Experience is an all encompassing umbrella term that gets thrown around all the time. But what does it actually mean in terms of output on the court? I think this question is easier to answer if you consider what makes someone an expert and what an expert tennis player does well.
Whilst you can have lots of experience and not be an expert - you can’t be an expert without lots of experience. With that in mind, gaining match experience is a crucial part of a players development. In-fact part of the reason the LTA adopted mini tennis was to allow players to gain valuable match experience from a younger age. Last summer I saw a 14 year old girl with over 1,500 matches under her belt, for context that is the amount of professional matches that Federer played during his 24 year career. But what advantage does gaining all of this experience give you?
There are a lot of rabbit holes you can go down in this discussion but there’s one in particular I’m going to guide us down today. One element of being an ‘expert’ on something is being able to recognise patterns better/faster than non experts. The video below explores a study into how context differentiates grandmaster chess players to amateurs in a memory test.
It’s ability for recognising situations which allows players to make good decisions on the tennis court. It’s really important that players make good decisions as they have to make a lot of them, roughly 500 in a three set match. Most of these decisions are shot selection based which means many are made under time pressure. More advanced players generally make better decisions as they have a greater awareness of situations. Adapting to the incoming ball, knowing where their opponent is on the court, knowing what shot their opponent is likely to hit - there are many details which experts pick up on that others might not.
In the video below, Patrick Mouratoglu, highlights how Kyrgios recognises small details in his opponents court positioning and body position and uses that information to win the point. One thing that is worth pointing out here is that whilst Kyrgios will be noticing where Medvedev is, a lot of these decisions could probably be made of Medvedev was invisible due to how the ball is coming back and where from.
This next clip is another good example of recognising a situation early and acting accordingly. Rafa’s volleying statistics have always been great because he picks really good situations to approach, such as this one. In this case his trigger to come to the net is when he sees his opponent playing a defensive slice for reasons explained in the video.
As you heard Joel say here Coric has been having success by blocking returns and neutralising the point - Rafa spots the pattern emerging and takes action to counter this. This was a really smart play for a few reasons. Firstly it counters what Coric was doing, those floaty returns are easy pickings for a volleyer of Nadal's calibre. Secondly it is likely to force Coric to drive more returns and take on increased risk by doimg so. Magnus Norman - Federer and Wawrinka’s former coach was a big advocate of serve and volleying on big points as it prevented safe returns.
More experienced players are likely to spot patterns earlier or maybe even predict them due to additional context they can give to the situation. Let’s say your opponent misses a forehand, no big deal right? Could be, people miss forehands all the time. But it could be that the player struggles on a low forehand because they have an extreme grip or can’t slice very well. Players don’t necessarily need to know exactly why the shot looked uncomfortable but experienced players will notice if something didn’t look right. Additional context like this can change what some may perceive as a random miss into an exploitable weakness. Recognising the situation they struggle in is step one and then finding ways to exploit that weakness is step two.
Identifying patterns and effectively managing risk, in my opinion, what separates experienced players from novices. So whether it is mid point adjustments based on emerging situations or whether it is tactical adjustments being calculated between points - being able to identify patterns is crucial for players to have high level shot selection, problem solving and confidence. Simply being able to spot these patterns can reduce the feelings of helplessness when things are going wrong and this alone can keep a player engaged even when down in the score.