The Power of Neutral

At Fault Tolerant Tennis, we talk a lot about offensive tennis. That’s for good reasons, two specifically.

  1. When your strokes lack fault tolerance, it’s your offensive tennis that starts to break down first
  2. Offensive tennis has no ceiling. You can only push for so long; eventually, you need to learn how to take initiative.

So while offensive tennis definitely deserves all of the attention we’ve paid to it so far, neutral tennis still demands it’s own dedicated discussion. Neutral is a very under-rated phase of the game. What happened in Monte Carlo over the last few days beautifully illustrates the importance of neutral tennis, and thus it gives us the perfect framework to discuss it today.

If you haven’t been following, here’s the run down:

  • Wednesday: Novak Djokovic def Jannik Sinner 6-4 6-2
  • Thursday: Dan Evans def Novak Djokovic 6-4 7-5

Now, to the naive eye, Jannik Sinner is a much better player than Dan Evans, and, currently, Jannik is also ranked higher. Jannik hits harder off of both wings. He’s younger, faster, and routinely blasts flashy winners by his opponents. Yet, even given all that, it wasn’t Jannik Sinner who was able to hand the best player in the world his first loss of the season. Rather, it was Dan Evans, a player who hardly ever even attempts a topspin backhand.

As of April 16th, 2021, Jannik Sinner is already the #22 player in the world, only 4 spots behind his fellow Italian countryman Fabio Fognini, despite being only 19 years old.

What Power Typically Accomplishes

For the most part, hitting hard is great, and hitting harder is better. For one thing, hitting hard makes it easier to hit winners, and if you hit a winner, of course, you win the point outright. For another, your opponent has less time to react to faster balls, so it’s much more difficult for them to get into an optimal position for their swing. Lastly, even when your opponent does manage to get into position against your powerful shot, their swing is still more difficult to time, because your shot is coming so fast at them. The result – it won’t be long before one of your powerful shots draws a weak reply.

The less fault tolerant your opponent’s strokes are, the more effective raw power is against them.

The less fault tolerant your opponent’s strokes are, the more effective raw power is against them. Recall the concept whereby, when you swing faster, the errors in your stroke execution are more pronounced. Well, the exact same principle applies if your opponent is hitting faster at you. In that case, too, any small execution mistakes on your part will be magnified; when the ball is coming faster, you have to be more precise than you otherwise would to produce a reply of equal quality. A faster moving ball spends less time in your optimal contact zone than a slower moving ball does.

Overall, hitting really hard out of neutral situations typically makes sense, provided you can still maintain decent percentages. If you hit really hard out of neutral, chances are, pretty soon, your opponent will give you a weak reply, and you’ll be able to transition to offense.

The Novak Djokovic Effect

Here’s the problem with using power against a defender as good as Novak Djokovic – it’s not enough to get out of neutral. Even against most tour level players, Jannik Sinner’s game is powerful enough that he can quickly and consistently navigate his way out of a neutral rally and into an offensive rally, simply by blasting the ball at them.

But Novak’s game is different. Novak Djokovic has the most fault tolerant strokes on the entire tour. He once played an entire 2.5 sets at Wimbledon without making an unforced error. Against a player like that, powerful shots alone don’t facilitate a transfer from neutral to offense.

Neutral is Neutral

If you’re hitting really hard and not getting to offense because of it, that’s a problem. It’s a problem because you are always sacrificing some amount of consistency, however small, in order to hit the ball harder. You need to gain some benefit to offset that sacrifice. If you aren’t gaining anything, you’d be better off just hitting slower.

Now, of course, you can’t hit so slowly that your opponent can easily transition to offense, but there actually exists a wide gap between these two levels of aggression. Roughly, here are the three zones of shots that we’re talking about:

  1. Shots hit hard enough to get you to offense
  2. The wide range of shots that keep the point neutral
  3. Shots hit so weakly that your opponent gets to offense

You are always sacrificing some amount of consistency, however small, in order to hit the ball harder.

If you aren’t consistently getting to offense when hitting hard, then you’re in zone #2, not zone #1. But if you’re in zone #2 already, is a power shot really what you want to attempt? The goal in zone #2 is just to keep the point neutral and await a future opportunity to do more than that. Is a hard, fast shot your highest percentage way to continue the point? You don’t have to hit so weakly you end up in zone #3, but, again, there are a lot of shots that merely keep the point neutral, a lot of shots in zone #2.

There does not exist a simplistic dichotomy between hitting hard and merely rolling the ball in. Lots of shots exist between those two extremes that aren’t particularly aggressive, but that are aggressive enough that your opponent can’t easily attack them.

If you’re keeping the point neutral, accept that you’re keeping the point neutral, and then keep the point neutral as best as you can. If you select lower percentage shots, even shots that only sacrifice a small amount of consistency, you need to ensure you’re gaining a benefit from that selection.

Jannik Sinner’s power shots are extremely consistent. That’s why he’s already one of the best players in the world. But they weren’t consistent enough on Wednesday. Against a defender as skilled as Novak, the advantage he gained from his power was almost completely neutralized; after that, all that was left was the very small consistency sacrifice, and against a world class player, that small edge was enough to decide the match.

Dan Evans and the Backhand Slice

Dan Evans is famous for his backhand slice – a stroke by which the player hits the ball back with underspin, rather than topspin.

Dan Evans’s backhand slice hardly ever directly facilitates a transition to offense. Occasionally, he’ll strike an aggressive drop shot off of that wing, or he’ll take a short backhand, drive the slice deep, and approach the net, but, for the most part, Dan Evans’s backhand slice has one function – keep the point neutral. Dan’s backhand is excellent at this function.

It doesn’t matter that Dan Evans rarely attacks off the backhand wing. In singles tennis, especially, the first thing every player needs to focus on is not losing the point. When Dan Evans hits a backhand slice, he hardly ever loses the point on the next shot. When Dan Evans hits a backhand slice, that slice almost always keeps the point neutral. That matters.

Neutral is Okay

What everyone should take from Dan’s win over Novak is that hitting many shots in a row out of neutral is totally acceptable. Don’t panic; you don’t need to press for offense immediately.

Dan Evans is playing against the best player in the world, and he elects to, almost exclusively, hit a knifing slice off the backhand wing. He knows a player as good as Djokovic will hardly ever miss that ball, which means that Dan’s slice, in turn, is very rarely going to win him the point outright, but he’s okay with that. Dan has a massive forehand which he uses for plenty of offense, so, again, there’s no need to panic and do something stupid off of the backhand.

Don’t panic; you don’t need to press for offense immediately.

Further, at the recreational level, you can actually win many matches without ever playing offense at all. Think about how many times you’ve lost to a pusher in your life. How is it possible, given that they never play offense? It’s possible because the pusher is an expert at keeping the point neutral. It’s not trivial to take offense against them – unless you’ve specifically practiced that skill, you’re probably not going to be able to.

Neutral is the starting point for singles tennis. Offense is flashy, but every point is just worth one point. Executing a beautiful string of approach shots, volleys, and overheads to ultimately smack the ball by your opponent is worth one point, and accidentally missing a backhand out of a neutral situation is worth one point. So, while it’s definitely exhilarating to play offensive tennis, if you want to improve your singles results, try focusing a little more on consistently keeping the point neutral.

Get good enough at that, and you just might beat Novak Djokovic.

1 Comment

  1. Hal Brody
    April 17, 2021

    Excellent analysis. Thx.


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