Basic Strategy – Where’s My Edge?

rafa aiming his cross court forehand to a relatively conservative target diagram

Tennis strategy is best understood at the level of individual shot selection decisions; for each unique situation we are forced to play, we have a different strategy, appropriate for that particular situation.

Skill levels in tennis vary a lot, not just from player to player, but even from stroke to stroke for a single player. Due to this, an optimal tennis strategy is built not as a single monolith of frequencies and targets, but rather as a group of sub-strategies – disparate sets of frequencies and targets decided separately for each different kind of ball we have to hit.

illustration of a basic forehand strategy
A simple forehand from the forehand corner strategy – 70% Cross court, 25% Down the line, 5% Drop shot

Instead of over generalizing strategy, creating something like a “strategy for the match,” it’s much more useful to create a “forehand from the forehand corner strategy,” or a “defensive backhand strategy.” More useful than improving your “service game strategy” is to improve your “ad side second serve strategy,” or your “short ball up the middle strategy.”

Whenever we talk about "strategy" at Fault Tolerant Tennis, we are referring to specific, distinct, measurable strategies that involve specific strokes in specific situations, like "ad side second serve strategy," not some vague, broad strategy spanning the numerous disparate, distinct, and often unrelated decisions both players make throughout the match.

Different Strategies for Different Shots

Our strategy for each situation is a description of how we will play that situation – what targets will we use, and with what frequency will we aim to those targets. Different situations will call for different targets and frequencies. Correct strategy will vary widely not only from match to match, but even from stroke to stroke.

For example, let’s say you have an awesome forehand and a terrible backhand. Your optimal forehand strategy is going to be pretty aggressive, while your best backhand strategy will resemble something along the lines of “just try to get the ball back in the court.”

illustration of a conservative backhand strategy and an aggressive forehand strategy
A viable strategy for a player with a great forehand and terrible backhand. The backhand is played to a conservative target while the forehand is played quite aggressively.

Find Your Winning Patterns

Accurate strategy must also factor in our opponent’s game. The crux of basic strategy is observing the patterns we see play out throughout the match, and using those observations to adjust our shot selection.

If our opponent is missing every ball, then if we make one shot anywhere, we’ll win the point, and therefore a “just get it back in” strategy is optimal. On the other hand, if our opponent is great at playing offense, winning 90% of the points when we drop a ball short, then we need to adapt – move our targets deeper, accepting a few more misses in order to stop sacrificing so much equity on short balls.

illustration of a player moving their target back in order to lose less points by giving their opponent short balls
The target on the left is typically better, since it includes far less misses, but if our opponent is winning 90% of the rallies after we drop a ball short, then the right target is better; we accept some misses in order to get the densest part of our distribution deep enough to stay neutral.

There are tons of different patterns to observe. Maybe we win most of the forehand to forehand rallies, but lose most of the backhand to backhand ones. Maybe our opponent is particularly bad at handling the low slice, but great at the shoulder height forehand.

When forming a strategy (and adjusting it in real time during a match), the crucial first step is performing an accurate evaluation of all the strokes on the court (both yours, and your opponent’s), and how they play against each other before strategic adjustment.

Once we’ve identified which patterns are beneficial to us, and by how much, and which patterns are detrimental to us, and by how much, then we choose shots which move us towards the beneficial patterns, and away from the detrimental ones.

Basic Shot Selection

After we’ve gathered enough information, for each shot we are forced to play, we can rank all of our options in order of equity. We’ll have our highest equity shot, our next best shots, some mediocre shots, and some bad shots.

In a perfect world, we’d like to play our best shot every time, but, of course, our opponent will probably adjust to prevent us from doing that. Still, the information about how our game aligns with theirs before any adjustment is extremely valuable. As the match progresses and games are won and lost, this knowledge keeps us focused on what’s important and guides our real time strategic adjustment.

  • What would I like to do?
  • How is my opponent preventing that?
  • How much do I need to deviate to prevent being exploited?

Basic strategy grounds us so that, as we build more complex strategies, we know exactly why we’re adding that complexity. By keeping the basics in mind, we’ll never fall victim to over-complication or over analysis. We won’t over adjust, won’t out think ourselves, because our best options and highest equity shots are always at the front of our mind.

Our strategy isn’t built to be "unpredictable" or "clever." It’s a tool we use to abuse our advantages as much as possible, without accidentally losing them in the process.

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