Winning The Risk Game In Tennis


One of the most challenging aspects of tennis strategies and tactics is to choose the appropriate amount of risk. Not only that, but the player must constantly adapt the level of risk to the current circumstances - score, opponent's shot, position in the court, type of incoming ball and so on.

But there is one thing many players miss during the game in all this risk management - that there are always two risks present:
  • the risk of missing the shot
  • and the risk of losing the point
At first glance they seem to be about the same thing. But they're not.

Let's see this in an example:

Andy Roddick's first serve percentage in this year (until July 14th 2008) was 67%, and when he put the first serve in, he won 80% of the points.

In other words, the risk of missing the shot was 33% (100 - 67), and the risk of losing the point when the ball was in was only 20% (100 - 80).

That means, that Andy Roddick had 0.67 x 0,80 = 53,6% of winning the point when serving the first serve. That also means that he was facing 46,7% risk (probability) of losing the point on the first serve. (considering the total, with serves in and with faults)

On his second serve, Andy's percentage of hitting the ball in was 90%, but he only won 56% of the points when the ball was in. So the risk of missing the shot was only 10%, and the risk of losing the point (when the ball was in) was 44%.

Andy had a 0.90 x 0.56 = 50,4% chance of winning the point when he served a second serve and of course a 49,6% risk of losing the point on the second serve (considering the total, with serves in and faults).

As you can see, it would be better if Andy would serve his first serve in all the time. He would win 53,6% of points as opposed to 50,4% of points when he slowed down the serve.

This is something all great servers know either instinctively, or they actually did the same math as I did here. Just think of Becker, Sampras, Ivanisevic and other big servers - they used to "risk" their second serve and served it almost as their first.

But it only seemed that they risked. Even the knowledgeable commentators describing that as a risk were wrong.

They were only seeing the first risk - the risk of missing the shot - which in fact was greater if the second serve was served faster.

But what they did not understand and many players do not is that if you increase the risk of the shot you also decrease the risk of losing the point! (the faster ball landing closer to the line is much more difficult for the opponent!)

Of course, this only holds true to a certain extent.

If you risk too much, then the probability of hitting the ball in will be so small, that even if you win every point, the total probaility will be too small. For example, if Andy Roddick would hit his first serve with full power every time (and trust me, he does not!), he would land in maybe only 20% of the serves and win 95% of the points.

The combined probability of winning the point is then 0.20 x 0.95 = 19%. Obviously, the risk of missing the shot is too big.

How can you use this information in your game?

1. Become aware of two risks - the risk of missing the shot and the risk of losing the point.
Experiment with the risk of losing the shot and notice how the probability of winning the point changes.

Try both extremes and a couple of levels of risk in between. Play a few points risking nothing - just play the ball safely in the middle of the court. See what happens.

Then attack every shot and aim it close to the lines. What happens to the probability of winning the point when you hit the ball in? What is the total probability of winning the point?

Thirdly, look for the right level of aggressive play which is still relatively safe but also wins points.

2. Evaluate your level of risk until now - were you playing:
  • too safe - having a very low risk of missing the shot but high risk of losing the point?
  • too risky - having a high risk of missing the shot and also high risk of losing the point?
Experiment and adjust the levels of risk in certain situations in the match - serve, return, approach, passing shot, baseline exchange, ...

So why does Nadal beat Federer so easily on clay?

Because he can play with low risk of missing the shot and still have a low risk of losing the point. If Federer starts playing with a low risk of missing the shot (not attacking, not playing close to the lines, not coming in) he will have a high risk of losing the point against Nadal.

So Roger actually has two choices:
  • he improves his attacking game so much, that even when he plays closer to the lines with higher speed he will still have a very good percentage of shots in
  • he improves his low risk game to such an extent that Nadal will not be able to dominate from the baseline. So he will be able to neutralize Nadal - prevent him from attacking while not risking much at the same time. That is exactly what Nadal does to Federer.



3. See if you can find yourself in one or more of these situations:

- hitting the first serve with full power and tapping the ball slowly on the second serve
- pushing the ball back from the baseline and never making a mistake
- going for the outright winner on a short ball
- hitting volleys so fast the the opponent cannot even play the next shot
- when in defense, trying to escape the pressure with a big shot

Think for each of these (and add some of yours): what is the risk of missing the shot and what is the risk of losing the point?

4. Always think long term - the only thing that really matters is the long term probability of winning the point.
If you can get that one at over 50%, that means that your opponent's probability will be lower than 50%. That means that in the long term you'll win.


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