The truth about unforced errors

Published by Paul Fein

When Petra Kvitova is 'on' she's incredible. When she's 'off' she's...
It can seem more like you’ve beaten yourself than lost to a better opponent when your unforced error count is high – but eliminating this messy aspect of your game should first come down to understanding it.

No tennis statistic is more emphasised but less understood than unforced errors (UEs). UEs happen when a player hits the ball into the net or beyond the baseline or sidelines without being pressured much or at all.

In his 1950 instruction book, How To Play Better Tennis, all-time great Bill Tilden sagaciously observed, “Tennis matches are always lost on errors and never won by placements.” It seems almost heretical, therefore, to question the widely accepted importance of unforced errors. But the time has come to put UEs into proper perspective. So let the analyses begin.

1. Not all unforced errors are created equal
Unforced errors committed when you’re leading 30-love, 40-love or 40-15 are the most forgivable. So are UEs when you are way ahead in the game score, such as 4-0, 5-0, or 5-1, although you certainly don’t want to become complacent or over-confident, regardless of the score. UEs on the first point of games, especially service games, add unwanted pressure, and UEs with the score deuce are frustrating and can prove costly.

2. Look at your shot selection
If your unforced errors come when you’re simply trying to rally and keep the ball in play, the cause is often nervousness or lack of concentration. This type of UE is inexcusable. However, if you’re attacking while trying for a makeable shot, as exasperating as that is, you can at least take comfort in knowing your strategy, if not your execution, was sound.

Another way of analysing this statistically is comparing your total unforced errors with the number of your winners, plus the forced errors made by your opponent.

3. What kind of unforced errors are you making?
If your UEs are missing by several metres, you have to figure out why. Are you hitting too hard? Do you have stroke defects that must be corrected? Are you panicking? On the other hand, if you’re missing by centimetres but hitting the ball solidly and confidently, give yourself a greater margin of error with either more net clearance or safer placement inside the sidelines and baseline. More topspin and/or less power will help you accomplish that.

4. Take into account existing conditions
The forehand approach shot is one of Roger Federer’s most devastating weapons. Yet the Swiss superstar badly mis-hit that shot into the net on championship point in the sensational 2008 Wimbledon final against Nadal. In his defense, the last game was played in near-darkness. Heavy winds, blinding sun, extreme heat, rain, a bad bounce (particularly on grass) or other adverse circumstances can also induce unforced errors.

5. Other numbers affect unforced errors
Forty unforced errors are a lot if you play a two-set match that has 100 total points, but 40 UEs are a low figure if you wind up in a five-set marathon requiring 300 total points. Another way to think of unforced errors is in relationship to total shots during a given point.

With the near-extinction of serving and volleying, rallies have become longer. An unforced error at the end of a grueling 20-shot exchange is more excusable – all other things being equal – than after a point lasting five shots. Finally, 30 unforced errors in a three-set victory should be evaluated differently if 25 come in a horrendous second set, as opposed to 30 UEs in a three- set loss with 10 coming in each set.

6. Give your opponent credit
Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray all possess the speed, agility, flexibility, athleticism and stroke technique to thwart all but the best offensive shots of their opponents. Sooner or later, their frustrated and sometimes desperate opponents start making unforced errors.

When you face a defensive standout, your UEs may increase too. Give them credit for their terrific defense. But never lose your composure or start feeling sorry for yourself – and always keep fighting.

7. Tennis has evolved enormously
No major international sport, except perhaps basketball, has changed as much as tennis since its invention. Strings, strokes, surfaces, rules, training methods as well as the size and athleticism of players all contrive to make our sport more powerful and faster-paced than ever. Many so-called UEs today would be ruled forced errors 50, or even 25, years ago. Official scorers of tennis are to blame nowadays for judging far too many errors as unforced. Years ago, a few respected baseball writers used to double as official scorers and decided whether a fielder should be charged with an error or a batter should be credited with a hit.

These quite fallible writers were eventually replaced by experts focusing only on official scoring. Game statistics for players are far more important to baseball fans than are match statistics to tennis fans (although coaches use them to great effect). However, pro tennis can certainly upgrade this area with highly knowledgeable official scorers.

8. What’s the solution?
When asked about Nadal’s viciously spinning lefty forehand a few years ago, Federer candidly told reporters that returning it is a formidable challenge. Andy Roddick likened facing the Nadal forehand to “Chinese water torture.” Can an error against a Nadal forehand ever be called “unforced”? Only rarely. Every top 10 man and most of the top 10 women also boast explosive shots and can sustain their aggression, as can many top 100 players on both tours.

As a result, unforced errors have become much less common. The time has come for tennis to add a third category – called semi-forced errors – to the current forced and unforced errors categories. Semi-forced errors would do justice to the many errors that, for various reasons, are neither totally forced nor unforced.

Adding this new category would also promote a more accurate and nuanced analysis of match errors by TV commentators, writers and coaches as well as how players of all levels can reduce them.

This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.

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