If you read last months column, "Spring" Back into Your Game, you should be well on your way to getting your game on track. Soon, if you havent already, you should begin to introduce the playing of practice matches into your training regimen. When playing a practice match, you should make every effort to replicate the situations you will find when you are playing tournaments and/or club competitions.
If you are playing a high school, college, USTA sanctioned or tournament match, you will be allowed a 10-minute warm-up period before the match must commence. Now, I have seen players take up to 20 minutes for this warm-up, but the rules associated with most competitions limit you to 10. If there is a USTA umpire officiating the event, you will be timed by her/his stopwatch. She/he can and may issue you a warning if you exceed the allotted 10 minutes or delay unnecessarily.
So, this months column will focus on how best to utilize these precious 10 minutes. In fact, I would argue that a player can win or lose the warm-up. If you win the warm-up, it is my firm belief that your chances of prevailing in the match go up significantly. If you do lose the match, it wont be because you arent ready to play.
The first step in attempting to win the warm-up begins long before you walk onto the court to compete. I always like to practice hitting for about 45 minutes about an hour before I am scheduled to play the match. This is the time that I focus on my game. I choose a hitting partner who is likely to strike the ball in a manner similar to the way my upcoming opponent strikes the ball. This presumes that you have either played this opponent before, or that you have scouted the opponent in one of her/his past matches. I hate to play opponents "blindly." So, I will go out of my way to get as much information on the way he is likely to play as is possible. I rarely, if ever, ask other players to give me insights about my opponents game. Why? Well frankly, I have been given totally erroneous information in the past. Was this erroneous information given inadvertently?
or, was the information deliberately given to deceive me? I dont really know, but I wont allow this mistake to occur again.
Sometimes, you will not know whom you are going to play, or you may not have any information on this opponents style of play. In these situations, I ask my hitting partner to strike the ball in as many different ways as he can.
During this 45 minute hitting session, I follow a fairly consistent pattern. First, I spend about 5 to 10 minutes simply hitting easy groundstrokes. By easy groundstrokes, I mean that I hit at about 60% of my normal pace. I hit alternately to my hitting partners forehand and backhand sides. I try to keep my balls high over the net and landing deep in the court. Also, I try to keep these balls landing in the center area of the court. I ask my hitting partner to do the same. The purposes, here, are to simply loosen up and to focus my eyes on the ball. You cant hit what you cant see!
Therefore, I believe that this focusing of attention on the ball is critical. For more info on "getting your eyes on," refer to my past (and very first) article, "See the Ball!"
Once I am feeling loose and sighting the ball well, I begin to increase the pace of my groundstrokes and to hit my shots with great angle. My opponent usually responds by hitting down-the-line without any prompting from me. During this part of the hitting session, my hitting partner and I will invariably be forced to move around the court. Usually, this results in us hitting in a figure "8." By this, I mean that one of us will be hitting all of our groundstrokes down-the-line. The other will be hitting all of his groundstrokes crosscourt. Usually, after about 5 minutes we switch roles and continue for another 5 minutes.
Now, I move to the net to practice hitting volleys. My hitting partner stays back, behind the baseline and feeds me increasingly harder hit groundstrokes. I start by hitting short, low-paced volleys. As I become more comfortable hitting these volleys, I increase their depth and pace. Finally, I will add increased angle to these volleys. Usually, I spend about 5 to 10 minutes practicing volleys.
Next, I hit about 20 to 30 overhead smashes. I ask my hitting partner to vary the depth of his lobs and to hit them with varying spins (both topspin and backspin).
Serves are next on my itinerary. I start with second serves
hitting them at about 60% of my maximum power potential
always hitting these with topspin. I alternate every 5 balls from deuce court to ad court. After I hit about 20 second serves to each court, I will start hitting flat, hard, first serves. I limit myself to no more than 10 of these to each side. Finally, I will practice my serve-and-volley serves. I will serve and follow the ball to the net. I ask my hitting partner to return these, and I attempt to hit a volley off his return. Again, I limit myself to 10 serves to each side.
Finally, I will ask my hitting partner to hit serves to me. I will focus on my return of serve and will always attempt to target where my returns land.
All of this takes about 45 minutes and puts me in a position where I have practiced the essential shots. If something is giving me trouble, for example my forehand volley, I will spend a little more time working on this errant stroke before I end the session.
Stretching is absolutely essential in playing tennis. I always begin and end any training or exercise session by stretching. If you are not familiar with how to stretch, refer to my article, "Stretching it to the limit, but not beyond!."
The next phase of my pre-match preparation includes a shower, a change of clothes and lots of water. If the actual match is more than two hours away, I will eat some carbohydrates or a sports bar.
I try to arrive for my match at least one half hour before its scheduled start. This allows me time to sign-in, to check out the court conditions, and of course, to stretch. Arriving too early actually works against me. I find that if I arrive too early, I lose my match focus. However, sometimes you cannot control these things!
Once my opponent and I walk onto the court for our warm-up, my whole being and focus noticeably changes. I dont engage in lots of conversation with my opponent. My first thoughts are: Where is the Sun? Is there any wind? How strong is this wind? I take my seat and begin to get my gear in order. I select a racquet frame, take out a towel, and position my water and any sport drink. I get all my gear ready before the 10 minute warm-up begins!
Once the 10 minute warm-up begins, you need to keep track of time. You, of course, want to hit groundstrokes, volleys, overheads and serves within this period
but so will your opponent! So, in reality, you have only 5 minutes to hit all of these. Thats why I wear a watch when I play.
More important than hitting all of the aforementioned shots, is your ability to assess your opponent. When I coach the mens team at Albertus Magnus College, I constantly am telling my players to focus on the opponents weaknesses. By paying close attention to how and where your opponent hits his/her replies in this 10 minute warm-up, you will begin to get an idea of her/his patterns and weaknesses. For me, this knowledge is absolutely essential.
Once the match actually begins, you should focus on the ball and hitting your shots. In between points and games, you can evaluate and re-structure your strategic approach. However, during the warm-up, your game should be the last thing on your mind. This is why you spent time long before the match getting your strokes and game together.
By the time the 10 minute warm-up has ended, you need to know the answers to these questions:
- Is my opponent right or left handed? (You would be amazed at how many players dont know the answer to this question when the match is actually beginning)
- Does my opponent hit a two-handed or one-handed backhand? (Sometimes a player will actually hit both. Here, you need to know when she/he uses each and why?)
- Which is my opponents better wing? (A good way to determine this is to hit a hard, flat groundstroke directly at the opponent. She/he will almost always move to take the ball on her/his better wing. The same holds true for volleys. Hit a hard, flat groundstroke right at the opponent when she/he is taking her/his practice volleys.)
- Does my opponent like to volley? (If he/she does like to volley, he/she will usually be eager to get to the net and take practice volleys during the warm-up.)
- Does my opponent have a problem with topspin or backspin lobs? (Watch him/her carefully when he/she takes practice overheads. You would be amazed at how many players do not smash well lobs that are hit with backspin. These will often times hit the net. If this happens in the warm-up, you can bet the farm that it will happen in the match!)
- How well does my opponent serve? Are his/her first serves hard and flat? What kind of second serve does he/she hit? (I have found that the really big servers rarely, if ever, hit many big serves during the warm-up. Those who lack a big serve or hit a first serve that is heavy but inconsistent, usually hit all their warm-up serves as first serves.) Most important during this phase is to look at the serve delivery. Sometimes a player will give away what kind of server he/she is about to serve by the way they move during the serve or by the location of the ball toss.
- How well does my opponent move? Is she/he fit? Do she/he make noise with her/his feet when they run? (If they do, she/he has poor footwork
run her/him till the cows come home.)
Notice that the whole focus of the warm-up is to help you attack your opponents weaknesses and to avoid your opponents strengths. This is, perhaps, the best strategy in tennis! If you have information that helps you establish this strategy, you have won the warm-up. If you win the warm-up, I am certain that as the match progresses, you will prove yourself to be a tennis overdog.