Another summer has ended -- exactly the same way as the last three, a straight set loss in the first round of the club championships.
You had vowed that this was going to be your breakthrough year. No more silly unforced errors, no more lapses in concentration and no more third set fatigue. This was it!!! You took the court against Bill, a player you beat regularly, confidently popped the top of the fresh can of balls and began your road to the trophy.
One hour later, you walked off, a straight set loser and all you had to show for your efforts were a sore arm, a used can of balls and a "good match" comment from Bill. Some trophy, the balls were dead, your arm throbbed, and you know that when Bill said "good match," what he really meant was "Ha!!! I've been playing two years less than you and I won. Needless to say, you're pissed!!!
You go through the usual list of easily accessible excuses that creep into everyone's mind immediately after a bad loss; "my racket was strung too loose," "he cheated," "my pro stinks," etc.
While these rationalizations may make you feel better temporarily, by the time you've showered, reclaimed your rackets from the trash can and settled into your car for the ride home, your emotions begin to calm and you force yourself to face a somewhat disturbing fact----in the past three years your game has not improved one bit. You still can't consistently keep the ball in play, your backhand stinks, and god forbid you miss your first serve because your second serve...........well, enough said.
Sound familiar? This scenario plays out in every tennis club around the world, with people unsatisfied with their games and not understanding why they are not improving. The usual post-club championship cry is "I play so much but I don't get any better."
Time for a wake up call: contrary to popular opinion, you cannot learn to play tennis through osmosis. In other words, just because you spend a lot of time on the court does not mean that you are going to get better. Sorry.
Tennis is a sneaky game in that it's relatively easy to pick up yet extremely difficult to excel in.
The step from a beginner to a "C" level player is relatively short in most cases and before they know it, someone who has just picked up a racket can hit a few balls back and forth, pop in 50% of their serves and actually play the game, or some facsimile of it.
This "instant improvement" is very seductive and these players come to feel that they'll continually improve at this rate and that within six months they'll be accomplished players. WRONG!
Tennis, like any other skill takes time to develop. How long? Who knows? One of the most ridiculous questions a tennis pro hears is "how long before I'm an "A" player? Believe me, the pro has no idea because there are so many factors involved. Athleticism, fitness, willingness to learn, time to practice are among a few of the variables which will determine the rate of ones progress. There are many others.
To get good, club championship good, takes time, practice and a plan. The lack of a plan is where most recreational players fail. They have no game plan for improvement. They do not take lessons, they do not get in better shape, they do not read books to better understand the strategies of the game, they do not practice, they do not work on their mental game and as a result, they do not improve.
If you're serious about jumping up to the next level you need to devise a game plan and the first step is to take a good LOOK AT YOUR GAME. What do you do well? What do you do poorly? If you lost ten pounds could you move better? Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses and be honest with yourself.
FIND A GOOD PRO AND TAKE SOME LESSONS: Sampras has a coach, Hingis has a coach and so should you. Find a pro that you are comfortable with, show him or her your list of strengths and weaknesses, let him or her take a look at your game and together devise a plan for reaching the next level.
A PRO IS ONLY AS GOOD AS THE STUDENT: A good pro's first question to their student should always be "what would you like to work on?" Unfortunately, the response from the student is frequently "I don't know, anything," or "a little bit of everything." This is a big mistake and a waste of your money.
Walk out on to the court with a specific idea of what you would like to focus on for that half hour or hour. Ask questions and take advantage of the pro's knowledge. Otherwise you may well wind up working on a little bit of everything and not enough of anything.
PLAN TIME TO PRACTICE: Very few players actually "practice" their tennis. They take the court once or twice a week, play a few sets and feel that they are working on their game. They are wrong because play is not practice.
Playing sets can be an element of practice, but true practice is taking the court and going through a series of drills designed to work on various aspects of your game (see Circle Game column July 99, Practice Makes...................Better). If you're having trouble with your backhand, spend half an hour with a friend hitting cross-court backhands to a target. If your second serve stinks, take a basket of balls to the court and hit a few hundred serves. That's right, I said a few hundred.
Many people feel that drilling and true practicing is "boring" and they're right. Practice can be repetitive and boring but it is the only way to improve your shots. Musicians practice their scales, doctors operate on hundreds of cadavers before they get to operate on a living patient and Andre Agassi hit thousands of cross-court forehands in a drilling situation before he had the confidence to hit it at Wimbeldon. Boring? Perhaps, but not as boring as playing the same mediocre tennis year after year.
PLAY WITH DIFFERENT PLAYERS OF ALL LEVELS: Don't fall into the trap of playing with the same people week after week, year after year. Many players do and, as a result, they get stale, bored, and stuck in a level rut. Search out some new players to practice with , some stronger, some weaker.
Yes, I did say weaker. Believe it or not, you can get a great deal of practice playing with a lesser player. There's no pressure and it's an excellent opportunity to work on your consistency, control and new shots. Practice trying to hit right back to the player or better yet, play only to the players strength.
GIVE YOURSELF SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO: As I just said, it's easy to fall into a rut of playing the same people at the same club week after week. Try to schedule a few special days throughout the year. This can be a tournament, a match with a new player, a tennis vacation, or simply a game at a different club. Anything that gets you out of your tennis routine and keeps you pumped up about the game.
Many people say that they "play" tennis when they really "play at" the game. If you're serious about moving to the next level, sit down and devise a well thought out strategy. Set flexible, realistic goals along the way and work towards achieving them.
Above all, don't put a timetable on your progress, for if you do, you'll miss the true enjoyment of tennis--------- the process.