On Tactics: Tennis, Football, and the Evolution of Winning

Posted by Brodie under: Strategy

2 Jul 2012

I’ve always liked strategy. Whether it was growing up playing the turn based Heroes of Might and Magic, the real time strategy Age of Empires, or running from the dinner table at age 10 to watch curling or baseball, it intrigued me. How could a player or team make the correct decisions and maximize the position they were in to ensure victory?

In the past few years, I have found myself further drawn to soccer, or as hereafter referred to, football (since you actually use your feet). Strategy, formations, and the combination of which generally referred to as tactics has continued to draw my interest as I have learned of its effect on the game. It has even brought me to purchase and read the wonderful history of tactics by Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid. As I have worked my way through his book, I have come to realize some of the similarities in philosophies of football and tennis tactics.

To start, let me start by saying that football and tennis, as well as their tactics, are in no way similar and never will be. Instead, I would argue that the fluidity and strategy of both sports are similar, and the way the human condition manifests itself within them has evolved in a similar way.

Those familiar with football can skip this paragraph. Those who need a quick catch up, this is for you. In football, a formation is the way a team plans to organize itself on the field of play. When written out, these formations always disregard the goalkeeper but instead list all “outfield” players. The first number stands for the players furthest back, and the last number stands for the players furthest forward. As seen below, a 4-3-3 would be four defenders, 3 midfielders, and 3 forwards. Something more complex such as a 4-1-2-1-2 would mean four defenders, a defending midfielder, two midfielders, an attacking midfielder and two strikers. Below are examples of each:

In theory, football is a simple sport. There are two nets, and you need to score more goals than your opponent to win. Much like we often ask the question “so, how do I win?” when learning a new game, in the beginning, the emphasis in football was on the goal scoring. Formations reflected this attitude. Formations were a standard 2-3-5 shape and eventually 3-2-2-3 (also known as the W-M). These were incredibly offense driven and the sole purpose of them was to achieve the perceived name of the game: scoring goals.

Football have history on their side. Tactics as we know them today, are approximately 90 years old and are studied across the globe. The modern tennis game (considering racquet technology) may only be 30 or at most 40 years old. Much like tactics are different for every team, tactics must be different for every tennis player. At the same time, our understanding of how tennis strategy works, particularly on average as community, is largely misunderstood or unknown.

Due to technology and various other reasons, the outlook of tennis was not and is still not entirely different. The emphasis tends to fall on what to do when having the ball (serving) as opposed to what to do without it (returning). In reality, holding serve is technically no more important than breaking serve; a game is a game. But human nature is to manipulate what is under our immediate control, and so the focus was on the strategy of serve and volleying. As far back as is known all the way into the Sampras domination of the 90′s, and on rare occasion still today, the strategy was used. Simply put, hit a big first serve and rush to the net with reckless abandon to punish returns and cut off angles to end points quickly. Before modern racquet technology it was an incredibly effective tactic.

For years, powerful tennis players thought in the same way those of the early football players planned. The name of the game was to score more goals, and this meant doing the best job of what was in your control (offense and goal scoring). Tennis players thought the same way. “So, how do I win?” Early racquet technology meant it was essentially impossible to put top spin on the ball and create extreme angles, so serving and volleying made the most sense, but the tactic hardly belonged to a single generation.

While Borg, McEnroe, Lendl and others in the open era enjoyed the strategy, so did successful players of the 1990s. Pete Sampras was the best player of a generation, and on the back of modern racquet technology, served bomb after bomb to dominate opponents and claim a then record fourteen major titles. It was the 2-3-5 of tennis. As long as you could hold serve, your chances in the tiebreak were much higher, and tennis is about winning sets, not just points. Likewise, a 2-3-5 formation emphasizes offense and forwards, and assumes that the team with the best forwards will win. On serve, it functioned without regard of your opponent and intended to maximize the amount of control a player could have over a point from the beginning.

However, the signs were always there that this tactic may not survive forever. Players tended to be lumped into “serve and volleyers” or “baseliners”. By this time, serving and volleying had already become a less successful strategy on slower clay courts, but players had begun to do find success on faster surfaces without serving and volleying, and even on grass. For Andre Agassi, it might not have been out of strategy, but necessity. Without a big serve, holding serve was never a given, so return games became even more important. “Back then the big servers had an advantage, but if a player could execute a first return you were able to take control of the point,” says Agassi. “For me, it was very hard without a big serve, so I had to take my chances.”

In 1992, Agassi took his chances and won his only Wimbledon title. It was a victory for the baseliners and those who didn’t have a big serve. Holding serve was always important, but breaking serve, particularly for Agassi, was just if not more important.

However, in 2000, no one was able to truly grasp the significance of Marat Safin’s upset of Sampras in the US Open final. Perhaps we still fail to. Though I remember watching the match as a youngster, I have since watched it. It is a ceremonial victory for the returner. While Sampras had lost to great returners such as Agassi before and was hardly in the prime of his career during this match, he was the heavy favourite. Safin was simply ruthless on the return. He was able to return the pace with interest as well as take advantage of the angles that Sampras himself was creating by rushing to net. Net rushing always created risk, and was never a flawless tactic, but it seemed nearly suicidal against a player able to take advantage of so many openings with devastating power.

Of course, Sampras was still a fantastic player and was successful in most service games. But the ability to return some of Sampras’ serves with interest, even today, is truly staggering. On a fast service, tennis will always be about going for your shots. But with serve and volleying slowly exiting the game and the increase of baseline rallies, the culture of the game was shifting.

In a nutshell, starting with some of the earliest variations of the 2-3-5, teams also realized that football was not simply a one sided sport. In other words, while scoring goals was important for success, preventing the opposing team from scoring could also help your team achieve that almighty goal of finishing the match with more goals (changes to the rules also helped this mentality). Eventually, two of the forwards would begin to drop back, to create somewhat of a 2-3-2-3, and then another “midfielder” would drop back in order to mark (or defend) one of the three forwards, to create the 3-2-2-3. Much like in tennis, the “serve and volley” of formations, 2-3-5, died off as teams were able to adapt and defeat it tactically. Suddenly, the obvious advantage of rushing five forwards up against two defenders did not reap the obvious advantages, and teams were forced to adapt. In the modern game, formations tend to be far more balanced and far less offensively minded, with three, typically four defenders at the back.

In football, with 22 players on the field, everyone is constantly playing defense and offense at the same time. With the ball, positioning is key in order to try to advance down the field to create scoring chances, or prevent a counter in case the ball is lost. Likewise, on defense, positioning is key to obviously prevent a goal, but likewise in what speed and fashion to reclaiming the ball from the opponent. For example, an advanced midfielder may serve a creative influence for the forwards, but also be expected to mark an opposing player (see Xavi and Pirlo in the Euro final, for example). Clearly, with 20 outfield players continuously impacting the forward and backward movement of the opposite team, every movement is influential.

At first glance, tennis appears more like a sport such as baseball or American football. It is a continuous stop and start, there is no clock, and there could be a perceived switch from offense (serving) and defense (returning). In truth, this is an oversimplification. In the early days of serve and volleying, and still today, the name of the game is trying to find a way to pass the opponent at the net. With the pattern of play already dictated the second the server rushes the net, the role of both players is significantly different. While serving is an obvious advantage and effects how a point is started, in a baseline rally, it matters little who served once the ball is put into play as both players are positioned evenly. Suddenly, where to place the ball and how to hit it become less obvious as both players jockey to get on top in the point. The effect a player has on a point is constantly both offensive and defensive. It will determine where the opponent will move, but it will also induce a set of likely returns from the opponent and dictate how the defense of that ball should be played and on the cycle goes.

I would argue in football and tennis, the constant struggle to find the correct balance of focusing on scoring goals (going for shots) versus preventing them (playing defensively) is larger and more pronounced than other sports. In football, a focus on going forward also means more players up the pitch, increasing the likelihood of conceding a counter attack or a goal. Opposite of that, a defensive strategy focuses on putting players “behind the ball” (defensively) which is less likely to yield goals, often focusing on countering the opponent by quickly getting players forward after gaining possession. The skills of the players, where to position them and the possible formation and skill of the opposing side must all be taken into account.

In an individual sport such as tennis, the factors should be based on the strength of the player and the opponent as well as the surface.

Enter the counter puncher. Let’s focus on Andy Murray, specifically. For those that understand the analogy, he is nearly the 4-5-1 of tennis. Andy finds incredible success on hard courts. He has little problem dealing with the pace of shot of opposing players as well as being a good returner. He often waits for the opponent to make the offensive move either resulting in an error, or to create angles, and then springs his trap. Of course, the technical ability, creativity, and excellent movement are all necessary to play this type of game. On the surface, Murray appears as a defensive player who moves well, but I would argue he is an example of one of the truest counter punchers we have ever seen.

Until recently, his game did not translate well to clay. A defensive strategy is not necessarily terrible on a slower surface with longer points. However, Andy often did little to try to push his opponent around and often found himself on the defense and without a way of turning it into offense (by turning pace back on the opponent, for example). On grass, his ability to deal with pace helps him. However, he largely puts the onus on the opponent to create pace, and thus can get trapped in slicing rallies where he is unsure of himself and unwilling to go for his shots (this was often the case in his third round match against Baghdatis when he began to struggle).

In football, teams that prefer counter attacking tend to sit deeper on the pitch but use their pace to exploit the openings the opponent has given them after reclaiming the ball. It is not a stretch to say that at times, teams like this can struggle when faced with a similarly defensive minded opponent, and have difficulty creating chances when the onus is on them. A modern day example might be Aston Villa, who flourished away from home as teams would send greater numbers forward and they were comfortable exploiting that space. Likewise to Murray, they struggled at home when teams would employ the previously mentioned tactic against them, and the onus was on them to create chances.

The antithesis of this style, as an example, would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. In my opinion, Tsonga is the complete player in a traditional view of the game. He has a huge serve and a massive forehand, with a plus backhand. He moves incredibly well, particularly from back to front, and is incredibly athletic. More than anything, Jo thrives when he plays extremely offensively. Grass is his favourite surface, and it makes sense with how he intends to play. While it can leave him open to be countered by a player such as Murray, for example, on grass he is often hitting so well that the points are over before the opponent has a chance to have a say. The ball is in the back of the net, if you will.

Until recently, Jo has had the exact opposite problem as Murray on clay, yet his game has not translated over on the surface. He is often torn between going for it and sitting back. When going for it doesn’t work, as the surface is slow and neutralizes some of his power, or he begins to make errors, he retreats into a similarly uninventive, passive style. Neither player are able to construct points when their particular preferred tactic does not work.

For this reason, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are true anomalies both through the history of tennis and the modern game. All three players make adjustments to their games according to the surface but few find such success with differing tactics. I would argue that Federer is unlike the other two in that he makes few adjustments to his game depending on the surface, but in fact is so technically gifted and creative that he is able to construct points in his own way that the surface and opponent tend not to matter. Not to stretch things too far, but similar to Barcelona, if you will. Still, even Federer has weaknesses to be exploited.

The adjustments Nadal and Djokovic have made to their games allow them to find success on any surface against any opponent. They can create their own pace, return well, counter well, switch defense to offense and perhaps most importantly, exploit the differences in the surfaces. Truly, the Nadal that won the 2010 US Open had little to do with the Nadal that won the 2010 Roland Garros title. While varying to a lesser degree, the way Djokovic uses his flexibility and pace to create angles is different on hard courts to grass.

Those who study tactics in football argue that matches are won and lost in the tactical setup, fluidity, and discipline of a side. Of course, individual skill, set pieces and other goal scoring opportunities can arise, but largely this influences how chances are created to reach the ultimate aim: scoring more goals.

I would argue that, while not a tennis coach or expert, tactics in tennis tend to be largely underrated and misunderstood. Despite the fact that many say grass is far slower than it used to be, it remains to be an incredibly different surface to hard courts. Often not enough is done to take advantage of a surface according to the strengths of a players game. Likewise, not enough is done to combat another players strengths. Even some of the top players have difficulty adjusting across surfaces or when their original game plan failed to work against an opponent. Obviously, physical ability, technique, mental strength and other factors all come in to the deciding of a match. However, those who are able to think one step ahead of their opponent may find the most success in a sport that continues to evolve and ask more of players than ever before.

The Changeover Podcast:

Episode #56 – Indian Wells Wrap