When teaching various tactical scenarios to players, I often ask them the following question: “what do you think is the most common rally length in tennis”? Less experienced players jump to answers like 7 or 9 while those that have been playing for many years reply with 3, 4 or 5. Do YOU know what it is? When it comes to professional tennis, according to Brain Game Tennis, it’s 1. Can you believe that? The most common rally length (called the mode, in statistics) is 1! That’s a service ace or a service winner (i.e. the returner makes an error off the serve). This happens about 30% of the time. The next most common rally length is 3 - that’s a serve, return and one more shot.
Note, if the last shot in the rally is an error, it doesn’t count towards the shot total.
A Brief Look at Some Tennis Stats
Here are some more interesting stats from today’s game (Brain Game Tennis). Rally lengths of 0-4 shots are the most common, on average, and occur about 70% of the time (on both the male and female circuits). Rally lengths between 5-8 shots occur about 20% of the time and the remaining 9 and up rally lengths occur about 10% of the time. While this perhaps isn’t as surprising on the pro tour - players are stronger, faster, more explosive - you wouldn’t think these stats would hold true on the junior tour would you? They’re not the same (table 1 below) as the pros but 0-4 still wins out.
The easy conclusion would be to train scenarios that favor 0-4 outcomes, right!? That’s the serve, return of serve and serve +1 (the 3rd ball in a rally) and return +1 (the 4th ball in a rally). Is it that simple? Does that mean that your players should forego hitting drills that aren’t this short?
A Different Perspective
While I’m a huge proponent of serve and return practice - particularly with junior players who likely don’t perform enough of it - we must be cautious with our inferences of the above data. Why so? Well, for starters, it’s a bit reductionist. The sport of tennis is complex - there’s an enormous cognitive decision making demand, an ever increasing physical demand...oh and it’s pretty technically challenging too. With that said, I am proposing a counter viewpoint - one that suggests, as coaches, that we don’t disregard long rally scenarios and high repetition drills just yet.
My philosophy (and counter viewpoint) contains 3-parts, which I will outline in detail below. But before we get to each of them, I want to reiterate that first strike tennis (or whatever you want to call it), is definitely important. It’s critical in today’s game to have a solid serve (especially on the men’s side). Likewise, the top of the female game is full of players who crush the return. I’m not arguing against the development of these highly valuable skills. I am, however, suggesting that, while a big piece of the puzzle, they are still just a piece of the puzzle. It’s my belief that you won’t win the Australian Open by biasing your practice sessions to 0-4 scenarios only - a full spectrum approach is likely necessary.
The 3 Counter Arguments
#1 - General Stats Equal General Recommendations
Firstly, the data presented above is based on averages. They are taken from hundreds of sets across many matches. There will be matches that fall under this stat and some that creep over it. What do we know from statistics? We know that averages don’t necessarily tell us the whole story. There’s always a range - some players play longer points while other players play shorter points. Let’s use a couple extreme examples to illustrate this point:
Rally Length Breakdown
Ex #1: 2017 Doha Final: Murray vs Djokovic
Ex #2: 2015 Rome Semi-Final: Halep vs. Suarez-Navarro
Data taken from www.tennisabstract.com
What do these various examples tell us? That while most points still remain under 6 shots (almost always over 50% of the time), there are matches where lengthier rallies occur on a more frequent basis. Look at the Djokovic Murray match from Doha above, more than 25% of the points were 10 shots or longer - and who knows how long some of those rallies actually were! By the way, these are just 2 examples, there are many more just like this (some even more extreme).
I’m aware that many will argue in favor of practices and drills that reflect 0 to 4 shots - this is even true now in junior/academy settings - but it’s my belief that we should be wary of abandoning all other scenarios and tactics (especially in these settings). A 2017 study (Bayer et al), brings this point to life. A number of stats from elite Austrian U10s and U12s were analyzed and revealed that rally durations were much higher in these age groups (10 seconds compared to 6 on the ATP tour), aces were almost non-existent and breaks of serve occurred more than 50% of the time. This can be interpreted in many ways - one of them being that tactics in these youngsters might in fact be driving the stats but another view might be that they just haven't developed the skills yet to be a) aggressive and b) consistent in their decision making and execution.
While many try to instil practices in juniors as if they were pros, I don’t believe it’s that simple. Over a 4 year span from 2010-2014, I ran a provincial junior tournament every weekend from May to Oct. While I don’t have the exact stats, here’s an observation I had made at that time. Rally lengths were short when a) one player was much better than his opponent or b) players were making easy mistakes (which actually happens at the elite levels too!). When it came to the semis and finals of many of these events, rally lengths would be significantly longer as a result of more even playing grounds (like Halep and Suarez from above).
I have a few questions regarding these stats. What about 2nd serve rally lengths? The data doesn’t distinguish between these 2 scenarios and I’d argue that because of the varied dynamics of 1st and 2nd serve points, the data would also change.
Further to that, what are the stats when players are ahead? You know those times Federer gets on a roll and reels off ace after ace and winner after winner. Or what about when the match is really tight? Do the numbers still hold true?
Do you see my point? It’s my belief that, while a player’s primary style of play should dictate how they prepare for matches, they should still spend considerable time training ALL of the various tactical scenarios that may (or may not) occur.
#2 - Outliers Matter
So what happens when you get into a match and a rally goes beyond 4 shots? Let’s say that you take the stats from above as 100% factual and true - in other words, 90% of all points in tennis will occur between 0-8 shots so 90% of the time, I’m going to practice those points. Is 10% of your time devoted to longer rallies enough to develop this quality (don’t worry we’ll answer this question in reason #3)?
Let’s take the scenario one step further - it’s 30-30 deep in the 3rd set of the women’s final and the rally extends beyond 8 strokes? From a tactical perspective, can you cope? There’s a physical implication to all of this as well. You’re not accustomed to these longer rallies so not only are they tough to deal with when you’re in them they’re also tough to recover from...and the more often they occur, between point recoveries likewise increase in difficulty. What about the mental battle going on in a match? Your opponent figures out you can’t play long rallies - both tactically and physically. Now they just have to battle to get out of the first 4-8 shots. While yes this may be a tough proposition when you have a fantastic serve but guess what, sometimes your serve will be off! Then what?
Even if long rallies don’t occur as frequently as they once did, it could be a big momentum shifting moment in the match when they do occur - will you be ready?
#3 - Acquiring Skill Requires Repetition
There’s a reason why every single top player stands at the back of the court and belts ball after ball. And as Anders Ericsson (expert on motor learning and skill acquisition) has said in the past, we should always be looking at the practice patterns and habits of elite performers - not matter what the domain. Can you imagine telling Maria Sharapova that she’s not allowed to hit more than 4 shots in a row during a practice session? Do you think she’ll gain any rhythm or timing that way? I know this is an extreme example but it illustrates my point.
Recall from a previous post that there are a number of different practice types - block and random are the prevailing two. Both have their place and should be implemented depending on the time of year, development stage of the player, player strengths & weaknesses etc. For instance, if a player can hit the cover off the ball, but can’t do so consistently, does it really matter? A recent conversation I had with a top touring coach said this about the differences between top tour players and juniors or those on the future circuit - “pro players put a lot of attention and care into keeping the ball in play during practice sessions”. In other words, they don’t just blast away, there’s a base of consistency that not only lays the foundation for future training but also breeds confidence.
As the coach then, it’s necessary to train consistency in various ways - by feeding that player some balls in a more closed chain environment. When that’s mastered, they can move to a live ball drill with little movement, then with a realistic recovery, then playing baseline points, then playing points with serves and returns etc. The progression doesn't have to be like this to a T, but realize that there are progressions and there’s a reason that historically, tennis players have used repetition to develop their strokes.
I’m not an expert in tennis analytics, although I do believe stats have a story to tell - but it may not be the whole story. The data from above can absolutely help coaches, but digging deeper into each specific player's game, the match-up on a given day, the weather conditions, court surface, ball type and so on will provide a lot of insight into how points will be played (and ultimately won).
Practice serves, practice returns, practice it all. Let's figure out what our players need and tailor practices to meet those needs. Junior players must develop all facets of their game, including point lengths that reflect all possible outcomes. Pro players likely have a particular gamestyle in mind when they play - these should be reinforced in practice settings - although other point variations, that they normally wouldn’t do, should also be trained. Just because Serena Williams relies on a big serve and forehand, doesn’t mean she cannot play rallies that go beyond 10 shots!
It's my belief that all skills and tactics need to be revisited on a systematic basis throughout the year and life span of a player. This, according to experts in skill acquisition, is what fosters mastery.