Key to Winning at the U.S. Open Is in the First Four Shots

There can be a pronounced disconnect between what happens on a practice court in preparation to win a tennis match, and what actually happens once the match begins.

The mantra preached by many coaches, academies and federations emphasizes the values of consistency, shot tolerance, repetition and grinding. One more ball in play. Extend the rally. Outwork the opponent.

Angelique Kerber of Germany during her 7-5, 6-0 win over Roberta Vinci of Italy in the U.S. Open quarterfinals Tuesday.

The United States Open does not obey that mantra.

According to data collected by IBM, when a player wins a match at Flushing Meadows, there is a significantly better chance that he or she has served and returned better than the opponent, rather than winning more longer rallies.

As the Open’s official data provider, IBM collects data that separates rallies into three categories: those lasting 0-4 shots; 5-8 shots; and 9 shots or more.

First, it’s important to understand just how dominant the shorter rallies were in matches through the tournament’s first week. In matches through Sunday, 69 percent of men’s points and 64 percent of women’s points were over in four shots or fewer. Only 12 percent of points in men’s matches and 11 percent of points in women’s matches were rallies of nine shots or more.

The first four shots consist of the serve, the return, and each player’s next shot.

In men’s matches through Sunday at the Open, winners won 84 percent of the short rallies. It was 88 percent at last year’s Open.

Performance in the first four shots had a direct correlation to winning the match. Through Sunday, the winners of men’s matches actually had a losing average (47 percent) in rallies of nine shots or longer. That is down from the 51 percent winning average on extended rallies at the 2015 Open.

A similar dynamic occurs on the women’s side. In 2015, women won only 43 percent of their matches when they also won the long rallies. This year, that number is up to 54 percent.

There is a higher correlation of winning matches and dominating rallies of zero to four shots for the women (89 percent) than for the men (84 percent) this year.

Something is broken on the practice court.

Look around the world at all of the lessons, and all of the time and money invested in hitting a lot of tennis balls back and forth over the net. In an hourlong lesson, forehands and backhands typically dominate the first 50 minutes, and there may be a few token serves or returns thrown in at the end.

But in matches, short clearly dominates long. Serves, returns and each player’s next stroke are undervalued shots in tennis.

Hitting forehands up and down the court is a wonderful way to enjoy the sport at a recreational level. If winning matches matters, attention needs to be refocused on the beginning of the rally.

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