Brain Game: Error Ball

by: Craig O'Shannessy | October 18, 2013

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Once the physical battles have been fought on the tennis court and the crowds have filed out of the stadium, it’s time examine the meaningful patterns and percentages that rule our game. Tennis laid bare, as it turns out, is not as pretty as you might have imagined. It’s a game of errors—lots of errors. In the men’s game, more than 70 percent of points in the 2012 Wimbledon, 2012 U.S. Open, and 2013 Australian Open ended in a missed shot (either a forced or unforced error). The women’s game has even more errors: Almost 77 percent of points in those tournaments ended with a miss.

Tennis is indeed ruled by errors at the top of the game, and you can imagine even greater numbers among recreational players. So rather than trying to hit winners, your goal as a player should be to force errors. But how? There are eight basic ways:


Think David Ferrer. Think about the player on the other side of the court who makes ball after ball after ball. The rally is already 20 shots long and you know you should hit cross court again, but you pull the trigger down the line for a low-percentage shot that you hope goes in—and of course, it doesn’t. Players like this force you to hit a shot you don’t really want to hit because they know they can hit one more ball over the net than you. They turn the point into a battle of patience and attrition.


This one has two components. First, say your opponent constantly pounds the ball in one direction, probably to your backhand, attacking your shot tolerance. Your opponent knows you can make one or two backhands, but can you make five in a row? Second, direction also means side-to-side running, like the lactic acid points that Novak Djokovic inflicts on his opponents to wear them down physically and mentally.


Depth is the key to the start of every point in tennis at every level. The player who hits the ball deeper gets the initial control of the point. Hitting the ball at least halfway between the service line and the baseline makes it very difficult for your opponent to step into the court and attack. While hitting very deep almost always pays dividends, so can hitting very short—at the right times. Drop shots can drag baseline grinders out of their comfort zone and force a lot of errors.


Most players like to make contact between their hips and their shoulders on the backhand side, not above their heads. Rafael Nadal’s 21-10 career record against Roger Federer is based on giving Federer a steady diet of high backhands. Low shots are important too. Use your slice to keep the ball low and under your opponent’s strike zone. A lot of players will dump this low ball into the net.


Spin, spin and more spin. It helps keep our powerful groundstrokes in the court and makes the ball jump up, so opponents can’t step into their shots. A lot of players don’t read or respect heavy spin, so it catches them off-guard and causes a lot of errors. Spin also means backspin or slice, which skids through the court and stays under your opponent’s strike zone.


Hitting the ball hard makes the ball feel heavy on your opponents’ strings and prevents them from dictating play. Power also means hitting softer and giving your opponent nothing to work with. Errors can flow freely at either end of the speed spectrum.


Your opponent misses his or her first serve and looks up at you as you prepare to return a second serve. You take a couple of steps into the court and presto, double fault. You approach the net and force a wide passing shot with the pressure of your court position. You are in a grinding baseline rally and improve your position up to the baseline, and your opponent feels it. Your court position makes your opponent hit the ball a little deeper than normal, and it goes long. Where you stand matters. By visually shrinking and expanding areas of the court, you can force errors.


There are many ways to rob an opponent of time as he or she prepares for the next shot, whether it’s taking the ball early and on the rise, rushing the net, or hitting with more pace. We all need time to get our feet and our hands organized, and players with bigger backswings need even more time. Taking that time away makes a player extremely uncomfortable and unable to run his or her favorite patterns of play.

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