Secrets of Top Tennis Coaches: Using Data to Shape on-Court Training

Apr 26, 2023
Secrets of Top Tennis Coaches: Using Data to Shape on-Court Training

For the past two weeks I’ve talked about:

WHY you need to use data in your everyday coaching, and

WHAT you can use to collect that data.

In the next two weeks, I’m going to take you through the HOW.

How can you use the data you’ve collected and combine it with generalised data from ATP/WTA matches, to:

  • develop your players so they can reach their maximum potential.
  • create effective on-court training.
  • elevate your coaching to achieve better results.

This week I’ll look at how to use generalised data to shape your on-court coaching.

Next week, I’ll focus on how to combine the generalised data with the individual data you’ve collected to make your training more targeted and specific. 

All the data I refer to in this blog has been provided by Data Driven Sports Analytics who collaborate with players such as Aryna Sabalenka, Ons Jabeur and Taro Daniel. Check out their Instagram and Website.


Our mission as coaches

We start coaching for different reasons, but our collective mission as coaches should be to develop the next generation of champions.

This sounds like a lofty goal! And it is. But champions come from all different walks of life and can pop up anywhere – Ipswich in Australia. Basel, Switzerland. Bilovec, Czech Republic. Compton, LA.

And it’s our duty as a coach to give every player in front of us the best chance of reaching their potential.

But to do this we need a strategy.


My development strategy

Below is a visual summary of my current development strategy. It shows the areas I focus on to help my players achieve their best.

How did I come up with these areas? From data.

Specifically, generalised data from the recent ATP/WTA season. From this generalised data I can see that tennis is:

Physical - with an average of 150 -300 points played per match.

Strategic - with environments and opponents always changing.

A thinking game - with 75% of the time, non-hitting.

And so on.

Having a strategy means I can focus on what’s relevant and important.


Generalised data from the ATP/WTA tours

Looking at generalised data is important as it provides a practical starting point to shape your coaching strategy and on court training. It shows what’s currently happening at the highest level of the sport and provides clues on what’s important in player development and also - what’s not important.

So, let’s look at some generalised data and see what it can tell us.

Obviously, a lot!

We can see that:

  • Tennis is a lateral game: with players moving laterally 70% of the time.
  • It’s a game of short movements: 2-3m per movement and a player only covers a distance of 600-800m per set.
  • Both the women and men hit more forehands per match.
  • Men come to the net more. And so on.

But how can we use this to improve our players?

Let’s go a bit deeper and hone in on one fact: Average shots per rally and see how this data can affect how we develop a player.

Avg shots per rally

WTA = 63% of points finish under 4 shots.

ATP = 67% of points finish under 4 shots.

This generalised data tells us that points in tennis are short - more than half ending under 4 shots. But what if we take away aces and double faults which, while important, are anomalies that could skew the data.

If we take away aces and double faults, we see the percentage of points that finish between 0-4 decreases by 10%, but more than half the points still finish before the 5th shot. So, the generalised data shows that in tennis, the 1st to 4th shots matter more – in short, the serve +1 and the return + 1.

Let’s focus on the serve now and look at one more instance of generalised data – Serve ascendancy.

Serve ascendancy shows how likely a player is to win a point when they are serving in relation to the length of the point. For example, an ATP player has a 70% chance of winning the point when they start serving, but this percentage drops the longer the point goes on.

Specifically, the above data shows that after a first serve, once a female player gets to her 4th shot in the rally, her serve has become irrelevant to the outcome of the point.

Males have 5 shots after a first serve before they lose their advantage, but the idea is the same – you have a short window of time to use the advantage of the serve to take control of the point. So, how are you going to create and use that advantage?

If we look at second serves, we see the advantage for females has flipped towards the returner, who now has two shots after the second serve to take control of the point. Males still have an advantage on the second serve, but for a shorter period.


Developing drills around the data

I’m sure you already knew that the serve and return were important because you know the game and you’ve learnt from experience. But now we’ve used data to be specific and this can help us shape our training and increase our players’ chances of winning more. 

For instance, creating drills that promote long rallies doesn’t support the data, because points are generally short. But the data does show it’s critical to include the serve and return in your drills as much as possible and that serve ascendency is important. So, you might come up with the following drill:

Play a set where if the server makes a first serve, they must then win the point in under 4 shots, or the point automatically goes to the returner. This encourages the server to think about how they can take control on their first serve and stay in control.  

If the server makes a 2nd serve, then the returner gets the return plus 2 shots to win the point or it goes to the server. This encourages the returner to think about how they can take control on second serves.

This drill helps both the returner and the server focus on what’s going to give them the best chance to win the point (according to the data).

The server – must focus on keeping control of the point with a first serve.

The returner – must hang in there until the point becomes neutral and the serve ascendency is likely to be lost OR take control of a second serve.

This drill also supports my development strategy in the areas of:

  • Time and space (it’s a first strike game)
  • Strategy (data backed, 80/20)
  • Individuality (game styles)
  • Thinking (helps with decision making)


The player in front of you

The generalised data is useful for creating general drills that will help improve your players chances of winning. But to take your players’ game to an even higher level, the next step is to use the data you’ve collected for them and use it to further shape and focus their training.

I’ll go into this further next week, but a quick example using the above drill is to consider gender difference. According to the data, serve ascendency is lost for males after 5 shots rather than 4 for the females. So, for your male players, you should consider modifying the drill to give the server 5 shots to win rather than 4 which is more suited to the female game.

You might modify it even more according to the game style of your player, or their individual strengths.

That’s it for this week, I hope you are enjoying this series on how to unlock the power of data in tennis, and it inspires you to start using data in your everyday coaching.

I’d love to hear your comments and ideas.

By Marc Sophoulis

I cover this and more in my Unlocking the power of data analytics in tennis workshop for coaches. There is one more workshop to go in Geelong with a few spots left. Click here to come along. I’d love to see you there.