Accepting Errors

With Roy Emerson

If you never miss a return of serve, is that a good thing?  Never double fault, a good thing?  Maybe NOT.

Emmo’s Edict

For my 15 years of going to Newk’s camp and being coached by the great Roy Emerson, it has been pounded into my head to “never miss a return of serve.”  But I found myself being too conservative and not really going for enough on my returns and emailed Roy…

Dear Roy, I played a doubles match yesterday in which I did NOT miss one return of serve … but I am now questioning if that is a good goal!

I have adopted that mantra and objective (and have gotten the reputation as The Guy Who Never Misses a Return of Serve); but I fear that in striving for that, my returns (while in) are not aggressive enough. What do you think?  Thanks,

The great Aussie legend called me to discuss the topic; but essentially said, “Yes, depending on the score of the game, you should go for more on your return … but still get it in!”

Putting that last phrase aside, I do now think being too conservative can be a negative; and sometimes you have to “go for it.”

Double Fault More

This is also true on the serve.  How many players do you know who blast that first serve (with a very low % of balls in play) and then just poke that second serve over the net?  That blooper serve just sits there asking to be crushed back for a winner.

Better to do two things…

  • Take something off the first serve, in order to get a higher percentage in, and
  • Hit the second serve with more pace … and accept an occasional double fault.

What do you think?

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6 thoughts on “Accepting Errors

  1. Absolutely! If I’m receiving at 40- love or 4-15, and I’m looking at a 2nd serve, (or even a first serve for that matter) I’m thinking “go for it!” I wanna hit something big and force the point!

    Jim, the right attitude! thanks, george

  2. It’s all about winning points – right? We can “poke” that 2nd serve in every time and win 40% of the points, or hit the 2nd serve with authority, double fault occasionally, and win 60% of the points.

    On your returns, if you can hit every return “in” and are happy with the percentage of points you win then why change? But if you “just” get the ball in but can never break their serve you should go for more. And no reason not to, if you’re not breaking their serve once in awhile anyway.

    Terry, correct … if you are not breaking serve, what do you have to lose by going for more? thanks, george

  3. This is a very rich topic, George. It addresses a lot about why and how people go about playing tennis.

    Consistency is most important. But there are also these two topics:
    – how truly do we apply pressure to an opponent?
    – how do we seek to build skills in the quest for improvement?

    On the first question, I used to play someone who indeed rarely missed a return. He also hardly did much more with second serve returns than first serve returns. So given that, I had reasonable success hitting my second serve first and coming to net. Why not? But just think if he’d been willing on a number of second serves to go for a bit more. I don’t call this a risk. I call this applying pressure and letting the opponent know it in a variety of ways — more pace, perhaps come in on the return, even a drop shot, etc.

    The second question is broader: Do we want to merely own the skills that help us beat the same cohort group? I strongly doubt this. Lots of people want to beat those better players. So the way to do that is to build the skills — power, depth, variety — that can make that happen. Sure, beat the regular dudes with that puff-ball second serve. But why not practice something better vs. your mates? Again, though, I’m struck by the complacency of so many recreational players that in turn triggers decline rather than ascent.

    Joel, first, great to receive one of your well thought out responses. And second, i too cannot comprehend the senior athlete who accepts decline in their conditioning and their game. I plan to fight till the grave! thanks, george

  4. Hi George,
    For eons, general surgeons had a dictum that if you are not taking out 10% normal appendices, you are not aggressive enough about making the diagnosis. The concern was, obviously, that if you sat too long contemplating, it might rupture with more serious consequences.
    I am now retired for 11 years. I suspect the ubiquitous use of MRI machines has refined the diagnosis substantially, but the same original principle applies to your question.
    And if you’re not going to hit an aggressive return on a 2nd serve, when are you?

    Doc, Yikes! I would rather double fault. george

  5. George, I think the point of all of this (which the prior commentators nicely illustrate) is a good tennis player will balance things like placement and power against consistency , all the while also taking into consideration the score. In fact, this is kind of what Brad Gilbert’s match philosophy is all about in his book, Winning Ugly.

    I actually had this issue come up in a doubles match last night. I was receiving at 0-40 on the ad side for a critical break that would put my partner and myself up 5-2 in the set. The server is left handed, but is not as strong of a player as his partner, who was standing at net. The serve pulled me a bit wide and, so, I was left with the return options of (1) trying to hit a forcing backhand cross court but that would have put my return right into the forehand of the advancing server, (2) trying to hit a short delicate slice that would drop in the middle and land low to the backhands of both the right handed net man and the left handed advancing server but that is not an easy shot and if it is hit too high either of them would have a fairly easy backhand volley and if it is hit too low it would go into the net, (3) trying to hit a backhand into the alley by the net man but that would have to be hit pretty well and hard to prevail considering that it is going to his forehand, or (4) trying to hit a lob over the net man’s head.

    I chose the lob. And I just missed the baseline by about 2 inches.

    Whereupon my partner jumped all over me…. “That was a stupid shot. Why didn’t you just hit the ball up the middle hard? Why go for a lob off your backhand? Why hit the lob so deep?” Etc.

    Clearly, he doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to doubles. I told him I played the percentages in consideration of the return options that were open to me, and taking into account the score and that I could afford to be more aggressive when receiving at 0-40 than if the score had been ad in, for example. I also told him the mere fact that I missed the lob by a few inches deep does not mean that the shot that I tried was the wrong shot under the circumstances. While there were other choices, the option that I picked seemed to be the best when considering all of the factors. I don’t think he still got it after my explanation, but at least it shut up his criticism.

    The very next point, receiving from the deuce side at 15-40, my partner tried to hit a forehand return right up the line into the alley of the left handed approaching server, who easily punched a perfect forehand volley winner deep and near the baseline between my partner and myself. I resisted the urge to jump all over him: “Why did you hit such a stupid shot right at the net rushing server, and especially why did you hit it right into his forehand?” I said nothing, but I think he could tell there was a profound difference between my prior return that was NOT a stupid shot but just missed and his return that clearly WAS a stupid shot and definitely not the right shot to try under the circumstances.

    All ended well however, when the server HIMSELF hit a stupid serve to me at 30-40 on the next point right into my forehand. I clobbered a hard forehand return right into the solar plexus of the net man, who flubbed the volley completely, winning the point and the game for us and making the score 5-2 on our serve. My partner managed to serve out the next game at love when I was able to successfully poach for three of the four points in the game, and there went the set for us.

    Sometimes I think a lot of players just don’t think on the court at all. Thinking is important in singles, but it is absolutely critical in doubles.

    Marty, as i was reading your “return options,” i thought myself… LOB, which is what you chose. Speaking of “choosing,” time to choose another partner. thanks, george

  6. George, I agree that the guy I was paired with is not my ideal partner. In fact, he is probably my least favorite partner of all the guys in the group. He is primarily a singles player who literally has just one decent shot in his arsenal — a flat, hard and difficult to read forehand — but he has no backhand, little variety, truly awful volleys, a mediocre lob, a nearly pathological fear of coming to the net, and practically no doubles instincts.

    But it was a Wednesday night, indoor tennis, “mix and match” men’s doubles league where you (player 1) play the first set with player 2, the second with player 3, and the third with player 4, and the other guys also rotate accordingly. Whoever wins the most sets with different partners wins the bragging rights that evening. Even though the quality of players is uneven, I do enjoy having to get used to different styles and levels of doubles prowess among partners because I think it improves everyone’s game over time to have to deal with that variety.

    Marty, i have been in the same situation. You just hold your nose and play the match. thanks, george

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