Forced & Unforced Errors In Tennis: What Is The Difference?

Forced & Unforced Errors In Tennis: What Is The Difference?

Published: October 28, 2021

Tennis terms can sound like abracadabra to many people. This can make it difficult to follow a match and to know exactly what is happening. Therefore, in this article, I will explain the difference between forced errors and unforced errors!

A forced error in tennis occurs because of good play by the opponent. The opponent is forcing you to make a mistake because of the shot they produced. An unforced error is a missed shot or lost point while you were in control of the situation that is entirely the result of the player’s own mistake.

In the rest of this article, I will go into more detail on this topic. I will provide some clear, practical examples so that the next time you are on the tennis court, you will know exactly whether you made a forced error or an unforced error.

What is an Unforced Error in Tennis?

The short answer:

An unforced error is a missed shot or lost point while you were in total control of the situation. The lost point is entirely the player's mistake and is therefore not enforced by the opponent. A service fault or double fault is the perfect example of this.

The extended answer:

The definition of an unforced error is a missed shot or lost point that is entirely the result of the player’s own mistake or poor judgment and not because of the opponent’s skill or effort.

The determination of an unforced error is based on whether the player was in total control right before an unforced error was committed. 

You’ll often see the unforced error statistic included during professional matches and frequently discussed as to why a player lost.

Maybe some of you will even remember the 2016 Australian Open 4th round match between Novak Djokovic and Gilles Simon?

It was a five-set match that was brutal to watch because Novak committed 100 unforced errors and miraculously pulled out the win. 

Examples of unforced errors in tennis: 

  • Shots that a player hits that land out of bounds
  • Shots that a player hits that land in the net
  • Service faults and double faults

The best way to decide whether a player’s shot is an unforced error is by using the level of play to judge and a bit of expectation. 

So how do you judge what is an unforced error?

Do we expect Roger Federer to make a forehand crosscourt? Yes, we do. But when he misses that forehand crosscourt, it would be marked as an unforced error

Do we expect Novak Djokovic to make a backhand down the line? Yes, of course, that’s his favorite shot. But when he buries it into the net, it’s considered an unforced error.

Or, if you remember back to that 2016 Australian Open match mentioned earlier, all those sorely misplayed drop shots were all counted as unforced errors. 

The most obvious unforced error is a service fault and a double fault.

The serve is the only shot a player is in complete control of, so missing this is considered an unforced error.

What is a Forced Error in Tennis?

The short answer:

A forced error in tennis occurs because of good play by the opponent. The opponent is forcing you to make a mistake because of the shot they produced. For example, forced errors can occur from drop shots, a change of pace, and angled shots by the opponent.

The extended answer:

A forced error is when a player hits a shot – whether placed well or powerful – and puts their opponent into a difficult spot.

Essentially, you are forcing your opponent to make a mistake because of the shot you produced. 

Forced errors are rarely ever reported during professional matches. The announcers and the statisticians only report the winner count and the unforced error count. 

Examples of forced errors in tennis: 

  • Angled shots 
  • Drop shots
  • Change of pace

You can see how any of these shots can put your opponent in a tricky position. 

Maybe they were way behind the baseline when you played a drop shot, and they just got the tip of their racket on it, sending it flying into the net?

Maybe you hit an incredibly wide slice serve that they swung too wildly at, and it landed out?

All of these examples would be considered forced errors.

Since the error was committed due to the shot from the other player, it would be considered a forced error.

Many of us would consider these a winning shot since you won the point, and you wouldn’t be necessarily wrong, but you forced the error with that shot creating a forced error. 

In the end, a winner is considered a shot that is untouchable and unreturnable.

What is the Difference Between Forced and Unforced Errors?

In tennis, shots can only end with a winner, a forced error, or an unforced error. 

Remember, an unforced error is a shot you were in complete control of and missed or made a mistake. The ball either lands out or into the end.

More examples of unforced errors are:

  • Double-faulting your serve
  • Missing a second serve return off an easy second serve
  • Hitting into the net or out of bounds in a rally that you were in complete control of 

As you can see, all of the above mistakes are entirely the result of your own actions. They are all mistakes in which the opponent had basically no part.

forced error is when your opponent forces you to make a mistake!

The easiest example of a forced error is if you can only just get your racket on a serve that’s coming in fast, and your shot lands in the net or out. 

There are two questions you can ask yourself the next time you’re on the court and are unsure of what just happened during a point.

  1. Did your opponent hit a difficult shot that caused you to miss? Forced error
  2. Were you in control during the point and simply mistime or misfire a shot? Unforced error

By doing this, you can easily verify for yourself whether the last point was a forced error or an unforced error.

Do Double Faults Count as Unforced Errors in Tennis?

Double faults certainly do count as unforced errors. The serve is the only shot you have complete and total control over. No one can force you to miss your serve; only you can.

And given that you are allowed to toss the ball as many times as necessary to place your toss perfectly, it’s easy to understand why this is the only shot a tennis player has complete control over.

That’s why service faults and double faults can only ever be unforced errors. 

Is a Winner a Forced Error in Tennis?

The short answer:

A winner and a forced error are two different things in tennis. With a winner, the opponent can't reach the ball with the racket and, therefore, hit back. A forced error occurs because the opponent forces you to make a mistake, causing the ball to go out or into the net.

The extended answer:

The proper definition of a winner is a forcing shot that the opponent cannot reach, winning you the point.

As you can see, there is a clear difference between a winner and a forced error. Both are really helpful to look at when looking at a match as a whole. 

A forced error is like a winner, except you can get to it and can touch it, but you cannot successfully get it back in play.

Aggressive play from your opponent causes forced errors. This could be that your shot lands in the net, out wide, or long.

Forced errors can be caused by placement, spin, pace, or a combination of all three.

In my tenure of playing and coaching tennis, I would say that a forced error and a winner are essentially the same things for simplicity’s sake only because you gain a point when you force an error or outright win the point.

A winner can be classified as a shot that is unreturnable or untouchable. In practice with my junior players, we call this a ‘clean winner.’

Whereas if you force your opponent to miss a shot, then that is a forced error. Either way, you’ve still won the point.

How do You Make Less Unforced Errors in Tennis?

The short answer:

Practice is the best way to make fewer unforced errors in tennis. Try to figure out which unforced errors you make the most, and pay extra attention to these strikes during practice. Over time, you will find that you make fewer and fewer unforced errors.

The extended answer:

Practice, practice, practice. But first, you need to identify what kind of unforced errors you commit during a match in order to work on them. That means being aware of what happens during a match.

A great tip to identify your unforced errors:

  • Get someone to sit next to the court and keep track of your unforced errors, what caused them, and on which strokes it happens

This can either be a parent, your coach, or just a tennis friend, as long as they know the difference between a forced error and an unforced error.

If they don’t know the difference, get them to read this article!

I see two main types of unforced errors when I’m working with players on court:

  • The ball is sailing out
  • The ball gets buried into the net

As a tennis teacher, I prefer a shot that sails out wide or deep than one that lands in the net. 

Why is that?

I’d rather have you go full for your strokes during practice than hold yourself back. That’s what practice is for, and your strokes will get better and better by going full for it.

Shots that go in the net are typically due to a breakdown in the foundations of your groundstrokes.

The most common causes of a ball in the net are:

  • Creating not enough spin
  • Racket face not in the correct angle
  • Too far away from the ball
  • Not extending through the shot

It could be any of these reasons why you consistently see your shots going into the net, and a lesson from a teaching professional may help you.

But if you don’t want to take a lesson, the first thing I can recommend is working on your topspin (low-to-high swing) and extending through the entire shot.

A good tip for remembering to extend through the shot is to pretend you’re hitting three different balls, all in a straight line.

Stay loose, and good luck! And don’t forget to finish your stroke over your shoulder.

Conclusion

It’s always good to be aware of the difference between an unforced error (a mistake you make) and a forced error (a mistake caused by your opponent).

It’s good to recognize whether you forced an error or had an outright winner (an unreturnable shot). Don’t get too bogged down by the terminology when you’re on the court.

Just play and have fun and stick to the tennis rules

Brian Henderson

I am what you might call a true tennis fanatic. When I am not on the tennis court teaching or playing myself, I am probably writing an informative article about tennis. My goal is to get as many people as possible excited and informed about tennis.

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Published: October 28, 2021