Small Points, An Even Smaller Point

Small Points, An Even Smaller Point image

              In Tennis Magazine’s May/June 2019 issue, Allen Fox, Ph.D. under the title: Small Points, Big Wins suggests that “it pays to go all out, all the time.” This will lead to more wins, in his humble opinion. My claim is that he is actually making a far more obvious and unremarkable point: If you win more points, then you will probably win the match. Duh!?

               Let me clarify. While we all know that all points in tennis are not worth the same, this does NOT suggest that we should expend less effort on the less important points. As Dr, Fox correctly points out at the end of his article, “pros … play every point with the same high intensity.” Seen in this light, his admonition to play the less important points with “extra effort” is confusing. If a player is already playing with high intensity, then where is the “extra effort” coming from?

               Dr. Fox goes on to correctly say that “since there is less pressure on these points [less important points], your nerves will be calmer, and you will be more likely to play your normal game.” Dr. Fox neglects to mention players who regularly practice their ability to relax between points. This group of players will be able to access their tennis on all types of points – either those more important or less important because their calmness is more readily accessible.

               Dr. Fox further obscures what he’s trying to say in the next section of his article when he contradicts an earlier point which he’s made, only to make his unremarkable thesis even more unremarkable. In this section, he talks about the situation where your opponent is serving at 30-0 and he goes on to “prove” that losing this point and allowing your opponent a 40-0 lead will almost surely lose you the game. Duh!? (Aside: since all risk decisions are context dependent, his example is meaningless since we don’t know the score in either sets or games.  I’ll go on as if this problem doesn’t exist.) His claim is that, at this point in the score (30-0) “these players will try lower-percentage shots; … and miss.” First, this contradicts his earlier point that, with less pressure, a player will be calmer and therefore have  better access to his “normal game.” Now, all of sudden, our player is missing the shot. Presumably because he has chosen a lower-percentage play.

               Keep in mind two things at this moment in our discussion. First “lower-percentage” does not mean “low percentage”. I would almost never advocate going for a low percentage shot at any point in a match; however, going for a “lower-percentage” shot might make sense because game theoretic studies of the pros have shown that mixing up their targets is crucial. The idea behind this is that a player must keep their opponent honest. Another way to say this is that “lower-percentage” can also be described as “slightly below highest-percentage, but still high.”

               So, why all of my effort to sort this out? Dr. Fox tells us why: "In a close match, there is a very small difference in total points won between the winner and the loser." I want to help you to understand what matters. If anything, his article suggests the importance of developing a consistent relaxation ritual between points. If you do this, the results will follow,

             Dr. Fox would have us all try equally hard on all points, independent of the score. No argument there. My only question is: what was added to this unremarkable idea by the rest of his article? A: Nothing. His point is even smaller than he thinks.



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