How to Watch a Tennis Match (Sorry, Slightly Condescending)

Sometimes when I hear or read analyses of matches I feel like some of the commentators or tweeters didn’t see the same match I did. That might actually be the case. Maybe I wasn’t watching closely enough. Or maybe the commentators weren’t. The seemingly simple task of viewing a tennis match is becoming a lost art. So, with the US Open about to begin and fans being allowed back onto the grounds, herewith are my unintentionally condescending tips for how to watch a match, especially in person. If you’re asking what makes me qualified to give advice, the answer is not much, other than the fact that I’ve been watching and playing tennis since 1973. And I’m much better at watching than playing.

Actually watch the match. Allow yourself to become totally absorbed by it. What this really means is don’t look at your phone. Not even between points, and if you can avoid it, not even between games. To be sure, this falls under the “do as I say, not as I do” category. I wish I could say I never look at my phone during matches. It’s astounding how many fans are face-deep in their phones during entire points. Even the fans who think they’re not doing that are often looking up from their phones only after they hear the sound of the serve. But if you do that, you’ve probably missed the serve, which is the most important shot.

Watch the players during and after points. Pay attention to what the players do between points. One thing that frustrates me watching tennis on TV is how they cut to Mirka, or Coco Gauff’s parents, or Helen from the movie “Bridesmaids” (Jelena Djokovic) after every point. Because of that, we’re often missing a player stretching out his hamstring or flexing her ankle before the next point. And then when they call the physio a couple of games later everyone seems so surprised, like “that came out of nowhere,” when in fact the signs were there if we had just been watching the player between points. If you are there in person, you can pick up on these clues even more during changeovers. Does a player look in discomfort? Is she trying to knead out a tight calf muscle?

Also dedicate several points to watching only a player and not the ball. You can pick up  meaningful things about their movement and how they’re feeling. If you were watching Federer in the early rounds of Wimbledon, and not following the ball every point, you would have picked up on just how poorly he was moving to his right. Many commentators seemed to miss that.   

Trust your eyes, not the stat sheet. If you are reading this you have probably watched hundreds if not thousands of tennis matches in your life. So trust your eyes. As long as you’re actually watching the match, go with your impressions and not what a stat sheet tells you after the match. I’m a big fan of data, but the problem with tennis stats is that aside from serve percentages, most of them are what you might call dirty data. The data in tennis are less clean than in most other sports I’m familiar with. In basketball, free throw percentage and field goal percentage are pretty straightforward data points. Tennis is filled with noisy data. Net points won doesn’t tell you anything about the circumstances. Was the player coming into the net to put away an easy floater, or was she brought in by a sick drop shot by her opponent? My understanding is that a forehand untouched by the opponent is a winner, but a forehand that the opponent desperately stretches for and plops into the bottom of the net isn’t. Same result categorized differently on a stat sheet. That doesn’t make for helpful data.

I will describe a point here, and you tell me whether it’s an unforced error: Player A has Player B on a string, running him from side to side. Player B plays four excellent defensive shots to stay in the point. But on the fifth one Player B misses. He had to run a few steps for the ball, but it was easier than at least three of the shots he made earlier in the point. Is that an unforced error? Player B would tell you that he should have made that shot. But Player A would tell you deserved that point because he was the aggressor. The point isn’t easily categorized. There’s no need to attach a label to it. Just watch the point and incorporate it into your thinking about the match.

Keep in mind who’s serving. Fans and commentators often draw conclusions based too much on who’s coming out ahead on interesting or long points, But that can be very misleading. If Player A hits an ace in the first point of the game, loses the second point on a 20-shot rally and wins the third with a service winner, most fans will remember the long rally. That could create a narrative that Player B is forcing the action and playing better than Player A. But based on those three points, she’s not.

Tennis, especially men’s tennis, is very much about holding serve. So a long, interesting point that seems important at the time might not be if it’s part of a routine service hold. If it’s part of a service break, then yes, it could be one of the key points of the match. Let’s say a set goes 6-4 with one service break. Don’t overthink it. What happened during that one service break? That’s what determined the outcome of the set. The interesting points during service holds aren’t as influential in the outcome of that set as more mundane points during a service break.

Remember what happened earlier in the game, not just the break point. For sure, not all points are created equal. Break points are more important than most other points, and deserve more scrutiny. But don’t forget the importance of the points that led to that break point. Example: Shapovalov serving 5-4 to Djokovic in the first set of their Wimbledon semifinal. Shapovalov made two very routine groundstroke errors to start the game and go down 0-30, basically spotting the world’s best player two points. While the conventional narrative was that Djokovic went into “lockdown mode” and produced the break — to be sure, something he does a lot — if you watched every point of the game it would be hard not to conclude that particular game was more about Shapovalov than Djokovic.

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