Friday, November 09, 2012

So You Wanna Be A Millionaire

Andre Agassi's dad, Mike, wanted Andre to hit roughly a million balls per year. To do that, Mike set up a ball machine that fired balls at young Andre. Mike figured 2,000 balls per day would get Andre to roughly a million balls per year. I get over 2,700, but who's counting.

So how many hours per day must a player dedicate to various practice methods to hit 2,700 balls per day?

Two decent players rallying at modest speed, not missing many shots, can pretty easily each hit 17 balls per minute. I watched videos of me and Miikka rallying on YouTube and on both crosscourt forehands and backhands, that was our rate. We weren't killing the ball or ourselves. Just easy rallying. At that rate we'd have to rally for over two and a half hours for each of us to hit 2,700 shots.

My previous posts about hitting against a wall lead me to believe that a person rallying against a wall can hit at most about thirty balls per minute. For those exercises I was standing sort of close to the wall. At that rate a player would need to hit for about ninety minutes to hit 2,700 balls, but I think a more realistic number is 25 hits per minute. So to get to 2,700 hits against a wall, I think you should plan on hitting for about an hour and forty-five minutes. That's a lot of hitting. If you take breaks, tack those on to the hour and forty-five.

Since a very well struck ground stroke takes at least a second to travel from baseline to baseline, if you set up a ball machine to feed you balls, I'll assume that you want to see the result of your previous shot before hitting the next one. So a ball machine practice session can't really do better than one shot every two seconds (one second to watch your first and one second for the next ball to get to you from the machine). Maybe by moving the machine closer to the net, like Mike Agassi did, you could cut that down to a shot every 1.5 seconds. Let's stick with the more realistic 2 seconds per shot. That means a player hitting on a ball machine can hit about thirty balls per minute. So young Andre, let's say, hitting a ball every two seconds, would need to hit for about an hour and a half to reach 2,700 hits per day.

No wonder Mike Agassi chose the ball machine. That's pretty efficient, assuming you pay attention to where you're hitting the ball so you don't train bad habits and assuming you have somebody else pick up all those balls!! Since you don't have to pick up balls and reload the machine, maybe wall practice is the most efficient from a hits/minute standpoint.

What about match play? How many hits of the ball do you get if you play matches? The average set takes about thirty minutes and has roughly sixty points. The average singles point, being pretty generous, consists of about six hits. That's three per player.  So each player hits one hundred and eighty shots per set. Since a set takes one half hour, double that for three hundred and sixty hits per hour per player. So to get to our goal of 2,700 shots per day, our aspiring tennis millionaire would need to play for about seven and a half hours each day.

That's a bit much.

If your goal is to get really good at hitting balls, then set up the ball machine or find a wall and start hitting. It's probably the most efficient way to hit a lot of balls.

If your goal is to become a good tennis player, though, or a good tournament match player, then you'll need to play tennis and play tournaments in addition to pounding balls against that machine or against that wall. Hitting the ball well is just one part of being a good tennis player.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rivalry, Motivation, and Tough Qualification Standards

The USTA has proposed changes to the tournament structure for 2014. I don't know the details, but the gist of it is smaller fields for national championships and more play at the sectional level.

I haven't had a strong opinion on this. I've read some of the complaints about the changes and some of the justifications for the changes. I'm beginning to side with the reductions in field sizes and the tougher qualifying standards.

I'm coming to this position after a recent discussion with a local high school tennis player. In Colorado, high school tennis is structure differently in two significant ways from the high school and college tennis that I played. First, the regions for qualifying for the state championship are not simply base upon fixed geography from year to year. Instead, the regions are balanced by strength. Two teams in Boulder, for instance, are in different regions every year because they tend to be among the better teams in the state. Second, the regional and state tournaments are flighted tournaments. Rather than competing in dual matches, one team against another, to determine regional and state champions, players qualify as individuals in three singles and four doubles positions. Points are tallied to determine team champions.

When I played high school tennis, the format was different in both those regards. The first is the most significant one for this post. In Minnesota, the high school regions were geographic. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area had a few regions due to the population density. Southern Minnesota was its own region. Duluth and St Cloud roughly had regions. Maybe the Iron Range had one and so did the northwestern part of the state. There were eight regions. Those regions applied to all sports.

In tennis, the metro regions, especially the region I played in, had a great many good tennis players. Yet only one team (we played duals for the team title) qualified for the state tournament. This made for fierce, quality rivalries. It also motivated us to play and practice more. If instead of just two singles players and two doubles teams making the individual state tournament every year from our region, new more balanced regions were set up allowing two, three, or four times the number of qualifiers, that would greatly reduce the struggle to get to the next level.

I think the same thing happened in our section for national tournaments in the summer. We usually only got two players into the big national tournaments (hard courts, clay courts, nationals in those days).  I was one of those two players from age fourteen to eighteen. The motivation to get to those tournaments was big when I first learned of them at age twelve. But the experience of playing in those events was far, far less valuable to me than the stress and struggles to get one of those two spots. The pressure was off at those national tournaments. I had no shot at winning those tournaments. In fact, any wins were gravy. We occasionally had players win rounds at nationals, but mostly we got beat.

But I think this system of highly competitive competition for scarce spots in higher level tournaments produced better players in Minnnesota those days than the more lax structure in Colorado and the USTA today.

So I guess I'm coming down on the side of reducing opportunities for national play being a good thing, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. I want kids to have to battle their guts out, feel disappointment, and get up and work harder to get those scarce spots in the national championships.

I don't resent rich people who take their kids around the country chasing points, looking for different and better competition for their kids. I get it. I think some of that is good.

I just think an environment that creates quality rivalries and motivates kids to get out there and beat people in their neighborhood, city, state and region before stepping up to play national tournaments produces better players.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

10-Point Tie Break

I now dislike the 10-point tie break.

When it first emerged as a replacement to the third set I thought it was a good idea. I know several tournament directors and it greatly simplified their jobs. Scheduling was much easier without the full third sets. But with all due respect to tournament directors, tennis is not about them. It's about the players.

I began to have my doubts about the match tie break about a year ago when a friend lamented the decline in physical fitness as an element in tennis due to the elimination of the third set in matches. I no longer play competitive tennis so I hadn't experienced that personally. But I do remember that when I was playing, I thought the physical element of matches was important. I always prided myself on not getting tired and knowing that my opponent may tire was always an element in competitive matches I played.

Now I'm just a coach and spectator and most of the competitive matches I see don't have the match tie-break. They are high school or college matches that only use the match tie break if the team match is already decided (which I still think is fine). So I still see the effects of physical, mental, and emotional stress that comes with third sets.

It bothers me that in smaller tournaments, and in some cases pretty big tournaments, the third sets are disappearing. The two out of three set match defines tennis, to me. The three out of five set match is the pinnacle of the game. Anything less than two out of three sets is just messing around, whether it's playing tie breaks, games to eleven, or what have you.

It's a shame that tournaments are now resembling messing around.

One final tidbit. I was curious how many points are in the average set. Stats from the 2012 US Open showed that in both men's and women's matches, the sets averaged around sixty points. Games averaged six points and sets averaged ten games. I don't know how long the average 10-point breaker is, but let's just say it's 18 points. That's about a third the points of the average set. If it's fifteen points we're down to a quarter the length of an average set. That's just too short to decide a match between equals. That's not tennis, to me.

Monday, September 03, 2012

We Don't Know

A friend was recently asked to write a piece about 10 and under tennis providing some guidance for parents introducing young kids to tennis. Since English isn't his first language, and composition isn't among his skills in any language, I ghost-wrote a piece for him. You can read it here.

But this post, below, is what I (and he) really wanted to say. We didn't think the industry newspaper would publish it, but I will publish it here.

I was asked to write a bit about ten and under tennis, provide a map for somebody starting tennis around age 5 or 6 who wants to become good at tennis. Unfortunately, there is no map. There are many routes to tennis heaven. And just as many routes to tennis hell. Anyone who tells you they know the way to tennis heaven or how you can avoid tennis hell is lying, either to themselves or to you.

I know people who love tennis and play it passionately and well. I know more people who love tennis and play it passionately and poorly.

I know people who love tennis and won grand slam championships. I know people who hated tennis and won grand slam championships. I know people who hated tennis and quit.

I know people whose parents pushed them to play and they're thankful they did. I know people whose parents pushed them to play and they quit the first chance they got.

I know poor people who've succeeded and failed, rich people who've succeeded and failed.

Tall, short, weak, strong, fast, slow, nice, mean, great competitor, choker, good coaching, no coaching, bad coaching, love tennis, hate tennis, rich, poor. What is better? There's no answer. Any of those qualities can be found among the greats, the hobbyists, and the failures.

Should you use soft balls, small courts, small racquets? We don't know.

Should you use yellow balls, big courts, big racquets? We don't know.

How much should I play, take group or private lessons? We don't know.

What's the right amount of competition? We don't know.

How should I work on mechanics? We don't know.

We. Don't. Know.

All anyone can do is tell you what worked and didn't for them and for people they know.

If you find anyone who tells you they know any of this with certainty, thank them and walk away.

Your Child Wants to Play Tennis

So you have a young child and you want that to introduce your child to tennis. How should you go about it? Private lessons? Group lessons? Tournaments? League team? If you just go play with your child should you use regular yellow balls, foam balls, red, orange, or green dot balls? Should you play on a full court or one of the smaller courts? What size racquet should your child use?

Wow. With all these questions, tennis seems like a tough sport to start! Luckily, all of the above will work out fine as you introduce your child to tennis. Sure, lower bouncing, slower balls will make tennis a bit easier at the beginning. Smaller racquets and smaller courts help, too. But you can introduce your child to tennis with old-fashioned equipment standing near to each other, either on opposite sides of a net or the same side, maybe rallying over a crack in your driveway.

Once your child can tap the ball somewhat reliably, or even before that, it's time to let them play the game, either with you or with friends. If your child enjoys playing the game, then leagues and tournaments with the 10 and Under format are wonderful introductions to competition. Your child will learn to score (sort of), serve (poorly), and play games. Your child's relative lack of skill at this stage is perfectly natural and shouldn't be an impediment to getting out and playing and enjoying tennis. We all stink at things when we start. Some of us stink for a lot longer! But the games are still fun and rewarding.

When it comes time to introduce stroke development, lessons can be helpful. Some people believe lessons should precede play, but I think you're better off getting your child hooked on tennis before you begin the sometimes tedious stroke development. A great modern tool for helping kids develop better technique is video feedback. Most kids (most animals) learn by imitation. Allow your child to see tennis played well. If you don't play well yourself, let your child watch great tennis players either in person or through video. Let your child see what high quality tennis looks like and let them try it.

If you own an iPad or iPhone, you can even let your child see what he/she looks like, at regular speed or frame-by-frame, with a cool, free application by Coach My Video (iTunes app store). Just use your iPad/iPhone to film your child hitting some shots or playing some points. Then have the child look at the video in the mobile coaching app and let the child compare what he/she sees with what he/she feels. You can even set up a professional model for side-by-side viewing. This is a great way to help kids learn better technique.

Don't let all the daunting questions slow you down. Introduce your child to the great game of tennis. If your child enjoys the experience, they'll play the game more and more and they will definitely get better over time.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


What happens to a tennis court when it's neglected? When nobody maintains it? That depends upon the surface.

Here's a hard court after five to ten years of neglect.
 Here's a clay court. Not sure how long this one's been neglected. Probably not more than a few years.
And here's the world famous Stonegate Academy after roughly thirty years of neglect.
Stonegate's still playable, among the best courts in the area.

Why do people install hard courts and clay courts again?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Great Shot

Keeping unforced errors to a minimum is a tried and true way to play effective tennis. You will still lose points and matches, but your opponent will have to beat you. You won't give away matches.

One way to monitor if you're playing effective tennis is to notice how often you think or even say to your opponent"great shot" after losing a point. Nobody wants to lose points, but if you're saying "great shot" after most of the points you lose, chances are you're playing a good match.

Frankly, at most levels of tennis, you're way more likely to win if you're saying "great shot" to your opponent than if your opponent is saying "great shot" to you. That's because most points and matches are lost and not won. Great shots win points. Great players hit great shots. Great players win matches.

Most of us aren't great players. And we don't face great opponents. So if you're forcing your opponent to come up with great shots to beat you, you're probably playing effective, winning tennis.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rally Lengths, 2012 Roland Garros Round One

I often chart matches. Among the things I chart are rally length. I've never seen that stat among the ATP or WTA tour stats. Until today. The French Open site has rally length leaders (they don't seem to be aggregating unforced errors any more--boo!).

Here are the longest rallies through the first round for the men:

Here are the longest women's rallies from the first round:
The men's rallies were longer than the women's. That surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn't have. People have been telling me for years now that the women hit the ball lower and flatter than the men. Those shot characteristics should lead to shorter rallies. So perhaps those people are right.

In my charting I almost never see rallies of thirty shots. Twenty shot rallies are even pretty rare. I'm charting hard court matches while the above stats are from clay, but these are in the ballpark of what I see.

So, does it make sense to practice hitting fifty balls in a row, or a thousand? I think not. It makes sense to over train a bit, it's unlikely that any player will have to hit more than fifteen shots in a tennis point. Training beyond this is a waste of time, in my opinion.

Better to train players to see openings or to create them with their shots. Better to train players to be patient, but to recognize balls that they can hurt their opponents with.

Warming up with extended rally drills probably makes sense. But after the warm up, get after training players to play points.

P.S. If you don't want to play long points, you'd better hope you don't draw Lleyton Hewitt or Gilles Simon.

Monday, May 28, 2012


No way we could have public, cheap, ubiquitous clay tennis courts in the western US. They just cost too much to maintain. Of course, they may be everywhere, hidden beneath the feat of baseball and softball players in nearly every park.

I saw this photo while watching the French Open on Tennis Channel. I kept looking back and forth from the TV to this picture. I couldn't tell the difference between the two surfaces.


"But the ball doesn't bounce perfectly every time."

"The footing isn't perfect."

Right. Sounds like clay court tennis, popular the world over. Just not here. Because it's not perfect.

The wavy, cracked hard courts I play on aren't perfect, either. They are hard, though. Which sucks.

UPDATE: A colleague and I recently went out to a baseball diamond very similar to the one pictured above. We stretched a bungee cord between to ball-hoppers supporting singles sicks to make a net. We scratched out lines for a tennis court in the dirt with our feet.  Then we began playing. It was awesome. Since the clay/dirt was groomed but dry, the surface was a bit more slippery than a typical clay tennis court, but it was F.U.N. Our shoes, socks, and tennis balls got that telltale orange color of clay. We rallied, played some points, and a tie-breaker. No doubt this surface is good for tennis.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dictating with the Forehand

Most modern players like to dictate play with their forehands. They're willing to give up court position to do it. That is they move well to their backhand side (to their left for right handers) to play forehands, rather than playing backhands.

One justification I've given for this is that the ball never crosses the body of the player. This makes both the pull shot down the line and the inside out forehand easier shots. I've always thought that the change of direction is tougher when the incoming ball crosses the player's body.

Because of this, I've been hesitant to hit forehands down the line in rallies from my forehand corner, thinking this is a more difficult shot than the forehand crosscourt. Yet, I have no such hesitation on hitting a pull forehand up the line or a forehand away from me when I'm backed into my backhand corner hitting forehands.

I think I've been mistaken. I don't think there's any significant difference between the shots. If the ball doesn't "cross my body" when I'm in the backhand corner, then it doesn't "cross my body" when I'm in the forehand corner either. Why do I say that? Take a look at the diagrams below.

The first one is of a player in the backhand corner, hitting a forehand either pulled down the line or inside out crosscourt.

Now have a look at this diagram of a player in the forehand corner hitting a crosscourt forehand or a down the line forehand.

The lines for the ball, incoming or outgoing, have not changed in relation to the player. They are exactly the same. All I did was rotate the court relative to the player and the ball.

Physically the shots are nearly identical. The only real difference is the distance to the net. In the top diagram, the pull forehand travels a shorter distance to the net than the inside out forehand. In the second diagram the inside out forehand (down the line you'd call it in this orientation) travels a shorter distance to the net.

If you, like me, see no trouble in hitting to either target area when you're camped in the backhand corner, then you shouldn't have any trouble hitting to either target area from the forehand corner, either. It's the same shot.

The opening you leave your opponent is different, for sure. But the shots, both in terms of an incoming ball and your own shot, are nearly identical.

Who knew?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Team Colorado 10 and Under 2011-12

Below is a letter I sent to the Colorado Tennis Association regarding my participation in the 2011-12 season of Team Colorado for 10 and under players. Other coaches participating in or forming such a group may find my experience instructive.

Now that we've wrapped up the season with Team Colorado I thought I'd give you an after action report.

The feedback from the kids and the parents was universally positive. Human nature being what it is, if there were any gripes, the people either kept them to themselves or shot one of you two an email. What I heard most was "this is the best tennis experience we've had." Of course many of these kids and parents are new to the scene, but it's nice to hear nevertheless.

I really enjoyed playing with the kids, too. They were all nice, happy, enthusiastic, energetic players. I wasn't the point man for parental input throughout the season, but the parents were all well-behaved during the sessions. They minded their own business. They let the kids play and have a blast. They are to be commended.

I think the reason we all had so much fun is that we minimized (eliminated would have been my preference) coaching. Since we only saw the kids for two hours per month, any technical instruction would have been silly. Since these were young kids, for the most part Miikka and I ditched any notion that they would listen to, hear and learn from things we said. Instead we (especially I) tried to play in with them in the games we played. My feeling was that we could help the kids more by showing them that adults can play and enjoy tennis just like they can. I also thought it would be good for them to see the game played well. We don't know if we're good coaches, but we know we're good players. So we played as much as possible.

When I say played, I mean we played lots of singles and doubles points, real tennis, preceded by some games that emphasized particular skills. We played the same few games every week. Rather than trying to play a variety of games, which would have entailed wasted minutes of explanation, we just did the same, fun games each week. I've described the three games we played every week below. We did play a few other games on occasion, and each week we played full-on singles and doubles points for thirty to forty-five minutes minimum. Nothing teaches tennis like tennis.

This format is basically what we do in our "elite" program at The Ranch, too. We have fun, play lots of points, and minimize the time spent corralling and organizing and picking up balls. No b.s. instruction that has little, no, or negative value in most cases. Not saying technical and other instruction doesn't have it's time and place, but that time and place is not in groups of similarly skilled players brought together to compete with and against each other.

I think a program like this would be fantastic if implemented in inner cities or any other areas with a high density of poor people. This program was fun, but of low marginal value to the already wealthy participants.

Oh, I should add that we used the orange ball and orange court (60 ft) exclusively. I have no idea if this helps develop champions, but it did produce far better points than yellow balls and 78 ft courts produce with kids this small. I heard no complaints from kids or parents that we were using these balls and courts. I enjoyed playing with those balls on those courts, too. Racquet, ball, court, net, opponent. What more do you need to have fun? I know: to be left free from meddling, kill-joy adults.

The Big Three
1. The Finnish Game
    This is a team singles game, two player team (A,B) vs two player team (C,D). The game starts with one member of each team playing a singles, groundstroke point started with a courtesy feed (A vs C). The winning player (A) stays in to play the second point against the partner of the losing player. The partner of the losing player (D) starts this point with as difficult a feed as possible, provided that they feed the ball from behind the baseline. If the feeder misses the feed, his partner feeds another ball to start third point. If player A wins three consecutive points, he wins a Master Point for his team. We play until one team wins three Master Points, then rotate teams.
    Because only the first feed is a courtesy feed, this game teaches players to see and exploit openings with tough feeds, and teaches players to defend against tough shots to get back to neutral in rallies. The need to be ready to feed a ball quickly if your partner loses a point keeps all four players engaged.

2. Attack/Defend

    This is a singles game where each player is on her own. The champion side is the defending side and has one player (though you can use two defenders in a 1 vs 2 format -- BUT if you do this use the SINGLES COURT ONLY, it's a singles exercise). The attacking side has two or three players who rotate playing one point at a time. The point starts with the defender feeding a short ball (the coach can do this, but it's better if the player does it). The attacking player decides if the fed ball is attackable. If not, the attacker can reject the feed by saying "Reject". Then the feeder tries again. If the fed ball is attackable, the attacker hits the transition shot and moves to the net. The player must follow the ball to the net to finish the point up there. The defender's job is to thwart the attack any way possible. The attackers are racing each other to three points. The first attacker to win three points replaces the defender. If the defender wins five points before any attacker wins three, she can bump up a court, or if on the top court, reset all the attackers to zero.
    This game teaches decision making, transition and finishing shots for the attackers, and defending (and short hitting if feeding) skills for the defender. Irregular feeds are a feature, not a bug, of this game. A variety of different attackable balls and not-attackable balls teaches judgment and decision making. Uniform feeds deprive the players of vital perceptual training.

3. Steamboat Skyball - dramatic improvement over standard skyball

    This is a doubles game that starts with two champions behind the baseline and a coach feeder behind them. One challenging team is at the net, with the rest of the challenging teams waiting behind the baseline. Depending upon numbers, this is played best 2 out of 3 or 3 out of 5 points. The net team is encouraged to finish the point with the first hit of the ball (DO NOT mandate a first volley past the service line or other nonsense). It is up to the coach to vary the difficulty of the feeds. If the baseline team wins the contest (2 out of 3 points), the challenging team exits and the next team comes up from the baseline for a feed from the coach. If the challenging team wins, the net team comes around to replace the champions at the baseline. While the new champions are rounding the net posts, the coach feeds a lob (short is fun) to the new attackers who are coming in from the baseline. The attacking team is encouraged to take that ball out of the air and hit a winning smash. If this smash, but only this smash, is a clean winner, the challenging team automatically comes over to replace the champions. If the smash is not a clean winner, the point stands as played, win or lose.
    This game teaches doubles volleying and defending skills. It also teaches smashing under pressure. The coach can determine how much running takes place through choice of feeds and lobs.

We ended every session with about 15 minutes of Steamboat Skyball because it was extremely fun and exhausting for the kids. They always looked forward to the game and left happy and tired when it was over.

Don't Try to Convince People -- Just Do It

Such good advice I had to post it. I have nothing to add.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bye Bye Blue. Bye Bye Ball. Bye Bye Viewers?

I just turned on the tennis from Rome. Llodra was playing Del Potro. Third set. Good match. Couldn't see the ball. Turned it off. I lasted three points.

I hope all the players enjoy the better footing. Let those of us not able to be there in person know how the tournament turns out. I won't be watching. I hope the ticket sales support your affluent lifestyles. I can't see bothering to watch red clay tennis on television anymore knowing that a far superior viewing option exists.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Federer Shot Locations

I guess Roger Federer won't mind playing on blue clay next year in Madrid. He beat Tomas Berdych today for the 2012 Madrid ATP 1000 title. Nice to see a non-whiner win this one.

Here is a shot location chart for Federer in set 2 vs Berdych:

The speed of 72 mph is normal for Federer from what I've heard. Note again the absence of balls in the center of the court. The depth is not consistently what I would have considered deep. He has more balls close to the lines than some other players, but the vast majority of these shots are safely away from the lines. I count roughly a dozen out of the seventy shots as close to the lines, about the same number as shots comfortably inside the service boxes and away from the sidelines. So the high quality shots equaled the low quality shots.

If I were to plot the average shot locations, I'd say they were slightly less than half way from the service line to the baseline in the front-back dimension, and about halfway between the center and singles sidelines in the side-to-side dimensions. Obviously I don't know where he aimed these shots, only where they landed. Given that it's Federer, the shots probably landed pretty close to where he aimed them!

Since you, dear reader, and I are not Federer (unless Roger stumbles across this blog and bothers to read it), where should our standard aim point be for groundstrokes? I'd suggest no deeper than halfway between the service line and the baseline (where we're now seeing 60 ft 10-and-under lines conveniently appearing on courts), and no closer than seven or eight feet from the singles sidelines.

If you want to be a bit safer, and that's what I need to do to avoid wide errors, give yourself the same nine foot margin of safety sideways that you're giving yourself between your target and the baseline. Simply divide the singles court into three nine-foot wide vertical hitting lanes and aim for the each of the two center lines.

I bet you've been aiming closer to the lines than that, haven't you? I know I have been. And I miss enough to lose plenty of points. Way more than I win by targeting slightly more aggressively.

It's fun to hit winning shots. If you want to have fun, crank it up and aim close to the lines. But don't come crying to me when some "pusher" beats you because he or she targeted more conservatively and didn't give you many free points.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

More Shot Charts

I'm curious about what sorts of shots players hit, the ball speeds and spins, the heights over the net, the depth, where they contact the ball, is the ball rising or falling into their strike zones, are they hitting near the lines, aiming for backhands, and on and on.

My friend Brian Gordon is interested in how players hit the ball, their mechanics.

Mine is a distal focus. His is a proximal focus. I've written about the distinction (see here and here). Shot charts are part of the distal picture. I just came across some more shot charts today watching Nadal vs Kukushkin from Monte Carlo. The Tennis Channel was kind enough to put up a couple. I paused my DVR and took some pictures.

Here is Rafa's first set shot chart:

And here is the same thing for Kukushkin:

It's a bit hard to see, but the little dots are colored red, yellow, and green. The red dot means the ball had 3,000 rpm or more. The yellow dot means the ball had from 1,500 to 3,000 rpm. The green dot means the ball had less than 1,500 rpm.

I see only a couple of red dots for Kukushkin and a couple of green dots for Nadal. Rafa's diagram is red and yellow. Kukushkin's is yellow and green. Not surprisingly Nadal won the set 6-1. Spin to win. They said that Rafa's average spin rate was 3,200 rpm. Kukushkin's was probably half that.

For comparison I'll repost a shot location chart I made from a point Borg and Vilas played in the 1970s at the French Open.

As an old-timer who was told to keep the ball deep, I'm fascinated by how many balls all four players hit that landed in the vicinity of the service line and how few balls landed near the baseline.

Safety appears to be a higher priority than depth.

Also of note is that maybe with the exception of Vilas's shots (the top of the chart above), the balls rarely landed in a semi-circle behind the T. That's referred to as the semi-circle of death. If you're playing a good player on clay it looks like a good idea to avoid that area.

However, I know some pretty good players who wear that area out and dare people to beat them. Those players don't play on tour, to be sure, but they play at a pretty high level. I used to think hitting the ball near the T was tennis suicide. I'm no longer of that opinion. Depending upon how well you run and defend, you may be able to survive against a lot of players hitting the ball into the safe middle of the court.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pushing, Pulling, Throwing

My earlier post, To Push, raises the question of the difference between pushing and pulling. I think that hitting a tennis ball, especially on the serve and the one-handed forehand, is a throwing motion. I think throwing motions are mostly pulling motions as opposed to pushing motions.

Getting your weight into a throw is definitely good advice, so perhaps I'm a bit harsh in my condemnation of getting your weight into a tennis forehand. But we don't lean on things we pull. If anything, we lean away from them, don't we? If I'm pulling a wagon to the north, I get to the north of the wagon, attach a rope or a chain, and pull to the north, away from the wagon to my south. That's the definition of pulling. To push it, I'd get behind it, to its south, and push on the wagon itself toward the north.

In thinking about this issue, I'm reminded of a category of baseball pitchers who essentially push the ball. Most baseball pitchers don't remotely push the ball. They throw the ball at speeds approaching 100 mph. They do this by pulling their pitching arm, hand, and ball toward home plate and the release point. One class of pitchers doesn't do that, though: the knuckleballers. Their motion is much more like a push. They don't rely on high ball speeds and spins. They rely on slow and erratic ball speeds and spins and paths to fool hitters.

I'm also reminded of golfers who generally pull with their left side if they are right handed. When I was younger all the golf instructions I heard were about how important the left hand was in pulling the golf club. It was even suggested that right-handed people should play golf left-handed so they could pull with their stronger side. My dad is left-handed but plays right-handed and has always been a very good ball striker. Maybe there was/is something to that age-old advice. I wonder if left-handed golfer Bubba Watson is right-handed. I know Phil Mickelson is right-handed.

Unfortunately for me, I'm not a strong puller. Maybe that's why I don't throw a ball very hard or hit a golf ball or a tennis ball very hard. In the weight room I'm much better at the pushing exercises than I am at the pulling exercises. Luckily my legs are pretty strong and we push with those even when we pull with our arms, so I'm not as bad as I might otherwise be. Thank goodness athletic moves start with a push of the legs against the ground or I'd hit the ball even slower than I do now! Yikes.

Anyway, as I told Alexandra in the comments on my To Push post, I think the best way to think about serves and one-handed shots in tennis is to try to throw the racquet through the ball. I think that's the way to maximize racquet speed.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Bubba Watson

"Bubba will pridefully tell you that he's never had a lesson and never studied his golf swing on video. He is truly the natural." – Jim Nantz, CBS 2012 Masters telecast

Huh. That could never happen in tennis.


Saturday, April 07, 2012

Coached Out of Him

"I'll concede Tiger Woods was a genius. It's been coached out of him." Brandel Chamblee

Brandel contends that Tiger is the first golfer to achieve the level that he achieved and then dismantle his swing and start over. And Tiger's done it twice. He won multiple major championships, retooled his swing, won multiple major championships, and retooled his swing again.

The jury is out on whether he'll win any more majors.

Is Tiger a coaching industry success story or a coaching industry failure?

You could argue both. I would argue that the biggest mistake in the history of sports is Tiger Woods' obsession with technique.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Coaching, Continued

I was talking to a friend last week about coaching. He is no longer in the business, but was a tennis coach for many years. I told him that I essentially just practice with the kids I work with and any coaching I do is incidental. I talk tennis with my tennis "students" just like I talk tennis with all my tennis friends. We discuss different ways to play, ways to hit the ball, what it feels like to compete, that sort of thing. I'm a tennis friend who happens to be pretty good still and has been through some of what they've been through. I don't consciously teach them, especially when it comes to how to hit the ball since most of them are in their teens and past the optimal stroke-development window.

That's a long preamble to what my friend said that struck me as b.s. He said that a player who was coached would improve twice as fast as someone who was not coached. He couldn't possibly have any basis in theory or practice that could back up such a statement. Why not twenty-five or fifty percent as fast? Why not ten times or one hundred or a thousand times as fast? Why twice as fast? That surely had to be made up.

As I've probably mentioned on this blog before, I'm not sure that in aggregate, in tennis, at least, that coaching doesn't retard development. If coaching can have an effect, we must accept that the effect could be negative. From what I've seen of tennis coaching over the past thirty years, I'd wager that the net effect has been negative, but that's a different post.

I'd like to assume that coaching can help, but that coaching needn't come from paid coaches. I think players can coach each other. I propose that players in most games learn from each other. I'm thinking about the modern games like video games or X-games stuff like skateboarding, snowboarding, etc. What about frisbee? Who coached people to toss frisbees?

Humans don't learn in vacuums. The choice isn't between coaching/teaching and having to discover something in isolation. Humans seek out other humans and learn from them. They watch, they experiment, they listen, they ask questions, they explore. Coaches can be part of this. But the main ingredient in improvement in anything is the desire to improve, the desire to experiment, the desire to try and fail and try and succeed. And to repeat this process over and over and over and over until normal people have moved on to something else.

So long as the environment provides adequate feedback, it's the person who fanatically practices whatever skill he wants to master who will succeed. Part of that fanaticism will frequently lead a person to seek out examples of how to do it better.

Some rare people will discover ways to do things that are better than anyone has every done something in the past. You can't coach something that hasn't happened before.

Monday, March 12, 2012


How important is technique in tennis? How important are mechanics? The two are not quite the same thing, but both are important. I don't, however, think that either is as fundamental as one other skill, namely hitting the ball cleanly, whether with spin or without as you choose in various contexts.

I think of technique as a broad term for how you do something like swing a tennis racquet, golf club, baseball bat, or play the piano, drive a car or perform any task. I'm not a linguist, but I think the term comes from the Greek word technĂȘ.

Mechanics, on the other hand, refers to Newtonian physics which deals with forces acting on the body and forces generated by the muscles of the body. When we talk mechanics, we're talking about how efficient your technique is in producing racquet speed, primarily.

So people can have better or worse technique and better or worse mechanics. The two are interrelated but are not exactly the same thing.

Players with good mechanics use their neuro-muscular system efficiently. They generate the most racquet speed with the least effort. So how important is this to playing tennis well?

For the serve, it's darn important. Given that the timing of hitting the ball is fairly simple, mechanics almost totally determine the quality of a serve. Even with a fairly high toss, the ball is moving pretty slowly and very predictably prior to and at impact. So the eye-hand coordination needed to hit a serve well can be accomplished by most people over time.

Not so with forehands and backhands. If a coach feeds a ball to a player, then the eye-hand skill necessary to hit a ball well is not so different from a serve. If a coach stands in front of a player and hand-feeds the ball for forehands and backhands, then the eye-hand skill needed is probably less than for a serve. So this closed environment is good for isolating work on mechanics. But the world of tennis is very, very different from that hand-fed world.

Another skill is needed before the mechanics and technique will be of use. That skill is a perceptual skill. The player must learn to track and intercept a moving ball with a tennis racquet whose hitting area is roughly 45 cm from the player's hand. The hitting area of the racquet may be as large as 135 sq cm, but in reality the "sweet spot" of the racquet is much, much smaller than that. I don't have data on this, but if you can't hit the ball in an area of 20 sq cm or less I don't think you'll be much of a tennis player.

This 20 sq cm area must intercept the ball somewhere in front of, and off to the side of, your body, too, to be effective for most shots. Tennis balls don't arrive reliably and predictably in this "strike zone" in front of and to the side of a player's body. The player must move in response to the speed, depth, height and spin of the incoming ball to place the strike zone when and where it needs to be for the player to hit a solid forehand or backhand.

After this movement, the player still must time his or her stroke to get the 20 sq cm or less racquet surface area and ball to meet in that strike zone. The hitting surface must be angled properly to hit whatever shot the player intends.

All of this perceiving, moving, timing and aligning takes place in under two seconds for almost all levels of play. It takes about one second at the top level of play. Since human reaction time is at least 0.2 seconds, some of this movement needs to take place before the opponent even hits the ball.

Because of all this, I think it's safe to say that perceptual skills are prior in every way to mechanics and technique. Without the ability to judge the velocity and spin of the incoming ball, a player simply cannot use his or her wonderful mechanical technique to hit forehands and backhands.

This has become clear to me as I've experimented under different visual conditions. I'm blessed with poor uncorrected vision. Without glasses I see worse than 20-400. Thankfully with glasses and contacts, my vision is corrected to 20-20 or better. My poor vision, and aging eyes (I'm nearly 50 yrs old) allow me to experiment with sub-par vision and tennis. I play my best wearing contact lenses in bright sunlight. I play better with contact lenses than with glasses under all lighting conditions. I can hardly play at all without correction, though I can hit the ball a bit.

My technique and mechanics do not change as I go from contacts to glasses, from sunlight to artificial light, to no correction at all. But my skill level changes dramatically. I go from capable of hitting with anyone in the world, to not being able to sustain a rally from baseline to baseline above about 40 mph ball speeds as I remove my contacts and glasses. That's quite a drop off.

I'm not saying that technique and mechanics don't matter. Far from it. If you want to hit a 120 mph serve, your mechanics had better be good. If you want to crack a sitter forehand over 100 mph, your mechanics had better be good.

But if you want to play high level tennis, sustain rallies with ball speeds over 70 mph, then hitting the ball cleanly is much more important than efficiently generating racquet speeds. I've seen little girls with suspect mechanics rally upwards of 80 mph simply by hitting the ball solidly over and over again.

Friday, March 09, 2012

To Push

Here's how The Free Dictionary defines the verb "push":
push  (psh)
v. pushed, push·ing, push·es
1. To apply pressure against for the purpose of moving: push a shopping cart through the aisles of a market.
In tennis, "to push" is to simply put the ball in play with the goal of waiting for your opponent to miss. The term is a pejorative. Nobody wants to be called a pusher.

My question is, do we tennis coaches encourage "pushing" when we instruct a player to "get your weight into the shot"?

I think the answer is unequivocally yes. When a human pushes something, a shopping cart in the definition above, a door, a car, the human puts his or her weight into the task. The person exerts pressure by the arms and by body weight. So putting your weight into something is fundamental to pushing.

Swinging, on the other hand, which is what a tennis player should do in order to move the racquet quickly to hit a ball hard, does not involve "getting the weight into" the swing. A swing is a rotational movement (think hammer throw) where the swinger's weight is not necessarily, or even usually, moving in the direction person is swinging the object. In order to swing an object, force must be directed inward to keep the object from traveling away in a straight line. (see centripetal acceleration here)

So, pushing force is directed in the intended direction of movement. "Get your weight into the shot."

Swinging force is directed inward so an object can be swung in a circular path rather than along a line. So weight, if directed anywhere, is directed inward in a swing.

"Get your weight back" is a better instruction than "Get your weight into the shot" if you're swinging an object.

If you want to push something, then by all means get your weight into it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Agency Problem

If you accept that an awful lot of great players in tennis are jerks, especially when they are young (ages 6-17), then why would the USTA's national and regional coaches value "attitude" and "coachability" highly in selecting juniors for national and regional training center sessions? A positive attitude is at best not correlated with future skill at all and at worst it's negatively correlated (bad attitude >> good player). So why use such a bad metric? Because nice, coachable kids are better for the coaches. Who wants to work with jackasses?

Time and time again we find professions set up for the professionals. Ever make your doctor wait in a waiting room until you're ready to see him?

In economics this is called the Agency Problem. The interests of the two parties are not aligned. The USTA has a goal (producing champions). To achieve the goal it hires coaches (agents). The coaches actions benefit them, not the USTA. Agency problem.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What To Do?

I've been thinking about the Wayne Bryan vs Patrick McEnroe blowup over USTA Player Development for the last several days.  Player development and national systems have been things I've been thinking about for many years.  For tons of reasons, I'm not a fan of national systems, especially in a country as large and diverse as the US.

That being said, the USTA is a private organization that has chosen to get into the business of developing players.  The USTA leadership believes that having world-champion players from the US will help grow the game, largely through the popularity of the US Open.  As of 2010, the USTA took in revenues of $205 million, roughly $177 million of that from the US Open.  Clearly the health of the US Open matters to the USTA.  USTA Player Development takes in (from a USTA grant) and spends about $14.5 million per year.  I won't argue about whether the USTA should be engaged in player development.  I'll simply accept it and say how I think they should proceed from here.

Most of the USTA Player Development budget goes to salaries.  Coaching is labor intensive so that's not a surprise.  Recently USTA PD has opened training centers in Boca Raton, Florida and Carson, California.  USTA PD is also seeding regional training centers.  The one closest to me is in Las Vegas, Nevada.  I don't know how many others they have around the country.

How significant is the USTA PD's role in player development? I don't really know.  My guess is that it's minor, but the Wayne Bryan letter and the firestorm it's generated indicate that it's large.  Why do I say it's minor?  Because the US is a very large, diverse, and wealthy country.  Annual tennis spending in the US is over $3.5 billion according to a 2010 report from the Tennis Industry Association.  Actually, they put the annual value of the tennis industry at $5.6 billion, but I'll use the lower figure since it represents annual spending by "frequent tennis players."

So the entire USTA only accounts for $205 million out of the $5.6 billion US tennis economy.  That's less than 4% of the total spending on tennis.  If we look at USTA Player Development's spending as a percentage of spending by frequent players, it's even less.  USTA PD spends about 0.4% of all spending on tennis by frequent players. Obviously only a small fraction of the $3.5 billion spent annually by frequent players is spent on junior player development.  Almost $600 million went to equipment of all kinds, so that leaves under $3 billion.  I'll spare you my math, but probably 40% of frequent tennis players fall into the 6-17 year old age group where USTA PD concentrates its coaching.  So forty percent of $3 billion is $1.2 billion per year.  The USTA PD annual budget is a small fraction (about 1%) of the total amount of non-equipment dollars spent by young, frequent players.

My numbers can be off by a factor of ten and USTA PD remains a small player in junior tennis.

That doesn't mean their impact can't be enormous.  They may be leveraging their effect by coaching only the very best juniors. In fact, that's their goal. How they do this, then, might make a difference in the development of world-class players.

So how should they go about spending this relatively small amount of money. I think the basic structure they have set up is fine.  A couple of national training centers and some regional training centers subsidized by the national organization makes sense. My preference would be for the USTA PD to get out of the business of picking and choosing who comes to these training centers. Let the players and parents decide who comes for this training. That doesn't mean that any kid who wants to should be able to show up at a regional or national training center for training.  But close. For scarce spaces, I would simply go with rankings. The top kids get first chance at the spots. Most great players already have great coaching and training and won't need or want the regional or national help. Fine. That just frees up a spot for the next in line. The USTA shouldn't force any player to come to the training centers.

These training centers can be magnets for great players all throughout their junior years. The USTA coaches should be very respectful of the coaching the kids already have, including letting the kids' coaches come with them to the training centers if they want to. No favors should be given to kids who choose or choose not to make use of the USTA PD coaches and facilities. The USTA should charge modest, subsidized fees for using the training centers. The USTA should also provide need-based scholarships to those centers for juniors from poor families.

The USTA and USTA PD should absolutely get out of the business of providing wild cards for entry into tournaments based upon anything other than results. If the US Open wants to provide wildcards to players who will increase spectator numbers and dollars, fine, but don't kid yourself that some junior at the national training center will move the needle. A recently injured Serena Williams, for example, would be a no-brainer wildcard. So would a John McEnroe, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi if they wanted to play. Novelty acts can be entertaining and the US Open is an entertainment product. But some promising junior that nobody has ever heard of should come through the qualifying like everybody else. The idea of a US-only wildcard tournament is fine with me. Just make sure that entry into that qualifying tournament is based upon rank, not based upon "potential" or "attitude" or being part of the USTA PD system.  Tennis has a perfectly good, fully developed system of Futures and Challenger level tournaments for players to earn their way onto the ATP World Tour and into tournaments.  USTA PD would be wise to keep their thumbs off those scales as much as possible.

So to sum up, I think national and regional magnet training centers, subsidized by the national organization to some degree, is probably the best way for the USTA to move forward with player development. They should never force any junior to come to a training center, nor should participation or lack thereof in USTA training programs be a condition for entry into any tournaments. The USTA should get out of the business of giving wildcards to up and coming players, favoring some over others.

That's my advice.  If they're asking.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Teaching and Greatness

I've been following along as Wayne Bryan, Pat McEnroe and tons of commenters over at Zoo Tennis debate the efficacy of USTA Player Development.  I've written a few posts about that here, including a post on talent ID just below this one.  I'm skeptical of large scale systems for producing world champions.  I think world champions, and especially all-time greats, are fundamentally Black Swans, rare and unpredictable.

What occurred to me, though, in thinking about all this player development stuff is that the truly greats in most fields became great without much aid from teachers of any kind.  Perhaps chess is a counter-example and perhaps greatness in the future will be different from greatness in the past in such way that teachers or coaches will play crucial roles in player or scientist or mathematician or poet development.  But as I look back, I see so many examples of greatness emerging without the aid of teaching and coaching that I wonder if coaching has any role at all in true greatness.

I'm thinking specifically of how the all-time greats seemed to go off on their own, fueled by their own passions, independent of teachers and coaches.  Einstein had a notorious disdain for traditional schooling.  Richard Feynman, too.  Feynman learned algebra and calculus on his own from books he borrowed from the local library.  He did experiments in his room on his own.  Nobody taught Newton calculus.  He developed it on his own.  And so discovered laws of motion that, at human scales, still hold sway today.

Ben Hogan found his swing in the dirt.  Same with his contemporaries Byron Nelson and Sam Snead.  Who taught Larry Bird to shoot, pass, and see the court as well as he did?  Walter Gretzky told his son Wayne to look where the puck was going, not where it went, but Wayne developed his skills on his own on their backyard rink.  Gordie Howe came off the sloughs of Saskatchewan to dominate the NHL.  Bobby Orr honed his skills on the ice of Parry Sound.

Rod Laver got his start on the anthill court in his backyard in Rockhampton, Australia playing with his brothers.  Sure he credits Harry Hopman for developing him, but I think Hopman's role is minor compared to Rod's own passion for the game.  Laver was able to get some mentoring from Hopman because he was great.  Hopman didn't make Laver great.  Laver's greatness preceded Hopman's coaching. Same with John McEnroe years later.

My view is that teachers and coaches can help the masses get a bit better at things.  We can show them better ways of doing things.  We can teach them the rules for doing algebra. We can encourage them.  We can offer suggestions that accelerate their learning.  But when it comes to the rarest of the rare, the truly great in any field, my best guess is that coaches are more likely to retard than to accelerate their progress.

Fortunately, it's very unlikely that any of us coaches or teachers have ever encountered any of these one in a billion people.  So we can sleep easy that we most likely haven't deprived the world of the next Newton, Einstein, Hogan, or Laver by ruining them with our input.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Talent ID, USTA Player Development Folly

Identify the talented kids.  Bring them to a regional or national training center.  Get them the best coaching.  Put them through the best drills.  Train them over time to be champions.

That's the basic idea of talent identification within the USTA Player Development program.  It seems obviously the right thing to do.  But is the first step possible?

In this post I'll start off with some analogies that pretty clearly show the difficulty of projecting talent or skill into the future.  In another post I'll go into some of the science behind such human judgments, citing some relevant research and explaining the theory behind human judgment.

Imagine you're a National Football League general manager.  It's your job to acquire the most skilled football players for your team. You must look at players around the league who may become available as free agents or via trade.  Based upon their demonstrated performance at the NFL level you have to project how well they will perform on your team in the future, in this case probably from one to five years in the future.  This task is challenging, but not impossible.  I don't know all the criteria that GMs use to project future skill and I don't know their success rate in trades and free agent acquisitions.  I do know that they aren't either perfectly good or perfectly bad.  They have some rate of success between zero and one hundred percent.  If they're to keep their jobs the success rate probably has to be well over fifty percent or you could replace them with a coin.  Since GMs are frequently fired, perhaps replacing GMs with a coin would make sense for many NFL teams.

Let's increase the difficulty of the NFL GM's judgment problem a bit.  Each year NFL teams draft college players.  In this case, the GMs must predict how college level skills will translate to NFL environments.  They also must project over a longer time horizon, spanning from one to possible ten or even fifteen or more years in some cases.  Once again I don't know all the cues that the NFL talent evaluators use, but I know that they watch players in person and on tape.  I know that they frequently interview the players and the player's coaches.  I know that they use a variety of quantitative measures of speed, strength, size,  and even mental abilities.  Despite all these cues, the success rate for the NFL draft is considerably below one hundred percent.  No team goes even one draft year without making several mistakes.  To succeed in placing even half of a draft class on an NFL roster is probably considered pretty good, given how few roster spots are available each year.  So NFL player personnel departments spend tremendous amounts of time and money in making judgments about the future skill of grown men who have already mostly mastered the skill under consideration.  They still miss on a great many of these judgments.  They pick players who fail to pan out and they fail to pick players who go on to have outstanding careers.  This happens every year to every team.

Let's leave the NFL now and go back one level to college coaches.  They too must select players for their teams.  They do this by evaluating high school football players.  These are mostly sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year-old young men.  They have played football for probably ten years already.  They have all gone through puberty.  They are not yet at their full size and strength, but they are within a few years of reaching their full physical maturity.  College coaches must judge how well these players high school performance will translate to the college level.  They must judge how a player will develop in the year or so before he comes to college and how much he will improve in the four or five years he spends on campus.   The younger the player, the tougher this judgment becomes.  Coaches who commit to juniors in high school have a higher error rate than those who commit to seniors in high school.  But the race to get the best players often induces coaches to commit to a "can't miss" player in that player's junior year.  Unfortunately they can and do miss.

Now let's jump to the talent identification problem facing the USTA Player Development coaches.  The goal of USTA PD is to produce world-class players.  The assumption is that the US Open, the USTA's big money maker, will be more popular with American players in the championship hunt.  The USTA's goal is to grow the game and the organization thinks the game will be more popular with Americans at the top of the professional game.  To develop these champions, the USTA PD tries to identify young kids with the potential to become world-champion players.  In light of the above discussions, how likely is the USTA to succeed in identifying children under age ten who will dominate professional tennis from age twenty to age thirty?

Projecting tennis skill, like football skill, a few years into the future is not easy.  The list of national junior or international junior champions does not completely overlap with future grand slam winners.  So skill in the late teens does not perfectly predict adult skill.  It's pretty good, certainly, but far from perfect just like in the football case.

The judgment of which ten-year olds will be great players at twenty is much, much tougher.  These kids are all yet to go through puberty.  They are a decade away from achieving their full size, strength and maturity.   Skill at age ten is not perfectly uncorrelated with skill later on.  I don't think there is a case in the last several decades where a player who subsequently became a world champion was not a very good player by age ten or twelve.  But the universe of all skilled players at age ten does not overlap very much with the set of world champions, that's for sure.

The probability that coaches can accurately judge the skill at age twenty of a child at age ten is vanishingly low.  The cues that coaches use simply are not valid, they are not stable over the time frame necessary to make accurate judgments.  Unless we discovered that skill was like eye-color or sex, that is completely genetically determined, the judgment task is essentially impossible.

By selecting small groups of kids and bringing them to regional and national training centers, the USTA Player Development is assured of making numerous errors.  They will invite plenty of kids who fail to become great and they will fail to invite kids who do become great.  By great, I don't mean world champions, unfortunately.  I really only mean great juniors or possible professionals.  I think world champions are Black Swans as Nassim Taleb would say, rare and unpredictable.

So rather than wasting resources on dozens or even hundreds of kids who show promise at a young age, the USTA Player Development system should spread its dollars far and wide to make sure the net captures as many players as possible.  By bringing more kids into the game they will by definition be growing the game.  If by chance some future champion resides in the US, then the wide net will have captured that player, too.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Server's Partner

How important is it for the server's partner to take the third shot in doubles?  In one match at the very highest level the answer is extremely.

I charted some aspects of the Bryan/Bryan def Lindstedt/Tecau 2012 Australian Open men's doubles semi-final match.  The Tennis Channel replay caught 182 of the 189 points played.  The Bryans won the match 7-5 in a third set breaker.  The match really was that close, with a winning margin of just one point, 95-94 for the Bryans.

Initially I wanted to know the winning percentage for the serving team when the server played the third shot.  Aggregating the data for both teams, the serving team won just under 45% of the points when the server played the third shot.

Next I looked at what percentage of third shots the server's partner played.  Both teams put 117 returns in play and the server's partner played 57 of those balls.  The serving team won 45 of those 57 points, or 79%.

Overall for the match, the serving team won 67% of the points.  Clearly the servers are at an advantage at this level of tennis.  However, if the returners can get their returns 1) in play, and 2) away from the net player, they swing the odds in their favor.  If the net man plays the ball, the serving team wins 79% of the points.  If the server plays the ball, the serving team wins 45%.  That's an enormous difference.

I've always preached "Get your returns in play and get them away from the net player if possible."  I finally have some pretty good data to back up that advice at the elite level.

Obviously I can't guarantee this analysis applies to any other levels of tennis.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Have a Winner

Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in an instant classic 2012 Australian Open Men's Final.  It took nearly six hours for Djokovic to prevail 7-5 in the fifth.  And Novak won.  Rafa didn't lose.

Let's go to the stat sheet.

Novak committed fewer unforced errors than Rafa did, 71 to 75.  So we might be tempted to say Rafa lost.  But that margin is small given that Djokovic won 193 points to 176 for Rafa.  The unforced error margin was only four out of seventeen.  Evidence that Rafa lost, but not convincing.

How about "littering the stat sheet"?  Which player dictated play by hitting more winners and committing more unforced errors?  Novak Djokovic wins the littering contest 118 to 105.

What if we add in forcing your opponent into the winning shots column?  Again, Djokovic appears to have won the match rather than waiting for Nadal to lose.  Djokovic hit 118 winning shots to 105 for Nadal.

Both players hit far more winning shots than they hit losing shots.  Djokers winning ratio was 118 to 71 (1.7) and Nadal's winning ratio was 105/75 (1.4).  Both guys were playing to win.

So congratulations to the winner, Novak Djokovic.  Well played.

Tennis Career Grand Slam

These athletes today sure are good.  Armstrong wins a hundred times in a row at the Tour de France.  The records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris are crushed many times over.  Tennis players now keep ripping balls, sprinting, and changing directions for five and six hours at a stretch.  Must be the training.  That Rafa eats McDonalds and Skittles and guzzles sodas and has never been seen in the weight room means nothing.

During the open era of tennis which began in 1968, only one man had won all four of the tennis majors, completing the so-called career grand slam.  That man was Rod Laver.  Laver managed to win all four majors in the same year back in 1969.  An amazing feat. Laver did in one year what nobody else in the open era was able to do in their whole career.  That is until recently.

Borg failed. Connors failed. McEnroe failed. Lendl failed. Wilander failed. Becker failed. Edberg failed. Courier failed. Sampras failed.

Not until Andre Agassi teamed up with Gil Reyes did a man win a career slam in the open era.  Unlike when Laver did it, since the late 1970s the four majors have been contested on three different surfaces - clay, grass, and hard court.  So tough was it to beat all your foes on those different surfaces, in the different environments of the four majors, that nobody, none of those great champions listed above, was able to win at all four venues in their careers.

Since Agassi accomplished the feat, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have both done it.  Novak Djokovic is within a French title of joining them.  Three have done it.  A fourth is favored to join them.  All since the late 1990s.  Hmm.  What is it about those late 1990s that has turned tennis players into all-time greats?  Probably just the physios they all have traveling with them.  That's it.  The physios and those elastic bands.  And Skittles.

I'm sure that's what it is.

McGwire Defeats Sosa in Epic Aussie Open

It took nearly six hours for Mark McGwire to down Sammy Sosa in the longest grand slam tennis final in history.  McGwire's feat is even more impressive considering it came just two days after his nearly five hour semi-final victory.

The Spanish cycling and soccer teams sent along their congratulations.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Doubles First Volley

I've been wondering about something for a couple of years.  I finally collected a decent amount of data on one match related to my wondering.

What percentage of points does the serving team win in doubles when the server plays the third shot?

I just charted the Bryan/Bryan vs Lindstedt/Tecau 2012 Australian Open men's doubles semi-final match won by the Bryans 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5).  The Bryans won the match 95 points to 94 points, so it was a very close, competitive match.

The serving Bryan brother played the third shot twenty-six times in the match (out of 99 service points - just over a quarter of their serving points).  The Bryans won ten of those points or roughly 38.5%.

When Tecau or Lindstedt served the server played the third shot twenty-one times (out of 97 service points - just over a fifth of their serving points).  Tecau and Lindstedt won eleven of those points or roughly 52.4%.

The cumulative totals for both teams for the match show that the server played the third shot in forty-seven of 189 points, almost exactly 25% of the points.  The serving team won twenty-one of those forty-seven points or roughly 44.7% of the points.

My assumption was that the serving team is at a disadvantage if the server plays the third ball.  In aggregate this was true.  It was true for the winning team, the Bryans, but not true for the losing team, Lindstedt and Tecau.

I guess my hypothesis needs more data than this one match.  It is interesting to me that first volleys (or half volleys or a couple of mid-court groundies) happen relatively infrequently, about a quarter of all points played.

I think it makes sense in doubles practice to prioritize 1) serves, 2) returns, 3) server's partner's first hit, and finally 4) first volleys.  I bet most players and coaches spend (waste) too much time on first volleys because they were a lot more common and important in the 1970s.

Incidentally I asked Dominic Inglot, ATP Tour doubles player, what he thought the winning percentage was for servers playing the first ball.  His answer was well over 50%.  He said great doubles players have awesome first volleys.  I'm sure they do.  I just don't think they're good enough to win with.  But to answer this question one way or the other, I'll have to chart more matches.

Win or Lose?

I think at the top of the game tennis is fundamentally a winners game.  The outcome is determined by the actions of the winning player.  To win means to hit winning shots rather than waiting for your opponent to make unforced errors that hand the match to you.  At lower levels tennis is a losers game.  The losing player will have lost the match to the winning player via unforced errors.  The level where the game switches is fuzzy.  That's my theory.  Well, it wasn't originally mine, but I've come to believe it.  The idea of winners and losers games started in finance and was applied to tennis by a businessman and engineer.

So what happened over the last couple of days in the men's Australian Open?   Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer.  Or did he?  Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray.  Or did he?

Very, very crudely Federer lost to Nadal.  Rafa won 146 points to 130 for Roger.  Rafa made only 35 unforced errors to 68 for Roger. 

How about being a bit less crude?  If you look at which player "littered the stat sheet" the most, it was Roger.  He had more winners (57 to 40) and unforced errors (68 to 35) than Rafa.  So Roger dictated the action, racking up a total of 125 winners and errors to just 75 for Rafa.  So Roger littered the stat sheet with fifty more entries than Rafa had.

What about total winning shots?  If we credit Roger with hitting a winning shot when Rafa is forced into an error, Roger hit 95 winning shots to just 78 for Rafa.  Again, Roger looks like he was playing winning tennis while Rafa was waiting for Roger to lose.  Roger lost.  Despite way more winning shots, Roger's unforced errors differential cost him the match. 

Minimizing errors and letting the opponent litter the stat sheet with both winners and errors was the winning strategy in the first men's semifinal.  Looks like Rafa won a loser's game.  The actions of the loser, Roger, dictated the result.

Let's move to the second semifinal, the epic battle between Djokovic and Murray.  Both guys are phenomenal defenders.  Djokovic credits his more aggressive play for his outstanding results in 2011.  Andy Murray says he must be more aggressive to get over the hump and win a major title.

Very, very crudely, Murray lost to Djokovic.  Djokovic won 184 points to 161 for Murray. Murray committed 96 unforced errors to 75 for Djokovic.  Murray lost, Novak didn't win.

Let's again look at who littered the stat sheet.  Djokovic had 135 winners plus unforced errors while Murray had 162.  By that measure, Murray dictated the action and lost.

How about factoring in forcing the opponent into errors?  On this score, Djokovic won the match, narrowly.  Djokovic hit 88 winning shots 86 for Murray.  So by this metric, we could say that Djokovic did indeed win the match.  Since the final margin was 23 points, though, this 2-point gap isn't much.

Despite all the talk of needing to be aggressive, it looks to me like semi final number two also was lost, not won.  Djokovic won by letting his opponent dictate more of the action and ultimately lose the match.

Does this mean that you can win on the ATP Tour or win a major tennis title by pushing, by simply hitting the ball down the middle and letting a great player lose to you?  Hardly.  But it does say that even at the very top of the game, matches are still lost, rather than won.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Man of System

I'm skeptical of systems for producing tennis champions and of the ability of national federations to administer systems that produce tennis champions.  Empirically I'm going to run into a problem pretty soon, I think.  When every country has a system, then all champions will come from systems.

I guess some players could still shun the federations and systems and future champions could come from outside these systems.  With the enormous resources these federations have to throw at players, though, I don't see many young players turning down so much money.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

USTA's Huge Thumb on the Scale

Quick question.  Does it make sense that the USTA plays favorites among its players?  I know it is common practice among national tennis federations to give help to promising young players, to bring them to national or regional training centers, to pay for their coaching, to help them with travel expenses, etc.  But should they?

At the margin it must suck to see your opponent getting resources that you aren't from an organization to which you both pay annual dues.  Can you be sure that a favored player isn't also getting a sweet draw or more favorable match times?  Obviously the "sweet draw" part is true if getting a wildcard into the event in the first place can be considered sweet.

I'm sure lots of people have given this a lot of thought and come to the conclusion that national tennis federations putting their thumbs on the scale for certain players benefits the organization.

Clearly it benefits some players, parents, coaches and administrators.  But is it good for the membership generally?  I doubt it.

So Long Second Serve?

Traditionally when playing tennis, players will hit their first serve harder and flatter and closer to the lines than their second serves.  This causes a lower percentage of first serves to go in the box, but a higher winning percentage when they do.  Second serves, with less speed, more spin and a higher margin of safety go in more often, but the server wins a lower percentage of those points.  So far so good.

I was watching Ivo Karlovic play Roger Federer in the 2012 Australian Open the other night.  Ivo was struggling to win points on his second serve, but was serving a high percentage of first serves.  Since Ivo is 6'10" tall, his serve is awesome and he was winning a high percentage of points when his first serve was in the box.  Both players held serve until a first set tie-break.  Ivo got himself a set point, serving at 6-5 in the tie-breaker.  He missed his first serve.  Uh oh.  I'd been telling my wife for half an hour that he should be bombing second serves, and at set point I was yelling at my TV.  "Bring it, Ivo!!!  Pound the second serve!".  He spun it in, lost a flukey point.  Lost the set and the match.

Odds are Ivo would have lost the match no matter what he did on that point.  Federer is better than Ivo Karlovic.  However, Ivo would have given himself a better chance to win on this occasion if he had hit two "first serves" rather than a first and a second serve.  The data for this match are obvious, but what's interesting is the data for the tournament so far indicate that the strategy of hitting two first serves may become the norm in men's tennis in the not-too-distant future.

Here are the stats for Dr. Ivo against Federer.  Ivo made 71% of his first serves (ave speed 123 mph) for a winning percentage of 76% on first serve.  Ivo made 71% of his second serves (ave speed of 105 mph) for a winning percentage of 34%.  It should be obvious from those stats why hitting two bombs was a better idea for Ivo than spinning in a second serve, if you can call hitting it 105 mph spinning it in!  Ivo missed way too many of his second serves.  Typically ATP tour pros make 95% or more of their second serves.  Perhaps under pressure from Federer, Ivo made a woeful 71% of his second serves, the same as his much harder first serve.  So by abandoning the losing slower serve, Ivo would have increased his winning percentage on serve from 62% to 74%.  That's a dramatic increase in his chances of holding serve.

As I said, that case was easy because of Dr. Ivo's tragic second serve percentage and woeful winning percentage on second serve.  But what about for the field in general?

Here are the first round stats (the second two rounds are similar, but with fewer data points).  The men made 61% of their first serves and won 69% of those points.  They made 96% of their second serves and won 49% of those points.  The result of all that is that servers won 61% of their points using the traditional "hard first, spin second" serving strategy.

What would the numbers look like if the men had hit "hard" serves for both first and second serves?  They would have won 58.5% of their service points.  So in aggregate, for now, the traditional serving strategy is the better one by 61% to 58.5%.

My guess is that as players get taller and returners continue to get better, that gap will vanish for everyone like it vanished for Dr. Ivo.

If that gap does vanish and men hit two bombs, if necessary, on each point, the enjoyment level of men's tennis will fall dramatically.  We'll be back to the days of Sampras vs Ivanisevic at Wimbledon.  Yawn.  Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


"An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field."
                                                      –Niels Bohr

I've made so many mistakes of the "three-across forehands" and "low to high" variety that I cringe to relive my teaching past.

Unfortunately, I think I'm a long way from "making all the mistakes that can be made" in tennis coaching.  It's not a narrow enough field.  And tennis isn't stable either.  It's a fertile environment for growing new mistakes!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Time to Add a Sport

So, Mike Bohn says CU is going to add a women's sport.  What sport will he add?  Time for a BRG poll.