What's on the Menu? Pricing Resources About Us Blog Get Started Login

Making Volleys Great Again

podcasts May 08, 2020

Marc
Thanks for joining us again here on Crunching the Numbers, you have myself Marc Sophoulis and the one and only Shane Liyanage from Data Driven Sports Analytics. Shane thank you so much for joining us.

Shane
Hi everyone. Thanks Marc.

Marc
Yeah, great to be back. Obviously, crunching our numbers once again Shane, we’ve obviously been in contact throughout the last week and there's obviously plenty of people out there online starting to come up with so many ways we can stay involved in tennis and I'm really glad to see that and obviously we want to continue to give tennis a platform to continue to grow in this challenging time in isolation, but Shane we've be doing some discussion and having a really good chat based around volleys and netplay which is going to be a bit of a theme for today. You've given me these stats which I was just bamboozled by regarding the game where it was, you know, 20 years ago to where the game is now and you know the reasons why people coming in or not coming in anymore and do you want to shed some light on some of the things that you discussed with me earlier regarding, you know where the game has gone now in terms of data and analytics around net play.

Shane
Yeah, absolutely. And firstly I might start off saying, I've been seeing a lot of volley drills, hosted by Federer, Murray, Dojokovic online so it's, it does inspire me as a player that played literally in the 90s and early 2000s. I like to come to the net a little bit so I am inspired seeing more volley drills and I'm hoping when the tour does resume we're gonna have a bit more netplay. But yeah, as Marc was saying, certainly looking at the data between the 90s and now there's a considerable difference and one of the stats that really astounded me was 80% of players started the point by serve volleying in the 90s, that's only 6% now. And then another: If you look at in totality, 93% of points, ended up with one player at the net in the 90s - only 13% now. But, almost silver lining is players are actually winning more points of the net now, so they're winning about 69% of points now compared to 66, but I thought, Marc and I can unpack that a little bit today.

Marc
Yeah, well that's, that's a huge, a huge difference. I mean, 80% serve volley back then to now 6% and 93%. And then down to 13%. When you told me that I, yeah it's amazing, but as you're saying though the winning ratio when you do come to the net these days is quite high. When I look at reasons why and we did discuss this a little bit. As you did give me the data is, I feel like players are are now waiting for that right opportunity to come in and when they do come in, it's when they know they're going to win the point as opposed to back you know years ago they would just come in, it was almost kamikaze coming into the net you know it's just, no thought process – I know I’m coming in and coming in and coming in and coming in, I'm going to pound you with that kind of that intensity and that work rate forward, whereas now it's more selective

Shane
Yeah, yes that is interesting and obviously the racquet and string technology has also changed so that kamikaze tactic in the nineties where you could come in. You almost had a little bit of confidence that the opposing player didn't have the capability to hit that passing shot by you, you’re getting a ball sort of spinning and dipping on you in the 90s and you could handle that first and second volley that would come at you and I think that's changed a little bit. I wanted to give you some more data Marc and this is just looking at success when a player has to hit one volley, two volleys, three etc. So, players, hitting one volley - The top 10 are winning 85% of points and even a player outside the top hundred is winning 73% of points if they're only having to hit one volley.

Marc
We had a good chat around this and one of the things I'm feeling like is happening at the moment is players are now, as we discussed, waiting for that opportunity to really bury the approach shot and get that volley that sitting on top of the net as opposed to back in the day (nineties) where they'd serve or approach and hit the first volley from the service line, then they close in a little bit, hit the next volley, maybe closing again and play a third volley. And now it's like okay I want to bury my ball and ensure that the player is really on defense, and I can take the court space and then I come in and can bury that volley and finish it off in one volley. And players these days don't want to spend time rallying with their volley. They want to spend the time just putting the volume away and I think the best advocate has to be Rafael Nadal. You know he hits the big heavy forehand and he just charges in and takes the volley well above the net level and gives you no chance.

So, this obviously is probably one of the reasons why these days that for one volley has such a high success rate is, and you did touch on before, technology has changed that. I think the ability to be able to pop the ball now, whether it be on approach shot or whether it be on a return to serve with the strings and the racquet technology's just incredible. So, the game speed for me has changed the way that volleys have become, and you are correct as well where you spoke about player now are fearful of serve volleying because racquet technology is so good that the return of service has become almost a weapon in the game, and not just one of those defensive skills that it used to be.

Shane
Yeah, absolutely. I suppose some other things to just highlight that, you know, going to the net is still an important play is that 27% of approaches actually end up in you not having to hit another ball, your approach and your opponent either misses it or dumps it into the net so there's still a large proportion of your approaches that you're not even having to hit that one volley.

Marc
Yeah. It's a great point. I coached a player back in 2017, I can't remember the year, but Dane Propoggia from Australia. He played Australian Open, got to the last round qualifying by having one tactic and I said to him. He was a baseball player predominantly and I wanted him to start to pressure the opponent a little bit more. And we had a goal of coming in 30 times per match. And I said I don't care how you do it, whether it's a serve volley, or whether you take the ball off the returning and come in. Thirty times per match so we had that as a target. In the three matches he played, so first round, second round, third round qualifying (he lost that third round to Kyle Edmund in the third set: 9-7 each match, basically the first two matches he came in 33 times in the first ,36 times in the second one. He won 30 points out of the 33 and the first one he wins 33 out of 37 in the second one. And in both matches, he only hit two volleys.

Shane
That's incredible!

Marc
In both matches, which is incredible to see that. And basically, what we talked about was applied pressure. If you can apply the pressure and make your opponent come up with something that they don't want to do, then we can force them into error a little bit more often. Come the third match in a 9-7 third set match that went for three and a half hours he only came in 25 times, but he won 22 of those points and only hit two volleys as well. Now, what I said to him if he had to come in maybe that five or six times more, he probably would have taken that match a little bit earlier than what he did. And it was about applying more pressure to your opponent and I think that's the biggest thing about net play, is it takes away time. It takes away space from your opponent, and it gives them a smaller target to defend into, and that is what tennis needs to become a little bit more of, is taking away time and space.

Shane
Yeah. And just sort of finish the point on that, is that says 27% of a points that are un-returned, where you're not even having to hit a volley and players talk about being fearful of being passed, they only get passed 20% of the time, so you're still ahead by approaching the net because it's a slightly better margin there. The other thing I just wanted to touch on Marc, so in the 90s when you're hitting three plus volleys, players are still winning, roughly 50% of the points - it's dropped significantly now to low 30’s. What's the difference now I suppose in terms of that sort of first, second, third volley that's sort of causing that significant difference?

Marc
Look, there's no doubt, and this is coming from probably practicality in tennis, is most young kids now developing games for me are not spending time at the net. You know that they'll do their baseline stuff and rally, maybe play some points out, but there's no real focus on coming in. And one of the problems is, is that people aren't developing the skill of the volley, like they used to. People aren't developing the slice like they used to, or the feel shots. It's all predominantly out. And people just want to see the top players hitting the ball so being and they want to be that.

If you don't spend time on something, you don't become good at something. If I don't spend time at the net, I'm never going to be good at net. So what happens then is that the players when you ask them to come in, don't have the confidence and the belief that they can volley, so they only come in when they have to. They only come in when the player's in absolute total defence, and they won't come in to play a setup volley and then take the net to play the second and third volley after that, because they don't have the confidence and the feel to be able to do it.

Growing up in our era Shane, you know, back, back in the 90s, where you would play and practice your volleys all the time - I'd be on the wall volleying every day. That was how I play tennis and I couldn't hit ground strokes, it was something that I didn't do. Because when I watch on TV players were coming in and it was how I developed my game. Now, they see plays at the back of the court and they just want to be that, they want to be Novak Djokovic. They want to be Rafael Nadal. They want to be Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova and just crack the ball from the back of the court. And if you don't encourage these players to spend time at the net they won't do it. So we need to as coaches or as tennis lovers, bring back, what is what you're saying, the data's is in your favour. If you come forward. And I definitely tell it to my players and try to encourage that, they practice the volley and come forward, but it's up to them to go away and do.

And then the other flipside of that is as a coach, I only get maybe one hour with a player per week. Now what do you prioritise? The shot that you're going to hit maybe 20 - 30% of the time in the volleys or the shots that you're doing all the time, the serve, the return, the groundstrokes? You know the predominant volume that you're doing is on the groundstrokes and the return of serve, so you know you have to as a coach prioritise where you go and this is the, you know, what do you value as a coach. What do you value as a player and then that's what you do in practice.

Shane
Yeah. So that's a great sort of dilemma scenario that you've gone through about prioritisation there. I do want to touch on something that you did with a pIayer that we work together at the Australian Open. So, David and he was certainly a player that struggled. When we started at the net and I would almost say he's a little bit fearful of being at the net. So I just want to maybe get you to talk about how you changed that mindset, how you use doubles to kind of get his singles going again.

Marc
Yeah. I think through the doubles was really important, so we spent a lot of time - this just goes back to my previous point. We actually spent a hell of a lot of time on volleys during the Australian Open period, which he had never done before, he'd never spent time at the net before, he was pretty fearful of coming in. The other tough one that David had was, he spent a lot of time as a player, three to four metres off the back of the court. So coming into the net was just not even an option. What we did was change his court space, or sorry his court positioning to take away some space and time from the opponent. So we got him playing up the court which made him crack the ball bigger and put the guy on defence and then he had more opportunity to come forward and hit his volley from inside the service line, not a metre and a half back so that was probably the biggest change for us was the court position. I think that was important and then spending time at the net.

Without those two things David would have still being in the same spot today, but he has this belief in himself now to be able to play up the court a little bit, take the time away, keep the ball bigger and put the guy in a defensive position, so you know, if you don't put the player in defence at the other end of the court you're not coming in, you're going to have to sit back and wait, and that was that biggest change and you know we valued the volleys more. I got him to understand the value of volleys and then the numbers behind it, and that was what changed his fortunes and obviously won the Australian Open doubles and then gone on to win a future in Greece playing on a hard court, which he never really liked, but now that he plays in a better court position he's able to to really play offensively on that sort of court.

Shane
I just thought - one point to sort of end on today. I know you've done a lot of great work with doubles, and worked with the Bryan Brothers as well, just for our listeners, just maybe illustrate some of the difference in volleying in the singles game and the doubles game, and I suppose the challenges of being a doubles player, so bringing that to singles and having success.

Marc
Yeah, it's a real challenge because in doubles you're starting at the net generally, and it makes it a lot easier for you to be able to volley when you're starting there, than it is when you coming in. It's definitely a challenge now, the best levels players in the world don't allow the player coming forward from the baseline to volley so the poacher, or the net player will take the volley before the play coming in gets it. So that's where the volley becomes easy, you're on top of the net already it becomes a lot easier volley. It's more reflex volleys than it is set up volleys. So, in doubles you're pretty much finishing the volley in one shot or singles you might have to play one set up volley, then close the net and then play it from closer into to finish the point.

You know, so it's a different ballgame altogether I feel like, there's a stat that's 70% of points finish from the net in doubles or 80% finish from the net in double, so it's a total flip around from singles obviously. But there's a lot less space and time in doubles so, you know, you've got the net player who's dominating the court as much as possible. It's not really a baseline game. So yeah look, doubles is a, for me, it's a different game altogether. To singles and it teaches you so much about just really wanting the ball at the net, as opposed to waiting for something to happen. You've got to create volleys in doubles and you've got to create that positioning to be able to get the volley. And you're basically hitting most volleys from on top of the net. Whereas in signals, you're probably going to hit most of them from on the level of the net, or even slightly below net level, probably more often than not, so that could be a bit of homework for you Shane - try to see how many volleys are hit from above the net level and and below, go...

Shane
Alright, alright, I'll take that on notice haha.

Marc
But yeah, look, it's definitely something that, you know, watch the Bryans, they're just incredible at what they do, but a lot of their volleys are taken from above net level and they're able to play from a high position down or lower position, whereas coming in in singles you generally - your first volley is more of a neutralising volley, or its a setup volley and then you close into the net.  Look I think you've obviously highlighted a massive part of the game that needs to be taught more, brought back and, obviously it's a position of the court at the net where are we going to win predominantly more of our points if we can get there, so it's a matter of teaching our players how to get there is a really important factor and you've highlighted a really big moment for a lot of listeners out there that are going to be jumping on the court obviously after this whole pandemic is over and ourselves volleying again. Let's get on those brick walls like we used to in the 90s and start volleying and getting confidence in our bodies and and spending time there, but you know I think it's important to be able to practice them Shane. I think that's one of the biggest things is practice your volley, gain some belief, gain some confidence in the net play and coming forward and if you gain the confidence you're going to want to come forward and finish the points off, it's a huge, huge part of netplay is getting that belief to come in.

Shane
Yeah, that's a great, great point to end on and I want to say that some of the reasons why Federer and Nadal have been able to extend their career is that they're actually in the last couple of years, finishing more points at the net so that's a good point I think to end on for me.

Marc
Absolutely. Well thanks a lot Shane again for all your work, I mean that data is just invaluable for a lot of people. We're just going to take that hopefully and utilise as much of it as we can for our games now players games and I do appreciate everything that you do in terms of your research and the way you go about things. Obviously you put a lot of work into this and you can find Shane at Data Driven Sports Analytics, get a hold of it, check him out on social media. He's got a lot of great data and there's a lot of people sharing your stuff now Shane because they're seeing the value in it and I do appreciate your time.

Shane
Thanks everyone. See you again next week.

Marc
That was another episode of Crunching the Numbers. Obviously the net game. Netplay and the volleys are a critical part of what we did today. So get yourself to the net, practice - it gives you confidence. Obviously we've got a lot of numbers in our favour when we do come forward and take away that time and space.

So thanks for joining us once again. I'm Marc Sophoulis, catch me at The Tennis Menu, and for anything that you need, get hold of us. Both Shane and myself, we're more than happy to speak tennis, talk tennis at any stage because obviously we want to keep tennis at the forefront of our minds and it is a passion of ours - we love it, we love Crunching the Numbers weekly. We love digging deep into the game of tennis and thanks so much for joining us once again here on Crunching the Numbers.

 

For a more detailed look at Crunching the Numbers, don't forget to checkout Shane and Marc within the Coaches Cupboard, where they do a deep dive into the latest trends in the world of tennis.

Never miss a new blog or announcement

Join our mailing list to receive the latest blog posts, product announcements and free giveaways!

Close

50% Complete

You're almost there

Sign up to our newsletter to receive awesome articles, free drills and lots of bonus material.