Beginners Guide to Tennis Tactics & Analysis

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Tennis is undeniably one of the most interesting and engaging sports in the world. 

That said, it can often be hard to follow, given the pace and speed of any given match. This is exactly why we’ve put together this guide; to allow you to fully understand and analyze a game of tennis from beginning to end.

This 10 step guide will show you how to analyze the tactics and performance of tennis players throughout a match.  

This analysis can then be further used to enhance and develop your own game.

Let’s get to it.

#1 Pick a Player

The first point of this series may be the most obvious, yet most crucial. The easiest way to begin to analyze a match is to pick a player and stick with them for a good 10-15 minute period or more.

Tennis is a rather mesmerizing sport. The ball is in constant movement and the action and decision making is incredibly quick. Attempting to watch only the ball (or both players) will very quickly get you no where – there is too much going on. Simply focusing on one player will quickly reveal patterns of play, and will even tell you something about how their opponent is reacting as well.

I tend to start with the underdog. This is two fold. It can be a bit trickier to tell exactly what a complete player is doing, and they often have fewer problems to solve if they’re winning. An underdog likely has a less complete game and are going to either have to successfully adapt or not. It can often be much more obvious if they are or aren’t.

Lastly, embrace the awkward camera angle! You know what I mean.

The one where it drops down. Most fans usually complain that it’s more difficult to see the opposing player, but I love this angle. It gives you a closer look at the footwork and also gives an excellent view of how high the ball is above the net and how it is entering into the hitting zone of the player directly in front of you. These things tend to be far less obvious on the up top angle.

That’s it! The following 9 parts will tell you what exactly to look for as you focus on that solitary player. If you’ve never attempted to watch tennis from the view point of one player, you will likely pick some of these up on your own.

#2 Attacking a Wing

Now that you’ve picked a single player to focus on while watching a match, you have likely started to notice patterns already. One of the easiest thing to watch for is how your player attacks an opposing player’s wing (forehand, backhand).

Particularly on the men’s side, the backhand is often the weaker or shots, and by some margins. It can be less obvious, but often players will constantly hit to an opponents backhand, especially if they have to deal with a tricky deep or high bouncing ball.

Other times this can result in brutal abuse. Nadal/Federer is the greatest example. Even in their older matches, Nadal was often able to consistently hit to Federer’s backhand with incredible patience; he knew he wouldn’t be burned by it, and could wait for a ball he could punish.

Other times, especially in the women’s game, it will be more of a dare. Radwanska began hitting nearly everything to Sloane Stephens in their 2013 Miami match. Sloane had trouble creating off this wing, and started making errors as she pressed. She quickly got frustrated and made even more errors. Even though hitting to this side might not have always been the best choice in the rally, it was a safe and effective one.

This particular choice is almost entirely a conscious decision by the player, and therefore can be a pretty easy one to spot at any point of a match.

#3 Unforced Errors

Truth be told, this one isn’t entirely to do with tactics. When we say “tactics”, we mean the strategies and shot making players are making in order to try to gain an upper hand on the opponent, and successfully win more points.

However, if we zoom out, we as people analyzing a match are not only looking at decision making but execution – what are all of the factors that are playing into one opponent beating another?

Obviously, unforced errors and mistakes of all kind need to be taken into account. The easiest place to start is frequency.

Is the player you’re watching making a particular amount of unforced errors off of a certain wing? You can often tell a bit about the error by where they’re trying to aim the shot. For example, if it is on the backhand and they’re simply missing crosscourt into the middle of the net, it is likely a poor error. If they’re trying to be aggressive and go down the line, the decision might not be a terrible one.

Unfortunately, there is no steadfast rule over what exactly constitutes and “unforced” error. The truth is, unforced errors always come from some sort of exchange of shots, and you can start to deduce things about the pattern of play from them.

For example, if the player is making a lot of backhand errors, where on the court are they making them? Are they continually being dragged wide, and while unbalanced, plopping it into the net? This would likely go down as an unforced error.

The type of ball delivered from the opponent may also have something to do with it. Are the forehand errors of the player you are watching continually off of deep, driving balls into the corner?

Suddenly, you as the analyst have started to deduce things about the other player you aren’t even largely focusing on – they are doing an excellent job of keeping the ball deep, for example, and that is keeping the player you are watching off balance and causing them to hit more forehand unforced errors.

Unforced errors can often have as much to do with tactics as winners.

#4 Creation and Use of Space

It’s about to get juicy, my friends.

So far I’ve asked you to do three things; focus on one player, see if they are aiming their shots to a particular wing of an opponent, and notice any trends in unforced errors this player is making.

These were really all a shortcut to you making larger observations about the match you are watching.

Tennis is nothing more than a repeated series of decisions based on the manipulation of space.

Huh?

Ultimately, if a player is attempting to aim most of their shots at their opponents backhand, you’ve quickly noticed certain patterns. The opponent is going to have to try different things to adapt to this, and the player you’re keeping a close eye will have to react to this, and so on and so forth.

Noticing unforced errors off a certain wing is the opposite approach. Perhaps you’re noticing your player making a lot of forehand errors because they are being pushed out wide consistently. There’s something to that.

That something is the heart of the rally and the consistency in which a certain player finds an upper hand in a rally. In other words, how a player manages to put themself in a winning position.

At this point you’re likely thinking “all of this is a bit of flakey, fairy language, isn’t it?”. A bit. It’s entirely different for each player and each match. Here’s two, predictable examples.

Maria Sharapova’s game is incredibly straight forward. Obviously, we know Masha as an intense power player. But stop and think about where she hits the ball. Sharapova almost always works the ball side to side, without fail. The speed at which she hits the ball allows her to dominate opponents.

However, those who can get to these will often find interesting angles in which they are hitting the ball. I would often describe the court as being very “open”, there are a lot of angles and space being created. Sharapova struggled at times in her return as she had lost some pace on the ball. Players who could run down the shots often found those angles, and Sharapova found herself sucked into side to rallies that her movement struggled with.

Players such as Ferrer (and Errani, who are very similar players) tend to keep the ball more central. They know that they are incapable of coming up with wild shots running side to side, or with massive thumping backhands down the line.

By keeping the ball more central, they keep rallies longer and try to wisely rely on consistency and fitness. A player like Ferrer, however, is often great at recognizing when he has space on a shorter ball and to take advantage of it, largely on a forehand down the line.

Realistically, this makes sense for shorter players. Low percentage shots such as backhands down the line, or out of position, acute cross court forehands are going to extremely difficult to pull off. That’s not to say they’re impossible.

A player like Dominika Cibulkova is shorter but attempts to play like Sharapova; she pushes the ball side to side and “opens” up the court significantly. She leaves herself more chances to smack winners, but also leaves herself more exposed. It might also explain why she’s more likely to experience hot and cold runs of form.

Recognizing and appreciating this takes time. The six points to follow this all directly relate back to this one. For example, how does the spin a player use effect the way they and their opponent use space?

If you have any questions on this, drop them in the comments!

#5 Pace of Shot

Congratulations! You’ve made it this far. You’ve picked a player and done some serious analysis of how they construct points. Ultimately, the following six points are really those relating to the precious four, particularly the creation and use of space section. It’s all related. However, sometimes it’s the finer things that can go unnoticed, and are the most important.

Pace (the speed the ball travels off of a player’s racquet) is a fascinating aspect of tactics.

Obviously, hitting the ball hard is, largely, a good thing. This is obvious to everyone. It allows the opponent less time, and eventually makes it easier for a player to simply hit the ball past an opponent. I don’t need to sit here and explain this to you. But what of pace that gets missed?

A player who hits the ball hard is often automatically described as an aggressive player. Likewise, less power players are usually described as defenders or returners, etc. This is often fair, but can be a dangerous leap of faith.

Juan Martin del Potro has one of the biggest forehands the men’s game has ever seen. He serves big and is all around a large, imposing human being. It might be easy to label Delpo as a “power” player, which largely implies that he’s an aggressive player.

Truth be told, Delpo is not an incredibly aggressive player (less so than Rafa, Fed or Djokovic). At times, he can even be lulled into poor bouts of overly defensive form. He likes to have pockets of space to attack, but isn’t always the one to create those.

That said, his defence can also be excellent. It’s a type of game he can play, and you will almost never hear his defence mentioned.

On the other side of the coin, power players can often hurt themselves with their pace.

The harder you hit the ball the less time you have until you must hit the next ball. While playing an aggressive, big on acute angles will “open” up the court, an extreme pace may only compound the problem.

This is where the idea of “counterpunching” truly comes from in my mind. A more defensive, better-moving player uses the acute angles and the reduced time between strokes against their opponent; the other player quickly finds themself on the run – a problem they largely created on their own.

This can be particularly common with bigger hitting women’s players outside of the top 5-10. They’re used to hitting big and aggressively. However, they can suddenly found themselves run ragged, side to side against an opponent able to expose the space in the court. Compounded with unforced errors, it can get out of control quickly.

There are things these big-hitting players can do to fix this, and you’ll find out in part 6!

#6 Depth

While pace has an obvious effect on patterns and tactics, depth is often a far less talked about aspect. This is likely from two factors. 1) how a player looks when hitting the ball does not give a good indicator of depth, and 2) overhead angles make it difficult to pick up on the effect of depth.

Let’s start with that first point. Pace is an easy thing to pick up on. Those who hit the ball hard tend to show it, and it’s easy to see the ball fly. While those who hit the ball hard typically hit it with great depth, they don’t always. Likewise, those who don’t hit the ball as hard don’t necessarily consistently hit it short (Kerber is an excellent example).

Secondly, overhead views can make it very difficult to pick up how exactly deep shots are effecting opponents, pinning them back, or getting them off balance. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think players appear as if they’re hitting the ball in a generally similar way from up top, when they most definitely are not.

Anyone who has ever played tennis, even badly and for fun, knows the difficulty of depth. The ball might not be hit particularly hard, but it sneaks up on you. You need to move quickly and shorten up your swing. While taking the time to do all of this, the chance of you hitting the ball effectively, let alone over the net and in between the proper lines is greatly reduced.

Professional players are far better at this than you or I, but they experience this same phenomenon. Again, most people hate the lower angles, but I love them. They give you a glimpse into things you will notice when seeing a match live, particularly if you’re very close.

If we continue down the path of focusing on one player, you should quickly pick up whether or not the depth of shot from the opponent is an issue or not. I remember when I first really started to look for this, it was a revelation. As a personal example, I remember Juan Monaco going bonkers against Mardy Fish last year on the grandstand of Toronto.

I was front row, right behind Pico. Fish wasn’t necessarily doing much spectacularly, but he was keeping the ball very deep and it was obvious how short Monaco’s swing had become and how frustrated he quickly became. Fish was in his head.

Depth can affect how many errors a player hits, their ability to hit quality balls back or their position behind the baseline. Likewise, depth from the player you are watching may be able to mask other issues, such as the ability to create pace (again, Angelique Kerber does this incredibly well).

Lastly, it goes without saying that hitting balls consistently short for no reason is a recipe for disaster against top players in any universe or tour.

At your next live tennis tournament, hit an outer court and observe how players use and deal with the depth, and how it affects their approach to other shots and tactics.

#7 Height/Slice

Roger Federer vs. Igor Andreev, Round 1, Australian Open, 2010. A match I remember well.

Early in the first set of the match, Federer’s backhand is terrible. Not only is it placed badly, it is hit well over the net which causes it to bounce high. The ball sits up for Andreev, and he is able to hammer it down, into the court as easy as he likes. Andreev takes the first set rather convincingly.

Naturally, this would not last forever. Federer managed to use his slice to pin Andreev into the corner and eventually exhaust and doom the poor Russian.

In my opinion, the height of the ball coming off the bounce may be one of the most underrated parts of the game in terms of how much it is noticed. Watch this:

By this point in the second set, Federer has realized his looping backhands from defensive positions simply won’t work. He goes to the slice, and the ball is kept low. Instead of it bouncing up into Andreev’s wheelhouse, the ball is around his waist, and he is forced to hit it crosscourt over the lowest part of the net. This quickly becomes an excellent example of Federer counter punching space (as mentioned in previous segments). Federer is simply waiting for Andreev to go up the line with the forehand. His slices are so low that the impatient shot from Andreev is terrible, and leaves him stranded in the middle of the court, suddenly at the mercy of Federer. Roger puts him out of his misery with an excellent forehand up the line.

The rest of this clip is simply highlights but does at times illustrate how Federer uses his slice as an effective defensive tool, as well as how he is sometimes burned by backhands that don’t go anywhere and sit up wonderfully for Andreev.

Federer continues to use this tactic beautifully on grass, and is one of the main reasons he is the greatest grass player of all time. The low height of the ball does not bother him, and his tremendous racquet speed allows him to whip balls up and over the net into deep positions from either wing. A player such as Roberta Vinci is similarly an interesting player to watch. She uses a backhand slice consistently and effectively. How the match plays out can often be up to how her opponent deals with this height and where they place the ball in response to this shot. Height matters.

Of course, height can work in the opposite way as well. Robin Soderling seems like the least likely guy to find great success on clay. A power player, and not a man of incredible speed, footwork, or defense. However…

Clay is obviously a slower surface and slows a power player’s shots down. However, the ball is slower from opponents’ shots and still bounces to a nice height. The above point is an excellent example of why Soderling is so good on clay. The ball slows down and sits up; a perfect combo for a guy with lumbering footwork looking to clobber the ooze out of the ball. Similarly, even when he is caught out at one point, Federer fails to put him away (where he likely would have on a faster surface), Soderling plays a little defense and then clobbers a beautiful, unplayable backhand down the line. Opponents’ weapons are often neutralized by the surface, and longer rallies simply mean more balls for Soderling to punish and control the rally from.

Height can also explain why bigger, power-hitting players have more success on a slow, high bouncing clay than a fast, low bouncing grass. Despite grass being fast, the low bounces kill taller players who struggle to scoop out low bounces, and the speed of the court exposes their movement in longer rallies – all exact opposites of the Soderling points above. Juan Martin del Potro immediately comes to mind. It also might help to explain why Ivan Lendl managed to win three Roland Garros titles and not one Wimbledon title (despite making two finals). Food for thought.

Lastly, Rafael Nadal is an excellent example of how height can be used to punish opponents. His spinning, cross-court forehand bounces up to incredible levels. Against a right-handed player, this would be to the backhand. If the player is shorter (hello, David Ferrer), it is even more devastating. These players are forced to reach and simply chop it back over the net. Against Rafael Nadal, you can probably guess how this is going to end.

In summary, the height of the ball is not a serious factor for most players but can be if one player is dramatically altering the height of the ball through slicing, or high bouncing forehands. Surfaces can also greatly alter the height of the ball to the benefit or determent of, particularly tall or short players.

Watch for the height of the ball, and embrace lower angle cameras!

#8 Spin/Conditions

In all honesty, this aspect may be the least significant of all 10, but should not be ignored in extreme cases. It is also something that is almost entirely a mechanical issue that may limit or help a player and is not necessarily a strategical decision. In other words, it is something we should keep an eye on, but should not expect to see a player largely tamper with.

It doesn’t take even the most amateur of tennis player to realize there are many ways to hit a tennis ball. How one holds a racquet, how one approaches the ball, where the intended target is all effect how and where the ball go. While almost all of the previous segments to this were a question of “where” the ball was hit, this section is purely a “how”

If you’ve never played tennis, had a tennis coach, or seen a video like this, it may come as a bit of a revelation. That’s okay! In full motion, shots look almost like a baseball swing – the ball comes into the zone, the hitter makes contact, and what happens after is largely unimportant.

Baseball players, however, hit the ball when it is level with their body at a perpendicular angle. This is how tennis used to be played. A quick look around on outdoor courts on a Sunday afternoon will show you that many people still hit the ball this way (perhaps without realizing it). There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, it’s just not the most effective and creates very little spin (the face of the racquet is flat).

In the video above, you will notice Federer’s stance is quite open. He is at more of a 45 degree angle to the ball than a 90 degree angle. And of course, the most important aspect of the shot is his wrist. His stance means that he makes contact with the ball in front of him, and his wrist is already moving before the ball comes to him. It allows him to almost “sweep” over the ball. This is where topspin comes from – the angle at which the racquet is when it hits the ball, and the movement of the wrist. Of course, Federer is probably the best in the history of humanity at making this shot look incredibly simple.

Of course, players are rarely thinking that they need to be putting more or less spin on the ball, they’re simply thinking about where they want to hit it and attempting to execute the best action to make that happen. The instance where this is likely to be a conscious decision is in difficult weather.

Likely the funniest thing I have ever seen in a press conference was in Toronto in 2011. Serena Williams had just defeated Julia Goerges in a pretty tight match out on a windy centre court. A reporter asked if Serena had to try to hit the ball with less spin in order to keep the wind from effecting it. “Oh honey, you don’t watch much tennis, do you?” was her response. She then went on to explain on why this isn’t the case. In the wind, more spin (rotations of the ball) help it cut through the elements and keep the ball’s intended path true. 

With less spin, the wind can force the ball into spinning in different ways and effect its path. In this case, players will make a conscious decision to add more spin to their shots (and serves). To see how this might be a disadvantage to a player, simply see the other 9 sections.

To a lesser extent, the humidity and feel of a place might effect a player’s effectiveness depending on how they hit the ball.

Lastly, one of the most interesting parts of Patrick McEnroe’s book “Hardcourt Confidential” was a small note that has stuck with me. He argued that the largest difference between the men’s and women’s game was not down to physical strength or speed, but wrist strength.

The wrist strength needed to snap the wrist through the ball to create immense top spin (nevermind Nadal or Federer levels) is incredible. Anyone who has played tennis for a solid hour and tried to put a good amount of spin on a ball will tell you that their hand felt like it might fall off by the end of it. When we see Nadal “muscle” in a defensive, spinning forehand it is not down entirely to his arm strength, it’s own to what his wrist can handle.

This is in no way intended to be sexist, and as a smaller guy, I can confidently say there are simply some people built stronger (of course training can help). It also might explain why some bigger hitting WTA players struggle to spin balls in while running and on the defensive – it might not be a plausible op

#9 Serve

The serve is a tricky thing to analyze with large, blanket statements. 

It normally needs to be looked at for who specifically is serving, how they follow said serve up, and its general effectiveness on the surface. Here are a couple of things we do know:

1) Men Serve Bigger Than Women

This may be the most obvious thing you hear all day, but it is sometimes an important reminder. There is a main, simple reason that men tend to have an easier time holding serve than women – the serve. This isn’t just strength either, it’s height. John Isner clearly has a much bigger target to aim at than Sara Errani. It’s a heck of a lot easier to hold serve when you can get a free point or two every go around.

2) First Serve Percentage Is Important

The second most obvious thing you will hear today? In the good old days of ridiculously fast courts at Wimbledon, it could be nearly impossible to break guys like Pete Sampras. Typically the only time it happened was off the back of a few second serve returns – an opportunity to get the racquet on the ball. Not all points are created equally in tennis, so sometimes a player can hold incredibly easily, but have one poor game and be broken to lose a set. This sometimes can be simply traced to them having a game with a ton of missed first serves. The chances of them winning those points is automatically decreased from the get go.

3) Players Have Habits

One big criticism of Rafael Nadal back in the day was his serving on the ad court. As a lefty, he nearly exclusively slid that serve out wide, which was effective against right-handers who were forced to reach out on their backhand wing. However, it eventually got too predictable, and Nadal eventually changed his habits (though still uses that serve often, and to great effect). That’s just one example. The ATP often does a great job of picking up on these habits with their fancy Hawkeye charts, but see if you can pick them up yourself.

4) The Serve is the First Shot of a Rally

This point is both incredibly obvious and complex. We tend not to view a rally to really start until the ball has been returned, but this is not true. Rallies can unfold in different ways depending on where the ball is served to.

Let’s assume a player gets a decent first serve in, that is still well returned by the other player. If the server goes out wide, they’ve already dragged their opponent out, and the chance of more extreme angles may already begin to appear – there is likely more space to attack on the follow up.

 If the server goes down the middle (assuming it is a good serve) the returner has very little chance to create some sort of angle. These sorts of things vary player to player and match-up to match-up, but are things to think about when watching the habits (and following shots) of a returner.

#10 Return of Serve

I’ve put the return last not because it is necessarily the least important thing, but because it might be the most difficult to interpret at times, at least in my opinion.

 It could also be argued that it is one of the most difficult things for players to really control. Everyone is built differently, and while the return is something one can work on, there is a lot to be said for having naturally good reactions. It is also a bit difficult to fault incredibly tall guys like Isner and Raonic for sometimes struggling to return well.

That said, returning serve, while not always decision based, is something some players definitely do better than others, and is particularly important on the second serve.

Picking out particularly good returners can be a quick and easy way to know who may have a shot against particularly big servers, for example. Some of the statistics on returning at the official ATP site may surprise you.

How can we tell what an ideal return of serve is? Typically, anything that takes away time from an opponent is best. Any combination of deep and flat – what possibly the best returner ever Andre Agassi did consistently – is best.

Overall, it is best to judge a player’s returning ability over a large sample size against various types of opponents and serves. Start by looking at how players return second serves. Are they able to keep the ball deep? Can they hit their return into space to start the rally effectively? Are they able to hit return winners consistently?

From there, move on to returning first serves. This largely has to do with reactions, height, and reach. Furthermore, some players are much more comfortable returning from both wings as well as putting a lot of topspin on the ball to give room for error. Players who hit particularly flat all of the time can struggle returning big, first serves, especially on the women’s side.

The serve and return obviously go hand in hand. If you know the patterns, habits and ability of both players you may be able to predict the start of rallies before the match has even started.

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