How to Watch Tennis: Trust Number, Not Eyes

By Craig O’Shannessy

I want you to watch the United States Open through a different lens, with an analytical eye, replacing guesswork and opinion with patterns and percentages.

I want to help you see what matters for winning a tennis match, and what does not. Once your tennis vision has improved, you will understand the game better — and play it better.

The first thing to understand is that you are not watching only one match; you are watching two. The obvious match is the one during the point, but the more important match happens between the points. For a lot of players at the Open, the allotment of 20 seconds between points is simply an inconvenience. It should not be.

Statistics from the 2015 United States Open.


At some stage of every match, a mental storm cloud rolls in. It could come in the first game, or in the final one, or at any point in between. A bad line call, an exhausting point, the sun, wind and shadows, or a failure to convert a break point can make players reach for the self-destruct button.


The reality of tennis, at all levels of the game, is that players beat themselves much more than their opponents do.

The practice court looks nothing like a match court. In practice, players rarely miss. In a match, they miss all the time. In the men’s and women’s draws at last year’s United States Open, more than two out of three points ended with errors.

There are two types of errors: forced and unforced. Forced errors are more important because a player has control over them. Unforced errors are gifts. Players know they will get some from their opponents, but they have no idea how many.

In addition, do not be enamored of winners. Quite often, the player that hits more winners loses the match. Reducing errors is the easier pathway to victory.

The New York Times


The length of a point matters a lot more than fans may think. The first four shots, including the serve and the return, are by far the most important segment. You may think the point is just getting started, but it is often already over.

During last year’s United States Open, 71 percent of the points in men’s singles matches and 66 percent of the points on the women’s side came on rallies of four shots or fewer. Only 9 percent of men’s points and 11 percent of women’s points came on rallies of nine shots or more.

The New York Times


And first-strike points have a much greater correlation to a match’s result than extended rallies do, even though those rallies dominate the practice court. At last year’s Open, the players who won more zero-to-four-shot rallies won the match 90 percent of the time in men’s singles and 83 percent of the time in women’s. Players who had the advantage on rallies of nine-plus shots won the match only 56 percent of the time on the men’s side and 59 percent on the women’s.

Once a point begins, there are three primary strategies: baseline, approach, and serve and volley.

The New York Times


This post was originally published on The New York Times.