Many events in tennis appear lucky. The ball dribbles over the net for a winner. Someone hits a second serve ace on the line. A forehand is shanked high and deep, and ends up landing on the baseline instead of flying out. From a certain point of view, these are clearly examples of a player just getting lucky, and yet these “lucky” events are not uniformly distributed across the player base.
We love to righteously assure ourselves of what should have happened – that net dribbler should have hit the net. That second serve ace should have been a double fault. That shanked forehand should have gone out. Yet, mysteriously, against good players, these negative events that should counter balance the corresponding “lucky” ones happen far less often than seems fair.
This isn’t a fluke; elite players cause this disparity between "lucky" and "unlucky" results. They make their own luck by employing an accurate strategy and hitting with fault tolerant technique. Here are 5 examples of how.
1. Net Dribblers – But They Rarely Hitting The Net
Elite players aim high enough above the net that they rarely hit it. Hitting the ball into the net immediately loses the point, and thus accurate strategy necessitates choosing a shot for which very few of the potential outcomes of that shot involve a net error. This means that when an elite player hits a net dribbler, you are not seeing a result that’s anywhere close to the center of that shot’s distribution; you are seeing an outlier. The net dribbler is one of the most inaccurate shots that that particular shot selection could have generated, maybe one of the 10% or even 5% of results farthest from the center of the target.
So, no, it isn’t true that “the ball should have hit the net.” In reality, it’s far more accurate to say the ball should have gone well over the net; after all that’s what happens 9/10 times this player attempts this shot.
By aiming high over the net, an elite player ensures that even the bottom of their distribution doesn’t contain many misses, which is why they miss into the net far less than other players, while still receiving the same amount of net dribbling good fortune.
2. Second Serve Aces – But They Rarely Double Fault
You’re going to notice a theme here. “Luck” in tennis constitutes a player rolling an exceptionally positive outcome that’s on the outside edge of their shot’s distribution of outcomes. An elite player who hits a second serve ace was not aiming for a second serve ace; an ace was not the median outcome. Instead, they were aiming to a high margin target, for which only the outside edge of the distribution is either on the line, or over it.
This target ensures, first and foremost, that misses are exceedingly rare. Since a second serve functions very similarly to a typical rally ball – a miss loses you the point immediately – targets for second serves are chosen based on similar principles to targets for rally shots. The primary difference is that, unlike on rally shots, on a second serve, your opponent knows which half of the court you’re going to hit into. This makes playing a second serve offensively very difficult, and thus it’s even more beneficial than usual to be conservative on a second serve, since the benefit of aiming closer to the line is lessened.
Therefore, good players use conservative targets on second serves. When they hit a second serve ace, it’s because they missed their target by a good amount – it was an unlikely outcome on the outside edge of their shot’s distribution. If they’d aimed to a worse target instead, a more aggressive target closer to the line to start with, that same movement which resulted in an ace with the conservative target would have likely resulted in a fault.
3. They Mishit The Ball In – But They Rarely Actually Miss
When the forehand (as well as everything else) is struck with correct mechanics, it is fault tolerant. This means that small inaccuracies in preparation or execution won’t cause a miss. By creating a long hitting zone with a consistent string angle, we maximize the amount of the swing during which, if contact is made, the ball will go in.
A shank mishit that goes in is at the very end of this viable hitting zone; if we’d mistimed the shot just a little bit worse, we would have missed. The more fault tolerant the forehand, the more shanks will go in. Rafa Nadal is famous for mishit forehands turning into deep topspin lobs. These “lucky shanks” are yet another benefit of proper, fault tolerant forehand technique.
4. Winners on the Line – But They Rarely Hit It Out
Elite players aren’t aiming for the line. They’re aiming to a target for which the line is on the outside edge of the distribution. Sensing a pattern here? Good players aim for targets such that they don’t miss, and occasionally “get lucky” and hit an even better shot than they were aiming for.
Instead of missing when they mistime the ball slightly, they hit an even better shot than usual. While this beneficial effect of more conservative targets is counterbalanced by the average result from those targets being closer to the center of the court, in most cases this difference is trivial, and the downside of it is more than made up for by the vastly decreased amount of misses at the outer ends of the distribution.
5. Mishit Volley Winners – But They Rarely Miss Volleys
Effective volleying is about getting as close to the net as possible. When we are close to the net, margins are much bigger. First, we get to hit the ball higher. This means we can hit down on the ball far more without missing. Further, we can hit the ball wider, because, since we can hit it down more, it’s easier to get the ball to land down in the court before skirting out. We can also hit the ball harder, because, again, the downward trajectory will prevent it from sailing long.
So on a volley, our goal is to minimize the distance between us and the net at contact time. We manage this in a few ways.
Start close to the net
Don’t set up at the service line by choice; only split step there if your opponent is about to hit, and you were too slow to get closer.
Move your body through your volleys
Sure, if the ball is rifled at you, you’re going to have to just stick your racket out, but, in general, volleys involve moving the entire body forward. In fact, with respect to the body, the racket moves very little. A player who employs this forward body movement routinely contacts volleys closer to the net than one who doesn’t.
If the ball is slow, explode forward
Unlike at the baseline, we never wait for the ball at net. Any time the ball spends in flight is time we can use to sprint forward and close the distance between us and the net. Each additional step towards the net makes the volley that much easier.
The margin created by aggressively closing the net creates the fault tolerance that allows frequent mishit volley winners. Consider a common kind of mishit volley winner – the ball hits the throat of the racket and becomes an unintentional but successful drop-shot. This exact same stroke execution, if performed at the service line instead of right on top of the net, would have resulted in an an ugly looking error into the bottom of the net, rather than a won point.
Strategy and Technique Create Luck
Since tennis is random, luck is a natural part of the game, but the nature of that luck is often misunderstood.
Consider a situation in which Player A has a 10% chance of hitting a winner, while Player B has a 30% chance of hitting that same winner. If both players succeed in hitting the winner, Player B has gotten far less lucky than Player A while achieving the same result. It would be fair to call both of their winners "lucky shots," since, for both players, the chance of the winner was well under 50%, and yet the fact remains that Player B is going to hit this "lucky shot" far more often than Player A will.
"Lucky" is a very imprecise term. Elite players make their own luck by routinely putting themselves in positions where it’s easy to get lucky, while simultaneously avoiding positions from which it’s easy to get unlucky. They humbly observe the results of their attempted shots and put themselves in positions where those results produce maximum benefit.
And on the off chance they do win a critical point on a net dribbler or a mishit winner, they simply put up their racket in a (faux) apology and move on with the match unbothered, since, after all, elite players really, really want to win.