How We Draw It Up
(Not always how we do it)
Marco Cecchinato, the free- swinging Italian, took down Novak Djokovic in the Quarterfinals of Roland Garros thanks to his purposefully chaotic style of play. Mixing drop shots with outstanding court positioning and a firm understanding of the game’s percentages, Cecchinato flew around court Suzanne Lenglen as freely as a world #72 ever has.
Unable to beat Djokovic with pure speed of serve, Cecchinato stood closer to the alley on both sides than a typical Top 100 player would. Standing farther away from the centerline opens up more potential angles for his serve, and keeps Djokovic honest. With such a wide array of spots to cover, Djokovic can’t lean too far one way or the other and start to take advantage of the Cecchinato serve. Ryan Harrison and Pierre Hugues Herbert use the same tactic often, as well as the Argentine Leonardo Mayer. The guys we usually see on TV don’t often need to move wide, because they can dominate with speed of serve, but this strategy is common on non-TV-courts, and in tennis’ lower professional levels. For righties serving on the ad side, standing out towards the backhand doubles alley and serving kick wide is a great way to get control of the point. Taking some speed off the serve, and hitting it more like a rainbow into the shortest possible part of the ad service box gets your opponent way off the court stuck hitting a high backhand. Cecchinato was backing this serve up with an aggressive forehand; the success he found today only confirmed why it is one of the most common patterns of play on the men’s tour.
He knew Djokovic’s backhand could not beat him up the line. Completely peppering the Djokovic backhand, Cecchinato hit 73% of his shots there. This shows a firm belief in, and commitment to the idea that, ‘Djokovic cannot beat me with his backhand.’ Cecchinato did not say that, but he was obviously thinking it. Full commitment to this strategy puts a player at ease, and allows him to focus on other things than shot selection; unless he could hit a winner, Cecchinato was hitting the ball to Djokovic’s backhand side, no two ways about it.
Marco Cecchinato is the #72 player in the world for a reason; on any day a guy like him is capable of beating the best players in the world. Most of the drama we felt watching that match was from our belief in Djokovic to come back, as opposed to our disbelief in Cecchinato’s ability to keep that high level of play. His willingness to move forward and end points from the net was a fantastic showing of what a good competitor should do; he knew he wouldn’t outlast Djokovic, so he didn’t try to. He went on the court with all his strengths, and a firm belief in his strategy and he was not to be denied. Regardless of the outcome of this match, it was beautiful to watch a guy compete as hard mentally as he does physically; our sport needs guys like Marco Cecchinato.
Mischa Zverev, Feliciano Lopez and Nicolas Mahut are keeping serve and volley tennis alive. I charted 15 matches from each of them, as well as others players like Stakhovsky and Hugues Herbert, to figure out how they make this tactic work; the statistics below are from those hours of charting. Of course the players I watched have great serves, and unbelievable touch around the net, but what they most share in common is shot selection. Playing attacking tennis is about more than just hitting at a high speed, or cranking winners from all over the court; after studying these three guys I learned a couple of their tricks.
If you don’t feel comfortable playing serve and volley tennis, use these rules whenever you get to net. Being smart about shot selection while attacking can make you a more successful attacking player, and that success will make you more willing to voyage forward in the court. Rafael Nadal does this beautifully. While he’s not known as a volleyer, Rafa has one of the highest winning percentages on tour when at net, because he comes in at the right time and makes the right decisions when he’s up there. Play to their backhand, make your approach shots, and the odds are in your favor. Don’t let the 1% of passes that go for winners stick around in your mind any longer than they should.
Gael Monfils is an electric factory when he steps onto a tennis court; and on the terre battue of Roland Garros? Forget about it. He can hit shots that the rest of us couldn’t even imagine attempting. But Gael does not make a living from making incredible shots, he makes a living from hitting the normal shots really well. Gael does three things extremely well, and we can all incorporate more of it into our own gamesl.
Monfils is locked at a set all right now against Belgium’s best player, David Goffin, in the third round of the French Open and it is an absolute clinic on how to play controlled baseline tennis. Both guys can do whatever they want with the ball, but they choose to play with huge margins, and an emphasis on control. If the best players in the world choose control and accuracy over highlight reel shots, shouldn’t we?
How are you going to get an edge over someone of your equal ability and win matches consistently? Hoping to win the long rallies, and just make more balls than your opponent is not the way. First of all, that takes unbelievable mental and physical conditioning, and secondly, in my opinion, it leaves too much of the outcome in your opponent’s hands. The way to win matches against your equal is to find ways to attack and apply pressure while still playing high percentage tennis.
Faced with the problem of having to win matches against my equals, I decided to start watching and charting matches to see what the top pros are really doing. So I charted every first attempt passing shot hit over 20 matches, and found that 5% are missed, 10% are hit for a clean winner, and 85% are hit so that the attacker has to hit a volley; all of these situations allowed for the defender to get a decent look at a passing shot. This tells us that 85% of the time, the defender intends for the attacker to hit a volley, which should make the volleyer relax. If you get passed off your approach, it’s not gonna happen every time, so don’t even worry about it. Only 5% of passing shots are missed, which makes me think that approaches should be hit solidly, hoping to put the passer in a difficult situation, rather than risk missing an approach by hitting too close to the lines or with too much speed because 95% of the time, your opponent will get to your approach and hit some form of a passing shot back your way. Good passers are going to make you hit a volley; likewise good attackers are going to make you hit a pass.
From last week’s article, we know that only 10 percent of shots land in Zones A & D, which holds true even when we attack and are at the net. So as you approach, you can relax knowing that 85% of the time the ball will be hit back to you, because even when not under pressure, most players still choose to hit the ball through the middle of the court, so under more pressure they are even more likely to play it safe and go through the middle. Just because the passing shot comes to you, doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy volley, but at least you won’t get passed out right.
Almost all players can create more with their forehand, that’s why 50% of shots get hit to our backhands. The same is true with passing shots; 4% of the passing shot winners happen from a forehand pass. Of course, 4% is not much, but it’s more than the 1% of backhand passes that go for winners. What this tells us is that players hitting backhand passing shots are almost always going to try and win the point with a combination pass, meaning they’ll try to hit a good pass on the first one and then try to track down the volley and find themselves presented with an easier pass on the next one.
So when we are attacking, and stuck with a half volley, or a volley that can’t be hit for an easy winner, we should volley to our opponent’s backhand side. This way, even if we don’t hit a great shot, our opponent is already preprogrammed to hit their passing shot back to us, giving us another look at a volley. The same way passing shots are typically a combination, and not won on outright winners, the same mentality can be applied to becoming a good volleyer. If you have a put away volley, take it; if you don’t have a put away volley, play it to the backhand side. Volleying to the open court is no longer the right play. A forehand passing shot on the run is more dangerous than a stand still backhand pass.
The hardest part of playing sports is improving. As athletes, we are always working to take our game to the next level, whether that is from JV to Varsity or from College to the Pros. Right now, I'm faced with the reality that i must really improve as a player if i want my professional career to continue. I always spent time in the gym and on the court, but what i've been missing is an understanding of the game and how it's really played at the highest level. Tennis is a game of split second decisions, where to hit the ball, how hard to hit it, where should we recover to after our shots; all these decisions have a most probable answer though, and that can help slow the game down for us. So how can you get to a new level? The chart above can help.
I have watched 20 sets of men’s professional tennis at the ATP level and charted every shot to see where their shots land on their opponents side of the court. Every set was a righty against a righty so that there would be no mixing up forehand and backhand sides, and of course the chart above only shows one side of a tennis court with the green line representing the net. The blue lines are about four feet from the singles sideline; those are “Zone A” and “Zone D.” Zone A is on the forehand side of a righty, and zone D is the backhand side. The percentage you can see in each zone is the overall percent time the ball landed in each “Zone.”
These percentages shocked me because I thought the top pros would have played more balls into Zones A and D of their opponent. Hitting closer to the lines opens up your opponent's court and makes it easier for you to get the advantage in the rally. I thought hitting close to the lines reaped such huge rewards that the risk of missing wide was worth it, but apparently I was wrong! They’re only hitting 10% of their shots within four feet of the sideline on both sides. I took into account every shot; passing shots, volleys, overheads, mishits, every shot except the serve.
With this knowledge we should be able to take the court with a sense of relaxation because we know where our opponent is going to hit the ball, and where we should hit most of our shots! Do you aim for zones A and D more than 10% of the time? Should you make adjustments to your game that would cut down on unforced errors and personal frustrations? This was just an introduction to the work I have been doing, and over the next four weeks I will be releasing more strategies and findings that I have realized the pros are using that can help all of us, so stay tuned and let me know what these percentages reveal to you!