Few topics have captivated the coaching world in recent years like that of the “First 4 Shots”, popularized by Craig O’Shannessy. It’s well known amongst coaches these days that the majority (approximately 70%) of points at most levels of the game are over in 4 shots or less, and the notion of training the “serve + 1” or “return + 1” has become more common. While the numbers don’t lie, I’m going to present what I believe are three important considerations in making sure we don’t misinterpret the data.
1. No two “First 4” are alike
Often, when I see coaches and players working on Serve + 1 patterns, they all look the same: the server hits a first serve, the return comes slow up the middle, and the server hits an attacking forehand. The reality is that this is only one of many possible patterns. Let’s remember the following:
1. After the serve, the server can be on offence, neutral, or defence. And in fact, outside of the pro tours, the server is in neutral after the serve more often than they are on offence (roughly 40% of the time compared to 25% of the time). The percentages vary depending on level, gender, and surface, but no phase of play ever drops below 16%. That’s one point out of every six. In other words, statistically, every 6 points you will have seen an offensive first shot, a neutral one, and a defensive one. Suffice it to say, we must train all three.
2. Serve + 1 patterns can occur off both the first and second serve. This may sound like a no brainer, but it’s easy to forget. A big part of holding serve is winning second serve points. Do you know how often your players are winning second serve points? Do you know the norms? (usually between 50 and 60% depending on level). And just like in point 1, the first shot after a second serve can be an attack, a rally ball, or a defensive or countering shot. Off the second serve, the percentages shift away from attacks, but a surprising number of first balls are still in the rally phase. Being able to neutralize and defend after a second serve is crucial.
3. The return can land anywhere. The return can land short, it can land deep, it can land in the middle, and it can land to the sides. Do you know which returns are more common, and are you practicing all those that are relevant? On tour, it’s about 60% up the middle and 40% to the sides on 1st serves, with just a few more going to the sides on 2nd serves.
4. Return + 1 is just as important as Serve + 1. The best players in the world, at any age, can hold and break serve. If you can’t break, you better hope you’re great in tiebreakers. Practicing the return + 1 is critical, and just like the serve + 1, it’s important that we take a complete approach: returning 1st and 2nd serves against power and precision, and playing 2nd shots that are offensive, neutral, and defensive.
2. Long rallies can improve short ones
Let’s say I want to improve my player’s results when they get a neutral first ball after a first serve. What is it that they need to do better? Is it technical, tactical, physical, or mental? Do they need some real teaching and correction, or just a minor adjustment? The answers to these questions, and more, will dictate how best to approach the on-court work. But I will suggest this: if there is real technical teaching to be done, you are better off working on it in a different context, and then integrating it with the serve or return.
The reason is this: if I am indeed teaching something new, whether technical or tactical, my player is going to need to get a lot of repetitions. Various studies over the years have demonstrated that it usually takes between 2,500 and 5,000 repetitions to acquire a new motor skill, depending on the athlete’s level of coordination. Most high performance athletes are relatively well coordinated, and most technical work being done is usually a variation or correction of a motor pattern, so let’s cut that number in half: 1,250 repetitions. Even if I’m teaching decision-making, my player will need repetition to fully automate the decision.
So let’s go back to our example: I’m working on a neutral first ball after a first serve. I could work on this by doing serve + 1 patterns. However, with the time taken for getting a new ball, going through serve routines, missed serves, and so on, the player will probably be able to get five to eight repetitions per minute. On the other hand, if I set them up in a live ball drill they will have the chance to get upwards of 20 repetitions per minute. Then, once I feel like the skill is stable, I can integrate it with the serve. Remember — in both cases, these are closed drills. Adding the serve does not make it more open — all it changes, in this case, is the footwork (landing, recovering, and moving after the serve). Therefore, I can develop the skill in a repetition-heavy context, then integrate it with the serve or return and make any necessary adjustments until I feel that the skill will hold up in the first 4 shots. The result is that my player acquires the skill faster and is then able to use it in the intended context: the 1st serve + 1.
The other consideration is this: roughly 9% of points last exactly 4 shots and another 31% last 5 or more. That means that in 40% of points, at least one player is hitting two consecutive groundstrokes — in 31%, both are. While it isn’t the majority, it’s certainly a non-negligible portion. Players must be able to string together sequences of groundstrokes, and live ball drilling is a great way to practice this.
3. Consistency still matters
There are two words that come up in these sorts of discussions — unforced and forced — and I’m going to refrain from using either one. Instead, I’ll just talk numbers. On average, after a serve (first or second), if a player receives a neutral ball, they make it 90% of the time (at an international level, regardless of age). If they receive an attackable ball, they make it 85 to 87% of the time. If they are on defence, they still make their first shot approximately 60% of the time. Unfortunately, a lot of “first 4 shots” training has become what people refer to as “first strike training” – the notion that you must at all costs try to finish the point in your first two shots. The result for many juniors is that they do finish the point — by missing. The numbers don’t lie — being good in the first 4 shots is about starting the point well, and sometimes that means giving the opponent a chance to miss. Therefore, when training the first 4 shots, we have to make sure that we are encouraging smart decision-making (according to the phase of play) and teaching skills that allow our players not only to do damage, but to eliminate errors.