Uncontrolled Aggression

Listen to tennis commentary–or a broadcast of any sport, really–and wait for the first mention of “consistency.” You won’t have to wait for long.

“Consistent” is good, and “inconsistent” is bad. Or so we’re told. At first blush, it makes sense. Consistency is a good thing when it comes to following through on your forehand or brushing your teeth every day. But unless you’re the very best player in the world, consistency doesn’t win you Grand Slam titles.

Think of it this way: Every player has an “average” level they are capable of playing. If average Rafael Nadal plays average anybody else on clay, average Nadal wins. If average Richard Gasquet plays average anybody-outside-the-top-fifty, average Gasquet wins. These situations, for the likes of Nadal and Gasquet, are when consistency is actually a good thing. Sure, Rafa might be able to raise him game to previously unheard-of heights, but what’s the point? It’s a matter of winning 6-1 6-0 instead of 6-3 6-2. Nadal’s main concern is avoiding an off day.

Consider the same example from the perspective of Rafa’s opponent. If you’re Tomas Berdych and you play at your usual level against Nadal, you’ll lose. That’s what consistency gets you: thirteen straight losses.

Uncontrolled aggression

Very aggressive players tend to get a bad rap. The guys who always go for their shots–think Lukas Rosol or Nikolay Davydenko–rack up huge winner and unforced error counts. Sometimes it works and often it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, the conventional wisdom always seems to be that these players need to rein in their aggression. They need to be more consistent.

But they don’t. If Rosol stopped unleashing huge shots in every direction, he’d make fewer unforced errors, but he’d hit far fewer winners. He might still hover around #50 in the world, but more likely, he’d still be lurking in the Challenger ranks, looking for the breakthrough that such a passive style might never earn for him. As it is, Rosol’s go-for-broke approach got him that career-defining upset over Nadal, not to mention an ATP title in Bucharest last spring, when he beat three higher-ranked players.

Rather than the pundit’s favored phrase of “controlled aggression,” players score big upsets and major breakthroughs with uncontrolled aggression. (It only looks controlled because it’s working that day.) If you rein in an aggressive player, he may win more of the matches he’s supposed to win, but he’s much less likely to score an upset.

The balance myth

The game of tennis has so much variety–surfaces, climates, playing styles–and so much alternation–deuce/ad, serve/return–that pundits are constantly endorsing balance. Andy Murray needs to get better on clay, they say. Jerzy Janowicz needs to improve his return game. Monica Niculescu needs to learn how to hit a forehand.

It’s a tempting argument to make, because the best players in the game do have that balance. Nadal and Djokovic and Serena and Li have a wide variety of devastating shots and tactics that are effective on every surface. If you want to play like them and reap the same rewards, you need to have that same balance.

Except that, for the vast majority of players–even top-tenners–that just isn’t going to happen. I don’t care if David Ferrer hires a coaching team of Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis, he’ll never be much more effective on serve. John Isner could work all offseason with Andre Agassi and remain among the game’s weakest returners.

What’s keeping these players from climbing any higher in the rankings isn’t the fact that they aren’t more balanced. It’s the simple fact that they aren’t better. By definition, most people will never be a once-in-a-generation talent.

Most players are not balanced. And that’s fine. Rather than chasing the impossible dream of out-Novaking Novak, they need to take more risks to outplay their betters in one or two areas. When it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter–they would’ve lost anyway.

The cluster principle

Tennis rewards the streaky. If you only win four return points in a set, it’s much better to win them consecutively than to spread them out. It’s better to win five matches in one week and go winless for the next four weeks than win one match per week.

Whether it’s points, games, sets, matches, or even titles, it’s better to cluster your triumphs.

If you strive for a balanced game, the best players simply won’t let you go on a streak. Fabio Fognini or Sabine Lisicki might give you a few gifts, but Nadal never will. The only way to cluster your victories over Rafa is to play such aggressive tennis that even he can’t neutralize it. It usually won’t work, but for most players, it’s their only hope. There’s a reason the hyper-aggressive Davydenko is the only active player with a winning record against him.

Stan’s untold narrative

Stanislas Wawrinka probably wouldn’t have beaten a healthy Nadal over five sets on Sunday. But he was winning when Rafa’s back acted up, and he did so by unleashing every weapon in his arsenal.

Whatever the rankings say this week, Wawrinka isn’t one of the best three tennis players in the world. At least “average Stan” isn’t. But that’s the whole point. Tennis doesn’t reward players with ranking points and prize money for consistency. Consistency got Berdych into the top ten and has kept him there for so long … but it has prevented him from spending much time in the top five.

Wawrinka won’t always beat Nadal or Djokovic, and he’ll continue to suffer his share of defeats at the hands of the players ranked below him. The high-risk style of play that earned him a place in the history books won’t always pay off. That’s all part of the package. Stan didn’t get this far by being consistent.

5 thoughts on “Uncontrolled Aggression”

  1. Regarding being the third best player in the world: The ATP rankings may support streakiness, but your ranking system presumably doesn’t. Just had a look at Stan’s ratings and you make him 3rd best on Hard courts, 4th on Clay, and… 7th overall! His grass court season consisted of losing in the final of s-Hertogenbosch to Mahut and in the 1st round of Wimbledon to Hewitt, so that seems a bit harsh. I’ve been thinking for a while that Wawrinka may actually be the third best player out there.

    Also, it sounds to me like you are trying to come up with a way to improve your modeling of tennis players. Rather than just a rating, you’d have an average rating and some sort of rating volatility. While it’s easy to analyse players performance relative to a simple model and thereby categorise them from their results as ‘aggressive’ or ‘consistent’, I found it very difficult to incorporate this back into fitting a more complicated model. I’d be very interested in what you are doing (if indeed this is even what you are doing!).

    1. The discrepancy between hard and clay rankings and overall rankings is a quirk of the system that comes up occasionally after extreme results. It’s flaw, not something worth reading anything into.

      I did create a consistency rating awhile back:

      I didn’t find any obvious way to improve ratings with it. It does seem, intuitively, that when one player is very much favored (think Nadal-Rosol), higher volatility–from either player, but especially the underdog–would increase the odds of an upset. But for the majority of matchups, I think it just increases the range of possible scores (e.g. more likely to have a 6-1 6-2 result) rather than increasing the likelihood that one player would win.

  2. “Consistency” means different things in different contexts – consistency over a season means finding ways to win even when not at your best; consistency in a match involves maintaining a high level of play across however many sets. I guess your one point, that a 50-odd ranked player can’t beat an average Nadal unless he plays aggressively is fine – but that doesn’t surely mean he can’t also aim to be consistent across a season, which may in fact mean playing relatively more or less aggressively depending on the opponent, conditions, etc.

    Three other more specific points – (1) I haven’t watch Davydenko as much recently, but I’d never have pegged him as a gun-slinger. His aggression as such comes from trying to take the ball early, but he’s never been able to blast people off court. Even at his best, he’s never managed that, and even in his best years, he struggled at Wimbledon, where there’s such a premium on having that extra venom in your strokes. But if you have stats to demonstrate his aggressive play, be very interested to see them. (2) Isner – or Raonic if you prefer – won’t ever be Agassi-esque returners, but that’s surely not the point. For them, the target should be a 10-15% improvement in their returning ability. Even a small increment like that could pay huge dividends given how one break of serve should generally be all they need in a set. (3) Tennis rewards streaks, no doubt, but for your journeymen pros who live from week to week, streaks, even small ones, at Slams are huge. The prize differentials, and points differentials, between winning a match or two at a Slam versus anywhere else are massive.

    Lastly, I’d have said Stan’s AO win came after several years of steady improvement. I don’t think his break into the top-10 last year was fluky, and this win may not have been either. If he backs it up, will you change your mind about his being consistent?

  3. You are bang on about consistency fetching what it does to players like Berdych, Wawrinka and Nadal. While consistency of players at No.5 and below will earn them a spot in top 10 but below no.5, they need to be able to produce superlative tennis that breaks the ‘consistency’ mould that gets them an entry into the haloed top 3.

  4. Such an in depth analysis. You are spot on with the fact that all the successful players have a balance which makes them so. Having a massive serve or tactical groundstrokes doesn’t guarantee you success.

    In term of what you said about Wawrinka, to get to the stage that he was at, he had to play consistently strong, trying to dictate the points, which is exactly what he did against Nadal. Granted Nadal was not 100%, but to maintain focus throughout the final, knowing the this opponent was injured, and to sty consistent in the game plan, is what makes Wawrinka a Top 3 player.

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