Because of the unique scoring system in tennis, matches are often closer than set scores indicate. For instance, in a set won by a score of 7-6, 7-5 or 6-4, the loser may actually have won more points than the winner.
Consequently, take any match you lose, reverse the outcome of 15 percent of the points, and you will usually win. And the best place to go looking for that extra 15 percent of points is in the unforced errors department.
The surest way to reduce your frequency of unforced error is to play the percentages. This means that, unless you have a good reason to do otherwise on any particular shot, choose the "percentage" shot -- that is, the one with the greatest margin for error.
Here are the facts you need to know to help determine the percentage shot in any given situation.
1. Topspin increases your margin for error.
Topspin is forward roll, while underspin is backspin. Topspin brings the ball down, like a curveball in baseball. So, topspin shots dive downward after they clear the net. You can hit them hard and easily clear the net by five feet.
Flat shots are like fastballs. Both flat shots and underspin shots are low percentage shots. Underspin shots tend to plane (fly like an airplane wing). So you must barely clear the net with them and not hit them too hard or they will go out long.
2. Hitting over the lowest part of the net (the center) increases your margin for error.
The net is six inches lower in the center than at the posts. If that doesn't seem like much to you, think of how many netted shots hit the top six inches of the net!
Any opportunity you have to aim for the center of the net -- an inside-out forehand, for example, rather than a down-the-line winner -- will increase your chances of success.
3. Improving your perspective by moving closer to the net increases your margin for error.
Relative to you, the net gets lower and the court gets wider. The advantage is twofold: your margin for error increases and more of the opposition's court lies exposed to your shots.
4. Hitting crosscourt increases your margin for error.
Down-the-line shots are low percentage shots. The court is shorter and the net is higher down the line. Returning a crosscourt feeder down the line is the most error-ridden shot in tennis.
A note on shot selection:
Many players think "mixing it up" is haphazard shot selection. It's not. "Mixing it up" is occasional variation, not continual variation.
Constant variation not only increases your frequency of error by playing against the percentages, it is counterproductive because it doesn't lull your opponents into a pattern.
Moreover, you should select the low-percentage shots only when the situation and the feeder shot are right for them. Most singles players, for example, hit way too many shots down the line.
Stick with the high-percentage tactics unless you have a reason to depart from them on any particular shot. In other words, never depart from them arbitrarily. Let the high-percentage shot (e.g., topspin crosscourt) be your default shot selection.
Myths die hard. And this misunderstood myth about "mixing it up" is no exception. For lack of a real reason to reject it, students usually complain that "it would be boring to hit the same old shot all the time." The thing you need to remember about "the same old shots" is that they keep winning points. And you never get tired of winning, right?
When the ball comes begging you to slice it down the line, fine. Otherwise don't. Haphazard shot selection is like wandering through a match. Take the helm and steer your play instead.
It's good to have a sense of direction -- to know where your next shot is going. And the next. And the next. Until the next shot provides you with the opportunity to do something different.
Lonny Burgos is a tennis coach and doubles specialist in Austin, TX.