How Many Shots Should You Miss To Play Well?

Nikolay Davydenko forehand
Nikolay Davydenko plays forcing tennis with smart risk ratio - Photo by AP
Your immediate answer to the question in the title may be: zero of course.

I shouldn't miss any shots if I want to play well.

The "should" word is maybe not the right one but it can give you the right guideline on how to play good tennis.

You will in fact miss some shots when you play your best tennis.

And if you don't miss any shots, then you are not playing to the best of your ability.

Let's take two extreme examples first:

1. You play with zero risk (0%) of the shot and make sure that you put every ball in play.

You don't aim low over the net, because that increases the chances of hitting the net and you don't play close to the lines, because you may hit the ball out. You also don't play fast since you can control the ball better if you play slow.

What is the risk of losing the match if you play against a tennis player similar to your level?

If I were to play myself, where the other "me" would play 100% safe tennis, I'd probably win 99% of the matches by playing smart aggressive tennis.

I am not saying that I would win 99% of the points, but I would win 99% of the matches (actually, I'd probably win 100% of the matches...). So the other "me" would have a 99% risk of losing the match.

2. You play with extremely high risk shots (90% misses).

You aim low over the net, play very fast and aim for the lines.

What is the risk of losing the match if playing against a tennis player of equal level who plays smart tennis? It's probably 99% again.

As you can see, the risk of missing the shot can be 0% (you play extremely safe) and you'll lose 99% of the matches, and the risk of missing the shot can be 90% (you play extremely aggressive) and you'll again lose 99% of the matches.

In the first case, you'll lose the match because your opponent will outplay you. That's because your shots are too easy and your opponent has enough time to set up for shots and play accurately. In the long term, he will win most of the points.

In the second case, you'll lose the match because you will make too many mistakes. Your opponent will not beat you - you'll beat yourself.

In order to play good tennis, your shots must not be too easy for your opponent and not too risky - which would cause too many mistakes.

You will develop a feel for this risk ratio through playing lots of matches but it's also good to have some idea of the risk of a good tennis player missing a shot.

The Risk Of Missing A Shot Of ATP Players

I've done an analysis of the first set of the Umag 2009 final between Nikolay Davydenko and Juan Carlos Ferrero to find out their risks of missing a shot.

How can you work out this ratio? You need to count all the shots made in the set and divide them by unforced errors.

Unforced errors are mostly comitted because of a high level of risk. The other main reason for making an unforced error in tennis is mental activity during the execution (fear, doubt, changing your mind, etc.) but in my opinion, at the ATP level, most unforced errors happen because the player has to play with some degree of risk otherwise his shots will be too easy for his opponent and he'll be immediately put under pressure.

So here's what happened in the first set (the second set was 6:0 for Davydenko and is not a good example to analyze...):

Both players hit around 108 baseline shots each, where I didn't count the serves and returns. I wanted to know the risk factor of a stroke in a rally.

Davydenko made 16 unforced errors and Ferrero 14 in the first set.

So the risk of Davydenko missing a shot was 16 / 108 = 14.8% and the risk of Ferrero missing a shot was 12.9%.

In other words, Davydenko hit 108 shots and missed 16 of them and Ferrero hit 108 shots and missed 14 of them.

Davydenko played with higher risk and this eventually showed in the number of winners; Davydenko hit 12 and Ferrero hit 6. There were also many forced errors which official statistics don't count but this is in fact one of the most important statistics to look at.

A winner typically suggests a higher level of risk because the opponent could not touch the ball. A forced error happens when you hit a forcing shot that your opponent can touch / reach but is forced into making a mistake because he is in a tough situation.

A shot that forces an error is typically played with optimal risk ratio; still good enough to force an error and still safe enough not to miss many shots like that in the long term.

Note; this analysis serves as an example. There are sets and matches played where the player with lower risk ratio wins. The main question of this article is what's a typical risk percentage of missing a shot of a good tennis player.

As you can see, the two players who played in the final of ATP tournament on clay, played with a risk factor of missing a shot of around 13% to 15%.

That's why my initial title of the article included the word "should". You should miss some shots or in other words, you should play with some degree of risk in order to force your opponent into trouble and not give him easy balls.

Of course, if you play with a certain degree of risk, you will miss some shots. The key is to find the optimal risk factor with which you make the game difficult for your opponent but at the same time not miss too many shots.

This will increase the probability of winning (or decrease the risk of losing).

Decrease The Risk Of Losing The Match On Big Points

A situation where most players fail to realize this are "big points" - or pressure situations. That may be 40:40 or 30:40 or it may be serving for the match, serving to stay in the match, playing a tie-break and so on.

At those big points, your initial mindset will probably be that you don't want to miss and waste this opportunity. The fear of missing and losing will arise and your response will be that you'll start playing safer.

You will decrease your risk of missing the shot - becasue at those key moments we may not be able to think so clearly. You'll see the danger of missing the shot but you probably won't see the danger of losing the point because your shots will be too easy for your opponent.

You may decrease your risk of missing from 12% to 5% but at the same time, you will increase your risk of losing the match from around 50% (if you're playing an opponent of equal level) to 70% or even more.

In the long term, you will lose more matches playing safe on big points than you would if you played with your optimal risk factor - which is maybe 12% or 15%.

Remember that the risk of missing the shot is NOT the same as the risk of losing the match. The only thing that counts at the end of the match is who won and not who made less unforced errors.

Your goal throughout the match is to decrease your risk of losing the match, which may mean that you have to increase your risk of missing a shot in order to force the game more.

Is there a situation where it's wise to lower your risk of missing the shot at big points?

Yes; when you see that your opponent is feeling the pressure and making lots of mistakes. But if your opponent is not making more mistakes at big points, playing safer tennis will not work in the long term.

See how Federer kept the ball in play (he also pressured Nikolay at one point with a backhand down the line!) at 6:5 and waited until Davydenko went for too much (the point starts at 0:58):

This video also shows many forcing shots at key points; you'll see that both players play with relatively high degree of risk on big points.

Unfortunately, most videos on Youtube are highlights and therefore you don't see errors. But they do happen - probably more than 10% of shots made...

Ferrero made 2 unforced errors less than Davydenko and yet he lost the match. That's because he didn't put enough pressure on Davydenko (which can be seen from only 6 winners compared to 12 from Davydenko). Moreover, Davydenko had more time to set up for the shot and he also didn't have to move that much since Ferrero's shots were not close enough to the lines.

That allowed Davydenko to force the play and win in the long term. His slightly higher risk factor shots created 16 unforced errors but also 12 winners and many forced errors by Ferrero.

So, if the next time you play a match you feel the fear of missing a shot creeping in, remember that if you lower your risk of missing a shot (and play safer) you will increase your risk of losing the match in the long term.

Don't allow the shortsighted fear of missing a shot blind you and cause another defeat. Stick to your game and know that you "should" miss some shots in order to play good tennis.



Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.

serena williams lessons