Not wishing to offend anyone, I have borrowed a religiously oriented concept to present this months column. Many of my readers are people who wish to compete better in this wonderful game of ours. They write with specific questions and I try to reply to all of my e-mail.
Many of the reader inquiries that I receive deal, in one way or another, with the concept of strategy. For instance, quite a few readers have written me with a question like: "I always seem to win the first set but I ultimately lose the match. Why?"
Clearly, sports psychology has provided great insights to the nature of tennis competition. John Murrays book Smart Tennis is really a seminal work on how to better manage this component in your game. I think it is required reading for anyone involved in sports competition!
This notwithstanding, there are still some common problems that I see when I observe beginning and intermediate level players. Remarkably, I see some of these same problems emerging in advanced players games, as well.
So, this month, I am dedicating my column to identifying ten of the most important aspects of competing in tennis. As a coach of a collegiate team, I find that, more often than not, my players will need to be reminded of these principles as the season unfolds.
Frankly, I have written down these concepts and carry them in my tennis bag. If I really start to come "off the boil" in a match, I have no hesitancy to drag this cue sheet out and review these 10 "commandments."
I use the term commandments deliberately because I really do not think that any player can "violate" these guidelines and play successfully. If you have recurring difficulties in your game, or believe that you are playing below your potential, I suggest that one or more of these "commandments" come to play.
My suggestion would be to print out the bold lettered commandments and put the printout in your tennis bag. If you print out this article in its entirety, you will be able to refresh your memory on any specific commandment. However, I suspect that in time, these commandments will be burned in your memory bank, and there will be less need for any review.
- SEE THE BALL!!!
In baseball, there is an old adage: "You cant hit what you dont see." Well, this is equally true in tennis. During points, the most important place to but your focus is on the ball. You will hear coaches of the pros and authors of tennis instructional texts tell you to "Play the Ball." If we really did just this during every point, our ability to win points would go up precipitously. We would find ourselves anticipating shots better. Our shot preparation would be better. And, our line calls would be more definitive. This is so important, that my very first column was entitled "See the Ball." I recommend that you read or re-read this article.
In practice, warm-ups and matches, my first goal is to "get my eyes on." This requires practice and self-discipline. Humans have limited attention spans. It is easy to deviate from really focusing on the ball. Dont be surprised if you have to remind yourself frequently to bring your attention on the ball and its spin/movement.
Whenever my game breaks down, this is my very first "solution." It frequently is the only solution that I need.
- STAY IN THE "PRESENT"
How many times have you been tossing up a ball to serve and think about the possibility of double faulting? My guess is that it occurs more than you would like, and that the invariable outcome is a double fault.
How many times have you thought about winning or losing during a match? This is a natural thing to do. But, once you start thinking about winning or losing, you are on a slippery slope to defeat. If you are up 5-0 and are serving for the set or down 0-5 and receiving, it is very tough to avoid these kinds of thoughts.
The game of tennis is a riddle. In order to win, you need to avoid thinking about winning or losing. But, doing this is not that easy, I realize.
This is why rituals are so important. They take your mind off this win/loss concept. The mind can think about only one thing at a time. Giving the mind other things to think about during a match will help avoid falling into the win/loss trap.
Keep your eyes within the court during a match to avoid any distractions. Fix your strings in between points. Setup for each serve and return of serve in exactly the same manners each time!
Recognize that one point has absolutely nothing to do with the next point, unless you let it!!! Let your winners and errors go! You cannot change the past. The best way to influence the future is to focus on the present.
When the win/loss thoughts enter your mind (and they will) dismiss them in anyway that you can. Count to 10. Say a prayer. Sing a song. Count the number of main strings on your racquet. Use a cue word like "cancel" to teach your mind to move away from these thoughts. If one technique doesnt seem to be working, try something different. Do whatever it takes to avoid thinking about winning or losing.
- LEARN HOW TO RELAX
Simply put, the body performs at its best when it is in a relaxed state. It is completely normal to be nervous at the beginning of a match. In fact, it probably cannot be entirely avoided. During a match, you will discover that there are "stressor" situations and times. For whatever reason, you are nervous, tight and feeling uncomfortable. This is all normal.
What true champions have learned is how to guide their bodies into a more relaxed state "on command." Deep and slow breathing can help. Closing your eyes and thinking of something pleasant can help.
I personally use a cue phrase to help me. I simply say "Go to your peaceful place." I practice this on and off the court. As soon as I say these words, my muscles relax and things begin to slow down. I have arrived at this ability through deliberate practice. If I am at home, I will say the words and begin to consciously relax my muscles. Having done this many times, the cue words now automatically bring this relaxation. Like Pavlovs dog, I have instilled within myself a conditioned response.
Once the body begins to relax the mind will follow. The key is to get the body started.
Imagine that every match you could relax 50% more than you usually do. How much more enjoyable would the game of tennis be? Guess what. Win or lose, if you are enjoying yourself, the "ride" is worth it.
- NEVER CHEAT
The game of tennis is a sport that relies upon the "Code." Honesty in line calls, scores, etc. is the basis of this code. Cheating does nothing to help your game. In fact, it weakens your game. If you cheat, your mind knows it. Any victory is tainted. If you cheat once, you will cheat again. You never know how good a player you can become, if you cheat.
On the flip side, if your opponent cheats, it is an indication of weakness. Now, everyone makes bad calls honestly. Lets face it. Seeing the ball and lines clearly can be tough. Honest mistakes will happen. Forgive your opponent, if she/he makes what you think is a wrong call. If she/he is truly cheating, the problem will be reoccurring. If this happens, confront the issue diplomatically. If it continues, you may need to call for an umpire (presuming it is a tournament or sanctioned competition).
Yes, there are times when you will lose a match because the opponent cheated. This is frustrating to say the least. But, realize that the match was stolen
it wasnt won. Renew your vow to yourself to be honest in your calls. This is the best that can be taken from such a situation.
Remember, if in doubt; give the call to your opponent. It is the right thing to do!!!
- THE TIME TO THINK IS DURING CHANGEOVERS
Humans by their very nature are evaluative creatures. We are constantly evaluating ourselves, the world and the people around us. Why would it be any different when we play tennis?
Paralysis by analysis occurs when we evaluate at the wrong times. To borrow and amend an adage from Yogi Berra, "You can't think and play tennis at the same time."
During games, shut off your evaluative side. Simply initiate, respond and execute.
The time to figure out what is going on and what needs to be done is during game changeovers. Dont even allow yourself to be too thoughtful in between points. You need to learn to compartmentalize your thinking.
If I find myself wandering into an evaluative thought mode during a game, I literally say to myself: "Not to worry. Youll figure it out when there is a changeover."
This is why I do not engage in any conversation with my opponent during the changeovers. I use the changeovers for three things: to hydrate my body, to let my body recover, and if necessary, I allow myself to evaluate what is happening and what I need to do.
- KEEP YOUR SHOTS LANDING DEEP
If your balls continually land deep in your opponents court, you will find that he/she is very unlikely to be able to hit winners. Most games are determined by which player makes the fewest errors
not the most winners. These two principles apply to every level of the game.
Now, there are two ways to get the ball to land deep. Hit it hard and low to the net
or hit it with less pace but much higher over the net. Guess what. There are no style points in tennis.
Given these realities, the percentage play is to hit higher not harder. In addition to decreasing the likelihood of an error, this approach fatigues you less. It is a win/win situation.
Now, if you are going for a winner or you are really a skilled player, go for your shots. But, I would suggest that 80% of the people reading this column would greatly benefit from hitting higher not harder.
- GET YOUR FIRST SERVE IN AT ALL COSTS
The statistics at all levels of the game suggest that your chances of winning a point go up significantly if you get your first serve in. It is that important!
So, do whatever is necessary to get that first serve to go into the box every time. If means hitting with less pace or hitting with more spin
so be it.
I grant you that weak first serves invite the opponent to step in and put the return away. But, if your first serve is in and lands deep in the box, the likelihood of your opponent winning the point goes down. It is just that simple.
Make your opponent hit every first serve, and you will rarely be giving away "free" or "cheap" points.
- DONT TRY TO WIN POINTS OFF THE RETURN OF SERVE
Not many of us are blessed with the Andre Agassis return of serve. The purpose of return of serve should be to put the ball in play. If you look at the pros, they rarely attempt to hit more than 10% of their returns as winners. Remember, these are the professionals.
Too many mortal players attempt to win the point off the return. The overall success of this strategy is not good.
- HIT MOST OF YOUR SHOTS CROSSCOURT
Hitting crosscourt is playing percentage tennis. The net is lower in the center by 6 inches. By hitting crosscourt there is more margin for error. Hitting crosscourt makes your opponents winners less likely to occur.
Now, to fully understand why I make these statements, a somewhat detailed explanation is in order. Fortunately, I addressed this whole concept in a past article that addressed the Euclidean Geometry of Tennis. This article has illustrations that will hopefully explain why crosscourt tennis is winning tennis.
- DRIFT BACK TO THE CENTER OF THE COURT AFTER EACH GROUNDSTROKE AND FOLLOW THE PATH OF THE BALL AFTER EACH VOLLEY
How to position yourself after each shot is really not a complicated matter. After each groundstroke, drift (dont run) back to the center of the baseline. In moving this way, you are in the best possible position to cover any of your opponents replies.
When at the net volleying, follow the path of your volley. If you hit your volley to your right, move to your right to cover a most likely reply. If you hit your volley left, move left. If you hit your volley in the center of your opponents court, your best position is to be near the center of the net.
Being in proper position is truly as simple as these guidelines suggest.
So, these are my 10 commandments of tennis. Try each of them out. I promise you that if you adhere to these mandates, you will become a tennis overdog!!!