AO Analyst: The first four shots
Long rallies capture our attention but it's short, sharp points that shape a player's fate, Craig O'Shannessy writes
The first four shots of a rally are both the beginning and the end of a point.
An analysis of the 2015 Australian Open reveals the inner working of how points are really constructed, and the obvious disconnect with how players prioritise what to develop on the practice court.
IBM, the official Grand Slam data provider, cuts rally length up into three sections: 0-4 shots, 4-8 shots, and 9+ shots long.
Which one do you think dominates?
Our eyes are naturally drawn to the drama of longer points. The practice court is all about consistency, repetition, shot tolerance, and making a million balls. But the reality of a match is completely the opposite.
For both men and women, the most dominant rally length last year was short, quick points - the 0-4 shot range. It will be again this year as well.
Here’s the breakdown of how our sport is actually played.
RALLY LENGTH NICKNAME MEN WOMEN
0-4 Shots First Strike 70% 66%
5-8 Shots Patterns of Play 20% 23%
9+ Shots Extended Rallies 10% 11%
As you can clearly see, short points totally dominate our sport.
To be clear, the 0-4 shot range means only two shots for each player. Just when you think the point is getting started, it’s done and dusted.
An analysis of the second week of last year’s tournament – from the round of 16 to the final – highlighted just how short points actually are.
The average rally length for the men was only 4.2 shots. If you thought that the women’s game would surely be longer, you better think again. The average rally length for the ladies in week two was a staggering 3.7 shots – not even two shots for each player.
Basically, two out of every three points required a player to hit a maximum of only two consecutive shots. One out of every five points required a maximum of three consecutive shots, and one out of 10 required four consecutive shots.
On the practice court, we think it’s a great thing to hit seven consecutive shots, but a 14-shot rally happens about once every 100 points.
Last year, Stan Wawrinka had a great run to the semifinals, and our memories of his dominating game are often filled with him poleaxing several big groundstrokes without missing. But the reality for Wawrinka’s game was that 66 per cent of all points he played was First Strike, 25 per cent were Patterns of Play, and only 9 per cent were the Extended Rallies that tend to stick in our mind.
Wawrinka lost to Djokovic in the semis, and the rally length that Djokovic controlled the most was 0-4 shots, where the Serb ended up +13 (dead even in Extended Rallies).
Rafael Nadal had a good run to the quarters, playing 65 per cent of all his points in the 0-4 shot range. When he lost to Tomas Berdych in straight sets, the part of the game that suffered the most was in the 0-4 shot range, were he was -23. He was also dead even in Extended Rallies.
Andy Murray was a massive +145 in the 0-4 Shot range and only +13 in the 9+ shot range leading into the final against Djokovic. Murray’s dominance was in short points, but he employed a ‘long point’ strategy in the final, with 33 9+ shot rallies in the opening set and 31 in the second set. It was exhausting, and ultimately cost Murray any chance of victory.
In the third set, there was only 10 rallies of 9+ shots, and only 4 in the final set, which he lost 6-0. The Scot simply ran out of gas.
Long rallies are massively abundant on the practice court, but extremely rare in matches. Hitting 15 shots in a row is desired in practice, but is so incredibly rare when it matters – in competition.
At the 2014 US Open, there were 29,038 points played in the men’s draw. A 30-shot rally happened nine times, or 0.0003 per cent of the time. In the ladies draw, consisting of 16,862 points, it happened once, or 0.00005 per cent of the time.
Players at all levels of the game would be wise to spend far less time on the practice court hitting endless forehands, mindless backhands, and pointlessly grinding away with no specific purpose.
We need to start practicing exactly what happens in a match. More precision serving, more deep returns, and more patterns of play copied directly from the match court.
The first four shots are both the starting line, and the finish line. Mastering the start of a point matters much more than we ever knew.