The match begins and you go down an early break. Your opponent has hit the ground running and you have yet to find your game. This scenario happens all too often for players who have not created a strategic mission for how to start matches. Starting slow really puts us in a hole. In fact, starting slow matters more than we ever realized.
I just wrote an Infosys analysis on exactly this dynamic on the ATP website, and it brings to light a percentage that I have never seen before in our sport.
If you lose the opening set, what are your chances of coming back and winning in three sets?
I have been involved in tennis all my life and I have never seen this specific statistic, so I went to work last week digging it up. Here it is…
Losing Set 1 = 21.7% Chance of Winning in 3 Sets
So there you have it. You have approximately a 20% chance, or a 1-5 chance, of coming back and winning the match if you lose the opening set. That’s pretty rough!
The data set includes all players on the ATP tour who played a minimum of 100 matches from 1991-2020. It excludes retirements and defaults.
Tennis is a sport where there is great benefit from playing from in front, which potentially activates the scoreboard as another opponent for the person standing on the other side of the net. You want to win the first point of the game, which helps set the weather for the rest of the game. You also want to win Set 1, because the hole you are now in by losing it is substantially deeper than we thought.
Only three ATP players were able to win north of 40% of their 3-set matches after losing the opening set.
- Pete Sampras = 41.33% (62/150)
- Novak Djokovic = 41.30% (76/184)
- Roger Federer = 40.17% (92/229)
That’s a pretty incredible feat to be at roughly double the tour average (41% compared to 21.7%) Again, the tour average is winning right at one of five matches after dropping the opening set. There were another eight players who were all able to improve their ratio to one out of three or better (>33.3%).
- Lleyton Hewitt = 39.6%
- Rafael Nadal = 39.1%
- Andy Murray = 38.7%
- Kei Nishikori = 35.9%
- Stefan Edberg = 35.6%
- Boris Becker = 35.0%
- Michael Stich = 34.7%
- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga = 33.7%
So how can we benefit from this new information? Glad you asked! 😁
Here are seven ways to improve your chances of winning Set 1.
#1 = A Great Warm-Up
You need to be ready to hit the ground running on the first point of the match. Doing all you can to win the opening set is vital. Let’s say your match is at 10.00 am. You need to have a great warm-up from around 9.00 am-9.30 am. Here are some variations for the warm-up.
- When I was coaching Amer Delic on tour, he was not always the fastest starter in matches. So we experimented with warming up really close to the match. So he would essentially walk off the practice court around 9.55 am, grab a drink of water and a fresh shirt, and go and play at 10.00 am. He had just played 20 minutes of points right before his match, which was ideal for a fast start.
- Make sure you adequately warm-up serves and returns. Experiment with making most or all of your warm-up focused on serves and returns.
Tennis is a game of patterns & percentages.
It’s important to also learn what not to do.
#2 Scout The Opponent In The Warm-Up
The five-minute warm-up with your opponent is not really about warming up your game. You have already taken care of that. It’s about reconnaissance and scouting and figuring out the exact patterns of play that you want to employ straight out of the gate once the match starts.
Pay attention to the mistakes they make. Pay attention to what locations they are serving to. It’s highly likely the serve locations that they serve to in the warm-up will be their “go-to” locations under pressure in the match. Pay attention to their volley grips. If the grip is too far eastern (to the forehand side), then low forehand volleys will be weaker and probably go straight into the net.
#3 Have A “Break First” Mantra
You need to plan for success. It doesn’t just land in your lap. Create a strong conviction to be the first player in the match to break serve. You want to hold and take care of your own service games and then beat them to the punch. Break their serve before they break yours.
#4 Must Break In First Two Return Games
This is a slight variation of #3. In this scenario, you are targetting your opponent’s first two service games. You have got to break at least one of them. Being the first to break is a big deal in a match.
#5 Drill For Practice Court
Play a best-of-five-set match. The only rule that matters is this – you automatically win the set when you break serve. This is an awesome drill I have done a lot over the years. Taking care of your own service games takes on heightened importance, and you have a real urgency to break serve and win the set right there. Rarely do I see sets make it to 3-3. Someone is going to break. On the very rare occasion that the set reaches six games all, play a regular tie-break to finish the set. And then grab a drink of water and feel good about holding serve six straight times!
Here are the drills that must be a part of your practice routine.
#6 Have a 3-set Goal
In my freshman year of tennis in 1986-87 playing at Oral Roberts University, I went 21-7 playing mainly at numbers five and six. I had a goal at the start of the season that I was going to be physically and mentally tougher than my opponent if the match went three sets. I had a goal of never losing a three-set match for the season, which gave me a lot of confidence to fall back on when I dropped the opening set, knowing I just needed to win Set 2 for my goal to activate. How did I do? I went 10-0 in 3-set matches for the year. Goal accomplished.
#7 Go To Your Strings
When you see a player positioning their racquet in front of them, and their eyes focused on the strings, think of it like they are updating their match strategy with a pen on a notebook. Going to your strings between points is a position of focus for the eyes. When you win a point early in the match, go to your strings and write it down. It’s so easy to play a great point – a repeatable, winning pattern of play – and forget it for later in the set where you really need it. Win a point. Write it down. Repeat the pattern. Win the first set, and put the percentages of winning the match in your favor.
To read my ATP analysis, click HERE.
All the best,