The Art and Science of Victory

Most points in tennis end on an error, not a winner. Proponents of the Backboard style of tennis love to bring up this fact to support their contention that winners should be shunned in favor of patience. They argue that winners are inherently risky, so if you 'go-for-it' you are giving up the chance to hang back and watch your opponent take gas.

The truth is a bit more complicated. Waiting for your opponent to make an error only works under the following conditions:

  1. You are consistently more consist ant than your opponents. If an opponent can hit ten balls in a row without error and you can only hit 9, you loose.
  2. They cant 'hurt' you, i.e. hit forcing shots that increase your error rate.
  3. They either don't hit winners or miss more than half of them when they try.

Winners are good. You need to hit winners, even if you are one of those defensive players, when your opponent crowds the net, you can't just feed them the soft, high ones; you need to hit the pass (a winner) of the lob (also a winner). The key is to figure out is when to go for the winner and when to back off and hit defensively. It turns out to be a pretty complex calculation that you have about three tenths of a seconds to work out. Luckily you already have the hardware to perform these calculation built into your brain - it is your ability to perform parallel processing and it is enormously powerful. All you need is the software to program the computer; you need to know what you need to know to make your decision.

About 2500 years ago in China Master Strategist Sun Szu (The Art of War) defined the criteria you should should use to make the decision to go on the offensive:

Assess Opponent:

  • Your opponents capabilities - How is your opponent's overhead? Can they hit a backhand? What about foot speed - remembering that side to side and up and back are two different kinds of running.

Assess Yourself:

  • Your capabilities - Just because a lob might be a winner in a given situation doesn't mean that you own one. It doesn't take much to hit a winner - a miss hit volley off the frame can be a winner, but it can also result in an error. The first calculation you need to make when you sense the opportunity to go for a winner is what is the probability that you will hit a winner verses the chance of making an error. If you miss half of your lobs, don't lob - ever!

Assess the Terrain:

  • Your position - If you are way off court or volleying close to the net you can hit a sharply angled winner. Conversely if you are volleying from the center of the service line, winners are hard to come by.
  • Your opponent's position - Is your opponent in a vulnerable position on the court? If they are bellied up to the net, they are vulnerable to the lob. It doesn't even have to be a very good lob to beat them. If they are very wide, then a cross court shot to the opposite side could be a winner. If they find themselves in no-mans-land aim for the shoe tops.
  • The Ball - What type of ball do you have to work with? High balls can be hit harder with sharper angles and greater safety.

Say you are presented with a short, wide ball on your forehand which is your strong side and your opponent is slow, out of position with a weak forehand- a well placed shot is way more likely to be a winner than an error, so go for it.


Poor position to hit a winner - The opponent (far side) is too deep in the court and too near center court to generate enough angle to beat us.

Good position to hit a winner - We have presented our opponent (far side) with a short, wide ball. From this position the opponent can hit a ball with enough angle that it is un gettable.

Positioning (continued)


The Ball

Three balls - a shoulder high, knee high and waist high - each hit the same pace and spin and the same height over the net - note how much more angle we can get on the high ball (even though we still have to hit up to clear the net).

Most players treat a low ball and a high ball the same. Many don't like hitting high balls and some actually retreat behind the baseline and let the ball drop to waist level. Heresy! A high ball is an opportunity to do some damage to your opponent. It makes it easier to clear the net (for greater safety)and opens up angles that you can't reach from a low point of contact. You can hit a high ball flatter and harder.