If you play competitively, as either a tournament player, USTA league participant or member for your clubs interclub team, spring and summer are generally the heart of your competitive tennis year.
Youve spent the winter months working on your game with your favorite pro. Youve gotten the hang of that continental grip at the net, your serve has finally become a weapon and those early morning sessions at the gym have you fit and raring to go.
Whether you are a seasoned warrior or stepping into battle for the first time, youll find that competitive tennis is an entirely different animal from the social games and weekly lessons youve been enjoying.
As you walk onto the court for your first "real" match of the season youll notice the difference immediately. Youll often see an unfamiliar face (or faces) across the net and therell be an atmosphere of seriousness on the court. Plus, if youre playing for a team, youll also feel the inevitable pressure to play well so that you wont let your teammates down.
You and your opponent go through a thorough warm-up unlike your social games where you hit three balls and say, "Serve em up." When the match begins, you dont dare say "first ball in"as you prepare to serve because "real" players dont do that. You dont engage your opponent in casual conversation during lingering changeovers because this match "counts."
Yes, everything becomes very serious when youre playing "real" tennis. With that in mind, here are ten tips to help you make a successful transition from social "butterfly" to competitive "animal."
1. Warm-up before the match. Find a friend (or your doubles partner) and hit for about 15-20 minutes before you actually take the court for your match. This will help get rid of any pre-match jitters as well as loosen up your strokes and body. If you cant get on a court, do some jumping rope or jumping jacks----anything to break a sweat.
2. If you win the toss, let your opponent serve first. It constantly amazes me how players reflexively elect to serve when they win the toss. When I ask my students why they make this choice they think for a moment and then say "its an advantage to serve first
Usually it isnt. In fact, serving at the recreational level is often a disadvantage for the simple fact that most recreational players do not have particularly good serves. To anyone insulted by that statement, I apologize but, hey, were talking competitive tennis here and, more often than not, serving first does not give you an advantage.
There are many reasons to let your opponent lead off the match serving. Here are two of them: first, when your opponent serves first, you give yourself an extra game to warm-up before you have to serve. Second, even if you're facing a player with a great serve, youre best chance to break them is in that first game where they might not be fully warmed up and are still a bit nervous. Refer to my March 2004 column for a deeper look at this issue.
3. Get Your First Serve in. Your top priority, when serving, is to get as many first serves in as possible. This is important because the server generally has the advantage on the first serve and the receiver has it on the second.
Why? Because when a player receives serve they generally arent thinking of attacking a first serve. Theyre just focusing on getting it back. However, as soon as they know theyll be looking at a second serve, their mouths begin to water.
From your perspective, if youre constantly hitting second serves, youre putting yourself under a lot of pressure for the obvious fact that if you miss that second serve you lose the point.
The late, great, Arthur Ashe wrote that if he missed two first serves in a row, on the next point, he would hit a second serve. You should adopt this approach as well. If youre struggling to get your first serve in, use your second serve as your first until you find your rhythm, and regain your confidence.
4. Keep the Ball in Play. Studies have shown that over eighty-five percent of all points (at every level of the game) are decided by errors. As the match begins, make a pledge to keep the ball in play. Tell yourself that, on every point, youre going to hit five shots in the court. By keeping the ball in play youre telling your opponent that, if they hope to beat you, theyre going to be in for a long day. Most recreational players are impatient and have a 2-3 shot attention span. Use this to your advantage.
5. Hit the Ball Deep: If you can consistently keep the ball deep into your opponents back court, youll keep them on the defensive and often force an error or short ball within a few shots. If you struggle to get the ball deep, aim 4-6 feet over the net.
6. Control the tempo. Matches move along at different paces and usually the player that controls that pace controls the match. Take your time between points and during the changeovers.
If you find yourself losing, slow down even more. Its very easy, when you get behind, to allow things to snowball and before you know it, youre shaking hands at the net. Momentum in any match can shift in a split second, so when you feel yourself struggling, change rackets, towel off, tie your shoes, anything within reason to slow the match down.
On the other hand, if youre winning, keep it moving. Dont rush but try to move the match along so that your opponent cant regroup.
7. Be a Strong Presence on the Court. Youll undoubtedly come across players who will try to intimidate you with their arrogance. Dont let their act get to you. Remind yourself that this type of behavior stems from insecurity and use that to your advantage.
Bullies usually back down when stood up to you so stand up to them. Now, Im not suggesting that you behave like a bigger idiot but quietly and politely assert your own presence. Let them know youre there and not afraid to play them. Look them in the eye and dont let them dictate the pace of the warm-up and match.
When they treat the warm up as if its all about them, give it right back to them. When they obnoxiously ask if youre "ready to start," reply with "not yet I need a few more overheads"-----even if you dont.
Dont let them hurry you. Always clear the balls off your side of the court and, when serving, make sure you have two balls and that you announce the score in a strong, confident voice. When the tennis bully sees that their intimidation tactics wont work theyll realize that they have to rely on their game to win the match and often they dont have the game to back up their act.
8. Be like Bjorn. Borg, the great Swedish champion, was a master of self-control. Whether he was ahead or behind, Borg maintained the same calm facial expression and demeanor. He projected an air of confidence and invulnerability that often reduced his opponents to mere puddles of sweat.
Virtually no one plays well when they lose control of themselves so, even if youve made six unforced errors in a row and blown a four game lead, keep your emotions under control. Push aside your desire to demonstrate your vast knowledge of obscenities and the urge to launch your racket into the parking lot. Take a few deep breaths, repeat some constructive, positive phrases to yourself and move on.
The same behavior applies when youre winning. Nothing is more obnoxious than the clown who prances about the court pumping their fist and yelling "YES" every time they win a point. Its rude, disrespectful to your opponent and makes you look like an ass.
9. Stay within Yourself. Dont try shots you dont own and focus on watching the ball, moving your feet and playing consistent tennis. Winning and losing will take care of itself but if you do those things well, more often than not, youll leave the court a happy competitor.
10. Never Give Up: Many players, when they find themselves behind, get angry and start swinging for the fences. Its almost as if they feel that they can make up a big deficit with one great shot. Well, tennis is not figure skating and we dont get extra points for degree of difficulty so youve got to play it one point at a time.
Remember, there is no time clock in tennis so the match is not over until your opponent has won the final point. If youre way behind, dig in and tell yourself that youre going to run for every ball and get as many back as possible.
Commit to making your opponent win the point to beat you. As I said, momentum can shift in a single point. Virtually ever tennis player in the world has a story of a great comeback. Hang in there and youll be amazed at how often determination and consistency can turn the match around.
On the other side, if you find yourself with a big lead, dont ease up physically or mentally and let your opponent back into the match. You dont want to be in their story of their greatest comeback. Stay focused and finish the job.
I said Id give you ten tips but heres a bonus and, to me, the most important tip of all: Have fun. Its easy to lose sight of why were out there once we start keeping score. I always remind my players that ESPN is not in the parking lot anxiously awaiting the results of your match and Bud Collins is not in the locker room waiting to interview you.
Youre out there for some friendly competition (yes, competition can be friendly), to get a good workout and, above all, to have a good time. So, as the saying goes:
"GO FOR IT"