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Circle Game
June 2000 Article

Contact to Greg Moran

Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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Circle Game By Greg Moran


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Your Most Important Skill

Greg Moran Photo
Greg Moran

It is often said that in the game of life, patience is a virtue. In the game of tennis, patience is what separates the players from the pretenders. While players spend hours working on their "huge" serve or their "monster" forehand, they devote virtually no time developing what is undoubtedly the most important weapon a tennis player can have----patience.

Why is patience so important? Simply, because it is the more patient player who will usually win the match. As I have said, many times, tennis is a game of errors as opposed to winners with roughly 80% of all points played, at every level, being decided by someone making an error.

In his fabulous book "Intelligent Tennis," Skip Singleton describes the typical tennis match as "two players trying to give each other each game by making a series of errors until finally someone gives the match away. The winner feels like he has won the match because he was the better player, and the loser feels like he has lost because he has beaten himself. Actually, the loser just gave away the match first! Most matches are lost, not won."

"The name of the game," continues Singleton, "then becomes avoiding errors and playing consistent tennis. Even though this may be the most basic of the basics, it is forgotten time and time again. Your ultimate tactic in tennis should be consistency, no matter at what level you play the game."

Truer words were never spoken. Consistency wins and he or she who makes the most errors loses. What qualifies as an "error?" Any shot of your opponents that you don't return into the court.

A Closer Look At Errors

Basically, there are two types of errors, forced and unforced. Simply, a forced error is a mistake caused by a shot from your opponent that is simply too tough to handle, while an unforced error is one of those careless mistakes we commit where we immediately slap our thigh and say to ourselves, "how could I possibly miss that shot?"

Not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the number of unforced errors a player makes and their level of play. Generally, at the lower levels of the game, a vast majority of the errors are unforced. As players move up the level ladder, and develop a greater command of their strokes and strategy, most points are still decided by someone missing a shot. However, forced errors now begin to outnumber unforced mistakes. In other words, better players commit fewer unforced errors.

What causes errors? Forced errors, as I said, are caused by your opponent's strong shots and there is not much you can do except try to stay out of situations where your opponent can press you, i.e., short balls, weak second serves, etc.

Unforced errors are caused mainly by a psychological breakdown. Our mind wanders and we get sloppy without technique or, more frequently, our shot selection. I believe that a vast majority of unforced errors are the result of a player trying to hit too hard or too difficult a shot when they should simply get the ball back into play.

Unforced errors are the disease of every tennis player. A disease where there is really no 100% cure but whose symptoms can be dramatically lessened with the proper antidote. That antidote? PATIENCE!!!!!

Patient players are content to keep the ball in play, move it around, and wait for the opportunity to take control of the point. More often than not, while the patient player is waiting for that opportunity, the less patient player will lose his cool and try a low percentage shot, ending the point with either a spectacular winner or, more likely, an unforced error.

So the question arises, how do we develop patience? The answer requires a return to our tennis roots----------- drills. Drills where the goal is not to win a point but simply to keep the ball in play to a certain area of the court for a designated number of times. In other words, consistency drills.

When I was learning the game, many years ago, my lessons consisted largely of consistency drills. An example: I would walk onto the court, warm-up and my coach would say something like, "Okay, let's start off with 50 cross-court forehands beyond the service line."

I would stand in one corner, my coach would position himself in the opposite, and we would begin to rally. Back and forth, back and forth, until we hit 50 in a row beyond the service line. He never missed, I frequently did.

If I accomplished the goal, we moved on to another consistency drill. If not, we kept trying until I did--even if it took the entire hour. Was it boring? God knows, I thought so. Did it help me? Immeasurably, though it took me a while to realize it.

Aside from grooving the mechanics of my strokes, these drills trained something far more important--my mind. I developed my mental endurance by learning to keep the ball in play for an extended period of time while being able to hit it to a particular spot over and over again. This ability to hit consistently gave me a tremendous amount of confidence when I played matches. It gave me the confidence to be patient and therein lies the secret---- CONSISTENCY GIVES YOU THE CONFIDENCE TO BE PATIENT!!!!!

If you know you can keep the ball in play all day long, you've trained your mind not to rush, to be patient and wait for the opportunity to take control of the point or, more likely, for your opponent to lose their patience. One of the reasons players try to end points so quickly I believe, is that they don't have the confidence in their shots to develop a point and, as a result, will show a lack of patience by trying a low percentage shot when the situation calls for them to simply get the ball back in play.

When I began to teach and tried to get my students to work on their consistency, it wasn't two minutes into the drill before my players started rolling their eyes and complaining about "how boring these drills are." Flashback to my youth.

I would then usually change my drill because I remembered how I felt when I was forced to do those drills and I agreed, they were boring. Well, after watching many players develop the hit or miss style which is so prevalent today, I finally got fed up and went back to the basics. I began to incorporate a little more consistency practice into my lessons and sure enough, the eyes started rolling and the "boring" comments began flying out of my students mouths.

I wondered why did I, and everyone else, seem to find these drills so boring. I noticed that the players would usually complain after they'd made an error early in the rally. It was at this point that I had somewhat of a teaching revelation. I realized that when my student were saying " too boring" they were really saying "too hard." They didn't like the drills because they couldn't do them. Ah ha!!!

Once I realized this, I pressed the drills harder and interestingly, as soon as my students were able to sustain a lengthy rally the "boring" comments were replaced with "this is so good for us, we should do these more often." The consistency they developed, painstakingly in practice, developed their mental endurance which in turn made them more patient players. Where did this show up in their matches? You guessed it, fewer unforced errors.

Patience reduces errors and since the player who makes the fewest errors wins the match, those of you that are serious about improving your tennis should strive to become more patient players. Here are a few drills to get you started. They begin very basically and become more difficult as you move down the list.

NOTE: No matter how good you think you may be, start with drill number 1. You might be surprised.


  1. Stand on one service line with your practice partner on the other side of the net at their service line. Simply rally back and forth with short, controlled strokes, keeping the ball going inside the service line. You should be able to consistently hit 50 in a row before moving on to the next drill.

  2. Still on the service lines, stand diagonally across from each other and hit cross-court forehands in the same manner. Short, controlled swings with every ball going cross-court and landing inside the service line. Once you get 50 on a consistent basis, move on to #3.

  3. Same drill, except now hit cross-court backhands inside the service line. Go for 50 and then move on.

  4. Stand directly across from your partner, you on the forehand side service box, your partner on his backhand side service box. You hit forehands down the line and your partner returns with their backhand down the line. Again, with all shots landing inside the service line. Go for 50 and then move on.

  5. Switch sides and do the same drill. This time you are hitting backhands down the line and your partner is hitting backhands down the line. 50 again.

Once you can consistently do these five drills from the service line, move back to the baseline and go through the sequence again. Rally using the entire court, then cross-court one way, then the other. Finally go down the line one side and then finish down the other.

When you can consistently complete all of these "consistency" drills you will be well on your way to becoming a more patient, error-free player. Get to work.

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Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Greg Moran, all rights reserved.

Greg Moran is the Head Professional at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Connecticut. He is a former ranked junior and college player and certified by both the USPTA and USPTR. Greg has written on a wide variety of tennis-related subjects for numerous newspapers and tennis publications including Tennis, Tennis Match and Court Time magazines. He is also a member of the FILA and WILSON Advisory Staffs.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Greg by using this form.


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