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Tennis is not just for pros.
Tennis is for everyone.



For good reason there is a large amount of information on Percentage Tennis, and the obvious explanation is that it works well for many players who use it. Nevertheless, percentage tennis is not seen often in the recreational and club arenas.


Including a Few Aggressive Female Players

Guest what! The average male recreational player who has been playing tennis for a few years or more, tends to play many risky low percentage shots, apparently in ill-conceived attempts to win more points.

If you are skeptical about the above assertion, sit and chart an entire men’s social set at a local court. Write a letter down (e.g. A, B, C, D) for each player, and put a hash mark under the appropriate letter when the player makes an unforced error. (An “unforced error” is a shot that a player misses that he usually would have made. A “forced error” is a shot missed that was caused by an opponent’s good shot.) Many unforced errors are a direct result of hitting low percentage shots.

It isn’t that players go out on court thinking that they are going to play risky tennis. One reason that players, particularly men, keep unconsciously playing this way, is that when they try a low-percentage alley shot, for instance, and miss, no one says much. His partner doesn’t want to upset him and the opposing team is grateful for the unearned point. When he does make the shot, everyone says, “Wow, great shot!” The net effect (so to speak) is that he remembers the great feeling he got when he made the exciting alley shot and received compliments. Since he hardly ever gets negative feedback when he misses risky shots, he continues playing with his emotions as a guide.

Beyond an unconscious quest for thrill and ego satisfaction, the fundamental reason those average players don’t feel like they are personally playing low percentage tennis is that many of the average players on the other side of the net are also playing low percentage tennis. Its sort of an unspoken agreement to play equally risky tennis, which means swapping unforced errors.

This is all well and good, and many weekend players enjoy it – until those same players join a local league and begin to play in competition. Then is when those risky players begin to run up against high percentage players, and they begin to experience a number of losses. The rationalizations go something like, “Well, they just played better than we did this time,” or, :Those guys aren’t rated right, or “My game was off,” etc. Sometimes the opponents just are better tennis players, but much of the time the players who win are just playing smarter tennis. You cannot automatically win more matches by switching to percentage tennis; however you can tremendously increase the odds of winning in your favor by learning and playing “smart” percentage tennis. [See the companion instructional “Playing Smart by TennisTom.]


The Main Law Of Percentage Tennis Is: BE SURE YOU HIT THE BALL IN

In a capsule, what this means on court is: DON’T TRY A RISKY SHOT UNLESS YOU ARE SUBSTANTIALLY AHEAD IN THE GAME SCORE, namely 40-love (40-0).

“Percentage tennis” players who are playing same-level “risky” players usually win most of their matches. The difference is not that their stroke production is so much better; it’s that they are using their tennis brains better. It’s often been said by those that know the game of tennis intimately that the most important element in a tennis player’s game is his mind. Makes sense.

The smart tennis player who plays percentage tennis knows his possible angle of safe shots automatically. [See the instructional “Angle of Possible Good Shots & Percentage Tennis.”] He doesn’t try risky shots, particularly when he is behind in the game score. He doesn’t try making many winners from the baseline, but believes in waiting for a good opportunity to make a winner, or, waiting for the opponent to make an error. If you are an average social player and want to win more matches against your peers, you might try changing your style of playing. A system of percentage tennis is not difficult to understand. The challenge is to change your thinking and your old habits.

An important key to percentage tennis play is to manage risk in your tennis.


Assuming approximately equal level opponents

Prima facie evidence indicates that if you are making too many unforced errors due to questionable shot selection, you are playing “risky” tennis.

Losses due to risky unforced error tennis occur because either:

  • You are hitting your shots harder than you can control them (on average)

  • You are choosing to hit shots which are beyond your normal capabilities

Example of high percentage vs low percentage. You are positioned near the middle of the court and the opponent hits you a lob which you can put away for a winner with an overhead. The high percentage shot would be down the center of the court (between the opponents). The low percentage shot would be to aim your smash toward either alley.

You will win more points and games if you can balance risk conditions in your playing. Try to find the level of play which is still relatively safe but also wins points. Your immediate response may be, “What the heck does that mean?” Balancing risk conditions means managing your risk as explained in the next sections…


Try changing your level of risk in each type of the following skills:

Volley. Your volley play is of basic importance in doubles. If an incoming ball is slowly floating directly to you at the net, go ahead, rotate your body as though hitting an overhead, and swing at it with controlled force. For the other 95+ percent of incoming balls, PUNCH STRAIGHT AT THE BALL (and BLOCK the faster balls). Punching, rather than swinging at the ball, greatly reduces your risk of missing the shot and Increases your chances of winning the point.

Until your timing has developed to a high degree, DO NOT SWING AT THE BALL WHEN HITTING A VOLLEY. Punch straight forward and downward with a controlled crisp motion. Your racket head path entails moving your racket head straight forward and high to low at the same time. Take a look at the next two diagrams and accompanying text.

Racket path when volleying – a visual explanation of punching straight at the ball. Imagine that you are looking directly downward from a vantage point above the volleyer’s head. The volleyer’s racket should move more or less in a straight forward linear path.

Many early learners miss their volleys because they swing in a semi-circular path instead of punching forward in a straight line.

Overhead Perspective (for conceptualization only)

Imagine also that you are looking at the path of the racket from a side view perspective. When moving the racket straight forward you also can use a short high-to-low, downward slicing motion. This imparts backspin (underspin) to the ball. Backspin gives you more control once you get used to it.

Side View Perspective (for conceptualization only, slope is somewhat exaggerated).


Block Volleys. Blocking fast incoming balls only requires you to block the ball reflexively with no swing. Have a friend at the opposite baseline hit pacey balls directly at you. All you have to do is track the incoming ball and “catch” it with your racket face parallel to the net. You should use a one-handed backhand, and move your racket head quickly. Of course if your volley form is generally deficient, have an instructor get you up to speed.

Lob (flat or slice, not topspin). LEARN TO LOB WITH CONSISTENCY in doubles, even when not in a defensive situation. It is a great tactic to use when the point is in progress, as well as useful when returning hard serves. Developing a good lob is of significant importance. If you can lob dependably, you will not fear the lob, and can turn many points around. Doubles players need to PRACTICE LOBBING until it is not a risky shot for them.

Approaching the net after a lob. If you don’t come in to just behind your service line when you lob, you have wasted your tactical advantage. It’s a great skill to use.

Early learning players are notorious for failing to come in after a successful lob. [See the instructional “Lobbing Basics in Doubles Tennis by TennisTom.”]

Approach shot (hit from near the baseline before coming in to the net). (Definition: an approach shot is a groundstroke which you hit toward the opponent baseliner, with the intention of coming in to the net in order to gain an advantage.) When you hit a shot to their baseline player, you need to be circumspect before you go charging in to the net. Circumspect in this case means conservative. If you hit a regular paced ball straight to their baseliner, it is risky to come charging in because many 2.5’s, 3.0’s, and some 3.5’s will judiciously lob over your head, and you will be busting your butt to retrieve their lob and you may lose the point outright. When you hit your approach shots, hit to their weakness or make them run. Practice approach shots with mindful focus.

First Serve. For most sub-4.0 players it is not smart to hit your first serve really hard unless you can get two thirds or more of your hard serves In. If you squander your first serves by overhitting them, the risk isn’t worth it. You might as well not have a first serve and just hit second serves. You want to practice your first serve with less pace so that you can get over two-thirds of your serves In. If your second serve is a high flat bouncer, you need to PRACTICE YOUR SECOND SERVE until you can get it In without too much net cord clearance. A slice / spin serve is excellent for this.

Return of serve. When your opponent has a good serve, and you often swing too hard when you try to return it, it’s easy for your to escape responsibility for missing it by saying that their serve is just “too good,” but the truth is that you can return a lot of pacey serves by using technique. You can reduce your risk by BLOCKING hard serves back to the server, or by returning them over their net player with a LOB.

Passing shot down the alley. The better your opponents are, the greater your risk at losing the point by hitting down the alley. You should only choose a down the line shot when your chances are high, i.e. when their alley is wide open, or when your alley shot is low risk because it is one of the dependable shots in your personal repertoire. In most cases, you should forget the alley unless you can drive a truck down it.

Baseline rally. Generally, at 2.5 to 3.5, it makes no sense to try making many pacey winners from your baseline because your success rate is so low. If you don’t believe this statement, try playing and hitting ten really hard groundstrokes at their baseliner and see what your success percentage is. Duh.

On the other hand, is you are a 2.5 or 3.0 player who is frequently hitting mostly medium-high or higher lobs, this is being too low risk, and you have no way to win very many points. If you have this habit, you seriously need to develop your topspin groundstrokes.

Determine HOW HARD YOU SHOULD HIT YOUR GROUNDSTROKES in order to get the ball In and not make many unforced errors. This will be a trial and error process. You need to know how hard this is and use that knowledge.

You should learn how to play PERCENTAGE TENNIS. In years of teaching tennis I’ve never seen one motivated student learn and use percentage tennis that thought it was a waste of time. Probably liked winning too much.

Bjorn Borg, one of the best competitors ever to play the game, made the following summary statement concerning his brand of percentage tennis:

My synonym for percentage tennis is patience.”

Another percentage tennis thinker, whose name is lost in anonymity, said:


[8C-Basis of Percentage Tennis by TennisTom] [Rev 7-1-11]


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