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Percentage Tennis...the odds are in your favor

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Most of us have heard tennis commentators on television refer to playing percentage tennis. They usually imply that playing percentage tennis is a wise tactic and that the individual who is playing this type of tennis will likely win. Well, I couldn't agree more! Players like Michael Chang are probably the best at percentage tennis. But what does this concept really mean?

Really, there are several levels to percentage tennis. First, playing points in certain ways regardless of your playing style results in percentage tennis. Second, percentage tennis actually changes to some degree depending on what surface you are playing. Finally, each player's strengths and weaknesses determines her/his own unique percentage tennis style.

Let's begin with some universal attributes of percentage tennis:

  1. When hitting groundstrokes, percentage tennis dictates that you hit the ball with high net clearance. The purpose of this is simple...to keep the ball, and thus, the opponent deep. To do this, you probably will hit the ball with less effort (unless you hit with severe topspin) and as a result, you will become fatigued less easily. So, percentage tennis requires that you give groundstrokes some "air."

  2. When rallying with groundstrokes, hit 80% to 90% of these shots crosscourt. By doing this, you will have the ball cross the net at its lowest point, have the largest margin for error (since hitting on diagonals mean that the maximum court length comes into play), and you avoid giving your opponent a winning angle (as could occur if you hit down the line...your opponent's reply to this could force you to have to scramble for a ball hit wide and away from where you struck the down the line shot). Percentage tennis, means hitting goundies crosscourt.

  3. When hitting an approach shot, hit 80% to 90% of these shots straight ahead of where you are. If you are in the center of the court, hit the approach to your opponent's center. If you are near the deuce court's sideline, hit the ball straight ahead to your opponent's ad court sideline (leave room for error), etc. By doing this, you will minimize the angles for passing you that the opponent can exploit. Percentage tennis dictates that approaches be hit straight ahead.

  4. When volleying, expect to hit at least two volleys to win the point. The first volley should be the setup volley for the second. Hit the first volley in a manner that is "safe" (the placement that is most likely to go in!!!). On the second volley, you can try to win the point. But, be prepared to hit a third (or even a fourth) volley if necessary.Percentage tennis requires that you are prepared to hit more than one volley to win the point.

  5. When serving, get the first serve in!!! If this means that you reduce the pace of the first serve...so be it. Big serves that are out do you no good. However, if your first serve is on...don't be timid. Go for the ace. Most of us have played matches where our serves were off. In these situations, just get the first serve in. Try for placement rather than for power...especially, on critical points. Percentage tennis implies that you will get the first serve in at any cost!

  6. When in trouble or in a defensive situation, lob!!! I can't tell you how many times I see college or club players go for winning shots when they are in an "emergency" situation. The lob will buy you time to get pack into position and equally important, keep your opponent deep! Percentage tennis means using the lob to get back into the point.

  7. Most tennis surfaces (except those that are very fast or grass) mandate that a player be patient and wait for the opportunity to hit winners. Short balls, high volleys, overheads and times when your opponent is out of court are such opportunities. However, even these opportunities are riskier when the score is deuce or ad against you. I learned to avoid reckless winners... especially when the score is critical. Percentage tennis means that you are patient and wait for good opportunities to go for winners.

Surface is certainly an important factor to be considered in percentage tennis. Really in the modern game there exist three types of surfaces clay (red clay and green clay), hardcourts (ranging from slow to extremely fast indoor surfaces) and grass (almost always fast with low, unpredictable bounces). For the purposes of percentage tennis the player needs to assess two factors about surface: speed and height of ball bounce. Fortunately, these two factors are usually interconnented. Slow courts usually make the ball bounce higher, and fast courts usually force the ball to "skip" and stay low after the bounce.

Here are my guidelines for surfaces and percentage tennis:


  • Hit groundstrokes higher and deeper...perhaps, with less pace.
  • Use more topspin, but be careful not to hit groundstrokes short.
  • Don't go for aces on the serve nor is it wise to serve and volley. (an occasional serve and volley at 40-Love or 40-15 is okay)
  • On short balls, don't be afraid to drop shot or go for short angles.
  • Don't try to end points quickly...you usually won't be able to! Fitness is key. If you or your opponent aren't prepared to run, you or she/he are at a severe disadvantage. Always run the opponent on these surfaces...test his/her fitness. He/she may fade in the latter stages of the match. Be patient!!!

  • As the name suggests, this surface favors all style of play. My advice...mix it up!!! Play serve and volley, baseline and big serve tennis styles...whatever is working or feels good. The best thing about these surfaces is that you can change a losing strategy very easily to another approach...you have lots of options with respect to playing style. Use them!

  • Serve and volley is the best strategy here...especially on grass (a rule on grass: never let the ball touch the ground...volley!)
  • Big first serves are a plus on these surfaces. If you've have one, use it!
  • Fitness is not as critical here. If your opponent or you aren't in top shape...it may not matter...rallies will be few.
  • Slice shots and short angle volleys are great on these surfaces.
  • Going for winners on these surfaces makes better sense than on others.
  • Hit the groundstroke flatter, harder and lower to the net.
  • Usually on these surfaces, you either win big or lose big...be prepared for either.

Regardless of what surface you are playing, percentage tennis demands that you stay with a winning strategy and change a losing strategy. If you are down two breaks in a set or down a set and a break, you have to change something!!! Unfortunately, slow and fast surfaces do not permit as many options for change as do medium surfaces. In future articles, I'll share my thoughts on what to change, when and why.

Finally, percentage tennis means that you understand your strengths and weaknesses and those of your opponent. The rule here is incredibly simple. Hit 80% of your shots to your opponent's weakness...until she/he begins to improve this weakness (and she/he invariably will as the match goes on...if not, you are in luck). When this diminishing weakness occurs, try to hit shots that will force your opponent to hit to your strengths (trial and error will inform you what kind of replies your opponent will likely give to each shot you feed her/him...just pay attention to her/his patterns!!!). These simple actions will increase the likelihood that you will win...immensely.

As ending thought, don't change the direction of a ball in the following situations:

  1. if it is hit with a lot of pace
  2. if it is hit to your weaker wing
  3. if it is hit with lots of slice or if it skips off the surface

Rather, in these situations, it is better to hit the ball back in the direction from which it came.

Well, these are my "basics" regarding percentage tennis. In future articles, I will tie these basics to specific situations and specific styles of play. However, if you follow these basic tenets of percentage tennis faithfully, you'll soon become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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