by Will Boucek

August 27, 2021   

In this lesson, you’re going to learn how to improve the first 4 shots of points in singles.

Specifically, we’re going to show you how to improve your serve +1, and the return +1. But before that, you’ll learn why the first 4 shots are important in singles.

Note: This post was originally published on Tennis Analytics.

If you’re new to our blog, we recommend reading our previous lessons on:

After you’ve got those down, you’ll be getting into the meat of the point. The 3rd and 4th shots of the rally are crucial for winning in singles.

Here’s what we’ll cover today:

Why are the First 4 Shots Important?

This is discussed in depth by Tennis Analytics partner, Craig O’Shannessy on his website and at his speaking presentations. Here’s the summary.

At the highest levels of tennis, almost 70% of all points are 4 shots or less. This means each player hits a maximum of 2 shots most of the time. While some players tend to average longer points (Nadal), and others have shorter points (Isner), on average this is true across the pro level.

While this does drop at lower levels of play, 1-4 is still the dominant rally length at every skill level.

At every level of tennis, over 50% of all points are 4 shots or less, so it makes sense that we should spend over 50% of our practice time, on these shots.

That’s why today, we’re going to show you how you can improve your win percentage in this category that most points fall into.

To help you follow along, we’ll use our sample match from previous lessons, the 2019 Shanghai Masters semifinal between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev.

How Long are the Points in Your Singles Matches?

The first place to start is determining how long points are in your matches. We recommend you categorize points by the number of shots like this.

  • 1-4 shots
  • 5-8 shots
  • 9-12 shots (or 9+ to simplify)
  • 13+ shots

Note: A shot is counted when the ball hits the racquet. So double faults & aces are both one. However, a missed return would be 2. Some analytics experts use a slightly different model. Just be consistent with whichever way you choose.

Marking every point into one of these groups will help you understand how long your points are, but it doesn’t tell you what you need to work on.

You should mark the rally length, AND who won the point. You may find that you’re doing great at 1-4, so you should focus on shortening the point, and practice your singles patterns for 5-8 or your fitness for 9+.

Without the data, you just don’t know.

How to Collect Rally Length Data in Your Tennis Matches

So, step 1 is to collect the data!

The easiest way to do this is to film your match and send it to us. If you want to do it yourself, we recommend (and use) Dartfish software for match tagging.

Here are a few other ways to get started.

  • Video camera – if you own a tennis camera kit you can record your match, then go back home to watch and collect the data.
  • Pen & paper – if you can’t record the match, have your coach or a teammate watch and mark each point by rally length and who won the point.
  • Phone, tablet, or laptop – Create a spreadsheet like this and have someone on the sidelines record the data.
Rally LengthYouYour Opponent

Once you get the data, it becomes clear. In the example above, you can see that your opponent needs to change their strategy in the first 4 shots of the point.

On the other hand, you should focus on keeping points shorter and avoid longer rallies.

How To Improve Your First 4 Shot Strategy

Let’s start with a few definitions.

  • Serve +1: This is the 3rd shot of the rally. If you’re the server, it’s your 2nd shot of the point.
  • Return +1: This is the 4th shot of the rally. If you’re the returner, it’s your 2nd shot of the point.

So all points go like this: serve → return → serve +1 → return +1…

This is assuming that the point lasts 4+ shots.

Here’s the data for the singles match we’re analyzing today.

First 4 shots tennis data
Tsitsipas = green | Medvedev = blue
  • Tsitsipas won only 45% of the short rallies, 4 shots or less.
  • They split the 5-8 rally length 50/50.
  • Tsitsipas won the majority of points at 9-12 and 13+ shots.

Tsitsipas only lost one of our four categories but lost the match. This shows how important the first 4 shots are.

Why Are You Losing the Points?

So you need to improve early in the rally, should we just go practice short points? No!

We need to figure out why we’re losing these short rallies.

  • Are you making too many errors?
  • Is your opponent hitting a lot of winners?

Let’s assume you already studied and improved your serve strategy and return strategy. If not, start there.

If you’re serve and return are ok and you’re still losing the first 4 shots, there’s something going on at serve +1 or return +1, so let’s look at each.

How to Analyze Your Serve +1

If you’re struggling to hold serve, this might be your problem. Again, we’re looking at the 3rd shot of the rally here.

Let’s take a look at the serve +1 data from this match.

Deuce Court

Serve 1 data in deuce court

Ad Court

Serve 1 data in ad court

Anything stand out?

How about the big red bars next to Forehand? Stefanos had 6 “serve +1” forehand errors!

He missed 4 of those 6 when serving in the ad court. Serve +1 forehands from the ad court might be something to work on.

He also had 4 total errors wide to the Medvedev forehand, and only 3 in the entire rest of the court.

Perhaps Stefanos can work on this target in practice since he has a higher make percentage attacking the Medvedev’s backhand side.

From here, we would also go to Dartfish and watch at all the serve +1 forehand errors to find a pattern. Then, Tsitsipas can practice the shots he struggled with in this match.

How to Analyze Your Return +1

We can do a similar analysis of the return +1 for Tsitsipas.

Return 1 tennis data
  • 29% of his return +1 shots were errors compared with only 23% for Medvedev.
  • It was a balance of forehand errors (4) and backhand errors (5).
  • He missed 5 wide, 3 on the deuce court and 2 to the ad, 2 long, and 2 in the net.

Overall this data doesn’t give us any big takeaways, so it’s possible Tsitsipas needs to improve his return strategy to set up the return +1 a little better.

Note: We did learn in the last lesson that Tsitsipas needed to improve his return strategy on 2nd serves in this match.

Still, we’d recommend watching all 10 return +1 errors in sequence to look for patterns during these points.

Improve Your First 4 Shots, Win More Singles Matches

After collecting the data on your first 4 shots, you will be able to easily find opportunities for improvement in your singles game.

Whether it’s the serve, return, serve +1, return +1, or some combination, there’s always room to get better.

In this lesson we only used 1 match of data, however we recommend collecting data on at least 5 matches to get a better overview of your game. This is the most effective way to improve your singles game, because the majority of points are in this 1-4 shot category.

Tennis players all over the world from juniors, to college, to pros are using this data to get better every day. It’s becoming the new standard for tennis improvement.

To get this data for your matches, purchase a Tennis Analytics player package and they will create custom reports for you. You’ll also get access to video analysis of your matches. It the fastest and easiest way to analyze your tennis game and improve your singles strategy.

Will Boucek

About the author

Will Boucek is the Founder & CEO of The Tennis Tribe. He has played and coached tennis for over two decades. Will is a strategy analyst for ATP & WTA tour players and coaches. He also tests the latest tennis racquets, shoes, & other gear from Wilson, Babolat, Head, Prince, and other tennis brands. He currently lives in Fort Worth, Texas where he plays USTA leagues & tournaments.

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