The Optimal Frequency is Often 100%

diagram of a doubles serve return; hitting 100% cross court and 0% down the line

Many players assume that doing the same thing over and over again is inherently bad, because it’s “predictable.” This is a misconception. Our goal isn’t to be unpredictable, our goal is to win, and as such, doing the same thing over and over again is often precisely our best option.

Make your opponent prove to you they can both predict and effectively counter your best option before you start throwing in change ups.

The only thing that prevents us from choosing our best option (our HESBA) at every decision point is our opponent’s willingness to adjust to that option. If our opponent is unwilling to adjust, then there is no reason for us to deviate either.

Before adjustment, our best option is better than all of our other options. While that remains true, we should select it 100% of the time. Not 70% of the time, not 80% of the time, every time. Once you’ve identified a certain shot as better than the rest, your opponent must change something for that to no longer be the case.

Make your opponent prove to you they can both predict and effectively counter your best option before you start throwing in change ups. The only reason to deviate from your initial highest equity option is if your opponent has adjusted by enough that said option is no longer the highest equity.

diagram of selecting a cross court forehand 100% of the time when your opponent is standing in the center, rather than slightly on the deuce side where they should be
Your opponent is defending incorrectly. Until they adjust and move to the green position, there is no reason to attempt a down-the-line forehand.

An Example

You have to play a waist height rally ball from the forehand corner. Is it better to go cross-court, or down-the-line? That depends on the various skills of both you and your opponent, but, in a vacuum, there is an answer.

Imagine that, in this case, your skill level with both shots is roughly equal, but your opponent doesn’t know where to stand; he defends from the center of the court, regardless of where you are hitting from. Your highest equity shot before adjustment (HESBA) is cross-court. Until your opponent adjusts his defensive position, you should be hitting this ball cross-court 100% of the time.

For four games, your opponent doesn’t adjust. In the fifth game, he starts cheating way over to the cross-court side. All of the sudden, the line is so wide open that down-the-line forehands are now significantly higher equity than cross-court forehands. Thus, we can now switch to 100% down-the-line until our opponent adjusts again.

Using a Mixed Strategy

Eventually, it won’t take our opponent four games to adjust. Once our opponent is adjusting in real time, rather than only once every few games (and many quality opponents will do this from the first ball), a strategy of 100% down-the-line or 100% cross-court is no longer optimal. The second we adopt one of those strategies, our opponent will adjust his defensive position to exploit it.

Playing effectively against an opponent who makes strategic adjustments of his own necessitates that we replace our basic strategy with a mixed strategy, in which none of our frequencies are 100%. Most mixed strategies resemble something along the lines of “use our better shot most of the time, but the other shot just enough to keep him honest,” but the details of that are a topic for another article.

Mixing Frequencies is NOT Required

In most competitive matches, both players will make strategic adjustments that are powerful enough to alter their opponent’s best option. However, this is FAR from a given.

For 10 years, Rafa did practically nothing but hit cross-court forehands into Federer’s backhand.

Sometimes your opponent won’t notice they’re being crushed by a certain pattern, and thus won’t adjust to counter it. Other times, it won’t matter whether they notice or not – they’re simply not skilled enough to defend it, no matter what they do.

Before you start mixing in second best shots, make your opponent prove to you that they are both willing and able to counter your first choice with a strategic adjustment. Against many patterns, your opponent will do just that, but in a significant minority of situations, they won’t. You’ll have one crushing pattern that you can enter unhindered throughout the entire match, and there’s nothing your opponent can do about it.

When you find a pattern like this, abuse it for all it’s worth.

Think Rafa vs Federer at Rolland Garros. For 10 years, Rafa did practically nothing but hit cross-court forehands into Federer’s backhand, and Rafa never adjusted his frequencies because Federer couldn’t stop it.

Mixed strategies get a lot of love because they “aren’t predictable.” For whatever reason, recreational players don’t like doing the same thing over, and over, and over again, even if it’s working.

But you should. To do otherwise is is to pointlessly sacrifice equity.

1 Comment

  1. Chris
    January 31, 2024

    Regarding “The Example” paragraph: Even if the opponent stands in the middle, it might still be a good idea to hit down-the-line if you know their backhand is really bad.


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