#23 Approaching

 2012 U.S. Open Analytics 

 Men Approach Winning = 66.0% 

 Men Average Approaches/Set = 10.3 

 Women Approaching Winning = 65.7% 

 Women Average Approaches/Set = 7.0 

 Only 7 % (7 /92) of men and 14% (12/82) of women had a losing record coming to the net.

Men’s Total Winning % = 3192/4836 / Women’s Total Women’s % = 1328 /2019

 Men’s Quarter Finalists

Player Round Reached Net Winning %Totals
Roger FedererQtrs 80.3%102/127
David Ferrer Semi's75.7%103/136
Marin Cilic Qtrs 72.3%89/123
J.M. Del Potro Qtrs69.1%65/94
Andy Murray Winner65.5%108/158
Novak Djokovic Finalist66.1%119/180
Janko Tipsarevic Qtrs 65.5%78/119
Tomas Berdych Semi's 61.0%102/167

 Women’s Quarter Finalists

Player Round Reached Net Winning %Totals
Victoria Azarenka Finalist 81.4%79/97
Sara Errani Semi's 79.6%47/59
Maria SharapovaSemi's78.8%41/52
Samantha Stosur Qtr's 74.6%47/63
Ana Ivanovic Qtrs74.1%63/85
Roberta VinciQtrs70.5%72/102
Marion BartoliQtrs68.2%56/82
Serena WilliamsWinner63.0%46/73
Totals 73.7%451/613

Here’s how it works. 

You crush a forehand and your opponent is lucky to get it back. It lands short and you need to make a decision. 

You could stay back around the baseline where you are more comfortable but that will let your opponent back in the rally – so what’s the point in ripping the forehand in the first place?

Or you could take advantage of the weak ball and approach, but where and with what spin?

The approach shot is probably the most misunderstood part of our game and has evolved significantly in recent years because of improved racquet and string technology. The correct answer is you should absolutely, positively go to the net to reap the rewards of the front of the court. The statistics are very clear on approaching  – it delivers the second highest winning percentage (typically between 65%-70%) of any tactic other than getting your first serve in (between 70%-75%).

There is a primary pattern to approaching and it’s not down the line. That is simply wrong. Approaching with slice or down the line to your opponent’s forehand is old-school. Today’s string technology in particular helps players get a low slice ball up and down for a passing shot better than ever.

Approaching to the opponent’s forehand is typically fatal. Everyone has a good running forehand passing shot, and it is going to dip cross-court right in front of you out of your reach. You want to make your opponent uncomfortable and have to attempt the passing shot where you want it – not the other way around!

The way to the net today is to take the technology out of play, and you can do that by maximizing the elements of power, direction and time.

Ripping a big forehand from anywhere on the court to your opponent’s backhand and rushing the preparation of the passing shot is the most successful way to get to the net. You can also add another layer of safety with the approach and make sure you are hitting behind the opponent – making them have to stop, turn around and then get their hands and feet organized off a bullet from your forehand.

 2011 U.S. Open Rd 16: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga def. Mardy Fish 6-4, 6-7 (5), 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 

Tsonga won in five sets as both players swarmed the net.

Almost two out of three rally balls (subtract aces, double faults and return errors) saw one and sometimes both players attacking the net in the same point. Both Fish and Tsonga hunt short balls and look to approach with a big forehand to the backhand wing. Because of the speed of the approach to the backhand, it also makes it tough for the opponent at the baseline to get enough spin on the ball to dip it at the player’s feet at the net.

Primary v Secondary 

Ever heard of Pavlovian Theory – conditioning the mind to expect a response? Ivan Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist, used to ring a bell before feeding his dogs, and discovered he could get his dogs to salivate just from hearing the bell in anticipation that dinner was on the way. The best players in the world at getting to the net, Tsonga and Fish included, will “ring the bell” several times with the approach to the backhand side, then surprise and approach to their opponent’s stronger forehand side. The element of surprise is the key ingredient to having a winning percentage against the opponent’s typically stronger forehand passing shot.

Getting To The NetMardy FishJo-Wilfried Tsonga
Approach Points Won 62% (43/69)60% (26/43)

 2010 Australian Open Final: Roger Federer def. Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11) 

Andy Murray is a great example of a player who would benefit from approaching more.

In the 2010 Australian Open final Murray lost the match but won 8/10 points approaching to Federer’s backhand, which begs the question why in the world did he not do it more?

The ATP tour average for approaches is right around eight times per set, but Murray was well below that while Federer turned up the heat and attacked more than twice the amount that Murray did.

Approaching Roger Federer Andy Murray
Approaches Won 73% (30/41) 63% (12/19)
Average / Set 13.6 / set 6.3 / set

The results are crystal clear – take a big forehand to your opponent’s backhand and close the net. Take the first volley behind for added safety until it can be put away to the open court.

There is a short ball hunter deep inside every one of us trying to get out.

If you think you are going to beat Roger Federer in a major final and not attack him you have got rocks in your head.

 2014 Indian Wells Semi: Agnieszka Radwanska def. Simona Halep 6-3, 6-4 

Approaching can be a very disruptive strategy for your opponent.

A lot of players want trench warfare with both opponents slugging it out with big groundies. Radwanska lost to Halep in their last match in Qatar 7-5, 6-2 so things needed to change and coming to the net more was exactly what was needed.

Make no mistake about it, Halep was the hottest player on tour coming into Indian Wells having just entered the top 5 in the world and won seven tournaments in the last nine months. Radwanska had to do something different than try and bang from the back of the court. And she did.

First Two Points Radwanska won the opening two points coming forward to the net to finish with aggressive topspin forehand volley winners. This kept the points short early and didn’t allow Halep to establish rhythm.

Quotes  “What I was trying to do was playing aggressively from the beginning of the match and just trying to go for my shots,” Radwanska said. This aggressive tactic worked perfectly and confused Halep on how to handle it. “I think I started the match a bit too soft. I was not ready to play,” Halep said.

Dismantle This tactic was just like dismantling Halep’s baseline weapons as it put Halep time and time again into a defensive position having to hit backhand passing shots just to stay in the match. Halep’s backhand produced six winners for the match but coughed up 25 errors. The pressure meter was turned up from Radwanska constantly coming to the net.

  • Radwansa raced to a 4-0 lead in 14 minutes primarily by approaching to the backhand.
  • Radwanska approached 25 times, winning a very impressive 76% of the points.
  • Halep missed seven backhand shots, mainly hitting it late going down the line.

 2012 Wimbledon Final: Roger Federer def. Andy Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 

Getting to the net won Roger a record-equalling seventh Wimbledon title.

In this match it didn’t matter how he got there or if he was approaching to Murray’s forehand or backhand. What mattered for Federer was to keep the points short, pressure with his aggressive court position and rob Murray of time to get organized for a passing shot.

Federer’s remarkable success with getting to the net even delivered a higher winning percentage than points won on his first serve –  78% to 76%. You know you have a winning strategy when it trumps getting your first serve in the court.

Getting to the net is always part of Federer’s game plan, especially at Wimbledon, and you can see from the following tables it played a much bigger role in winning the final than it did getting to it.

Round Opponent Approaches WonWinning %Average/Set
128Albert Ramos25/3474%11.3
64Fabio Fognini 21/2391%7.6
32Julien Benneteau22/39 56%7.8
16Xavier Malisse 34/3987%9.7
8Mikhail Youzhny24/34 71%11.3
4Novak Djokovic 14/2264%5.5
Total __73%8.8
RoundOpponent Approaches WonWinning %Average/Set
FinalAndy Murray 53/6878%17

Federer made 68 first serves for the match which was exactly the same number of points he came forward to attack Murray at the net. Federer actually combined the two tactics superbly, winning 31/35 (88%) points when he made a first serve and then ventured forward either by serving and volleying or approaching later in the point.

The bigger the point in the match, the more likely you were to find Federer applying pressure at the net. In the second set, with the match in the balance and the possibility of Federer going down two sets to love, he came to the net 19/25 (76%) times for his largest set-by-set total. In the fourth set, when the match was there to won, he went a near-perfect 12/13 (92%) coming forward.

Federer was ruthlessly efficient attacking the front of the court, finishing with 24 winners and making only six errors at the net. He finished with eight forehand volley winners, six backhand volley winners and eight overhead winners for the match.

Federer converted 4/12 (33%) of his break points for the match and it should come as no surprise he was at the net for two of them. The more important the point, the more Federer was hunting the short ball.

Federer broke Murray at 5-6 30-40 to win the second set when he hit a backhand volley winner at the end of a 20-shot rally. Federer patiently prowled the baseline looking for the right ball to come in on, and then had the crowd cheering wildly as he hit a heavy sidespin drop volley that Murray could not run down. It may have looked lucky but good things happen when Federer gets to create a volley masterpiece at the net.

Approaching on break point also helped Federer get the crucial break in the third set. With Murray serving at Ad out at 2-3, Federer ran around a second serve directed to his backhand and crushed a forehand return deep down the middle. Two aggressive forehands later he was at the net and Murray missed a difficult pass down the line and the famous Federer fist pump was quick to follow. This point really signaled the beginning of the end of Murray’s chances to win.

Federer faced seven break points for the match, surrendering only two of them. Of the other five he saved, he finished at the net three times – two of which he put away overhead winners and Murray missed a desperate forehand pass down the line on the other.

Murray also had success in the match when he came forward as well, winning 24/39 (62%) but his game style did not have the same urgency as Federer’s to finish at the net. Federer won 35% (53 of 151) of his total points at the net while Murray was less than half of that, winning 17% (24 of 137).

Federer’s commitment to finish at the net enabled him to play the match much more on his terms and force Murray to defend more than he wanted to. It also stole valuable points that Murray needed to attack Federer in bruising baseline rallies.

This match provides a blueprint for Federer’s continued success on the other side of 30 as it enables him to impose his attacking game style on his opponent in the most efficient way possible.

 2014 Australian Open Semi: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-4 

Roger way overdid approaching to the forehand. 

This was not pretty for Roger and reminds us of the perils of approaching to your opponent’s forehand – especially against someone with wicked spin like Nadal!

  • Federer only won 45%  (16/35) at the net for the match. His strategy was his problem.
  • Federer won 73% (14/19) approaching to the backhand which is normal for the legend. He should have done this more.
  • Federer only won 12% (2/16) approaching to the forehand. Why Roger why?  Who ever said approaching to Nadal’s forehand is something that is worth trying?

 2013 Shanghai Final: Novak Djokovic def. J.M. Del Potro 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (3) 

Novak Djokovic came to the net at every opportunity to exploit Del Potro’s deep court position.

Djokovic won 86 per cent (25/29) of all points coming forward and was a perfect 11/11 in the first set finishing points at the net.

Del Potro made contact with the ball 33 per cent of the time inside the baseline in his straight sets victory over Rafael Nadal in his semi-final but was only able to manage 11 per cent inside the baseline in the first four games of the final against Djokovic.

  • Djokovic approached 18 times to Del Potro’s backhand.
  • He also approached 11 times to the forehand to spread the court with the successful strategy.
  • Del Potro only managed one passing shot winner for the match – a forehand down the line winner off a backhand slice approach to save break point at 4-2, 15-40 in the second set.

Go Do This

Men: Rallying winning % average = 46.2%. Approach = 66.0%. Yes, you need to get to the net more. 

Women: Rallying winning % average = 47.3%. Approach = 65.7%. That’s a whopping 18% improvement in your game right there.

Being even half-way decent at the net stops your opponent getting away with hitting a ball short. 

Take time away from the passing shot. Hit it heavy (power + spin) to the opponent’s backhand and close hard.

If it’s a 50-50 situation of maybe going to the net and maybe staying back – get to the net every time. 

The more you practice it the better you will get at it. Don’t be afraid to lose some points. You lose a lot at the baseline already.