In poker, every hand has certain odds tied to it.
Let’s say you’re playing Texas Hold’em against 8 other people and you have two Jacks. The flop shows a Jack, 6, and 2 – all different suits. At this point, if you’re a good poker player, you know that you have about a 72% chance of winning the hand (I’m not a good poker player. I looked it up). The other 8 people combined have less than a 28% chance.
Obviously, you’re at an advantage and should bet heavily.
In tennis, at any given point in a match, you have certain odds to win the match. If you zoom in, the same is true for any given point. On every shot, you have certain odds to win the point you’re playing. Of course, it’s not as easy to determine as poker, but the best tennis players in the world find ways to give themselves the advantage no matter who they play.
I’ll use an example to help.
I know that my serve is not the strongest part of my game. So when I’m starting a point on my serve I might have a 60% chance of winning the point. Let’s say I’m serving on the ad side, and I make the serve. The return is a short ball to my backhand. My forehand is stronger than my backhand. If I have a 60% chance of winning the point by hitting a backhand here, I can run around it and increase my odds to say, 85% by hitting a forehand. This is me consciously tilting the odds in my favor.
You probably do this all the time, but you’ve never thought of it this way. The challenge though isn’t running around your backhand and increasing your chance to win. Most players know how to do that.
What your typical doubles player misses, is tilting the odds away from the other team’s favor. Put another way, controlling the other team so they hit low percentage shots.
Again, let’s look an example.
In one doubles match, our opponent was ripping crosscourt forehands against my partner’s serve. This, of course, isn’t uncommon in doubles matches. My partner was struggling to get it to their backhand, and we got broken two out of her three service games. I had tried poaching, but they were hitting it so low and with such an angle that I couldn’t get to it.
Most people might try Australian doubles at this point, which could work, but I recommend creating some extra movement.
Instead, I just made a small change.
I started poaching so early that they had to go down the line. I actually gave them the shot. The next game we won at 40-15, and I never even hit a volley. The player that was hitting the crosscourt forehands tried to go down the line on all three of their returns. She made one out of three.
That strategic doubles adjustment tilted the odds of them winning those deuce service points from 70% to 33%, and I didn’t even have to hit a volley.
Anytime you’re on the court, you should always be thinking of ways to make the other team hit lower percentage shots like this. Whether it’s poaching, or hitting it to their backhand, or some combination of strategies. Change it up until you find something that works, then stick with it.
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Will Boucek is the Founder & CEO of The Tennis Tribe. He has played tennis for over two decades, including in college. Will has worked with ATP & WTA tour players and coaches. He currently lives in Austin TX where he plays USTA leagues & tournaments, writes about tennis, and teaches doubles workshops.