Monday, May 26, 2014

Losing Good Points

The better you get at tennis, the more comfortable you must become losing well-played points.

Assuming you're playing competitive matches you will lose at least forty percent of the points you play. A sixty-forty match is a beat down. The winner has won fifty percent more points than the loser. Yet the winner has still lost a ton of points. How has he/she lost those points? Well, the better the player the more often the lost points were won by the opponent through good play.

Good players play good points by definition. You don't see tons of double faults and unforced errors in matches between good players. Most points end with one player hitting a fair number of winners and most often forcing errors from the other.

I see a lot of junior players and pretty good college players who have trouble coming to grips with playing a good point a losing it. They even have trouble distinguishing a good point from a bad point independent of who wins the point. Too often the mindset is simple: My point = good point. That's not even close to correct.

Winning tennis, in my view, is the accumulation of small advantages. Like the casino in Las Vegas. In every game in the casino, the house has a slight advantage. People win and lose all the time and the casino draws as much attention as possible to the winners. But over time, the casino's small edge means dollars accrue to the casino, not to the gamblers in aggregate. Same with tennis. Points are won and lost throughout the match. The player who plays slightly better will win the vast majority of matches. That advantage accumulates over points and games. Upsets happen, of course. Better players can have bad days. Lesser players can play above their level. More irritatingly the better player on that day can lose. The player who won more points does sometimes lose the match. But over lots of points and certainly over lots of matches, tennis identifies the better player extremely well.

So the better you get, the more comfortable you have to become playing good points and losing boatloads of them. The trick is not to become too emotional when you lose points. Play good shots. Play good points. You'll get good results over time.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

USTA Player Development

Minor league tennis players want more prize money. The men and women who toil on the Futures circuit play for purses of $10,000 and $15,000 per tournament, unchanged from thirty years ago. They claim that many of them must stop playing prematurely because they cannot fund their continued play from prize money.

Meanwhile, the USTA spends $15 million per year on player development. The $15 million goes mainly toward coaches' salaries and the operation of national and regional training centers.

What if?

What if the USTA got out of the player development business and got back simply to running tournaments and leagues like it did for most of its history? How would that $15 million look in tournament purses for the minor leagues of tennis?

I assume entry fees could cover the operating expenses of minor league tennis tournaments just like they do for tennis tournaments at all other levels. So for $15 million the USTA could double and triple the prize money to $30,000 per event and host 500 more tournaments per year. Or they could raise the purses to the $50,000 paid at many Challenger level events and host 300 of more of those tournaments each year.

Anyone think USTA Player Development's current use of $15 million per year produces more and better professional tennis players than all those tournaments would produce?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Shot Location Charts

I grabbed a few more shot location charts off of recent tennis telecasts. I thought I'd post them here for purposes of easy access.

Gilles Simon

And below, for reference, is Naomi's Circle. Naomi's goal is to hit balls that land outside this circle and inside the court. My error rate shoots through the roof when I try this.  
Naomi's Circle
(More like Naomi's Elipse, roughly (x^2/110.25 ft) + (y^2/225 ft) = 1)
Perhaps such hitting outside this circle is necessary, at times, to succeed at the highest levels of tennis. My collection of ATP Tour players hit far more inside the circle than outside it, but perhaps they are able to hit outside the circle when the opportunity arises. They do hit a lot of shots outside Naomi's Circle.

Here and here are a couple of old posts showing more shot location charts.

What does all this mean for a player? I'm not sure. I think aiming neutral balls outside Naomi's Circle is suicide. Aiming outside Naomi's Circle on easier incoming balls where your goal is to seize control of the point makes more sense – if you are tremendously skilled. I think for the vast majority of tennis players, ever aiming outside Naomi's Circle is a bad idea. Getting an easy ball and taking an enormous risk looks like a recipe for failure to me.

Instead, my philosophy is to aim for the center of the ATP Tour player's shot location scatter diagram. There are two distinct areas they aim for: roughly five feet inside the sideline and six to nine feet inside the baseline on each side. They do not appear to target in the middle very often.

By aiming for these relatively safe targets, players will reduce their own errors. This alone is enough for most players to win most matches. By win, I mean allow the opponent to lose.

For players who need to hit winning shots to win points and matches (less than 20% of all players at a minimum), the conservative targets still make sense. As their shots miss their targets and scatter, roughly half of the misses will be closer to the sidelines and the baseline. Those happy accidents present a chance to take control of the point with more forceful shots, but still aimed for conservative targets. Perhaps those happy accidents will produce balls short enough to attack and finish at the net. Perhaps they will elicit looping replies that can be taken out of the air with overheads or drive volleys from the mid-court.

What about the half of the errors that stray further from the sidelines and the baseline? Well, for 80% or more of players, those are just fine. They are still in play. Sure they may present the opponent an opportunity to take control of the point or attack. But most players lack the skill to do that, so such an opening does them more harm than good! For the highly skilled players, some of these errant shots into the middle of the court will put them on the defensive. That's why we practice defending with looping balls, slices, passing shots, and lobs. Defense is part of tennis, too.

If you aim near the lines, you had better be very highly skilled or comfortable with losing. And from the looks of those charts, the best players in the world only occasionally hit, much less target, near the sidelines. So "very highly skilled" may mean "more skilled than Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer." If that's you, thanks for reading this, and start composing that Hall of Fame induction speech!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Instruction Delusion

We cripple our young, possibly for life, when we tell them "You need an instructor to learn" or "You need a teacher to learn."

Learning takes place all the time in nature. Humans live in nature, even a nature that includes television, computers, iPads, iPhones, video games, etc. So humans learn all the time. A tiny portion of that learning includes explicit instruction. A tiny portion of that explicit instruction involves professional instruction. Yet, our young people today believe with all their hearts that learning takes place only with instruction, that instructors make us better at things. That's a delusion.

Three recent anecdotes from my tennis coaching life illustrate this delusion.

I still consider myself a tennis coach to some degree. That is I organize and participate in tennis practices. I encourage kids to play and to play better. I occasionally offer suggestions and offer my opinion as to how I think players should hit certain shots, position themselves, attack various opponents, and so forth. I also drive players to matches. Of all my coaching duties, only the van driving has measurable value.

However, I do not call myself a tennis teacher and I try to offer as little formal instruction as possible.

I want the kids to play the game on their own terms. I want them to take ownership of their own games. It's their hobby after all. They should play the game in a way that gives them pleasure. I want them to learn to play using the ample feedback that the game and their own bodies provide. For me to override or replace those sources of feedback with the sound of my voice seems profoundly wrong.

So I'm not your typical professional instructor.

I pointed this out recently to a kid I used to teach and he was dumbfounded. We were hitting together and he asked me for some advice about a particular shot. I told him I didn't have any advice to offer.

"Don't you teach tennis?" he asked.
"I try not to," I replied.
"But don't you teach in the groups you run?"
"I try not to," I replied again.
"Then how do kids get better?" he asked.

Then how do kids get better?

Now this kid isn't really a kid any more. He's in his early twenties. He's been fooled into thinking kids only get better at something through instruction. A lifetime of schooling and lessons and teachers has blinded him to the way people learn, the way people get better at doing things. He no longer even considers the possibility of improvement absent teaching.

He's not alone.

The word on the street is that a certain college tennis program "has so many players that nobody improves because players don't get individual attention." This statement is wrong on so many levels. The only part that's true is that the program does have a large number of players – a sign that it's good and popular, obviously. But nothing else in the statement is true. Players do improve. Players do get individual attention due to an extremely dedicated coach.

But I'm not writing about this statement to clear up a misconception about a particular college tennis program. I'm writing about it here because of what it says about the kid making the statement and about the kids perpetuating the message. They have all been fooled into thinking that in order to improve tennis players must receive individual attention. What a hideous, needless handicap.

Finally we have the case of a fifteen year old boy I know. Alex has improved tremendously in tennis over the last couple of years. He only plays a few times a week and has other interests, especially school, but he his very athletic, has good eye-hand coordination, and seems to enjoy playing.  How has he improved? Mostly by watching others and copying what they do to see if it works for him (I overheard him explain this to some kids a few weeks ago). If it works, he adopts it in his game. If not, he skips it. This is called rational trial and error and it has served humanity well for thousands of years. It serves him well, too. Unfortunately, he's continually bombarded by instructions from his parents and from the instructors they pay to instruct him. He comes from a culture that highly values rote instruction and formal schooling. Recently he's been conned into making a change by a professional instructor. "Bill changed my backhand," he told me the other day. Bill is a professional instructor. Note the phrasing, "Bill changed my backhand."

Bill changed a light bulb. Bill replaced my alternator. Bill fixed my water heater.

 Is Alex's backhand like a machine to be fixed? Inanimate? Inorganic? No. Only Alex can change his backhand. Alex has been experimenting with and changing (or not) every aspect of his game for the last couple of years. On his terms. Trial and error. Listening to the feedback from the game and from his own body. He's improved tremendously. Now he's abandoning this process and surrendering to Bill, the professional instructor. Now Bill will change one of his strokes to a form that Bill deems better. The new form may or may not be better. Time will tell. But Alex has become clay for Bill to mold. Alex is now inert, an object to be changed. He has bought into the belief that instructors cause positive change.

We know only one sure winner, or maybe two, in Bill's change of Alex's backhand. Bill. And Bill's banker.

As I said above, we are handicapping children for life by indoctrinating them with the view that all learning must come from teachers, that instruction causes learning. This is a relatively new experiment. Until the late 19th Century, schooling was not compulsory in most of the United States. Formal schooling was uncommon. Children played together and learned from each other (see Free to Learn for more). Formal instruction in hobbies was unheard of. Apprenticeships, watching and learning, were common when it came time to learn a trade, often at fairly early ages. Schooling and formal education were luxury items consumed by the rich. Now we think that schooling and education cause people to become rich. We have the causal arrow backwards. (See the book Antifragile, by Nassim Taleb for discussion of this point).

I find it ironic that this era of hyper-instruction coincides with the internet age. At no time in human history has it been so easy to learn any topic on your own. So while I'm pessimistic about the prospects of generations of people brainwashed to believe they must pay for instruction in order to learn, I am optimistic that instruction and teachers will be essentially free in the future via the internet.

Perhaps this century-long experiment with instruction, teaching, and especially schooling will end thanks to the internet and the worldwide spread of information outside of formal channels.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Every Game Went to Deuce

"I lost 6-0, 6-1, but every game went to deuce."

You got crushed.

Just because every game went to deuce doesn't mean the match was close. It's conceivable it was close, but very, very unlikely. Let's have a look.

If literally every game went to deuce, the minimum number of points per game would be eight, five for the winner and three for the loser. The winner won twelve games (sixty points) and lost one (three points) for a total of sixty-three points. The loser lost twelve games (thirty-six points) and won one (five points) for a total of forty-one points.

So the match consisted of a minimum of sixty-three plus forty-one points. One hundred four points total. The difference between the two players was twenty-two points (sixty-three minus forty-one). Is a twenty-two point margin over one hundred four points significant? You bet it is.

Ask Enrico Fermi, Nobel Prize winning physicist and tennis player. Fermi would not accept that he was the lesser player unless the difference between his games won and his opponent's games won was greater than the square root of the total games played. So a 6-3 set loss was not conclusive evidence that he was the lesser player since the square root of nine is exactly three.

In the above scenario, the Fermi criterion is amply satisfied. The two players played thirteen games. The square root of thirteen is about 3.6. The difference in games was eleven. A crushing. The winner is the better player according to Fermi.

Using points rather than games the result is the same. Total points played was one hundred four. The square root of one hundred four is just over ten. The twenty-two point margin more than doubles the square root of the total games played.

A beating.

My guess is when you hear someone say "every game went to deuce" it's more likely that not every game went to deuce than that any single game lasted more than ten or twelve points.

If every game went to twelve points (three deuces), the total margin of victory remains twenty-two points, but the total points climbs to one hundred fifty-six. The square root of one hundred fifty-six is only about 12.5. The twenty-two point margin still far, far exceeds the square root of the total.

Now if every game consisted of forty-four points or more, the 6-0, 6-1 match could have actually been competitive by the Fermi standard. Have you every played a forty-four point game? I haven't. And I'm fifty years old.

So if you get beat 6-0, 6-1 and every game went to deuce you got crushed. Enrico Fermi and everyone else says so.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Roger Federer and His Wall

Roger learned to play hitting "for hours and hours" against this wall. Maybe kids should try that before "lessons" and "classes" and other BS ways to learn tennis.

Tommy Haas, Quintessential American

I'm watching Tommy Haas playing the "last American", John Isner, at the French Open.

Tommy Haas was born in Germany. Born abroad like so many Americans over the years. He first came to the Florida to train at Nick Bollettieri's academy at age 11. He permanently relocated to the Land of Opportunity at age 13 to train in Florida full time.

Tommy Haas became a US citizen in 2010. He now lives in Los Angeles, California.

Tommy Haas was born in Germany and came to the US to pursue his dream of becoming a world class tennis player.

He fulfilled his dream.

What could be more American than that?