Playing with Purpose

RogerFederer-originalartworkby(C)AngeloARossetti-2015by Angelo A. Rossetti, USPTA Elite/PTR Professional, USTA HP & Mental Skills Certified & 2x Guinness World Records™ holder 

Average Rally Length
In analyzing tennis statistics over the past several years, I’ve realized that most rallies on the ATP and WTA pro tour average 4 shots or less, even on slower surfaces like clay. Ironically, as a tennis teaching professional, we have stressed consistency, movement to get to more balls and to extend rallies, basically outlasting your opponent. But looking at these numbers would tell a different story as it relates to strategy.

It has less to do with consistency and more to do with who is brave enough to take a risk or strike first. Play each and every shot with purpose. Consider playing each shot as a set up shot. In other words, thought and care need to be put into every shot starting with the first serve and the return of serve. The mentality of “just get the return back” or “don’t double fault, just get the serve in” is no longer effective at most levels.

Making every shot a set up shot is relative. If a beginning player has a weak serve, then just getting the serve in might be the best strategy based on his or her level. But once a player has command over most shots then gearing towards setting up points become critical. In other words, the earlier you can set up the point to close it out, the more of a positive outcome is in store.

First Strike Tennis
Now, am I saying that you have to go for a winner on every shot? No, not at all. Quite the contrary, what I am saying is that you need to play a new form of “percentage tennis. “ Playing “consistently aggressive”, “aggressively consistent”, “drawing first blood” or it is known in tennis circles as “first strike tennis.” 0 to 5 shots can be considered first strike tennis, 5 to 10 shots can be considered playing patterns or above 10 shots is consistent play. Although there are some rallies that last 20 shots, these are becoming fewer and further between. Looking at data from three matches, Australian Open 2010 semi-final between Serena Williams and Li Na, 2009 French Open Round of 16 between Robin Söderling and Rafael Nadal and the 2007 ATP Men’s Singles Final between David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal, the average rally lengths were all below 6 shots; 4.2, 5.7 and 5.4 average rally lengths respectively. The longest rally was not more than 20 shots for each of these matches except the match on clay, which was 25. (source: Tennis Patterns: Player, Match and Beyond by Vis, Kosters and Terroba

So why is that? The game is becoming more of a power and athletic contest and because of that you don’t have the luxury as a player to just get your serve in or block your return back. You have to have purpose not only behind your serve but your serve +1 or second shot needs to be premeditated as well. The returns need to be pre-selected and pre-planned as well, with the optimal return being deep to the server’s feet which give that person less reaction time and the sharp angle and down the line shots being the more risky or change-ups shots. On the serve you are typically looking to “serve out wide and hit to the other side.” This happens to be one of Roger Federer’s most used patterns on his serve. Serving to the body or the T are best used as change ups, at least in singles. There is a difference between doubles and singles, where doubles is won up the middle, while singles down the line tends to be the first strike shot of preference.

With all of that said, playing with purpose means to play each shot with the next shot in mind. Every shot needs to be handled with TLC (tender loving care) and have the next shot in mind. There is no luxury anymore in biding your time waiting for a short ball that may never come. I’ve found that the more skillful the players, the average rally length goes down and the less skillful the players the average rally length goes up. That’s because each player doesn’t have enough weapons or confidence to end the point sooner. The average rally length on the tour isn’t so low because there is more serving and volleying but on the contrary the return game has become much better as well as the serve that they are both used as set up shots. Some people have the notion that I am going to “grip it and rip it” and try to go for winners and that that makes tennis more enjoyable and that might be true for the male species. Each shot should be a set up to shot to close out the point in one or more than one shot. So that out wide serve to the deuce side happens to set up your next shot to the open court rather than the serve itself ending the point.

Winners should just happen organically but not necessarily planned. Don’t go for an ace but rather hit an aggressive serve out wide to set up the second shot (serve +1) shot to the “other side.” If your serve is hit strong enough, placed well enough or your opponent guesses wrong it can turn into an ace or service winner but that was a pleasant surprise rather than the expected outcome.

“Win the point with your set up shot not your last shot in the rally.” This is counter to common sense, which says that the last shot “wins” the point. But in actuality, the more effective way to define winning the point is being the first to take a risk, draw first blood – which is commonly known as “first strike tennis.” Whoever makes the most effective first strike (makes the set up shot) will more often than not win the point. The phrase “first strike” comes from the fact that you are the first one to throw a punch, the first one to play an aggressive shot, the first one to take a risk, the first one to hit closer to the lines, the first one to hit with more power or you are the first one to hit deeper. So, play with purpose, create a set up shot with every one of your shots and you’ll be able to close out more points and more matches.

I always welcome feedback at angeloarossetti @ gmail .com.

You can learn more about a couple of tennis GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS™ that I have been a part of:

FOX News Story
Inspirational Tennis Story: Tennis Begins with Love
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Playing with Purpose

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