What is the most common rally length in tennis?

The statistical term is called the mode, and it’s the least known metric in our sport. It’s been hiding in plain sight since tennis began. An Infosys ATP Insights analysis into 10 recent matches of World No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas uncovers that a one-shot rally occurs substantially more than any other rally length in a match.

It’s important to note that rally length in our sport is predicated by the ball landing in the court, not hitting the strings. So a “three-shot” rally is a serve in, a return in, and a winner, while a “two-shot” rally is a serve in, a return in, and an error. That explains a “zero-shot” rally, which is a double fault. The ball simply didn’t land in the court.

The 10 matches in the data set are outlined at the bottom of this report.

When asked to guess about the most abundant rally length, players at all levels of the game typically gravitate to a four-shot rally as their answer. They are not even close…

Tsitsipas and his opponents played almost 30 per cent of total points as a one-shot rally. The serve went in, and it was sometimes an ace, or more commonly a return error. That was almost double the next highest rally length of three shots, which occurred 15.8 per cent of the time.

You would naturally think that if a one-shot rally is the most abundant, then a two-shot rally would logically be next. It’s not. In fact, both three-shot rallies and five-shot rallies rank above two-shot rallies as the most common.

The reason is the “halo effect” of the serve. The serve is such a powerful force at the start of the rally that the third shot and fifth shot, both won by the server, get to feast on the weaker balls from the returner. It’s also important to note that the server can only win odd-numbered rallies, while the returner can only win even-numbered rallies.

Tsitsipas vs. Opponents: 10 Match Rally Length Analysis

Rating Rally Length Total Percentage
1 1 Shot 458 29.8%
2 3 Shots 243 15.8%
3 5 Shots 153 10.0%
4 2 Shots 151 9.8%
5 4 Shots 123 8.0%
6 7 Shots 88 5.7%
7 6 Shots 65 4.2%
8 8 Shots 48 3.1%
9 0 Shots 40 2.6%
10 11 Shots 40 2.6%
11 9 Shots 36 2.3%
12 10 Shots 32 2.1%
13 15+ Shots 26 1.7%
14 12 Shots 15 1.0%
15 13 Shots 13 0.8%
16 14 Shots 6 0.4%
Total/Percentage 1,537 100.0%

Overall, Tsitsipas lost slightly more of the 458 points in the dominant one-shot rally length, even though he won 70 per cent (7/10) of the matches.

Tsitsipas vs. Opponents: One-Shot Rallies

Player Rallies Won Percentage
S. Tsitsipas 226 49.3%
Opponents 232 50.7%

It’s interesting to note that only three rally lengths made it to double digits. Those were one shot (29.8%), three shots (15.8%), and five shots (10.0%). They may as well be a roadmap for what players need to focus on most when they step onto the practice court.

2019/2020: 10 Match Snapshot: Stefanos Tsitsipas

Event Win/Loss Score
Dubai 2020 Win d. J. Struff 46 64 64
Marseille 2020 Win d. F. Auger-Aliassime 63 64
Rotterdam 2020 Loss l to. A. Bedene 75 64
Nitto ATP Finals 2019 Win d. D. Thiem 67(6) 62 76
Paris 2019 Loss l to. N. Djokovic 61 62
Paris 2019 Win d. A. de Minaur 63 64
Shanghai 2019 Win d. N. Djokovic 36 75 63
Shanghai 2019 Win d. H. Hurkacz 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(5)
Shanghai 2019 Win d. F. Auger-Aliassime 76(3) 76(3)
Beijing 2019 Loss l to. D. Thiem 36 64 61