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At the U.S. Open, Keep an Eye on the Short Rallies, Not the Long Ones


Consistency is overrated. Just ask Stan Wawrinka.

He is through to the quarterfinals of the United States Open even though he hasn’t been very “consistent” at all. In the traditional sense of the term as used in tennis, consistency is all about going deeper in a rally to tap into superior patience, persistence and shot tolerance.

How could one more ball in the court be a bad thing? Isn’t consistency the holy grail of the drills that dominate practice courts all over the world?

Tennis statistics divide points into three rally lengths: zero to four shots, five to eight shots and nine or more shots. It is more important to be good in short rallies than in long ones, and Wawrinka has been a master of the short rally in New York this year. But he actually had a losing record when the length of the rally extended longer.

When Wawrinka hit the ball a maximum of just two times in a rally (0-4 shot rally length), he was wildly successful against his first four opponents, winning 79 more points than he lost. But when the rally was extended to five shots or longer, he had a losing record, losing 12 more points than he won.

This is not a Wawrinka thing, or even a U.S. Open thing.

A hidden dynamic of tennis is that the longer the point develops, the more even the outcome naturally becomes, no matter how good a player is perceived to be at grinding away from the back of the court. Even Novak Djokovic, considered a Superman in long rallies, lost more points than he won in rallies of nine shots or more during his U.S. Open title run last year.

It might be time to update the term “consistency” in tennis so that it doesn’t lead players down the wrong path in practice, where they think they will win more matches because they hit tens of thousands of groundstrokes crosscourt and down the line.

Wawrinka has been very “consistent” at the beginning of the rally, at putting two consecutive shots in the court. The old way to develop consistency on the practice court is to hit 20 balls in a row without missing, and then repeat that four times. A better strategy, which meshes more with the reality of a match, is to focus on the serve, the return and the shot after the return; put just two balls in the court in a row, which equates to a four-shot rally, and do it 20 times.

The first phase of a rally is far more difficult to traverse than the end, with the serve and return yielding a higher percentage of errors than rally forehands and backhands.

In the men’s tournament at the Open for the past four years, 88 percent of the time the match winner also won more points in the 0-4 shot rally length. In that same span, match winners won the nine-plus shot rallies just 53 percent of the time on average.

The numbers are almost identical in the women’s singles draw. Match winners took 86 percent of the short rallies, and only 51 percent of the long ones. In 2015 and 2018, match winners even had a losing record, below 50 percent, in long rallies.

When you go to your club for your next league match, focus on being consistent at the start of the point. Putting those initial two shots in the court will help you win your match more than anything that follows.

Craig O’Shannessy is the tennis strategy expert for Wimbledon, the ATP World Tour, the Italian Tennis Federation and Novak Djokovic. He runs the website Brain Game Tennis.


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