What Wins Tennis Matches?

Posted by Brodie under: Strategy

14 Aug 2013

Wozniacki Angry

What wins tennis matches?

And why do we struggle to talk about it?

Other sports tend to have very obvious and clear idea on how you win – it’s typically score more goals/runs/points than the other team. Therefore the end game is to both try to score as much as possible, and prevent the other team from scoring as much as possible.

In theory, tennis is essentially the same thing – win more points (then games, then sets) than the opponent.

In sports like football (soccer), hockey, and particularly baseball, American football and basketball, there is an incredibly clear change that happens between offense and defense. When your team has the ball/puck, try to score. When your team does not have the ball/puck, take up the appropriate defensive duties. In the previously mentioned five sports, three of them actually have a break to allow time for this change to happen.

The goal of tennis, clearly, is far more complex than that. Every point ends in only two possible outcomes – you won or you lost the point. So while the end game of other sports is to score and prevent scoring, how specifically does one win a point (and essentially doing both “offensive” and “defensive” duties simultaneously)?

The player who last hit the ball inside the court wins.

An incredibly obvious, but good reminder.

In tennis, we like to talk about a lot of different things a player can do to win points. “Control the point”, “boss the point”, “construct points”, “be aggressive”, “going for my shots”. What exactly do these things look like when put into practice? Are they necessarily the right idea? Do they manifest themselves in the same ways across all players? The aim of the game is simply to be the last person to hit the ball inside the court. Let’s look at a couple of more practical ideas.

Caroline Wozniacki would not likely be a player to come out with the above canned responses, at least not very often. Let’s put aside our “she could improve by doing x” for a moment, as ideally all players could improve in different ways. Watching her courtside, it was incredible to see not only how quickly she can move around the court, but how long of a stretch she can go without missing. That counts for a lot. Wozniacki will win and does win a lot of points simply by being the last player to hit the ball inside the court.

Aga Radwanska talked in press in Toronto after her loss to Serena Williams about how she was “trying to be aggressive”. She talked a little bit about how she would like to try to be aggressive and largely had no idea on how she might beat Serena in the future.

My question might be – who said being aggressive (particularly trying to hit the ball into space and side to side) is necessarily a good thing?

Radwanska has a very particular set of skills, very few of which would lead me to think that her attempting to be aggressive (hitting the ball into space) would work. Long story short, she isn’t a powerful player from the baseline, and won’t become one over night – so why attempt to play with that particular mindset?

Ultimately, I think our vocabulary particularly lacks when discussing what players must do to win, and creates biases in attitudes. I think we as a tennis community struggle with these buzz words because they are either a) an incorrect assumption or b) not properly explained to us (at what point does one begin to “construct” a point?). Tennis particularly lacks in comparison to other sports, both tactically and statistically. Tennis has only been played in this way, with new racquet technology, for about 20 years. Sports like football (soccer) have had essentially the same rules since the modern offside rule was implemented, and have had a long history of tactical development for around 90 years. Talent evaluation as well as the ability to think of the game in a more macro way in regards to formations and the manipulation of space on the field has been a long time coming.

I don’t pretend to know all of the answers, and I don’t blame other people for knowing. However, we need to help each other accurately describe what “point construction” actually looks like for individual players, the patterns certain players use to be successful, and talk about what decisions players are making on court to help or hinder their chance of winning compared to their general talent and ability. We need to get away from cliches like “bossing the point” and talk about what that literally looks like, keeping in mind that one player is only half the story of a match. So,

What wins tennis matches?

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