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Point Importance is Real and Important!

by Bob Schewior, USPTA Professional

The following article is a response to USPTA Master Professional Ron Woods’ article, “Why There Are No Key Points In Tennis”, which appeared in the March 2018 issue of ADDvantage. ADDvantage Magazine and the USPTA welcome the discourse and advancement of differing points of view promoting a healthy exchange of ideas and coaching philosophies. As with all article submissions, the opinion of the writer do not necessarily reflect the views of the USPTA.

I read Ron Woods’ article, “Why There Are No Key Points In Tennis” in the March edition of ADDvantage with great interest. I could not agree more with his talking points about process vs. outcome. However, his message about “key points”, the main idea of the article, is something I would like to discuss. Economists have studied “point importance” in tennis to see how people respond to increased levels of stress. Their research indicates that “point importance” can be quantified and it is real. This contrasts with Woods’ claim: “Adding more value or importance to any one point over another is simply a trick of your mind that often leads to failure.” I suspect, and I will go on to argue, that it is not that points do not differ in importance, but rather that some players are not very good at handling the increased stress. Our goal as teachers is to help our students to handle the high levels of stress which important points may elicit. I say may because good practice habits and a well-disciplined between points regimen can definitely change the way that players prepare for and handle the important moments.

There is an obvious difference between the value of the 0-0, 40-0 point and the value of a point at 5-all and deuce. Intuitively, all serious players understand this. As I noted above, these differences may actually be quantified using a concept called the “Importance of the Point.” The importance of a point is equal to the probability of winning a match given that a player wins that point minus the probability of winning the match given that he loses the point. Because point importance generates a quantifiable result, it is a fact based upon probabilities. The actual numerical values are not important. However, these values do serve the purpose of illustrating the relative importance of points at different scores. Any competitive player should familiarize himself with the relative values of points so that he is able to make a near instantaneous assessment of their importance. As I explain below, this will be an invaluable ingredient in helping your players to set the correct level of risk-taking - the correct balance between aggression and patience.

Point importance values rise at the end of a game (higher at deuce than at 15-all), at the end of a set (higher at 5-all than 1-all), and at the end of a match (higher in the third set than either of the first two).

Understanding the score and incorporating this understanding into your game plan and shot selection by adjusting the gear at which you play and the target which you choose at any given moment of a match is a crucial element in winning matches. Here is an example from a match between Roger Federer and David Ferrer at the year-end championships in London in 2011 which illustrates a change in target based upon the score.

At 5-all 15-40 in the first set, Ferrer missed his first serve. Point importance considerations should have Federer attempting to be extra aggressive at this moment. He was. He hit a high pace forehand right down the middle, but missed the shot long by a couple of inches. By attacking down the middle, Federer was taking away the possibility of a sideline error. He was attempting to make Ferrer play from a weakened position without going for a winner. Although he missed this shot, he went on to break and win the first set 7-5. In the first game of the second set, Ferrer again went down 15-40 and second serve. Federer again was very aggressive, but this time he hit his forehand right in the corner for a winner! The point importance at this moment was lower than the prior 15-40 point and Federer took advantage of this by choosing a riskier target. Top players go for their riskiest shots at the least important moments (most of the time – pros can’t be too predictable!) The causal chain looks like this: lower importance means less pressure means better chance of hitting one’s target.

Point importance is real because all of the underlying principles of good tennis, like Percentage Tennis, are grounded in probabilities. The 4-D System which I’ve developed in my book Deconstructing Tennis provides a simple four -step process which players should always go through during the time between points.
  1. See what happened
  2. Adjust/plan for the next point
  3. Relax
  4. Remind yourself to see the blur of the racquet at contact
The score is a part of Step #2. But once the score has been used to set the appropriate gear/target, it is forgotten! Steps #3 and #4, which are crucial for executing the plan, help to mitigate against trying too hard (Relax!) and not watching the ball until contact (play the opponent and not the ball!)
Finally, consider the following thought experiment: You and I are very evenly-matched and we are each given three points that we can claim at any time. I will assign you the first point in each of your first three service games. I, on the other hand, will wait until a break point (or maybe even 30-all if you are a big server) until I use my points (or not?). Or, I may wait to use them when I am down 30-40 on my own serve. Remember, we are evenly matched and we both get three free points. Who do you think is going to win most of our matches?

About Bob Schewior
Bob Schewior has been a USPTA professional for over 25 years and has been director of tennis at the Chestnut Ridge Racquet Club in Mt. Kisco, New York since 1976. His playing accomplishments include playing No. 1 at Rutgers University 1971-73 and ranked in the Top 20 Men’s Singles in the ETA six times between 1976 and 1985. In 1988 and 1991, he was ranked in the Top 20 nationally in Men’s 35 and 40 Singles respectively as well as a No. 6 national ranking in Men’s 35 Doubles in 1988. Bob oversees all lessons and programs at CRRC.
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