Imagine two tennis players, both very consistent:
- Player 1 makes 98% of their shots.
- Player 2 makes 97% of their shots.
Who wins, and by how much? For now, assume neither has a big serve; almost all of their points start neutral. The answer will surprise you.
Below is a simulator which you can use to find the answer. It will model thousands of simplified sets between two players. The point structure is simple: the players rally until somebody misses. Play around with it, and observe the drastic effect consistency has on set results.
Tennis results are extremely sensitive to miss rate.
It’s hard to overstate just how important it is to keep the ball in the court. I see so many players sacrificing way too much of their own consistency in order to play “offense,” without realizing just how badly those extra misses are costing them.
These same players are often baffled at how they can lose to players supposedly so much “worse” than they are. The answer is simple: tennis is about who misses more, and you’re missing more than your opponent.
What About Offense?
Our simulation is a simplification. In actual tennis, not all shots are created equal. Sometimes we’re on defense, and it’s more difficult than usual to avoid missing. Sometimes, we’re on offense, and we sacrifice a small amount of our own consistency in order to make our opponent’s shot much more difficult. I want to stress that offensive tennis is subordinate to consistency.
Your first priority in tennis is to get the ball in. Everything else is secondary.
If you’re a strong player, there will be times you can play an offensive shot without increasing your own miss rate at all. Of course, you should do this. There will be other times when you can only slightly increase your own miss rate, but in doing so, drastically increase your opponent’s. You should take these shots as well.
Those are the only offensive shots you should be taking, though. Offensive tennis constitutes hitting the ball past your opponent without missing. If you’re accidentally selecting poor offensive shots that increase your own miss rate by more than they increase your opponent’s, that is absolutely devastating for your chances. As we’ll see later on, even just a 1% mistake like this can be the difference between winning, and getting blown out.
Consistency Sensitivity in Action
I’ve had a few formative experiences that spurred me into making this simulator. Here was the first:
I was at a local 4.5 tournament in New Jersey. The 7 seed was playing the 1 seed. Both were grinders – they rarely missed, but they also rarely forced the issue. I watched a few of their rallies, and, as you’d expect, the rallies were long. The match looked competitive.
But it wasn’t.
The 1 seed won 6-0 6-0. A friend of mine was surprised when I told her the scoreline. Referring to the 7 seed: “Oh, it looked like he was doing well.” She was right. It did look like he was doing well, but even though he was hanging in the long rallies, almost every rally was still ending the same way.
The Novak Djokovic Effect
The second experience was watching Novak Djokovic steamroll the field at the 2023 Australian Open. Yes, I know he’s good, but everyone is good. How is he that much better than everyone else?
In the 4th round, for example, Novak Djokovic beat Alex De Minaur 6-2 6-1 6-2. How? Alex De Minaur is one of the best tennis players in the entire world. In trying to figure out what could possibly make Djokovic so much better than other elite players, a thought occurred to me:
Djokovic never misses; maybe that’s why he wins, but Alex De Minaur also never misses. What if there are degrees to “never missing,” and tennis is far more sensitive to those degrees than it initially seems?
As it turns out, there are degrees of consistency, and even slightly mismatched consistency can yield unbelievably one sided results. If I put in a .98 success rate for Novak, and a .97 success rate for De Minaur, we get exactly what we saw in Australia:
This also explains why Novak absolutely dominates other grinder style players but has more competitive matches (occasionally losing sets) against attacking players of a similar level, like Dennis Shapovalov. When consistency is the only factor at play, the more consistent player always wins, plain and simple. Players like Dennis Shapovalov will force your miss-rate up using offense, and in doing so, have a chance against someone like Djokovic.
Want to Get Better at Tennis?
When Carlos Alcaraz was younger, he blew a 5-0 set lead, dropping it 7-5. Physically, he was the exact same human being while winning 5-0 as while losing 0-7, so what changed? Simply put – he started missing.
I cannot stress enough that the difference between winning every single game and losing every single game is a surprisingly small difference in consistency. If Carlos Alcaraz always played the way he played during the 0-7 stretch, you wouldn’t know his name, but you do know him, because most of the time, he plays like the 5-0 player. The 5-0 Carlos Alcaraz, the player we all know and love, is the exact same player as the 0-7 Carlos Alcaraz, with only one small difference: the 5-0 version misses slightly less.
Let’s say you’re currently a UTR 7. The most likely score against a UTR 10 is 0-6 0-6. If all you did was increase your consistency, how much of an improvement would it take to compete with them? Answer: only about 10%.
If you can figure out how to make just one extra ball out of ten, you can go from losing every single game, to winning half the sets. Now, of course, this isn’t easy. You might need to improve your vision. You might need to strike the ball in a more fault tolerant way. You might need to get faster or react quicker. The point here is to aim at the right thing, and that thing is consistency.
Hopefully, seeing the brutal math of consistency in tennis has shocked you into action. Here are three common consistency leaks I see where there are big, relatively easy wins to be had:
1. Never Miss Your Returns
I don’t mean make 80%. I don’t mean make 90%. I don’t mean make 95%, and I don’t even mean make 98%. Make 99% of your makable returns.
Rafael Nadal has actually done this – he’s gone multiple sets without missing a makable return, and that’s against tour level servers. Do not settle for 90%. Making 9/10 returns feels good enough, but if you think it is, just think back to the graphs above. The difference between 90 and 100 is the difference between 0-6 and 6-0.
Find a mental routine that works for you. You can’t be losing focus once every other game and netting a second serve return for no reason. Work on your vision: if you aren’t seeing every return crystal clear, there’s no chance of getting into the high 90s for success rate.
If you’re struggling, try hitting 100% of your returns up the middle. Improve your success rate first, then experiment with aggression.
2. Never Hit the Net (In Singles)
Stop hitting two feet over the net. It doesn’t work. Maybe in perfect conditions, with perfect lighting, for one match, against a particular player, you can have a high enough success rate to win while doing this, but in general, it’s simply impossible to hit low over the net without missing a lot.
- You yourself are very close to the net (volleys, short approach shots).
- You hit lower than you wanted to by accident.
If every time you miss low, you hit the net, you lose the match. It’s that simple. Give your shots far more vertical margin than you think is necessary, and your success rate will drastically improve.
3. Watch the Ball on Defense
Some players, who are typically very consistent, play quite badly in defensive situations. When you’re on defense, the point is far from over. It’s very difficult to execute an offensive pattern to completion without missing, and remember from above that increasing your opponent’s miss-rate by even 5% has a massive effect on the outcome.
So watch the ball.
Sprinting sideways for a forehand slice, and your opponent is already at net? Watch the ball. Make them hit a volley.
Sprinting forwards to retrieve a dropshot? Again, watch the ball. Don’t hit the frame when you get there.
Sprinting to your backhand and forced to hit a passing shot or lob? Again, don’t look at the target, look at the ball. Strike it cleanly, and force your opponent to execute a high quality shot to beat you.
Novak Djokovic keeps so many points neutral that have absolutely no business being neutral, simply by striking the ball cleanly at the very end of his range. Though none of us mortals will have the same defensive range that Novak has, we can all still strike cleanly at the end of our range, and give ourselves a chance to get lucky.
In our simulator, the points start neutral, but due to the quality of serving in high level tennis, that’s often not the case. Novak Djokovic, for example, gains a tremendous advantage behind his serve. While this is a limitation of our paradigm here, it’s a small one. Neutral rallies occur all the time, even at the highest levels, and in those rallies, consistency is paramount. I also want to stress that at most levels, no one’s serve is very good, and almost every serve is returnable to the point of staring a neutral rally.
Once you get close to eliminating most of the needless misses from your game, further improving success rate becomes difficult. You’ll have to return more difficult serves, successfully receive heavier ground-strokes, and produce shots of high enough quality that your opponent can’t blow you off the court. The process, though, is the same:
- How am I missing?
- How do I stop missing like that?
The making-your-opponent miss part of tennis exists, but it is vastly over-focused. What matters is the differential between your two miss-rates, and the far more straightforward miss-rate to control is your own.