Last months column, Playing Not to Lose?, was a huge success, given the e-mail feedback that my readers have sent to me. Well, if you liked last months effort, I am hoping this months column will be equally well received.
As a senior tennis player, my body has taught me some hard lessons. Lets face it. If you play competitive tennis on hard courts, your body (especially the joints) is going to take a beating, sooner or later. So, over the years, I have learned to ease my way into matches and through tournaments. In part, my body has to be able to "go the distance," if I am winning. But aside from this, I think that playing ones best tennis requires a progressive approach in each match and contest.
I am sure that this sounds a bit vague, but I think that, as you read on, you will begin to understand what progressive tennis means and why it can be important to every player.
Before we get to progressive tennis, let me start with an analogy. Assuming that you have ridden a bicycle at some point in your life, it is one of those things that never seem to leave our memory bank entirely. Youll hear people say, "Its like riding a bike. Once you know how, you never forget." Well, this is true and somewhat misleading.
Lets say that it has been 10 years or so since you last rode on a bicycle. Youve decided to take a ride on a newly purchased mountain bike. My guess is that your first few minutes on this vehicle are going to be a little shaky. Your balance is not quite 100%...turning sharply can be a little challenging
and I am fairly certain that you are not going to venture out onto an off road trail with moguls immediately. Why? You need to ease yourself back into the art of riding before you venture into the challenges of off road biking (which can be lots of fun).
When playing competitive tennis, we usually are not at such a disadvantage. We have probably practiced quite a bit, and we may even have some tournaments under our belts. But still, I would argue that we need to ease our way into each match.
How can we do this successfully?
First, I would strongly encourage you to have a warm up session well before the match is scheduled. If I am playing, lets say, a 1 pm match, I like to get out about 10 am for a 45 minute warm up. I wont strain myself--I won't try to hit any ball with lots of pace. Rather, I will try to "get by eyes on" with respect to the ball, and to fine tune my timing when striking the ball. I will make certain to take groundstrokes, volleys, serves, returns and a few overheads. But, I wont strain myself. Most importantly, I dont want this session to cause me fatigue. So having a cooperative hitting partner who is not going to run you from corner to corner is essential.
Having photographed pros on the tours for many years, I can assure the reader that I know of no player who does not have some sort of pre-match warm up. Some players like to take this warm up close to the scheduled match time. Others seem to have a set time in the morning for such a "workout."
Each of you should discover your own pre-match warm up ritual and always take the time to schedule it at a time that suits your own bodys and minds needs. The length of this warm up can be as little as one half hour or as long as an hour and a half. It is up to you to discover what works best for you.
This is the first step is "easing your way into a match."
Following this pre-match warm up, I try to take a shower, rest (making certain that I am not in the sun), and I force myself to hydrate. Though I am not fond of them, I will eat bananas for energy and to help my body hold onto water. I make a deliberate effort to sort out what my basic game plan will be. Obviously, the opponent, the surface, wind and sun conditions, and my own physical sense need to be considered in fashioning this game plan. Frequently, my pre-match warm up will give me some important information about my own physical sense.
This is the second step in "easing your way into a match." Unfortunately, most players who are not on the pro tours neglect this all important second step.
Most of the time, matches that are scheduled at a given time are played as scheduled. Once in a while, weather can cause delays. All too frequently, opponents will be deliberately "stuck in traffic," or otherwise delayed. You need to know the tournament rules! Most tournament directors will give a player who has an honest problem a chance to make her/his match
even if it causes a delay. But, at some point, the default rule must be known and enforced. The last thing you want is to prepare carefully, and have an opponent who is careless or playing psych games force an unnecessary delay. Whenever, I have faced this situation, I always force the tournament director to identify at what time the opponent who is late must default.
Directors dont often like to be pinned down to a time, but I force them to make a ruling
and to stick to it. Thats why they are tournament directors. As a general rule, 30 minutes is a sufficient amount of time for an opponent to be late. Now, once the opponent does arrive he/she should not be given more than 15 minutes to get ready to play (assuming they need to change into tennis apparel, etc.). Once again, I pin tournament directors down as to when match will begin. I will ask the director directly, "If so and so is not on the court ready to play at such and such a time, he will be forced to default, correct?"
I know this sounds harsh, but I have played too many tournaments where "friends" of the tournament director are given too much leeway in these matters. Being a stickler on these rules allows your first two steps to continue to have benefit to you.
Stretching before going on the court to play is the third step in "easing your way into a match." I generally do not recommend any stretching without a little jogging, or other aerobic activity. Why? My theory is that the muscles need to warm up a bit before they are stretched.
If you are uncertain how to stretch before a match, I would refer you to one of my previous articles: Turbo Training: Stretching it to the limit, but not beyond!.
Most tournaments allow for a five minute warm up before the match is to begin. In reality, most players take about 8 to 10 minutes. My goals in the warm up have been the focus of one of my previous articles. So, here is the link: How to Win the Warm-up.
In a 5 minute warm up, I try to focus on determining what are my opponents weaknesses and strengths. Of course, warm ups are not always the best indicators. Still, they can tell you much, and confirm the validity of your game plan. Once in a while, I will have a game plan that focuses on exploiting the opponents backhand. In the 5 minute warm up, I discover that the opponent has poor to non-existent volleys. Needless to say, I will change my game plan to include bring my opponent to the net.
Winning the 5 minute warm up is the fourth step in "easing your way into a match."
Well now, we are ready to play the match. The first few points and games are not necessarily indicative of what will happen in a match. First, both opponents are a bit nervous. Second, it takes a few games to develop true focus. Third, conditioning and fatigue play no role at this point. So, I dont allow myself to rejoice or panic at the beginning of a match.
Early on in the match (the first few games), I have literally two goals: I want to strike my balls as perfectly as is possible, and I want to see what my opponent doesnt like. I know my strengths. I just need to allow my mind and body to relax, and I am confident that my strengths will eventually appear or re-appear.
I dont hit any big shots or any big serves at the beginning of a match. Rather, I spin all my serves in deep
looking for placement, not pace. With groundstrokes, I am focusing on clearing the net with some height. This means that I am automatically imparting topspin and probably hitting at a comfortable level of effort. I take my time between points (within the rules) and try to get into my "rituals." Rituals are essential in tennis. They allow are minds and bodies to remain confident and relax, regardless of the score. If you have not spent time on developing rituals on the court, it is important to do so.
Starting at a safe and conservative level of play is the fifth step in "easing your way into a match."
Whenever I play a match, I automatically assume that it will take me three sets to win. In having this mindset, I am never in panic mode. Ironically, the more I adopt this mindset before a match begins, the more likely it is that I will win the match in two sets. But, every player has to be willing and able to go the distance.
Being willing to play three sets is the sixth step in "easing your way into a match."
If all of the above have been performed, you will probably find that you have your ups and downs in games, and in sets. This is completely normal! Rarely, does one opponent totally dominate a match. You need to be patient with yourself and accept the errors and mistakes that will invariably occur.
Learning not to panic is the seventh step in "easing your way into a match."
By the second set, I have a firm idea of what is working well for me and what is not. Equally, if not more importantly, I know what is and is not working for my opponent. Once I have a firm grasp of this knowledge, I can play aggressively. Aggressive tennis takes two forms. First, aggressive tennis means that you are going for your shots at every reasonable opportunity. Second, aggressive tennis means that you are preventing your opponent from hitting her/his shots as often as is possible. Together, these two approaches win matches.
By the third set, if I need it, I am playing at full speed. I dont play timid third sets. I truly believe that these sets need to be played with no holds barred. I am fortunate that I train for third sets. Fatigue is usually not a problem for me
it sometimes can be a problem for my opponent. I want my opponent to realize that I want to win the third set
whatever it takes. Third sets are about mental willpower and fortitude of faith in ones self.
I have found over the years that, if I "ease my way into a match," my chances of winning go up precipitously. I have seen lots of "big guns" win a first set handily
only to lose the match.
So, take the time to "ease your way into matches." I promise that if you do, you will become that feared tennis overdog.