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The First Four Shots Meme
The importance of short points vs long points, the impact of pressure on point length, macro data and real matches
During the Djokovic Zverev match, in the men’s semi finals of the US Open, there was a 53 shot rally on set point. Zverev won it, saving the first set point in that game. Djokovic then won a 16 shot rally on the very next point, also a break/set point, to take a two sets to one lead. Mark Kovacs, who focuses on tennis performance science, wrote this at the time:
And he’s right.
Tennis can be guilty of an over-focus on the ‘first four shots’, which has become a bit of a meme in recent years in the tennis strategy community. The first four shots of the point is certainly the most common category of point length in the extremely aggressive tennis meta we currently find ourselves in. But that doesn’t mean longer points are less important or should be neglected. Especially considering that not all points in tennis are created equal when it comes to their importance or influence on the outcome of a match, and that the margins in pro tennis can be razor thin.
A three set match with the score 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 means the winner finishes with, on average, 51.6% of the total available points won. The average number of points played in a match like that is 191. The difference between winning and losing more points than your opponent in that sort of match is, on average, just 3-4 points.
The margins at play are therefore too thin to over-focus on one type of point length.
I touched on this in the ‘Sliderman’ analysis of hard court movement a few weeks ago:
…Novak’s return of serve, coupled with his truly extraordinary movement skills, represent a conjoined nightmare of abilities for opponents. Much has been written (in fact too much) about the importance of the 0-4 shots range in professional tennis. Around 65% of points in professional tennis take place in the 0-4 shot range, with that short point majority mostly facilitated by the huge serves we see in the tall modern game. This is how the average breaks down:
0-4 shots: 65% of points
5-8 shots: 27% of points
9+ shots: 8% of points
(Thanks to Shane Liyanage for these and the figures below, taken from the Data Driven Sports Analytics database — sample size 2000+ matches)
But something really interesting happens if we isolate the pressure points i.e all breakpoints (both the BP creator & defender), 30-All, deuce points, AD-40 or 40-AD, all tiebreak points, and 0-30 on serve:
0-4 shots : 57% of points (-8%)
5-8 shots: 33% of points (+6%)
9+ shots: 10% of points (+2%)
Players tend to play longer points, on average, when in pressure situations. And this is where Djokovic’s ability for the return of serve, and the other-worldly movement and sliding skills, become a particularly interesting edge. Players facing Novak not only have to deal with him putting more of their serves in play than usual, but his incredible sliding, movement and defence also helps extend points on their serve longer than any server would ideally like…
I wanted to dig a bit deeper on this and find out what the numbers look like if you remove aces and unreturned serves. While almost every player leans on their serve significantly these days, most service games don’t rely on a majority of aces or unreturnable serves (the average for a top ten player serving on hard courts from 2017-2021 is 1.9 unreturned serves per service game, and fewer for lower ranked players).
So, here’s how the ATP Top 10, and their opponents in those matches, won their points, by point length, on hard courts between 2017 and 2021, separated for serve and return: Sample size is 157,406 non-pressure points and 32,141 pressure points.
(NB: percentages are what % of the points were won in that point length range)
I think the thing that can irritate strategists about an overemphasis on the ‘first 4 shots’ is that it’s now a given in modern tennis that elite players have big, or at least effective, serves (with the exception of Diego Schwartzman who finished in the top 10 last year). It’s therefore expected that a lot of points during a match will end in that short point range thanks to big 1st serves and powerful serve+1 shots. But because pressure moments can push players into longer point territory, the emphasis on just winning enough 0-4 shot points to tip the balance in a player’s favour becomes dangerous, especially against elite opposition when the matches are close. If the serve and serve +1’s shots are the ‘easier’-earned majority of tennis points, then the 5+ shot points are the harder-earned, but still extremely important, minority. And because these longer points are harder earned at this high level, there’s regularly more of an edge to be gained in winning them. Djokovic knows this. The world No.1 negates opponent’s usual serving advantage better than anyone on hard and grass courts, pushing them into less comfortable, longer point territory as mentioned above.
This effect manifests often in big matches. Let’s take the 2019 Wimbledon final as an example (just because it’s a match that almost everyone knows about or watched).
That 2019 final featured three tiebreaks in the 1st, 3rd and 5th sets (all tiebreak points are pressure points). Djokovic won all three tiebreaks and the match, despite almost certainly being the worse player overall. The stat I picked out at the time was that Federer made 11 unforced errors in those crucial tiebreakers, and Djokovic made 0. But no one examined where the edge came in terms of point length in those crucial tiebreaks:
Federer won 44% of points in the 0-4 shot range and Djokovic 56%. A relatively even split. But Djokovic’s edge in the longer points, over 5 shots, was mammoth:
Federer won just 27% of points over 5 shots and Djokovic won 73% of them.
But what’s really telling here is that contrary to the usual average — that 65% of points usually occur in the 0-4 shot range and 35% in 5 shots or more — across those three tiebreakers only 55% of points were in that 0-4 shot range, and a whopping 45% in 5 shots or more. So in one of the defining pressure moments of Slam matches in the last decade, there was a nearly 50-50 split between short and longer points. In these tense, high-pressure moments of the match, points ran longer than usual, and Djokovic won 11 points over five shots to Federer’s 4. Djokovic actually won more of his total tiebreaker points, in that final, over 5 shots than under 5 shots (11 to 10). That anyone could look at the influence longer points had over the result of that potentially era-defining final, and many others, and decide that the 0-4 shot range is fundamentally more meaningful than the longer point range is completely beyond me. It’s matchup, and scenario, specific.
The 0-4 shot range in tennis is certainly the most frequent. Those short points unfold more regularly than longer points, which is wholly unsurprising considering how big modern serves are on average and how aggressive players are in the first 1-3 shots of a rally. But, especially at an elite level, there is regularly an edge being found in the longer points, when the pressure is on. The goal here isn’t to discard the importance of short points when it comes to match outcomes, analysis and training. These quick points clearly make up the majority of the sport after all. But we probably do need to start framing this conversation and analysis differently considering how influential these longer points routinely are. The hyper-aggressive tools in modern tennis make the 0-4 shot range the expected majority. But the unexpected or uncommon is where the elite can shine. And we do not need to be teaching and coaching the next generations that the first four shots alone lay a path to greatness. Because when they come up against the future Djokovic’s, Nadal’s, Federer’s, or today’s Medvedev, those longer points can and will make-or-break wins in the razor-thin margin game that is tennis:
Short points and long points. Both are important. But please, more credit for the latter.
See you on Thursday.
Top: Julian Finney/Getty
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