We’ve talked before about how, in singles tennis, shots that you can execute at less than 80% are essentially useless – you’ll lose too many points from missing those shots for whatever small offensive advantage you’d gain to be worthwhile.
In this vein, when you watch the 2021 US Open final between Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu today, watch for this important question:
Who can transition from neutral to offense using high percentage shots?
When Leylah Fernandez beat Aryna Sabalenka in the semi-finals, both players were extremely good at this, which is why the match was so close.
Aryna, with her massive forehand, was able to routinely transition out of neutral and into offense without missing. If she’d executed better, who knows, she might have pulled it off.
Here’s what’ll go into it today.
Can Leylah Change Direction?
Leylah’s game relies on taking the ball early and frequently changing its direction, eventually wrong-footing her opponent without the need to attempt a low percentage shot.
Against Angie Kerber and Elina Svitolina, this worked wonderfully. Against Aryna… not quite as much. Leylah could rarely get to net because Aryna hit the ball so hard and so deep that changing the direction of the ball was really, really difficult, and the result was that Leylah had to aim to bigger targets in order to not miss, and only wrong footed Aryna a few times.
Luckily for Leylah, her offense was just barely good enough that Aryna had to be slightly more aggressive than she was capable of. When Aryna would take her foot off the gas even a little, in an effort to make slightly less errors, Leylah was there, taking the ball early and getting ahead in the points.
Let’s see if Emma can do the same thing. Can she keep the ball deep enough, or far enough from Leylah, that Leylah can’t consistently change direction and get to offense (or even hit winners) without having to be super aggressive?
How Many Swinging Volleys Does Leylah Hit?
If Leylah’s hitting swinging volleys, it means she’s getting Emma off balance and sprinting to net. Against Aryna, again, this rarely happened. Against Angie and Elina, it happened all the time.
Emma can defend against the swinging volley in one of two ways. First, she can do what Aryna did – keep the ball deep enough and hit hard enough that Leylah can’t easily get her into a defensive position.
But there’s a second way I think Emma could beat this, and that’s by hitting better defensive shots than her previous counterparts were able to.
Emma’s movement and forehand technique are top notch, specifically when she finishes over her head. She has a loose wrist and an extremely explosive core, which are both necessary for generating racket head speed out of compromised positions.
She might be able to hit higher quality defensive shots when on the run than her previous opponents, forcing Leylah to play the ball at net while stretched out wide, or at her shoelaces, or well over her head, instead of comfortably at her shoulders.
Can Emma Force Leylah to Double Fault?
Emma’s forehand return is awesome. One of the beautiful things about developing such a fault tolerant, fundamentally sound forehand like Emma has is that you can easily change the length of the swing. When Emma returns aggressively, she doesn’t take a huge swing. Instead, she moves her body weight forward, and performs a quick, compact turn with her hips and abs, often following through by running to net.
Against Aryna, Leylah went for some pretty big first and second serves at times, in order to get herself out of trouble.
Will Emma be able to force her to do the same? Emma likes to run around slow second serves and crack them on the forehand. It’s possible that Leylah won’t be able to consistently keep the point neutral with her second serve.
Can Emma Get to Offense First?
For all of Leylah’s previous opponents, if they wanted to get to offense first, they had to miss a lot to do it. With Emma, that might not be the case.
Emma actually plays quite similarly to Leylah – she stands close to the baseline, takes the ball early, and comes to net to finish her points. This means that Emma plays high percentage offense. Her willingness to finish at net means that she doesn’t need to go for as much on the first ball to grab the advantage.
There’s often a dance in these kinds of matches – how good does my approach shot have to be? First you might start super high percentage, and then get passed a lot. Next you crank it up a bit, and now you’re not getting passed anymore, but you’re missing too many approach shots.
Since both of these girls play great, fundamentally sound offense, both will be playing this game. Since both have extremely fault tolerant groundstrokes, I expect both will pass well out of most situations, but only time will tell how the dance unfolds.
The Future of the WTA
This match, the 2021 US Open final between two exciting teenagers, represents the future of the WTA. Two girls with well developed, modern, fault tolerant strokes, who both stand in close, take the ball early, play high percentage offense, and finish their points at net.
As sad as it is, we all know the era of the big 3 in men’s tennis can’t last forever, but with electric players like Leylah Fernandez and Leylah Raducanu dominating the women’s tour, maybe the girls can step in and fill some of that eventual hole in our hearts.