Transforming Match Play Decision Making

New data suggests that players and coaches might not always be taking the best approach to winning tennis matches. We hear quite often about a player’s need to be ‘consistent’, but what does that really mean? In the minds of many, it means to have long rallies, and increase the number of shots that you can make in a row without missing. We at USATennisCoach held consistency in high esteem. Recently, we were challenged to make a paradigm shift after receiving some data from Craig O’Shannessy in regard to the high percentage of points won in the first four shots. On the ATP tour 70% of points ended within four shots, while on the WTA tour that number is 66%. Of course, high school level players are not professionals, but we are certain from the research conducted by Styrling Strother over the course of 4 years, using 30,000 data points, that in reality the numbers are very similar.


Another major change in our understanding was learning that when a player approaches the net to another player’s backhand, in general they win 63% of the points. In combination with the facts that the most common rally length for men on the ATP Tour is 1 shot, followed by 3 shots, and then 2 shots, for the women on the WTA Tour is 1 shot, followed by 2 shots, and then 3 shots.   We believe it’s time to transform our players game planning and decision making, just as we are transforming the practice court. How do we do that?

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

First, we start with a players relative strengths and weaknesses. Do they have a strong and reliable serve? Do they have a good second serve? If they have a weakness that will make things difficult in the first few shots, we work on those. The same applies to the return of serve. These are the two most important shots in the game, and will be determining factors in how many 1 or 2 shot rallies there will be in a given match. After the return, how well does the player hit the next ball after they have served or returned? Teaching recovery skills and an intelligent plan of attack on those two shots are the next highest in priority. Players who can seize control of a point from the first shot have a huge edge over those who cannot. But, it’s not that simple.
On the day of the match anything can happen. The wind can blow. The player can have an off day offensively. Their opponent may match up very well against their favorite offensive shots. What to do?

What we are offering here is a template for decision making. Is your player winning many more of the 1 and 2 shot rallies than the opponent? Don’t change anything! If your player is losing many more of the 1 and 2 shot rallies over the course of a set, then late in a set or early in the next set it may be wise to make a change. Strive for a higher first serve percentage to reduce double faults, and increase the percentage of overall points won. Also, a player can shift to a much more defensive return of serve strategy, simply seeking to put the ball in play deeply to the baseline, rather than risky errors on the first shot and thus giving up easy points.

Bill and Players 2

Smart Tennis Development

One of Bill’s players serves as a great example of being smart over the course of his tennis development, and making specific game plan decisions on the day, while keeping an eye on adjustments mid match. When Bill and Shreyas first started working together, Shreyas was hitting ‘The Academy Ball’, a high deep topspin shot up the middle of the court. He was really only a counterpunching baseliner, afraid to miss and taught to be ‘consistent’. Bill started by asking Shreyas to hit less topspin, so that his shots could penetrate the court more quickly. As Shreyas matured, his serve became more of a weapon, and added some net play to his arsenal. Over the period of a few months he then switched to a one handed backhand and began to come to the net more and more. Shreyas did not have the biggest forehand, but he could hit some strong ones, and it did not break down under pressure. But…

In his senior year in his high school career, he was the top player in the league, facing the second best and rapidly improving player. Daniel had been very motivated to beat Shreyas and assume the top spot. We admired Daniel and his competitiveness, but he had never come close to taking a set from Shreyas until their final match up of the regular season. Daniel was determined not to give up quick points to Shreyas. He returned the serves, and made his own, and seemed to be playing very evenly in the first four shots, a segment that Shreyas had previously dominated. Daniel dominated the longer rally lengths of 5-8 shots and 9+ shots, winning the first set. Shreyas was in a predicament, on the day he had lost some confidence in his offensive game, especially after an early break in the second set. “Coach, I am just not playing very well.” “Shreyas, it’s OK, just compete really hard and…”. Together, Bill and Shreyas decided that he should revert to his previous game style, and give up as few errors as possible, simply willing himself not to miss. Shreyas came to win the second set, and after going down a break in the third set, he finally won in a third set tiebreaker, which also decided the team match 4-3. Which is a nice story, except that Daniel and Shreyas would meet again in the league championship final a few weeks later.

Post Match Discussion

After the match, Shreyas and Bill talked about how great that match was, but that they didn’t want to repeat of it. So Shreyas did two things: 1. He put a lot of effort into improving his quickness on court, and 2. He sharpened up his offensive game. As a result, in the finals there was a moment when Daniel had hit a shot that the entire crowd thought for sure was going to be a winner and they began to clap. When Shreyas got there and returned the ball, they had to stop clapping. When they saw that Shreyas had hit a better shot back for a winner, most everyone was stunned. Shreyas did not try to be more consistent, he worked to be better offensively, winning 6-3,6-2 and everyone acknowledging his great play.

As coaches we need to look beyond the fear of losing a point, and go with the percentages of what really wins points.

A story that can be told another time, is when Shreyas became a full time serve and volley player and nearly beat a player who would later become #1 in NorCal. We will save that for another day.


In conclusion, consider the first four shots in a point, and whether your player needs to be more offensive, or more defensive in general. Develop the offense! On the day, they may need to be more offensive based on the situation at hand.

Bill Patton, Executive Director is the Author of The Art of Coaching High School Tennis and Visual Training for Tennis.

Styrling Strother’s  Book    7 On Court Strategies to Enter Your Play State was released July, 2017



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