By Caleb Pereira
The tennis statistics you see make up the tip of an iceberg.
You might already know this.
Big data is available to the players at a price.
But only a small fraction of this is accessible to fans like you.
You can find this small fraction usually in the Hawkeye analytics sections of the few tournament websites that offer it, 3 clicks away from the homepage—which might as well be 3 parsecs for the average tennis fan, who is not the most fastidious species in the sporting world.
But even if you could access the secret datasets that—possibly—contain all the ball trajectories of all the shots and all the steps taken by each player in every professional match, there are still secrets of the game that are impossible to understand without watching the tennis live.
Even a picture of the whole iceberg… is not the iceberg itself.
The statistics can hint at things that happen in the world of tennis, but they’re not the tennis itself.
Reducing the real-time action of racquet swishes and shoe-sole screeches and mood-altering grunts—reducing all that tennis into numbers, while occasionally necessary to babysit us into tennis’s system of meaning, can be one of the worst things to happen to the narrative surrounding the sport.
Especially when it’s used as a gateway drug for the sport’s new fans, urging us up short dopamine peaks to airily trophy-clutch our favorite player’s statistics over the rival fandoms below… while hidden in shadow are the far more important things we don’t know about our player.
We don’t know our favourite player.
I could bet most of you don’t know what racquet s/he uses.
If your life’s worth of tennis-viewing reached, say, 300 minutes in total, you would have heard commentators hook the casual viewer with this “insight”:
The best tennis players are mentally stronger.
Why that term, Mister Commentator?
Perhaps, because it cloaks these talented pedants in a kind of Jedi-mind-trick mysticism, a way to sell the sport to the casual viewer—as if they could telekinetically choke their opponent from 24 metres away, or inexplicably make their attacking projectiles miss.
And it’s easy for the commentators to cloak tennis professionals in mystifying concepts.
In other sports, our eyes are always following a ball.
But, in tennis, after the point concludes, our eyes follow the disengaged player.
This person quietly strolls behind the baseline and scrutinizes their racquet stringbed. This person can nonchalantly splay 3 balls into a triangle with just one hand and then discard the ball whose green facial hair and skin seem to be unsexy, unworthy. This person is generally sexy: a powerful lower body, a lithe upper body, and toned legs to look at.
This person is, for the most part, inscrutable.
It’s easy to create mystery around this person.
This person might be mentally stronger.
This person might exert will over the weaker person on the other side of the net and puppet them into doing things they don’t want to do.
Seasoned fans will sigh at this point.
Because we know “mentally stronger” is an autopilot response that commentators fall into—insider doublespeak of the short-attention-span era that sidesteps the far more pertinent and hard-to-explain truth: the best tennis players are… better.
These perpetrators of mysticism deliberately don’t mention the best tennis players’ very physical, technical strengths that make them better.
Because these technical strengths are mindbogglingly complex in a mindbogglingly simple way.
These strengths will take an annoying, 15-minute-long article on Popcorn Tennis to explain, and the time-strapped commentator understandably will have nothing to do with belabouring the point, even though they already know the truth.
However, when you actually look into the truth, and you see what separates the best tennis players from the good tennis players, you see that the commentators’ mystifying narrative might have a point.
What the best tennis players do does in fact seem a lot like a Jedi’s—or Sith’s?—modus operandi.
The opponent does choke. The opponent’s projectiles do miss.
Why hide a good story?
All the players you see on TV are talented.
The talents they possess live in the whole, wide world of less than a second.
That less than a second is what the opponent has to adapt to.
The opponent learns the language of the player’s talent—the various tennis strokes—and interprets what stroke might come next, and where to hit to, in the hope that it upsets the player’s balance.
But the star players we talk about just have a few more talents that they can stuff into that world of half a second, layers of tennis syllables and intonations to confuse the opponent as a Jedi/Sith might do to a weaker mind.
As the opponent is learning the star player’s far more nuanced tennis language, they cannot keep up, and its semantics overload them, creating a deer-in-headlights situation—or just a wrongfooted mess (see below).
Interpretation of the next move, when these star players are in the mood, is almost impossible, because they have so many options within that scintilla of time.
Guessing is often a fool’s errand.
It only takes a subtle twitch at the end of their stroke—a twitch with decades of muscle memory invested into it over a career—to “spread the play” as they see fit.
When honed inside an elite talent, like Nadal’s forehand, they can hit spot after spot at each extreme of the court.
It overwhelms the opponent’s mind-muscle connection.
It’s what separates the good from the great.
Matteo Berrettini is great.
He is the only active, under-30 male player to reach the quarterfinals of all 4 slams; only 31 male players have achieved this since 1990.
He simplifies tennis into serve+forehand rudiments so often, you barely have time to see why he’s so talented.
His talent in tennis is to reduce the tennis being played.
He is of the mold of other elite tennis-reducers like Juan Martín del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and the best reducer of them all, Roger Federer.
Matteo Berrettini has the best combination of serve+forehand in the world right now. His forehand particularly beats opponents with an unfair combination of pace and spin, even if they are positioned near where he hits the ball, as Nadal was in this frame. It takes less than a second for his forehand stroke mechanics to create that almighty thwack.
This Tottering and Leaning Tower of Italy (uncanny foundations for a tennis player, his calf muscles) may not be the most mobile of the great players, but his two strengths are extremely versatile: his forehand and his serve.
- His forehand stroke is a blink-and-you-miss-it arc, a loose-armed whip cutting the air with ease so that the ball is sent at a destructive 60 revolutions per second to any corner of the court he so chooses, dipping down in time for the baseline due to the immense, downward Magnus Effect on it. This effect multiplies the number of spots on a court he can hit to, powerfully.
- His first serve, coming down from his basketball-player-sized levers, is the best of the ‘Small 4’ subgroup of NextGen players (Zverev, Medvedev, Tsitsipas, and himself), regularly hitting his spots at 120+mph. His 2nd serve is not a weakness as it is for them. The effect of his height and his smooth serving motion also multiples the number of spots he can hit to, powerfully.
There has been a lot of debate over what exactly talent is in tennis, and, in my opinion, the ability to hit a variety of spots with regularity is what talent is—it’s not the flicks and the volleys and the soft parts of tennis, even though those are nice to have. It’s the must-haves that have to be quantified as being more valuable to the sport and its mind games.
The regularity of Berrettini’s variety sticks in the opponent’s mind with sinister influence in a way that statistics can’t really show.
So the opponent steps back and increases the thickness of the wall of air between him and Berrettini’s monstrous strengths, hoping it will slow down all that ballpower in time—and this allows Berrettini more space to work with…
… and the soft skill arrives, the dropshot.
But it is a direct result of his far more valuable hard-hitting skill: his serve and forehand.
The superior technical range of his serve and forehand creates a giant sphere of influence that the opponent cannot help but notice, and this allows other parts of his game to use up that sphere with little resistance. Nadal’s body was stuck 3 metres behind the baseline because his mind told him that he needed more time to defend Berrettini’s next shot which could easily have been a 90mph forehand at either side of the court.
As in the Nadal-Djokovic point, the technical range of the player confuses and/or freezes the opponent in time.
Nadal hits an inside-out forehand with a sickening combination of power and precision to pull Djokovic right, then a crosscourt forehand to pull Djokovic left, at which point Djokovic’s mind is rankling with Nadal’s ability to hit it to both sides: Where does Nadal go next? He can go at both sides because I’ve just seen him go at both sides. I have absolutely no idea.
When Djokovic’s body reflexively chooses to anticipate a Nadal inside-out forehand on the next shot, it loses its balance.
Because Nadal chooses to go crosscourt again, hitting a wicked spot near the junction of service box and sideline, a spot in an area he’s utilized better than any human has in tennis history (I’m not exaggerating).
Up another level in a player’s technical range, we look at the value of footspeed, and how that increases the sphere of influence.
If talent is the ability to hit to a variety of spots with regularity, then wouldn’t it be greater if the player can also do all that at a higher speed, at a higher tempo?
What happens when you marry Berrettini’s strength to… more urgency?
You get someone like Iga Świątek.
Like Berrettini, she has a loose-armed whip of a forehand that can do immense damage no matter the pace of the surface, but her well-drilled feet can get it to optimal positions quicker and, hence, take more time away from her opponent.
Aryna Sabalenka is visibly more powerful than our flying Polish goddess, so it is vital she doesn’t allow Sabalenka the time to set up those huge groundstrokes. This triple forehand combination forces Sabalenka on the backfoot in all three instances. She hits her spots with a palpable urgency—the spots are more about depth than Nadalian width, falling within a foot of the baseline each time.
Świątek is able to do this because, as she developed as a player, she lacked a 120mph serve to pamper herself with 2-shot rudiments in the way Berrettini has. She had to force herself to create more consistency off the forehand. She’s a rhythmic player who can hit multiple balls near lines at a higher tempo.
While he lumbers up to a ball and delivers attacks in a slower, more powerful punch, she’s a volume-puncher, able to hit a quick succession of semi-powerful shots, arguably more exciting to watch.
The X-factor is that she can do this even when her opponent puts her in a bad position, as Sakkari did with the initial backhand down the line.
A flurry of steps, an artful slide, a deliciously-angled crosscourt forehand to make Sakkari scamper more to the right, and she gains the advantage in the point. She would have been on the back foot in the next two shots if not for that bit of kinesthetic skill.
Superior movement entails you can hit from a greater variety of spots as well.
And this plays havoc in the opponent’s mind; you only need to watch her winning match point vs. Kanepi in the 2022 Australian Open quarterfinal (too long to GIF!) to understand how movement can create an unforced error statistic out of nothing.
That’s what commentators mean when they say a player “shrinks the court”—the giant sphere of influence Świątek exerts on her opponent’s mind not only includes the massive area on the opponent’s side of the court created by her versatile forehand attack, but the massive area her legs can cover on her own side of the court, shrinking the opponent’s options in attack.
Lumbering, tottering Berrettini is scary to defend against, but a joy to attack against.
Świątek is scary on both counts.
A player’s sphere of influence is what gets lost in the “mental strength” doublespeak of the commentators.
This sphere is directly proportional to a player’s technical range—their arsenal of talents.
It’s like if you lived near the wetlands of South Asia, you would understand the sphere of influence of a saltwater crocodile; it travels at three times the speed of Phelps, so you’d stay out of the water for the most part. But you wouldn’t care about it on land.
Whereas, somewhere in Africa, a hippo’s greater “talents” make it a problem both in the water and on land.
The time structure of being living prey dwindles as the weapons of the predator increase. Your proprioceptive reflexes know what can end you, and if you do end up between Scylla and Charybdis, between Świątek’s destructive forehand side and her equally unattackable backhand slide, your conviction dies in that split second, and you do something stupid—you make an error off a sitter, as Kanepi did.
The best players make you look clumsy.
This makes them look mentally stronger because anyone can look mentally stronger than an apparent klutz.
But are they mentally stronger… or just better?
There is another last factor that creates a bigger sphere of influence in tennis: the ability to change the directions of the rally frequently while having Berrettini-like power in reserve.
This means the willingness to hit the difficult down-the-line and inside-in and inside-out options off each wing, to keep your opponent off balance.
Świątek has the ability to change direction in spades, but she lacks the Berrettini-equivalent nuclear power in the women’s game—i.e. Serena Williams power—and she lacks the big serve, which is the biggest reason for her failures against the top players.
There is one top 20 player who, I feel, has pretty much all the factors I talked about here (not including the four 20-slam behemoths we’ve seen in the last two decades), and he was the initial reason I had pottered around with the idea of technical range for a tennis article.
I watched the Rio de Janeiro Open last month, when unfairly talented Spanish teenager, Carlos Alcaraz, who has, in the last year, humbled top 10 mainstays far above his rank, showed how the tennisness of tennis was unable to be shown in the statistics. While watching the dude over the last 3 matches of his title run, what became clear was the assurance with which he played his drop shots, a signal that his technical range was firing on all cylinders.
In the final, he had the task of defeating the darkest balrog of the clay world, the lieutenant of all suffering and evil in tennis, the torturous creature who gave Suffering’s favorite son himself, Rafael Nadal, his toughest matches in the 2018 and 2020 campaigns for the French Open:
Diego “Goliath” Schwartzman.
Goliath is 5’6” but has the skills to jump off his backhand side and hit the ball at a fairly powerful pace from shoulder/head height, and because of this he can often win the Ad exchange with Nadal’s forehand on clay (a task nigh impossible for 99.9% of the top 1000 in men’s tennis on Nadal’s bad days—and 100% on Nadal’s better days).
So, when he was trying to trap Alcaraz’s backhand in the Ad exchange, it did seem like Alcaraz might come off as second best. Don’t get me wrong: Alcaraz certainly has an above-average backhand, but he tends to rely on his forehand to get himself out of trouble, a forehand that has Berrettini-like power to end rallies in one loud syllable of finality.
Some of our Popcorn writers have also noticed that Alcaraz tends to hit one too many forehands from his backhand corner, sacrificing positional balance, and while I agree with that advice on hardcourt, I don’t think that’s necessarily bad on clay (forehands have time to create more loop and spin on clay, which push the opponent back; anyway I’m digressing!).
As you can see, Alcaraz soaked up Diego’s targeted pressure at his backhand, and created two crucial inside-out backhands at two crucial points of that crucial first set. The ability to suddenly change the direction of the rally off what is considered a more difficult shot is what planted in Diego’s mind the belief that Alcaraz could and would do it again.
With the idea that Alcaraz can hit the backhand with solid depth crosscourt and inside-out,/down-the-line, Diego felt like he had to stay back to defend both possibilities, leaving Alcaraz the opening for the soft skill…
There needn’t be too many examples to show the range on Alcaraz’s forehand, which is already one of the best in the sport, despite its rawness.
Here’s an example of him hitting one of those “unwise” forehands from his backhand corner, the spin and power pushing Diego back into a defensive lob. Two, heavy forehands kept Diego back, opening up the space for the soft skill…
It’s a great thing that the surface was clay, where the tactical battles are always heightened, relatively unadulterated by the instinctive thwacks of the serve.
A Berrettini may dirty the sanctity of technical range with his height-boosted serve on grass or hardcourt, but on the clay is where his serve can no longer mask weaknesses. Berrettini lost to Alcaraz in the quarters of this tournament, the Spaniard targeting the Italian’s well-known backhand weakness.
Tennis in many ways is a sport of exerting uncertainty on the opponent.
It’s obviously not easy to do. It requires the honing of several talents over a decade that then have to work in perfect harmony on the big stage—during all the complications nerves bring. But once you master most of these talents, you can create a multicursal tennis language, a language that boggles for its multiple options.
A strange thing happened yesterday, which reminded me that it is far more frequent than is given credit for. Seb Korda, #38 in the world, almost beat #4 Nadal, in a rare reversal of this tennis language of risk and reward that I was elaborating out here. Korda has played and practised with Nadal a couple of times, and, in all their meetings, Korda said he lost pretty comfortably to Nadal.
Knowing that Nadal has access to patterns of tennis language he can only dream of, Korda decided to do what many less talented players do when they meet an obviously more talented player who is expected to beat them.
He decided to throw the kitchen sink at Nadal.
A tennis language of high risk and high reward—a loud and uncouth language, but also an occasionally overwhelming language.
And it worked.
Nadal seemed to be feeling the ball well in the early stages of the match, but as Korda persisted with this berserking gameplan, the GOAT’s conviction palpably fell, and a stream of inexplicable errors flew off his racquet. A group of Nadal fans and myself discussed the issue, and most of them assumed this was just a poor show of form on the Spaniard’s part, but I was skeptical of this just being a Nadal problem.
In my opinion, it just seemed that the “civilized” language that respects risk, that most tennis players use on most days, was being disrespected by Korda—like, if a boorish teenager talked down a well-spoken teacher—perhaps like that scene when Gillian Anderson’s character first addresses the Moordale Secondary School in Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’.
Her expertise is undeniable, and she is a hit among the other parents in the previous week, but as soon as she makes her first appearance among the students, they can only see the unserious side of the role she fills, and ride roughshod over her.
Korda absolutely respects Nadal, but when he plays the sport in a sane, risk-aware way, he will, 99 times out of 100, lose to someone of Nadal’s calibre.
So he had to change things up.
And, as players of Korda’s good-but-not-great calibre often find themselves in, his position was of a person who had nothing to lose, and that can work to your advantage if you let it.
His 90mph rockets off both wings created a sphere of influence that had Nadal overthinking his own shots in the urgency to create angles that weren’t inside Korda’s destructive wheelhouse. Hence, Nadal’s inexplicable errors—what some commentators, on their clever days, call “forced unforced errors.”
In the end, a player with a superior technical range will win most of the shot exchanges over a match, but there are those rare days of upsets, the days when the underdog snaps, their fear flatlines into fuck-it vehemence, and a stone-cold butcher is born.
Then, the versatile player will seem like the mentally weaker mess, when really, the underdog is using their lowly status to play at a high-risk, high-reward game.
It happened in the 2009 French Open fourth round when Söderling beat Nadal, it happened in the 2009 U.S. Open final, when del Potro beat Federer, and it happened in the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinal, when Wawrinka beat Djokovic.
Don’t forget that anything can happen. Tennis is still just a sport.