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The Truth about Unforced Errors
“Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts.” – Nikki Giovanni
No tennis statistic is more emphasized but less understood than unforced errors.
UEs happen when a player hits the ball into the net or beyond the baseline or sidelines without being pressured much or at all. Because he's beating himself, it becomes much easier for his opponent to beat him.
In his 1950 instruction book, How To Play Better Tennis, all-time great Bill Tilden sagaciously observed, “Tennis matches are always lost on errors and never won by placements.” It seems almost heretical, therefore, to question the widely accepted importance of unforced errors. But the time has come to put UEs into proper perspective. So let the analyses begin.
Not all unforced errors are created equal – Unforced errors committed when you're leading 30-love, 40-love, or 40-15 are the most forgivable. So are UEs when you are way ahead in the set, such as 4-0, 5-0, or 5-1, although you certainly don't want to become complacent or over-confident, regardless of the score.
UEs on the first point of games, especially service games, add unwanted pressure, and UEs with the score deuce are frustrating and can prove costly. Because every point in a tiebreaker is precious, an unforced error or two can make the difference between winning and losing the set or even the match. Rafael Nadal suffered that sad fate in the Sony Ericsson Open final. Two unforced errors – a double fault and a mistimed backhand return of an 87-mph second serve – ruined his chances in the deciding tiebreaker of Novak Djokovic's thrilling 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 triumph. But nothing is more damaging and demoralizing than making a UE on game point, set point, or heaven forbid, match point.
Click photo: Maria Sharapova commits a lot of errors, but she also hits a lot of winners. That is because she goes for so many power shots.
Look at your shot selection – If your unforced errors come when you’re simply trying to rally and keep the ball in play, the cause is often nervousness or lack of concentration. This type of UE is inexcusable. However, if you’re attacking and err while trying for a makeable shot, as exasperating as that is, you can at least take comfort in knowing your strategy, if not your execution, was sound. In her 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 victory over tenacious Alexandra Dulgheru at the Sony Ericsson Open, Maria Sharapova committed a whopping 86 errors, almost all of them, except for double faults, coming on power shots. Another way of analyzing this statistically is comparing your total unforced errors with the number of your winners, plus the forced errors made by your opponent.
What kind of unforced errors are you making? – If your UEs are missing by several feet, you have to figure out why. Are you hitting too hard? Do you have stroke defects that must be corrected? Are you panicking? On the other hand, if you’re missing by inches but hitting the ball solidly and confidently, give yourself a greater margin of error with either more net clearance or safer placement inside the sidelines and baseline. More topspin and/or less power will help you accomplish that.
Click photo: Heavy winds or other adverse circumstances can lead to unforced errors. Andre Agassi, with his relatively short backswings, was one of the great wind players.
Take into account existing conditions – The forehand approach shot is one of Roger Federer’s most devastating weapons. Yet the Swiss superstar badly mishit that shot into the net on championship point in the sensational 2008 Wimbledon final against Nadal. In his defense, the last game was played in near-darkness. Heavy winds, blinding sun, extreme heat, rain, a bad bounce (particularly on grass) or other adverse circumstances can also induce unforced errors.
Other numbers affect unforced errors – Forty unforced errors are a lot if you play a two-set match that has 100 total points, but 40 UEs are a low figure if you wind up in a five-set marathon requiring 300 total points. Another way to think of unforced errors is in relationship to total shots during a given point.
With the near-extinction of serving and volleying, rallies have become longer. An unforced error at the end of a grueling 20-shot exchange is more excusable – all other things being equal – than after a point lasting five shots. Finally, 30 unforced errors in a three-set victory should be evaluated differently if 25 come in a horrendous second set, as opposed to 30 UEs in a three-set loss with 10 coming in each set.
Click photo: Give your opponent credit – Nadal's vicious, high-bouncing forehands often induce forced errors, especially on the backhand side.
Give your opponent credit – Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray all possess the speed, agility, flexibility, athleticism and stroke technique to thwart all but the best offensive shots of their opponents. Sooner or later, their frustrated and sometimes desperate opponents start making unforced errors. When you face a defensive standout, your UEs may increase too. Give him credit for his terrific defense. But never lose your composure or start feeling sorry for yourself – and always keep fighting.
Tennis has evolved enormously – No major international sport, except perhaps basketball, has changed as much since its invention. Rackets, strings, strokes, surfaces, rules, and training methods as well as the size and athleticism of players all contrive to make our sport more powerful and faster-paced than ever. Many so-called unforced errors today would be ruled forced errors 50, or even 25, years ago. Official scorers of tennis are to blame nowadays for judging far too many errors as unforced.
Years ago, a few respected baseball writers used to double as official scorers and decided whether a fielder should be charged with an error or a batter should be credited with a hit. These quite fallible writers were eventually replaced by experts focusing only on official scoring. Game statistics for players are far more important to baseball fans than are match statistics to tennis fans (although coaches use them to great effect). However, pro tennis can certainly upgrade this area with highly knowledgeable official scorers.
What’s the solution? – When asked about Nadal’s viciously spinning lefty forehand two years ago, Federer candidly told reporters that returning it is a formidable challenge. Andy Roddick likened facing the Nadal forehand to “Chinese water torture.” Can an error against a Nadal forehand ever be called “unforced”? Only rarely.
Every top 10 man and most of the top 10 women also boast explosive shots and can sustain their aggression, as can many top 100 players on both tours. As a result, unforced errors have become much less common. The time has come for tennis to add a third category – called semi-forced errors – to the current forced and unforced errors categories. Semi-forced errors would do justice to the many errors that, for various reasons, are neither totally forced nor unforced. This new category would also promote a more accurate and nuanced analysis of match errors by TV commentators, writers and coaches as well as of how players of all levels can reduce them.
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The Two-handed Forehand at the Pro Level
Dave Smith follows up his two-handed forehand article from last issue with this analysis of the two-handed forehand at the pro level. Using Marion Bartoli and Shuai Peng as his models, Dave takes you step-by-step through the key elements of the stroke, from take back to followthrough and talks about the advantages and disadvantages of this hybrid stroke. If have you thoughts about using the two-handed for hand for your own game or as a teaching tool, this would be an excellent starting point.
Get a Grip… A Continental Grip
For many, the Continental grip is the tennis equivalent of spinach-we know it’s good for us but we can’t bear to swallow it. Plus, in today’s game where open stances, vicious topspin and groundstroke dominated points get all the publicity, it’s easy to brush the grip aside as something that might be nice to have but not really needed to be a high level player. Don’t make this mistake. The Continental grip is a vital aspect of the game and failing to learn it could easily relegate you to a long life of tennis mediocrity. Greg Moran
ProStrokes 2.0 – Jurgen Melzer's Forehand
This 29 year old Austrian journeyman is having something of a late career Renaissance. He is presently ranked 9th on the ATP world tour and to reach his career best ranking he holds wins in 2010 and 2011 over Gilles Simon, Marcos Baghdatis, Rafael Nadal (Shanghai World Tour Masters) Juan Carlos Ferrero, Feliciano Lopez and Novak Djokovic (Roland Garros). Left handed, nothing flashy, he just goes about his business on court. Jurgen has amassed over $6 million dollars in prize money in a 12 year career.
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