As your game improves, you're going to find that there is a subtle change in the way that the majority of your points will be decided. Being aware of, and understanding, this change can have a major effect on your mental state, your level of play, and, most importantly, your enjoyment of the game. Here's what I mean.
As we all know, tennis is first, last and always, a game of errors. Studies have shown that as much 85% of all points played, at every level of the game, are determined by someone missing a ball while less than 15% are decided by a player hitting an untouchable "winner."
Given that statistic, I've always found it interesting that people spend so much time obsessing over learning to hit the big winner when, in reality, they should be working on minimizing there errors. But that's for another article.
Anyway, the fact is, from the rank beginner to the big boys and girls on television the game is largely about errors. What changes for us as we move up the level ladder are the types of errors that decide our points and matches.
At the lower levels of the sport, most points end with one player or another hitting the all too familiar unforced error. You know what I'm talking about. That high, easy volley we hit into the net on break point or the short overhead that went over the fence because we tried to impress our girlfriend with our Roddick-like power. Remember that balloon ball your opponent fed you yesterday that you hit into the back fence because you tried to hit a clean winner? Sure you do. We've all made that same error.
Quite simply, unforced errors are those that come from nothing our opponent does but rather our own lack of concentration or skill. They are every tennis player's nightmare but for the lower level player, they are recurring dreams which often come with a dangerous after effect.
As if it weren't bad enough that our unforced (okay, I'll say it, stupid) error caused us to lose a point or a game, it also unleashed that tennis devil inside that tells us to slam our rackets into the ground, fire balls at the fence and call ourselves every dirty name in the book. I've seen people's tennis devil get the better of them many times on the court and stay with them long after their match is over.
As we improve and begin to advance to a higher level of play, a shift begins to take place. Though it is still an error which usually determines the winner of a point, that error now has frequently been forced by something our opponent did rather than our own mental or physical ineptitude.
Perhaps, your opponent drove a hard shot at your feet as you approached the net causing you to miss a volley. Maybe they hit a serve that kicked right into your body so that the best you could do was protect yourself. Or, at the end of a thirty shot rally, they executed a perfect drop shot that froze you at the baseline.
As your level of play rises, the percentage of points decided by forced errors rise and the number of unforced errors fall and this is a good thing. It means you're improving. Unfortunately, many players fail to recognize this transition.
I frequently see players, after their opponent has hit a strong shot to beat them, go on a thirty second tirade against themselves. They bounce their racket off the court, slap their thigh and launch into a 15 second dissertation on how useless they are.
The fact that their error was forced by their opponent's good shot is something they cannot comprehend and refuse to appreciate. They lost the point because THEY must have done something wrong.
Sadly, our overly competitive society has instilled in us that little voice which first tells us to blame ourselves when something goes wrong. It also discourages us from telling our opponents that they did something well. Perhaps it's a control thing.
Often, on and off the tennis court, things occur which are beyond our control. Many people obsess over them when in fact what happened had absolutely nothing to do with anything they did or didn't do. This self-induced, unnecessary, stress drags them down physically and psychologically.
Every self-help expert in the world teaches us to focus only on the things that we can control and learn to not worry about the things we can't. Its superb advice that we should all commit ourselves to on and off the tennis court.
The next time you get the opportunity to watch a group of very high level players, listen to the words that come out of their mouth and I'll bet you frequently hear comments like "nice shot", or "too good." This is because these players recognize when their opponent has done something that was simply "too good" for them to return.
A recent and fabulous example of this was the way Andre Agassi conducted himself after his straight set loss to Roger Federer at the just completed Australian Open. Even though Agassi, one of the game's all-time greats, was disappointed that he lost the match so decisively, he was able to recognize and acknowledge that Federer on that day was simply "too good." We can all learn something from the way Andre handled himself.
The next time you come to the net and your opponent drills one past you or disguises a lob that floats over your head, allow for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't your fault. Learn to see the difference between your unforced errors and your opponent hitting something that was simply too good for you to return.
When you can learn to say "too good" I think you'll find that your level of play and enjoyment of the game will rise significantly.