#19 Climbing The Ladder


 How you hit a ball matters but where you hit it from matters more 

Court position is a much discussed part of our sport but it has always been a grey area shrouded in opinion and guesswork.

Since the launch of Hawkeye data in 2006 we have seen concrete evidence that playing closer to the baseline has a direct correlation with winning a tennis match. And what is most interesting is that there is no set percentage that a player needs to aim for – just that it needs to be comparatively better than the opponent standing on the other side of the net.

Time and time again Hawkeye data confirms that the player who makes contact around or inside the baseline is at an advantage over their deeper standing opponent.

I like to call this tactic “climbing the ladder” – taking continuous small steps forward to improve court position up to and inside the baseline.

 Player Focus – Nicolay Davydenko 

One of the best players in recent times at climbing the ladder is Nikolay Davydenko, who has been ranked as high as #3 in the world in 2006. Davydenko found rare form at the end of 2009 winning the Shanghai Masters, the Barclays ATP Tour Finals and then ATP250 Doha at the start of 2010.

2010 Shanghai Final

Davydenko defeated Rafael Nadal 7-6, 6-3 in the Shanghai final primarily by winning the battle of court position. With Davydenko serving 4-3 in the first set, he was in command of the baseline rallies making contact with the ball 63% of the time behind the baseline and 37% inside it. By contrast, Nadal was striking the ball 96% behind the baseline and only 4% inside it.

Nadal likes to play back, but not that far back.

As the match developed Davydenko attacked even more and by 3-2 in the second set he was making contact 53% of the time inside the baseline and only 47% behind it. Nadal simply could not get control of enough points with his opponent owning the baseline.

2010 London Tour Finals

A couple of months later in the Barclays ATP Tour final in London Davydenko defeated Juan Martin Del Potro 6-3, 6-4 in the final and once again won the baseline battle. Davydenko was playing 60% behind the baseline and 40% inside it in the first set, which was considerably better than Del Potro who could only manage 80% behind and 20% inside the baseline. Del Potro famously said in his post-match interview that Davydenko “played like a Playstation.”

2011 Doha Final

Davydenko then went on a tear winning Doha at the start of 2011, defeating Roger Federer in the semi’s and Nadal again in the final. Davydenko’s aggressiveness with his feet took out world #1 Federer 6-4, 6-4 in the semi-final by making contact with the ball 47% of the time inside the baseline and 53% behind it. Federer was made to feel unusually uncomfortable in the baseline rallies. This tactic works so well because it rushes the opponent and takes away precious tenths of seconds to correctly prepare, both physically and mentally, for the next shot.

2011 Australian Open Quarter Final

Davydenko did the same thing against Federer a few weeks later at the Australian Open, winning the first set of their quarter-final match 6-2 by playing 46% of the time inside the baseline and 54% behind. Davydenko eventually lost in four sets after blowing an easy backhand approach shot early in the second set to go up two breaks – a mistake that he never mentally recovered from.

Climbing the ladder is a favorite pro tactic that can easily be adopted by recreational players to improve their game. After all, the numbers fully support it. Being slightly better with your court position than your opponent can go a long way to winning tennis matches at all levels of the game.

 Madrid Masters 1000: Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal 

Roger Federer’s only two clay court wins against Rafael Nadal came at the Madrid Masters in 2009 and the Hamburg Masters in 2007, with Nadal winning all five meetings at the French Open. A closer look at the 2009 Madrid final, which Federer won 6-4, 6-4 and the 2010 Madrid final, which Nadal won 6-4, 7-6 (5) reveals the inner workings of this magnificent rivalry on a surface much more suited to Nadal’s grinding game style.

But in 2010 Nadal was able to push Federer further back behind the baseline, mainly due to better depth on his heavy groundstrokes in the high altitude arena.

The two graphs go hand in hand with each other and provide evidence on how depth of shot and court position affect each other.

Nadal Depth 2009 Madrid Final2010 Madrid Final
Ball Landing Inside Service Line 32%19%
Ball Landing Behind Service Line 68%81%

It is important to recognize that Nadal’s comfort zone is to stand deeper in the court, but in 2010 he still managed to hit more than 80% of his shots past the service line. Federer’s comfort zone is much closer to the baseline and with every step he takes behind the baseline he loses control of the point and decreases his chances of beating Nadal.

 2014 Indian Wells Final: Novak Djokovic def. Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) 

Roger Federer came out hot and raced to a 3-0 then 4-1 lead before winning the first set with relative ease. He hit 12 baseline winners including four forehand and two backhand winners and he attacked the net at every opportunity.  His aggressive court position was the major reason for the dream start for the Swiss maestro.

  • Roger came out playing correctly – making contact 62% of the time behind the baseline and 38% inside.
  • But through a combination of Roger losing his way and Novak making adjustments Roger stopped coming in as much.
  • In the second set and up to half way in the third set Roger was now making contact 73% behind the baseline and only 27% inside.
  • That’s a massive 11% drop that proved to be a critical aspect of the final outcome.
  • This is what separates winning and losing at all levels of the game. Who wins the arm wrestle to play the match on their terms.

 2014 Dubai Semi: Roger Federer def. Novak Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 

Roger Federer almost fell behind a set and a break before storming back to win the match in three sets. From around the middle of the second set he attacked the baseline more, improving his court position, and was always looking to come forward to the net to finish points.

  • Federer lost the first set 6-3 and stayed back too much – 80% behind the baseline and only 20% inside.
  • The next two sets were a lot better moving forward (13% better) and he won them. It’s not rocket science people.
  • In the last two sets Federer moved forward and made contact 67% behind the baseline and 33% inside to win both sets.

 2013 US Open 1st Rd: Philipp Kohlschreiber def. Collin Altamirano 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 

Altamirano got to play the US Open as a wildcard after winning the Boy’s 18’s national championships at Kalamazoo. This was a tough initiation into the pro tour for the talented junior.

Four main areas stood out that need immediate improvement.

1. Court Position

American juniors in general should be hugging the baseline but too often they willingly give up valuable court position.  Where you stand on the court matters and closer to the baseline is always better than closer to the fence – especially on hardcourts. Altamirano willingly gave up too much ground which resulted in his ball being shorter and also pulled Kohlschreiber up closer to the baseline – giving the German better geometry of the court to attack. Altamirano spent too much of the match running side to side weaving between linesman than looking to finish points at the net. He won 4/4 points coming forward to finish at the net. How about some more from the talented American?

2. Too Much Spin

Altamirano has amazing racquet head speed but too much of that energy on his forehand generates spin, not power, and the effort goes unrewarded as his ball often sits “fat” for his opponent to attack. Combine that with poor court position and you clearly understand how he could only manage 10 winners for the match and coughed up 34 unforced errors (18 forehand/13 backhand) and 49 total errors.

3. Shot Tolerance

Like too many juniors, Altamirano displayed limited patience and he rushes to finish the point before it really got constructed. This is clearly illustrated by IBM data that showed he won 37 percent (32/85) of rallies between 0-4 shots, 29 percent of rallies lasting 5-8 shots and 47 percent (9/19) of rallies that lasted past nine shots. If he just made four balls every point before trying to pull the trigger then it would have been a lot more competitive.

4. Body Language

There will be a lot worse during the tournament but his constant stream of negativity and how he held his head and shoulders was too self-destructive. Don’t turn up to be brilliant during a point if you are turning the sword against yourself mentally and emotionally between points.

 2013 Istanbul: Serena Williams def. Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-1 

When Serena Williams is on, she is basically impossible to defeat.

Williams was in devastating form defeating Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-1 in their opening round match of the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Tour Championships in Istanbul.

Consider the honesty of Kerber’s post match comments. “Today she was playing unbelievable, and I had actually no chance,” she said. “It’s tough to play against Serena like this. I think I served good, but she was returning unbelievable. Actually, she didn’t give me a small chance to breathe, and I had, in the whole match, I had actually the feeling that she gives me pressure all the time.”

Honest and truthful. Williams looked devastating from the stands, felt unbeatable from the other side of the court and is redefining what’s possible with post-match statistics.

Hawkeye visualization and SAP analytics produce various graphs and reports to help explain what we see but Williams consistently creates reports that, well, only she can produce. Her domination can be seen with the eye but even more so with the rich data that’s now streaming into the sport.

The first mind-bending piece of information is Hawkeye’s heat map which tracks player movement. Serena’s is small and centered right in the middle of the court with a sizeable percentage inside the baseline. Most importantly it doesn’t stretch outside the singles lines. Kerber’s on the other hand stretches well outside the doubles line on both sides and is twice as big.

Hard to breathe when you run so much.

Williams & Kerber – Rally Hit Points 

Williams & Kerber – Heat Maps

Generally it does not matter exactly what the numbers are – only that they are better than the person standing on the other side of the court. Advantage, Williams.

 2013 Miami 2nd Rd: John Isner def. Ivan Dodig 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (5) 

The beauty of tennis is that there many, many ways to win a match.

The variety of tactics enables athletes with sharply contrasting styles to excel, creating fascinating match-ups especially when the strategy extremes play each other. Isner and Dodig are polar opposites on how they want to construct their points and build their careers.

Quite simply, Isner wants to move forward as much as possible and Dodig wants to move back as much as possible. Both work if you can master them, and Dodig got within two points of victory serving at 6-5 in the third set after battling back from 4-1 down in the deciding set.

  • Isner made contact with the ball 55% of the time behind the baseline and 45% inside the baseline – very aggressive court position.
  • Dodig stayed much further back contacting the ball 80% of the time behind the baseline and only 20% inside it.

In moving back, Dodig wants to create space and time and artificially enlarge the battlefield to suit his grinding clay-court style. He only had limited success with this, stretching seven points to 10 shots or more – where he won 5/7 (71%).

Go Do This

Where you hit the ball from is more important than how you hit it.

Do everything you can to have better court position than your opponent.

Taking small steps forward is a big deal. You will get the ball back quicker to your opponent.

Taking the ball earlier helps give you “artificial” power – the ball is going faster when you contact it.

Every inch forward matters. You are also visually shrinking and expanding areas of the court for your opponent.