Choosing Smarter Shots

Today’s my last post about consistency, at least for a while. As promised on Monday, I did a little poking around into the topic of shot selection. Poor shot selection is a major factor in a high unforced error count.

Here’s an elegant way I’ve seen shot selection explained: Assess what’s going on in the point–where you are, where your opponent is, and what options you have–and then choose the best of those options.

Here’s a simpler way to put it: Stop trying dumb shots.

For me, and maybe for you, dumb shots almost always arise from all-or-nothing thinking. I think I have to win the point on this one shot, or I may not win at all. Rather than playing a series of smart shots, I let it all ride on my one winner.

Hitting winners is fun. But winning is even more fun. And players who choose the high-percentage shot usually win.

Easy example. Gael Monfils hits outrageous winners; he’s all flash and razzle-dazzle and always a crowd favorite. In contrast, Rafa Nadal hits far fewer winners; topspin, patience, and margin define his game.

Let’s review the stats. Nadal: 17 Grand Slams. Monfils: 0.

For the record, I also have zero Grand Slams. Poor shot selection may not be the only factor, but improving in this area couldn’t hurt.

In the interest of cutting down on my dumb shots, here are the general principles I’m going to try to follow:

Hit to a target. Tom Damkowitz, head pro at Boston Sports Club in Newton, MA advises his players to pick a specific spot on the court to hit, rather than just a direction. “Most errors occur when we don’t have a target, which causes us to not set up properly for the shot,” he says. “Without a target, we’re also more likely to look up rather than keep our eye on the ball.”

Make it a safe target. Annie Oakley became a legend for sharpshooting stunts like hitting dimes tossed in the air. Me? Sometimes I can’t even get my little yellow ball into the 284-square-foot service box on the other side of the net–in two tries! So why am I aiming my volleys at a two inch-wide sideline? I can still hit an aggressive shot, but I should be aiming a foot or more inside the line. You know, in case I don’t exactly hit my target…

Arc your ball at least three feet over the net. It isn’t rocket science. The best way to avoid the net is to hit the ball a little higher. Ripping a flat ball may look impressive, but when I’m in a baseline rally, I need to play with more margin. Choosing a topspin groundstroke increases my net clearance while still keeping the ball in the court.

Hit mostly crosscourt shots. When I hit crosscourt, geometry is my friend. The court is eight feet longer diagonally (four feet longer for singles), and the net is six inches lower in the middle than on the ends. To cut down on errors, I need to give myself the margin of the crosscourt shot.

Expect to hit another ball. “Every shot is just one of twenty,” says Damkowitz. “As soon as you think about hitting a winner, you’re bound to change something–hitting harder or wider, or looking at the ‘winning’ target. Forget about winners and expect to hit a lot of balls.” (I really hate this one.)

When in trouble, get more air. It’s just dumb to try for a go-for-broke, sizzling winner when I’m hopelessly out of position or pushed behind the baseline. In a defensive position, I need to hit a defensive shot. A lob will buy me some time to get back in position and back in the point.

Don’t try to change direction on a challenging ball. Anytime you change the direction of the ball, you increase the chance for error. The safest shot is one that travels along the same path it came. If I’m already facing a challenging ball (one hit hard, deep, with slice, or to my weaker side), I don’t want to compound my troubles by trying to change the ball’s direction. I have to keep it simple, and return the ball in the direction it came.

I’ll be honest. This all sounds sensible, but a teeny, tiny bit boring. I read these tips and start thinking, “After I do that, then I can hit my winner, right?”

No, Deb. There are no winners.

That’s going to take some getting used to.


Do you have any dumb shots that you need to stop hitting? How can you add more consistency to your game?

3 thoughts on “Choosing Smarter Shots

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  1. The logic of these points is inarguable. So is the need to have fun on the court. I’m thinking I’d go for this list as my “everyday” game, using it on most shots, and then allowing a flash of trying for a winner every so often. There are times when it can’t hurt to push it a little — like when you’re way out in front. Maybe it’s worth considering when you’re so outclassed, but then I think the safer game has the best potential. Do you think there’s ever a time to go for the winners? I mean, we’re not out there just to be little machines. 🙂

  2. I think you need to practice making only the smart choice (maybe 3 to 6 months) so that it becomes more automatic to think, “Lob now”. After you start thinking smart choices automatically, then you can add your winners back in because you will be able to make a real choice, “Play the smart choice (and I know exactly what it is) or hit my so-so (but feels so good) winner”. Just my two cents.

  3. Love it. I write a post about how to play higher percentage tennis, and the comments I get are about how I can still sneak in my winners. 😅

    Yes, I think playing the score is important–at 40-0, you can try for a winner. And like David says, it’s about changing what my default mindset is. Right now my default setting is “Now would be an excellent time for a winner.” (I actually say something similar when I’m watching football: “Now would be an excellent time for the intercept-the-ball-and-run-it-in-for-a-touchdown play.” I’m kidding when I’m watching football, but in tennis, I do tend to over-focus on highlight-reel shots rather than patient point construction.

    Also, I will say that even coaches give mixed messages about this stuff. When one of my teammates or I hit a low-percentage winner–and we actually make it and win the point–a coach will often say “Wow!” If my shot lands an inch inside the line, I’ll hear “wow.” But if it lands an inch outside the line, I’ll hear “choose a safer target.” Maybe a useful drill to combat this is to award a point to the other team if my shot lands in but too close to the line. Stop rewarding high-risk tennis with praise and points.

    But no worries–there’s no chance I’ll ever play truly conservative tennis. It’s just not in my nature and I wouldn’t find the game as fun that way. I’m only shooting for a little more consistency.

Let me know what you think!

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