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Here’s Some Tennis Advice: Keep It Short

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In recent a long time, many courts, including the grass at Wimbledon and the indoor hard courts just like the ones hosting the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin, Italy, have been drained of a few of their speed.

One goal was reducing the wham-bam serve-and-volley style that had dominated the lads’s tour, but was boring to television audiences, replacing it with the drama of hard-hitting baseline rallies enhanced by modern improvements in racket and string technology.

And yet …

Most rallies remain short. And winning those rapid-fire exchanges stays probably the most direct path to victory.

Since data began being kept in 2015, rallies lasting 4 shots or fewer typically account for near 70 percent of each match, said Craig O’Shannessy, a technique coach who has change into a proselytizer for ending points quickly. Rallies of 5 to eight shots account for around 20 percent, while only about 10 percent of points feature rallies lasting a minimum of nine shots.

A very powerful revelation, he said, was the correlation between winning the quickies and winning matches. Across 4 2015 Grand Slams and the 2016 United States Open, 91 percent of players who won the vast majority of shorter rallies won the match.

“That is the No. 1-indicator of winning and losing,” he said. (For girls, who win fewer points on their serve, the correlation was still about 81 percent.)

In contrast, the player who dominated within the five-to-eight-shot category won the match 66 percent of the time, while winning nine-plus-points rallies led to victory only 55 percent of the time.

“The numbers are consistent,” O’Shannessy said. “In the event you don’t win the short points, you’re on the following plane out.”

Given those statistics, O’Shannessy argued that development for junior players and training in the professionals should shift emphasis.

“The old way of coaching is to hit as many balls for as long a period as possible,” he said, however the serve, the return and even the following two shots are rarely hit from the baseline spots where players hit traditional rally balls.

Much of Roger Federer’s greatness stemmed from his ability to win service points quickly. O’Shannessy credited Federer with popularizing the serve-plus-one strategy. He was not an ace machine, but held serve more actually because of a powerful, well-placed serve that usually yielded a weak return to midcourt he could pummel together with his forehand.

O’Shannessy said Rafael Nadal then followed suit, and that O’Shannessy emphasized the two-shot strategy when he coached Novak Djokovic from 2017-19. “More players are actually taking a look at the two-shot sequence relatively than simply attempting to hit serves that don’t come back.”

Across the online, many Grand Slams have been won by one of the best returners, like Andre Agassi, Andy Murray, Nadal and Djokovic, said Tom Shimada, a coach on the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in South Carolina.

Yet O’Shannesssy and Patrick McEnroe said that returning had long been probably the most neglected aspect of practice. McEnroe, a director on the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in Latest York, said that while practicing rallies was still needed, now his school placed more emphasis on the serve return.

“For years, my brother would watch kids hitting ground strokes and say, ‘Why aren’t we serving and returning more,’” McEnroe said of the varsity’s namesake. “He wasn’t fallacious.”

McEnroe said his school also placed more emphasis on the server driving the primary shot after the return into the open court. That serve-plus-one shot is usually missed, Shimada said, with high-level junior coaches too focused on getting serve mechanics perfect.

“You’re not going to all the time hit an ace, so you want to be ready for the primary shot,” he said.

He wants more emphasis on the primary 4 shots, but doesn’t want it to go too far. “I don’t want players forcing shots simply to get it under the four-shot barrier or saying, ‘I don’t have to work on hitting 10 balls in a row because those points don’t matter.’”

Complicating things, O’Shannessy added, is that younger players, lacking serve power, must play longer rallies: only 55 percent of rallies within the 10- to 12-year-old matches end in 4 shots or less; the share creeps up with each age group through the school circuit. “You have to develop a more aggressive game as you become old, however it’s harder to maneuver away out of your winning style,” Shimada said.

O’Shannessy said ambitious junior players must start the transition around age 16 “once they’re strong enough to hit a greater serve.”

On the skilled level, Shimada said returners were often defensive against the speed of first serves in order that they could earn more wins quickly by learning to attack second serves higher.

“Moreover, in case you start punishing the second serve, it puts more pressure on the opposite guy to make his first serve, and he may get tighter,” Shimada said.

McEnroe said the professionals were adjusting. “We used to simply practice serves, but now you see the lads doing what the ladies have done for years — one guy serves while the opposite practices their return. And so they’re doing it daily.”

O’Shannessy said awareness of the analytics had caused the common variety of short rallies to dip by a percentage point or two because players now were preparing to defend against stronger opening salvos. “We shined a highlight on this data so players understand it and are actually surviving it more,” he said.

While winning in the primary 4 shots is crucial, McEnroe argued that “you could have to be smart concerning the analytics.”

He noted that against the world’s best players in a tournament just like the ATP Finals, attempting to win too quickly could cause its own problems.

“These guys bring the pressure to you, so chances are you’ll attempt to do an excessive amount of early in the purpose,” he said, explaining that attempting to finish off an elite player in the primary 4 shots on every point may cause a player to commit too many unforced errors.

Moreover, the greater importance of winning the shorter rallies will be rendered moot late in a set or match on an enormous point when Djokovic, Nadal or Daniil Medvedev go into “lockdown mode” and change into relentless when that matters most.

“In fact those stats matter, but being a terrific tennis player means understanding what to do in crucial points,” he said. “Tennis is all about risk and reward, however it’s a high quality line.”

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