Tennis Math and Settling for Quality

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I sat on the couch, browsing on our laptops for Christmas present ideas for our daughter. (Well, I think he was browsing. He may have been reading about the Patriots.)

In my searching, I came across a ten-foot-long phone charger. I’d never thought about how inadequate the dinky iPhone chargers are until I saw this one. My daughter doesn’t have many outlets in her apartment. With this mega-charger, she’d be able to sit on the couch with her phone while it’s plugged in across the room. Brilliant!

What’s more, this cable was zebra striped! So cute! (If you’re going to give a functional item as a gift, you need to jazz it up a little.) I mentioned it to my husband as I started to order it.

Turns out, he’d seen another long charger a few weeks earlier. He forwarded me the Amazon link. His charger was all black and not the slightest bit cute. But it did have great reviews–80% five stars.

I clicked back to my zebra cable and scrolled through the comments. I believe “STAY AWAY!” and “Cheap crap” represents a fair sampling of reviewer sentiment.

“But…zebra,” I appealed to my husband.

He shrugged, without looking up from his laptop. “What can I tell you, Deb? Sometimes you just have to settle for quality.”

Naturally, we got the sensible cable and not the fun one.

And then I began obsessing over this phrase: Settle for quality.

In tennis, quality is high-percentage tennis. I’ve said it before–quality’s a little boring. But quality beats cheap zebra crap every time.

Think about an amazing tennis match on television. If you’re like me, you probably imagine sizzling returns that clip the inside of the line, breathtaking volleys that clip the side of the line, cracking overheads that clip the baseline. Basically, a lot of line clipping.

But how much risk do the pros really take? Are they really going for the lines, or do they settle for quality? I decided to get my nerd on and find out.

I sat down with my trusty iPad in front of the television and watched the ATP Finals doubles match between Murray/Soares and Farah/Cabal. These aren’t just skilled doubles players. These are doubles pairs that have finished in the top eight in the world. These guys should be blowing us away with their shot-making, right?

I studied the placement of each shot in the first set, noting safe shots (those that bounced at least two feet from a line) and high-risk shots. Then I did some basic math. Here’s what the numbers tell us:

There was a total of 55 points played.

In 34 of those 55 points, every shot in the rally was hit to a big, safe target (two feet or more from a line). In other words, 61.8% of the points were played 100% low-risk.

But 13 of those points were decided by service winners–serves so good that the receiver couldn’t get the ball back in play. Those should be excluded from the calculation. That leaves us with 55 minus 13, or 42 total points. That means 80.9% (34/42) of points with a rally were played with all conservative shots.

Out of the entire set, only 8 rallies included a high-risk shot. Let’s look at what happened in each of those:

  1. Team A hit a high-risk shot close to line. Team B managed to get it back. Team A then netted the next volley. LOST
  2. Receiver hit a makeable return long. LOST
  3. Same scenario as #1. LOST
  4. Player hit a high-risk shot close to the line and WON
  5. Team A hit a high-risk shot close to the line. Team B got it and hit a winner off it. LOST
  6. Player hit a high-risk shot close to the line and WON
  7. Player hit a high-risk shot close to the line and WON
  8. Player hit a high-risk volley past the line and LOST

The team who went for the higher risk shot ended up losing the point 5 times out of 8.

In only 3 of the 42 rallying points did a team hit a high-risk shot and win. That’s a mere 7% of the points.

Admittedly, this was only one set out of the thousands that the pros play every year–a pretty small sample size. Still, I found this exercise instructive in two ways.

One, the pros win their matches with bread-and-butter tennis. There may be a highlight reel shot here or there, but the bulk of a match is decided by steady, high-percentage play.

And two, although the pros hit winners, they’re usually safe winners. That’s something I didn’t even know existed–a safe winner.

In other words, these elite professionals settle for quality. Maybe I should, too.

7 thoughts on “Tennis Math and Settling for Quality

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  1. You can’t be boring! But safe isn’t always boring. I think you can be safe and still have a lot of fun. For example, placing a shot where an opponent can’t get to it, but “safely” inside the lines. That’s harder with 2 people covering the court in doubles than it is in singles. But you use a ton of strategy that isn’t always tied to high-risk shots.

    What struck me about your analysis is how often the team making the high-risk shot lose if that shot got returned. Do they let their guard down after making a shot they think won’t get returned?

  2. Yes! I noticed that as well. I do think there’s an element of letting down your guard. When I hit a shot that I think is a sure winner—because its so close to the line—I find myself thinking “hey, look at that awesome shot I hit.” Then I’m not ready for it come back.

    Another thing that happened in this pro match is that two of the shots that came back were “easy.” And sometimes we don’t put as much attention on those as we should.

    I do that stuff all the time. It’s interesting to see the pros have those little lapses too.

  3. Wonderful analysis, Deb! And your evidence-based presentation makes for a very convincing message. At the beginning of a match I am excited and I tend to aim every shot wherever I see empty space. I make a lot of unforced error‘s and lose a lot of points that way. Then I usually remember to hit save shots and keep it in court and things go a lot better.
    yesterday I was “boring.“ I just kept returning every serve cross court, and deep; and I was amazed at how we just kept winning every point. I’m a believer! Now, if I can only remember to do it, and do it sooner.

    1. Hey Karla! I’m glad you liked this post–I have to say, it’s one of my favorites. I must be secretly a numbers person. I do find stats compelling.

      You could easily have been describing my own game. I, too, am a believer, but it’s still hard for me to rein in my go-for-broke style. I’m learning. Slowly. Very slowly.

      After I posted this blog, someone asked me if I thought it was the same with singles. I didn’t do this type of analysis for it, but it does seem that most professional singles players hit closer to the lines than what I described. I’m not sure why–possibly it’s a function of everyone playing from the baseline nowadays. It’s hard to create angles from the baseline, so maybe the singles player hits closer to the lines to create open space for winning shots. If the singles player were inside the baseline, he’d have the advantage of taking time away from the opponent plus sharper angles to work with. He wouldn’t need to hit so close to the lines.

      Sorry, I’m off on a tangent. Hope you’re still in FL. We have a lot of shoveling to do this morning…

  4. Yes, still in Florida for month number 3. It was 88 degrees during my match today! Will be back to Needham in early April.

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