, the type of point in which the drop shot makes sense isn’t an average point.  Usually the dropshotter has better court position than his opponent, who may be off-balance or far behind the baseline.  This isn’t always the case, especially when the dropshotter is simply trying to end the point, or when his brain stops working.  But in the majority of cases, the dropshotter has such an advantage in court position, it seems likely that a more common tactic–such as an aggressive groundstroke, perhaps followed by a net approach–would do better.

Another consideration goes beyond the outcome of a specific point.  A player who fails to run down a drop shot will probably remember that lost point for a game or two and play a little closer to the baseline, maybe making himself less comfortable in the process.  It’s possible that the long-term effect gives an advantage to the player who regularly uses the tactic.

But somewhere between Gonzalez’s four drop shots on Sunday and Volandri’s 23, the marginal advantage of each additional dropper must wear off.  I find it hard to imagine that one drop shot per game has any more of a long-term strategic effect than one drop shot per three games.  If that’s true, Volandri hit 13 or 14 more drop shots than required.  Thus, in about 8% of Sunday’s 162 points, he took an advantageous court position and wasted it on an even-odds shot.

More evidence will surely give us a fuller picture of drop-shot tactics on clay courts.  We may be able to determine whether there is a post-dropper “hangover effect” and if so, how many drop shots are required to reap the benefits.  Until then, it’s worth considering whether drop shots are worth the risk, especially when there may be such a high-percentage alternative.

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Filed under Match charting, Tactics