The Most Important Shot in Tennis

On The Court with Coach Mazza

In my experience, it is not uncommon for a typical one hour general “club” tennis lesson to consist of 50 minutes of feeding and rallying from the baseline, then hitting 10 minutes of serves to finish while the “pro” nonchalantly stands next to the basket and shoots the breeze with their student.  If I had a nickel for every time I witnessed a pair or group of players go out and only rally from the baseline for the entirety of their practice, I could buy my own private island and retire today.

I am not denying that rallying from the baseline is an important skill for tennis players to possess – it absolutely is. A junior player, particularly in the beginning stages of their tennis career, must develop shot tolerance, consistency, patience, discipline, and a passion for “Tennis 101” – keep the ball in the court! However, I think there is commonly too much emphasis placed on just that skill alone, and other much more important shots and skills often get overlooked.

I recently came across an article from Craig O’ Shannessy which really hit the nail on the head and unveiled some key match statistics from the 2015 Australian Open Men’s and Women’s Main Singles Draws. I think many people will find several of the findings quite surprising. You can find the link to the entire articlehere:

RALLY LENGTH NICKNAME MEN WOMEN
0-4 Shots First Strike 70% 66%
5-8 Shots Patterns of Play 20% 23%
9+ Shots Extended Rallies 10% 11%

*Chart taken from Craig O’ Shannessy’s article entitled “The First Four Shots” from ausopen.org (Published on Jan. 15, 2016)

The best players in the world are the best for numerous reasons, one of which being that most of them can keep the ball in play all day, especially on the practice court. So why are these percentages of 0-4 shot points so high? One of the main reasons is their serve game is that good! They keep their first serve percentage up, win a large amount of their first serve points (often by ace, service winner, or forcing a weak return), and keep their double faults (and free points in general) to a minimum. John Isner led the ATP Tour in 2015 with a 91% serve hold rate, and there is a long list of players who aren’t very far behind that number.

I was curious myself as to how closely these statistical trends applied to the junior level. I proceeded to go and chart an evening’s worth of points played by some Colorado state level juniors. My initial thought was that it would probably be about the same, although for slightly different reasons than the grand slam level pros. Boy, was I wrong – the percentage of points that lasted between 0-4 shots was even higher (85%)! However, my thinking was accurate as to why I thought most of the junior points would last so briefly. Their serve game wasn’t a strength, but rather a liability. Low first serve percentages, high occurrences of double faults and careless errors on the first shots after the serve were pretty much the norm. Return games weren’t that much better – missed returns and careless first shot errors after the return were abundant as well.

A player who has serve troubles is like having a car without tires – they won’t get to where they want to go. At HAT, we realize how important these first initial shots of each point are and that is why we dedicate at least 45 minutes solely to the serve and return aspects of both singles and doubles to every 3-hour practice.

Drill Ideas:

  • 85% Singles Drill (Borrowed from Daniel Hangstefer, Metro State University Denver Men’s and Women’s Head Coach):
    • Player 1 serves and must make their second ball. Player 2 returns and must make their second ball. 4 shots total must be made – serve, return, 3rd ball, 4th ball. Stop the point after the 4th ball is made. Player 1 does 5 sets serving on both the deuce and ad side, then switch roles with Player 2. The goal for each player is to make 85% of their first two shots (17/20 total).
  • 85% Doubles Drill:
    • To become a good doubles player, one must be able to make their serve and 1st shot and their return and 1st shot, and execute them well and consistently.
    • A total of 4 shots must be made – serve, return, next 2 volleys. Stop the point after the returner’s 1st volley is made. Each player does 5 sets serving on both the deuce and ad side, and 5 sets returns on both the deuce and ad side. The goal for each player is to make 85% of their first two shots (17/20 total).
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