Join Date: Dec 2006
An article today in the New York Times about unforced errors.
Unforced Error Is Unloved Statistic Among Tennis Players
By BEN ROTHENBERG
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The term unforced error has become a staple of the popular vernacular since its introduction in tennis three decades ago. And though the phrase is still largely identified with the sport, players and coaches have little regard for the statistic. Nor do they care much for the statistical identification of shots as winners or unforced errors, considering them misleading reflections of the flow of a match.
Andy Murray, the defending United States Open champion, said he looked for only one thing on a postmatch stats sheet.
“The most important one is if there’s a W next to your name,” he said. “The rest you can pretty much throw out.”
But the statistics persist, probably because fans find them meaningful.
Leo Levin, director of product development for the analytics company Information and Display Systems, helped coin the term unforced error when he was developing the first computerized tennis statistics system in 1982 as a coaching aid. Every point was classified as ending in either a winner, a forced error or an unforced error.
“We had the concept of a shot that is ‘forcing’ or just ‘in-play,’ ” Levin said. “So if players are trading what we consider to be ‘in-play’ or neutral shots, a resulting error would have to be unforced.”
Though a winner (a shot that lands in the court and is not touched by the opponent) is easy to determine, deciding whether an error is forced or unforced is subjective. And when more than one statistician is working a match — usually one for the tournament and one for the broadcaster — their totals can differ drastically.
According to Information and Display Systems, a player commits an unforced error if he does not keep a ball in play though he is not “under any physical pressure as a result of the placement, pace, power or spin of their opponents stroke.”
Information and Display Systems runs video training sessions with its statisticians to work toward as much unanimity as possible in classifying errors, but making it an exact science may be impossible.
“I think if you have two or three different people recording unforced errors, you’re going to get two or three different figures,” said Kevin Fischer, senior communications manager for the Women’s Tennis Association. “One person is going to see a person that’s constructed a point, a long rally, and a player then hits it into the net — is it forced or unforced? Totally the call of the person behind the computer.”
Levin contends that unforced errors are a more revealing statistic for assertive players who can become erratic.
“You’ll see that a lot of times when a player like Serena Williams loses a match,” he said. “It’s not usually because she got overpowered; she was the aggressor, but she was making mistakes. So unforced errors are typically a key factor for her when she loses. But when she wins, she’s not winning because her opponents are making mistakes, she’s winning because she’s dominating by forcing mistakes and hitting winners.”
Statistics on winners and unforced error counts are commonly reported by the news media, but forced errors are not, even though their inclusion could, at least for fans, provide a more complete representation of the flow of a match.
In her third-round loss at the 2013 Australian Open, the British teenager Laura Robson hit 6 winners and 29 unforced errors, which would make her performance seem woefully erratic. But Robson also forced 19 errors from her opponent, Sloane Stephens, thus assertively claiming points without hitting clean winners.
“Unforced errors and winners are more glamorous,” Levin said. “They’re easier to spot; there’s more of a story there a lot of the time. And one of the things we learned as we developed the stats, especially as you deal with media and broadcasters: they’re trying to paint pictures; they’re trying to tell stories.
“And it’s easier to tell a story with ‘He made 20 unforced errors; he’s giving away a lot of points.’ You can articulate that really easily. Or if he’s hitting a lot of winners, it’s flashy shots. Again, it creates a buzz. But if you talk about ‘He’s forcing a lot of mistakes,’ it doesn’t have the same appeal.”
Though the system of classifying point-ending shots was developed for coaches, many of them, and players, like Murray, disavow the statistics.
“Having worked in the N.B.A., you have TV timeouts and the first thing the coaches want is the box score,” Fischer said.
He added: “Here, they sit at a changeover and you flash up the first-set stats, and they completely ignore it. They don’t look.”
Sam Sumyk, who coaches the world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, said statistics were misleading.
“I’m not interested on the statistics, because I’m not sure it’s accurate,” Sumyk said. “So I rather go see by myself, and see with my own eyes, and make my opinion or judgment.”
Many top players seem to agree with his assessment.
“The forced error, unforced error count is always extremely tricky,” said Roger Federer, who has won 17 Grand Slam tournaments. “I know, and my coaches know, what happened during the match, so I don’t necessarily need stats to point out things.”