Winners vs. Errors?

When you watch pro tennis on TV, the announcers are always talking about “the number of winners vs. errors.”  When we all play, we have no real idea of OUR numbers; but what is a good ratio?

The Obvious Answer

Well obviously, you want to hit substantially more winners than unforced errors; but, is it better to have higher numbers in both categories or lower numbers in both categories?

It would seem to me that if you have BOTH a high number of winners and errors that means you are going for a lot on your shots … and that your play will dictate the outcome of the match.  In other words, if you make your winners, you win … and if you miss your shots, you lose.

Less is More?

On the other hand, if you make fewer winners and hardly any errors, is that bad?  I would think that means your game is based on consistency … and perhaps relying on your opponent(s) going for their shots and making errors.

I would think that the best ratio is to have more winners than errors and MODEST numbers in both categories.  That would seem to mean you are not just a retriever; but will go for the opening when it presents itself… but that you will hit with “controlled aggression” and make few errors.

What do you think and what kind of game do YOU play … or want to play?

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10 thoughts on “Winners vs. Errors?

  1. Once I’ve sized up the opponents, (‘m mostly doubles) the analysis will generally dictate how I play and how often I go winners. I also use the score to guide me through this. For instance, at 40 love, I’m often more inclined to go for the big winner. I also want to show my opponents that I keep unforced errors to a minimum, and they’re going to have hit winners to win points. Easier said than done! Thanks George!

    Jim, one strategy tip i got from a pro: try to make zero errors during the warmup with your opponent. That helps you be more consistent and sends a message to the other side of the net! thanks, george

  2. I have always taken the view that at ‘our’ level it isn’t the winners which win you matches, it’s the errors which lose them. It is after all a percentage game, so timing is crucial. I’m talking here about Singles, very different when playing Doubles.

    Howard, and from watching you play at Newk’s you play virtually error-free tennis! thanks. Has the situation changed at all in Britain? george

  3. i used to have the strategy of hit a big serve, make no unforced errors and get to the net. hmmm.

    Joe, and how long ago was that?! thanks, george

  4. It seems to me that while winners vs unforced errors is a worthwhile concept but doesn’t tell the full story. Even pros will make lots of unforced errors and few winners against a player that is forcing them to continually hit balls from awkward positions especially deep forcing balls. I saw Gilles Simon take both Nadal (at the French Open) and Djokovic (at Aussie Open) to 5 sets without a lot of winners of his own but creating lots of errors by his opponents by absorbing their power and in return giving them few opportunities for outright winners. While he didn’t win either match, one had to respect that he came close to winning with excellent strategy and very good execution. All unforced errors are not created equally … sometimes it’s truly “unforced” due to a loss of concentration or going for too much and other times it’s the result of an excellent opponent executing a smart game plan consistently.

    Joe, agree… what is labeled as “unforced” is frequently caused by the opponent’s shot. In fact, i just read a piece by one of Novak’s team that says his strength is making his opponent play poorly. thanks, george

  5. To Jim Marcus’s comment about taking the risk at 40-love, I like the idea of NOT going for the big shot and if at all possible, making my opponent work really hard for that point. If I do win it, then great, I get the game. But if I lose it, I send him the message that he’s got a long way to go still. He just worked his butt off and it’s still two more to go just to get even. Maybe he sees a big mountain to climb and gets discouraged? That’s kind of my hope. Probably easier to apply to singles than doubles.

    Mike, a tennis pro friend says, “Serving at 40-love, you have six first serves to win the game.” george

  6. George,
    Having charted probably over a 1000 matches, I can add:
    1. Crucial statistics are only relevant in competitive matches. In a 6-1, 6-1 early round match often the winners will outnumber errors on the winning side and the errors may be prolific on the losing side.
    2. In competitive matches (where either player may win) at a 4.0 level or under, usually errors outnumber winners, and usually these statistics apply:
    A. When “trying” to hit a winner, a player will make an error 80% of the time.
    B. 80% of all winners are “by circumstance or accident.”
    Up to a 4.0 level, I encourage keeping the ball in play until a winner happens. At higher levels players are often more proficient at offensive skills and can make winners happen (but will still make errors if they are impatient).
    You’ve probably heard me laud patience as perhaps the greatest tennis weapon!

    Spike, good stuff! thanks, george

  7. Right now I would like to play like either Fred Drilling or Doug Welsh…..those 2 just don’t miss very much and that puts a lot of pressure on all of us who play against them. Patience has never been my strong suit (sorry, Spike!), so I have trouble against super steady players….if I were on the Pro Tour (…IF!!!), David Ferrer and Giles Simon would tear me to pieces!!

    Scoot, but something to be said for the somewhat aggressive player (who has a super cross court, slice back hand)! thanks, george

  8. George, I realize I am about to critique the very point of your post, but I respectfully suggest that, with we old people/ amateur tennis enthusiasts, the ratio of winners to errors is the wrong focus.

    At our age and level of play, it is not how many outright winners we make that decides a match. It is how many times we can keep getting the ball over the net before the opponent is the first one to make a mistake, including trying to hit a winner that doesn’t work. In short, we ought to strive for as few errors as possible, all the while not letting up appreciably in the overall pace, depth, spin, disguise, and direction of the balls that we hit.

    Yes, we can and should be going for winners. But they should not be the same kind of winners that we are used to seeing the pros hit on TV. We should not be trying to hit the crap out of the ball at 100% so the opponent is simply beaten with power and pace. Instead, we should be playing most balls at 80% with depth and/or angle and we should be trying to keep the ball in play long enough and strategically enough that we get the opponent out of position. Then, the NEXT ball that we hit will qualify as a winner, but it really isn’t because it is just the reward that we give ourselves for being allowed to hit a ball into a spot that the opponent cannot reach or respond to.

    To summarize: I would suggest forgetting about the whole winners versus errors debate. We should just resolve to make as few mistakes as possible while at the same time always being alert to opportunities to play the entire court and to maneuver the opponent into either being the first to make an error or setting us up for an easy putaway.

    When I have played my best, it has always been with this mindset. When I have played the crappiest, it has usually been by trying too hard to hit winners that actually turn into errors because I am trying to be better than I really am.

    Marty, but as i read it, you are totally agreeing … keeping the ball in play is equal to not making errors; and putting the ball where your opponent can’t get to it is the very definition of a Winner. thanks, george

  9. George, what I am saying is there are “winners”, and then there are “WINNERS”. So, I don’t think I really am saying the same thing as you. To attempt to clarify:

    A WINNER in my definition is an innately offensive shot (even if hit from a defensive position, like an around the net post shot that lands on the line next to the alley, or a perfectly placed lob off your back foot that lands on the opponent’s baseline) that wins the point outright. A WINNER is either hit with so much power, or with so much spin, or with so much disguise, or into such an impossibly good spot, that the opponent just doesn’t have a chance getting the ball back no matter how good the opponent may be. For example, a WINNER can be an unexpected drop shot that an opponent cannot get to from his being camped out 6 feet behind the baseline, but it can also be a screaming 95 mph crosscourt topspin forehand that is just totally unplayable by the opponent no matter where he is standing on the court.

    By contrast, a winner is a shot that still wins the point, but it is not because THAT particular shot is so good by itself. Rather, it is because you have somehow managed to set yourself up with a prior shot, or more often a strategically played sequence of prior shots, and you have put yourself into a position where all you have to do is easily put away the next shot to win the point. That put away is the winner.

    Therefore, a service ace is, by definition, a WINNER. But an otherwise returnable serve that slides into the opponent’s body and forces him to mishit the return may or may not be a WINNER. If the serve into the body completely fools the receiver and he flubs the return totally, that could also be a WINNER. But if the return happens to still make it over the net, weakly, and the server then steps forward and hits an easy first shot after the serve into the open court, that is a winner but it is not a WINNER.

    Why is this distinction important? Because it bears on the error column. That is, the more we attempt WINNERS, the more the error column goes up — no matter what our individual skill level may be. This is universally true, at every skill level. But an increase in errors is not necessarily the case when we are hitting winners. This is because by playing with controlled but not excessive aggression and focusing more on moving the opponent around and putting him out of position but not making errors overall, we are in reality setting ourselves up for an easy shot (the winner) to finish off the point. We are avoiding having even to attempt a hard shot (a WINNER) in doing so.

    Therefore, while there genuinely is an inverse relationship between the amount of errors that we make and the number of WINNERS that we hit, if we play the game properly we can use our lack of errors as an offensive tactic by itself to also allow us to hit the maximum number of winners and to prevail in our matches. So this is why I prefer to focus on keeping the error column down, instead of attempting to keep the WINNER column up, in playing matches.

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