Last month I talked about the tennis snob. That nasty person at every club, who knows it all, only wants to play with stronger players and refuses to give those below their level the time of day.
Well, I'm sorry to say that there is a touch of the snob inside most of us. Be it in a group lesson, an interclub match or just a social round robin there is a general feeling, among the masses, that only by playing with people at or above our level will we improve or enjoy the game.
Well, the masses are wrong and I'm here to tell you that there is something to be gained each and every time you step onto the tennis court regardless of the level of the person across the net from you.
When you step out onto the court there are three, and only three, scenarios:
- The other player is at your level.
- The other player is stronger than you.
- The other player is weaker than you.
The first two are no-brainers because when you play at your level you're pretty much guaranteed a good match and when you play with someone stronger you're eager to see if you can keep up.
However, when you take to the court with someone you feel is below your level that's when you've got to suppress the snob inside of you that's bursting to yell out, "This is going to be a waste of my time." It is NOT going to be a waste of your time---if you approach it with the proper attitude.
Here are a few thoughts on playing with players of all levels.
HANGING IN THERE WITH BETTER PLAYERS
If you find yourself to be the weakest player on the court your goal is to raise your game and hold your own. You'll undoubtedly be nervous, particularly if one or, God forbid, more of the other players on the court are true tennis snobs (to combat the snob, refer to last month's column).
To combat your nerves remember to keep your feet moving, focus solely on the ball and prepare your racket as quickly as possible. Pay attention to your breathing. When we get nervous we often have a tendency to hold our breath and this just increases the tension inside of our bodies.
Just before you feel your racket contact with the ball, make a concentrated effort to breathe out or let out a strong grunt. It may sound funny but give it a shot. It does help to relieve stress and it certainly worked for Monica Seles.
When you're on the court with a better player don't take unnecessary risks and attempt shots you don't yet have. Chase down every shot and limit your unforced errors.
If your opponent hits at a faster pace then you're used to, fight the inevitable urge to try to keep up with their power. Prepare quicker, shorten your strokes and speed up your footwork.
I always like to compare playing against big hitters to lifting weights: if you're used to lifting ten pounds and then pick up twelve, it initially seems too heavy. After a while though, you get used to the extra weight. The same is true on the tennis court. While your big hitting opponents at first seem too hot to handle, after a while you'll adjust to their pace.
If they like to attack the net, try to keep your groundstrokes deep or come in yourself. When they do take the net keep the ball low at their feet and hit lots of lobs. The overhead is an exhausting shot to execute and if you can make your opponent hit two or three each time they come to the net, you may very well wear them out.
If they're a human backboard, don't try to out steady them. Make your way to the net and force them to hit their groundstrokes under pressure. Or, you can try to bring them to the net as most baseliners aren't particularly comfortable hitting volleys and overheads.
Keep them on the court for as long as possible. Take your time in between points and at the changeovers. The key is to focus on getting lots of balls back. Show them that you're not going to roll over just because they're "supposed" to be better than you. Make them prove it.
After the match, learn from the experience. When you play against a stronger player, the weaknesses in your game will be exposed so take an objective look at your game. Analyze what worked well and what didn't.
Did your groundstrokes let you down under pressure? If so, then next time you practice, spend extra time hitting forehands and backhands. Maybe you learned that during long rallies, you got winded. That's a signal to do some off-court training.
If you feel comfortable, ask your opponent for their thoughts. Which of your shots gave them trouble and what would they suggest you do to improve your game? This may sound like a strange suggestion but most players are good-natured and will offer you some helpful tips (some will even offer them if you don't ask). You'll get a good feel during the match if your opponent is someone you can ask for tips or whether they have an "attitude."
PLAYING AN EQUAL
When you play with someone at your level, your main challenge will be psychological. A match against two players of equal ability is usually one of patience decided by just a few points at key moments. Be the more patient player and minimize your unforced errors.
Work hard to keep your concentration intact by focusing intently on the ball. Get a high percentage of first serves in, be certain to return your opponent's serve and play your game.
If you are a baseliner, keep the ball deep, move your opponent around and refuse to miss. If you like to attack the net wait for the right opportunity. Construct points instead of trying for low percentage big shots.
Since your level is equal, prepare yourself for a long match and vow to be the more determined, focused and patient player.
PLAYING WITH SOMEONE WEAKER
If you find yourself on the court against someone weaker than you, attitude then becomes everything. If you view the match as a waste of your precious time, it will be. However if you see it as an opportunity to work on your game you'll get just as much out of the session as you would if you were playing with a stronger player.
Now is the time to work on that Continental grip your pro wants you to get used to at the net. Practice your new slice backhand and, when serving, hit only the topspin serve you're trying to get down.
If you're more comfortable at the baseline, force yourself to come to the net. If you're a serve and volley player, stay back and work on your groundstrokes. If your opponent hits a slower ball than you, practice taking their shots on the rise.
If they have a great forehand but horrific backhand, hit every ball to their forehand. Yes, I know it's their stronger shot but by hitting to their strength you'll not only be working on controlling your shots you'll also be assured of getting a good ball back.
Have you ever noticed that, during lessons with your pro, you're able to keep the ball going forever? Or, when playing practice points, he or she is able to make you move, stretch and struggle yet still allow you to return their shots?
This is because your pro has superb control. When you play with a weaker player, try to develop that level of control. Believe me, it is not easy to hit the ball exactly to your opponent's "strike zone."
A quick aside: When I have my students practice hitting right to each other as a means of developing their control, there's always one member of the group who says, "If I hit right to them in practice, I'll hit right to them in a game." Well, with all due respect, that's a naive statement which only says that the player is not thinking when they're playing.
Tennis, in its simplest form, is hitting the ball to a target. When you practice, if you have that target be a player not only will you improve your control, you'll hit a lot of balls because your opponent/practice partner will be able to return it. If you develop the control to hit right to someone in practice you'll have the control to hit it away from them during a match---just change your target.
So, try to prolong the rallies so that you can hit more balls and work on your fitness and footwork. Chase down every ball and if your opponent hits a ball that lands an inch or two out, hit it back and keep the rally alive. The more balls you hit, the more practice you get.
Tennis legend Jimmy Connors was taught by his coach, Gloria (who also happened to be his mother), to chase after and hit back every ball in practice whether it was in or out. She wanted "Jimbo" to get used to running after everything and to never let up. I think it's a super concept and do it when I practice. Give it a try.
If you're playing in a doubles game below your level, again, work on the areas of your game that are not yet ready for prime time. For example: your serve and volley game, poaching, attacking a weak serve, finesse, lobbing your return of serve over the server's partner, etc. Remember, you're practicing so don't worry about winning points.
By the way, if you have a partner that's much weaker than you, encourage them but, above all, don't coach them unless they ask.
Perhaps the most important thing you will gain from hitting with a weaker player is the satisfaction of knowing that you've helped someone else with their tennis.
Adopt a weaker player as your personal protégé. Invite them to play and try to help them improve (though not in a condescending manner).
Yes, everyone wants to play "up" but many forget that each time they play "up" the person they are playing with is playing down to play with them. Don't be selfish and don't be a snob. Play with anyone and everyone.
Do you remember how special you felt the first time a stronger player asked you to hit with them? I do.