The Shot Cycle: Read, Risk, Recover

Like any one obsessed with tennis I am fascinated with the question of how to beat each person I play and how to improve over time. I have read some fascinating and very helpful advice along the way. Each has helped me improve and helped me see the game in a different light. Here I will share the philosophy I have been honing. It is helping me in all areas but it is actually really simple.

Averages

Where I started was to look at my averages. Where do I usually win and lose points. If I shift the averages in my favour then I can assume that over a match I’ll generally win. Obviously the key points matter. Break points, set points and match points but generally what I see is that what you do in the match is reflected in the big points. Either you know how to apply pressure to your opponent and keep it up or you do not. Take care of that and the result will be yours.

However, other than a feeling of dominance or previous results, how do you know if you can apply enough pressure to a given opponent and how do you know what is best to work on. Should it be your serve, footwork, mind or something else? What will make the difference?

To help me figure this out I consider what I call the “shot cycle”. I see common phases to every point and that each player, myself included has consistent strengths and weaknesses in each phase. I have been breaking my analysis down using these phases to help me understand the matchup between two opponents. To see how each is likely to win points against the other and how I would improve one to get better results against the other. Of course my biggest success is analysing myself against my opponents.

What is a Shot Cycle?

It is basically the cycle you go through each time you play the ball.  First you read the situation, second you take a risk by playing a shot then third you recover your balance. This process is repeated by each player until the point is won and the rally ends. If you can improve one phases of each shot that you play then that is going to turn the odds of winning any rally in your favour. The question is always which phase to improve?

The basic lifecycle of a shot.

  1. Read: Read the situation. What might happen?
  2. Risk: React, do something. What is happening?
  3. Recover: Restore the balance. What did happen? 

Show me

What does this mean in practice? let us look at the shot cycle of the serve to understand each phase.

Read

The first thing you do is read the situation. You gather information and ask any number of questions to prepare you to take the best risk possible:

  • Where does your opponent want the ball, where does he not want it?
  • Should you serve into his body? 
  • Where have you served before, what results did you get? 
  • What is your favourite serve?
  • What serves are working for you today? 

That is a lot of questions, they are all relevant and you can ask a lot more. From the weather to court surface to the stage of the match. You then analyse all the information to help you determine the best risk to take.

Risk

Then you take the risk, you serve. It is a risk because you have a plan and you attempt to deliver the plan but only rarely does absolutely everything go according to plan. There is always something, usually a lot of things that don’t quite go as you want them to. The power, angle and spin of the serve along with the aim will rarely be exactly what you expected. This is what most of us focus on. Perfect technical execution.

Recover

99 percent of the time the ball will come back and you will have to play another shot so you must regain your balance and court position ready for the return. No matter the shot you play you can improve its effectiveness simply by recovering quickly. Cover the holes you have exposed. You know the risk you have taken before you opponent does. Use that knowledge to make the risk more effective by positioning well early.

How to use it

To understand what to work on you first need to know where you are. Start by ranking each phase of your serve out of ten. With 10 being an expert and 0 being a complete beginner. Just from this analysis I quickly see what I need to do.

If you have a strong serve then it’s easy to be lazy about how you use it, you don’t have to read the situation well and don’t have to recover well so you don’t develop these aspects. For those without strong serves or when it is not firing as it should you now have two opportunities to make your serve more effective outside of the actual serve itself. 

The first and most common option is to read the situation and adjust your serve accordingly. This includes things like figuring out the type of serve your opponent does not like, varying the serve you deliver, particularly spin and pace so you are hard to read and listening to the conditions if they make it hard to serve then choose a more reliable serve.
The second option is less commonly used. Particularly if your serve really is weak or you are up against a particularly good returner you have to do more than just read the situation and minimise your risk. You have to put up a wall. Make the return hard by being in the optimum position to receive their return. Taking away the easy option forcing them to take the more difficult and risky options.

How it improved my serve

This kind of analysis has really helped me with my serve. Generally I am a strong server but I used to have problems with reliability. My serve could stop working and I would double fault, a lot. Much like Maria Sharapova or Ana Ivanovic and my game would fall apart as a result. However, after analysing my serve shot cycle I can now play a set or two before my first double fault and I haven’t had to take anything off my serves. 

The main change I have made is to focus on better recovery instead of forcing an error with my serve. That has meant reducing risk by choosing safer serves and getting in position early. This makes it harder for the opponent to return the ball by increasing the level of risk he has to take. This approach has worked so well that I have actually stopped thinking about where I serve. I just serve as usual and straight away focus on where I should recover to.

The main reason my focus on recovery is working is that having a reliable serve has enabled me to start thinking beyond the serve to the rally it leads into. I can use the serve and each subsequent shot as an opportunity to setup the next point. This in turn reduces the pressure on the serve making it much more reliable. For each shot I am no longer hitting at the edge of my ability. I am hitting everything within my ability and not having to worry so much about delivering a weak shot. In turn my good recovery ensures that my opponent is always faced with a difficult return. I can put him under constant pressure and he has to consistently take a big risk to keep me under pressure. If he does not then I am well positioned to take advantage.

In detail

If you want to know more about why this is working I will explain.

Firstly I realised I could use the shot cycle against my opponent. By delaying his ability to read the serve and thus prepare his return I increased the time I have to recover and get in position so I can begin reading and preparing for the next shot. To do this I stopped trying to win with my serve. Now I just focus on setting up my second shot by creating a lot of pressure with my first, my serve.

I figured out how to make my serve less risky but very hard to read so my opponent knows I will get the ball in and it will be a good serve but they won’t know what to do with it until it has bounced. The way I achieve this is quite simple. I just aim at the middle of the box and hit hard with plenty of top spin. I then vary whether I hit a flat, side or kick serve. I use the fact that I am not a professional and thus not perfectly accurate so my opponent can not therefore guess exactly will happen. First where the ball will land and second how it will bounce once it lands. What they know is that the serve will be fast so they won’t have much time to react and I won’t miss. I fault so rarely now they know they must make a decision.

This puts them under a lot of pressure making the risk they must take that bit harder. By varying the effect of the bounce I guarantee my opponent has to wait until the ball bounces before committing to their attack. This all gives me maximum time for my recovery while at the same time maximising the pressure they are under when they attempt their return..

So that is a basic introduction to the shot cycle. In future posts I will be using it to analyse matchups as the WTA and ATP season progresses and show you in more detail how to apply it for your own benefit.

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