An Aerospace Engineer’s Guide to Winning Tennis

Extraordinary TennisSimon “Si” Ramo is a remarkable person.

Ramo is a world-renowned scientist and engineer. He was the chief architect of the US intercontinental ballistic missile system. He was the ‘R’ in TRW, the multibillion-dollar aerospace company now part of Northrop Grumman. And last year, at the age of 100, he became the oldest person to be awarded a patent.

As remarkable as all of that is, his insight into tennis – and perhaps all sports – might be even more remarkable. Ramo authored two books, Tennis By Machiavelli and Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players, which showed that tennis is played completely differently by professionals and amateurs. Of course, both types of players use the same rules and scoring. Sometimes they even use the same equipment. However, there is a fundamental difference: professionals win points whereas amateurs lose them.

In a professional game, players – nearly equal in skill – rally the ball back and forth until one of them hits the ball just beyond the reach of the opponent. Rallies are long and it’s literally a game of inches. On the other hand, rallies are short in an amateur game. Many balls are hit into the net or out of bounds. Double faults are more common than aces.

Ramo discovered this effect by ignoring conventional tennis scores (Love, Fifteen All, etc.) and examining individual points. In expert tennis, 80% of points are won while in amateur tennis, 80% are lost. Charles Ellis, the renowned investment consultant, explained that avoiding mistakes is the way to win a “Loser’s Game” – in amateur tennis and investing. The professional game is generally determined by the actions of the winner and the amateur game by the actions of the loser.

As an amateur, once you know this insight, your strategy is clear. Be conservative and keep the ball in play. Don’t try to win points. Let your opponent lose them. Since he’s an amateur, your opponent will play a losing game and not know it.

As Ramo said, “tennis players, as they slow down, must smarten up.”



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2 Responses to An Aerospace Engineer’s Guide to Winning Tennis

  1. vivek bapat August 18, 2014 at 6:27 am #

    Great post Jonathan! – One interesting stat is that in the professional version of the game – the margin (difference) on points won vs. lost is VERY low. Analytics based research covering hundreds of professional matches shows that to be #1 in the world in a given year, you need to win just a bit over 55% of all points played that year ( Therefore unforced errors in a professional game are much more “expensive” than in the amateur game.

  2. christinedonato August 18, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    I took a deeper look into women’s professional tennis a few months ago when I wrote, Women’s Tennis Breaks the Serve with Big Data on SCN ( After much research, I learned that, in the WTA, the serve and serve return are the best ways to score on an opponent and that the starting server is almost always likely to win the match. Considering my lack of athletic ability, I thought that tennis would never be for me. But maybe now with the insight provided in your blog about amateur strategy, I’ll have a chance at winning a match or two if I do decide to give it a shot.

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