The Forced Error
All competitive players rated 3.5+ understand that unforced errors are the bane of a tennis player’s existence: good competitors refuse to beat themselves. However, these players also recognize that merely getting the ball back one more time will not be successful, particularly as the level of play rises.
At the same time, players soon learn that going for winners rarely pays off with a successful winner, but usually results in their own unforced error. The key idea behind formulating a well-designed game plan is to play for the forced error. With the concept of feel outlined in more detail in Deconstructing Tennis, a player learns to “play from within.” This means that, at the moment of impact, the relationship of utmost importance is between you and seeing the ball into contact. As soon as you begin to go for winners, the relationship which dominates becomes one between you and your opponent.
Once, when checking in for a tournament, the director informed me that "your opponent is not yet here." "Yes he is," I responded, referring to myself.
Essentially, “playing from within” means that, with the exception of some shots which are just so easy, all shots are played so that it is ok with you if the opponent touches the ball! Once you understand and accept this idea, nearly all of the unforced errors which result from going for winners will evaporate from your game.
The best players control the ball through feel, i.e. with their bodies. A winner is, by definition, a shot that an opponent cannot touch. When a player instructs his body to “hit the ball so that the opponent cannot touch it,” his body will listen. Each over-hit “out” ball as well as those which slam into the net is following this instruction to keep the ball away from the opponent. Incredibly, this means that, many times when you miss a shot, your body is simply doing what you asked it to do! If you can simply reprogram the instructions, the errors will evaporate!
This is also true for world-class pros. Each of the Grand Slams provides data for every match. Categories include unforced errors, winners (including service), serving percentage, etc. But, if I am correct that the forced error usually tells the most important part of a story about a match, these statistics are like reading a Sherlock Holmes detective story without Sherlock in the plot. The Davis Cup just began adding the forced error to its match statistics. In nearly every match in the quarterfinals of 2012, it was the player with the highest combination of winners and forced errors, as opposed to the player with the fewest unforced errors, who won the match!
A forcing shot is a shot played with enough pace, spin, and direction such that the opponent is able to get his racquet on the ball, but is unable, in most cases, to control his stroke to a precise target. The result of a forcing shot will either be a forced error or a weaker reply. If the forced error is the key to success, this suggests that all players with aspirations to achieve must develop at least one, and possibly several, weapons. This is the realm of technical training and not within the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that players must be able to consistently play “aggressively enough” to utilize the forced error framework. This requires both solid fundamentals and a feel for their 3rd and 4th gears.
Bob Schewior Director Emeritus
Bob Schewior has been the Director of Tennis at CRRC since 1985. His playing accomplishments include playing #1 at Rutgers University 1971-73. In 1988 and 1991, he was ranked in the Top 20 nationally in Men’s 35 and 40 Singles respectively as well as a #6 national ranking in Men’s 35 Doubles in 1988.View Profile