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Ron Waite, USPTR

Recently, I had occasion to visit the local State High School Boys Tennis Championships. As always, there is a mixture of unbelievable talent and some "struggling players" as well. Whenever I attend junior or high school competitions, I make some notes. I make certain to record player names, and I also write down what I believe to be critical mistakes that players make.

After attending the class L championships, I took my notes and placed them in the expandable folder that I have reserved for these comment sheets. In placing this year’s sheets into the proper "file" within the folder, I inadvertently misplaced them in a slot reserved for my 2004 notes. In extracting my 2007 sheets, I had to separate them from those recorded in 2004. I took the time to compare my notes from these two years.

Not surprisingly, there were some repeated comments on both sets of sheets. In fact, I was amazed that the insights recorded on both years’ sheets were almost identical. Only the names were really different.

My point is simple. We all seem to make very similar mistakes or "oooops" as I like to call them. I use the term "oooops" because it really suggests the nature of their errors. Most of these talented players know what to do, and equally important, what not to do. When the students I teach and players that I coach make an error, I always encourage them to recognize the mistake, but not to take it too severely. Forgiving oneself for making errors, recognizing that they are not necessarily going to be repeated, and moving away from the past and into the present are all key ingredients for success in this wonderful game of ours.

In the past, I have written directly and indirectly on percentage tennis. Unless you are as gifted as the pros on the tour, you need to play real percentage tennis. I would argue that the pros play percentage tennis too. However, given the pros’ weapons, training time, coaching, and talents, playing percentage tennis may tactically be a bit different for them than it is for the rest of us. Still, they need to play their own form of percentage tennis…where they make the fewest number of "oooops" as is possible.

On every level of the game, the player with the fewest errors, not necessarily the most winners, is likely to prevail!

So, this month I want to follow up from last month’s column. However this month, I want to focus on what not to do when competing. I hesitate to put forth anything in the negative, but a mistake is a mistake. And mistakes are negative in nature. They are clearly correctable with a positive attitude and never correctable with a negative mindset. They are always an "oooops."

As I recommended last month, I encourage each player to go out on the courts with notebooks of useful tips, strategies, affirmations, reminders, cues, etc. Why rely upon your memory to recall all of these? You have enough to do simply executing in a competitive match.

In my "court book," there is a section entitled, "Oooops." Whether I am winning or losing (it makes no difference) if I feel that I am making too many errors (I actually have been known to count both winners and unforced errors in a match), I go right away to my "Oooops" section and see what may need to be done.

For me, tennis needs to be approached in a systematic manner, if improvement and/or winning are to be achieved. I have encouraged many players to keep such "court books." I have yet to have any one state to me that they weren’t useful.

Of course, each person’s "Oooops" section will vary a bit. We are not "cookie cutter" players in this game. What follows is a list of those most common errors that I see players making. My guess is that some of your "oooops" are in this list.

This list has nothing to do with grips, stances, backswings, finishes, etc. Rather, these are more tactical errors and mistakes mixed with some general guidelines and principles. As such, they are easily correctable, IF one is reminded that they are indeed simple mistakes.

See how many of these ring true for you.

  1. Don’t start out a match at full speed!!! Even given warm-ups, we are rarely, if ever, able to play our best right out of the gate. It is far better to work your way into a match. The body and mind have time to relax and get the "yips" out of the way. We get to get acclimated to competing and can minimize our nervousness, which is completely normal. (If you weren’t somewhat nervous at the beginning of a competitive match, you probably should not be competing!)

  2. Don’t try to win the point by hitting a winning return of serve!!! I tend not to flatter myself, but my return of serve is quite good. It is one of my strengths. However, I rarely will try to win a point on a return unless I am almost certain that I can "read" what’s coming, and have hit returns with lots of control…notice I did not say pace. Unless you are a Jimmy Connors or an Andre Agassi (these guys could return serve well), the odds are against you.

  3. Don’t go for winners when on the run!!! Some of us have absolutely outstanding running shots. Most of us don’t! Raphael Nadal and Roger Federer have remarkable running shots. This is why they are ranked so high. Justin Henin-Hardenne can hit great running shots off of her backhand wing, but has a bit of difficulty of the forehand side. The odds say that YOU will more often than not err if you try to hit a winner while on the run. Better to simply get the ball back high and deep. The key should be to recover to find a more desirable attacking situation.

  4. Don’t change the direction of a hard hit ball!!! Some opponents can hit with incredible pace. I have seen NTRP 3.5 players who could wail a forehand consistently. One of the most common "oooops" in high school and junior competition is that player will attempt to change the direction of a ball hit with pace. Better to send the ball back to exactly where it came. If the ball came to you crosscourt, send it back crosscourt. If it came down the line, send it back down the line. This latter suggestion is a bit risky in terms of the geometry of tennis angles. But, balls that seem to be "heavy" to you are not the ones to mess with by attempting to change their direction. As a match progresses, most players become accustomed to the opponent’s big groundstrokes and/or big serves.

  5. Don’t attempt a drop shot on key points!!! We are all guilty of this "oooops." Whenever a match seems to be going downhill and we feel desperate, we will bring out the old drop shot. We usually are about two feet behind the baseline when we make this attempt to win the point outright. Of course, it rarely works out positively. We either hit the net or float something that our opponent puts away. The only exception to this rule may occur when you are playing on clay. The well executed drop shot is a great arrow in the clay court player’s quiver. Of course, this is assuming that she/he actually owns this shot. Most of us do not.

  6. Don’t go for big, flat shots when the ball is coming at you with slice!!! If your opponent can hit decent slice (it doesn’t have to be outstanding…just decent), don’t try to go for a big, flat winning shots. If you are diminutive in size (and I mean this with no malice or insult), you may be able to hit the flat winner off of good slice. Most of us should either return slice with slice, or roll the ball crosscourt with topspin. In the former case, you may be able to really lean into your slice and hit a shot that wins the point without a reply. In the latter approach, you can only expect to just stay in the point unless your opponent is way out of court.

  7. Never move backwards!!! I know, never say never, and you would be correct in reminding me. There are times when we must move back. If we are at the net and our opponent lobs, we have to move back. If a really high, topspin shot from our opponent lands on the baseline, we are probably best to move back as it is going to take a very high bounce (still taking these balls on the rise can frequently be a better option). If you move forward, keep moving forward. If at all possible, never retreat!

  8. Don’t stand still!!! Tennis is a game of constant motion. For me, this is one of the most beautiful aspects of the game. I see players constantly standing still after they hit a shot. A player should always be running, "drifting" of simply moving his/her feet. The latter should be the case when you have good court position or are at the net. Watch "hackers" when they play. They will always be standing still admiring their shot, and awaiting the opponent’s reply. Waiting is not anticipating. If you don’t know where the opponent is likely to go with a shot, drift to the center of the baseline or net. If you are in the center, just keep your feet moving by taking little "bounces." You will never see the pros on their heels.

  9. Don’t take your eyes out of the court!!! Focus is absolutely essential in this game. You can’t look outside the four lines of your court boundaries and maintain focus. This is why the pros are almost always looking at their strings in between points. In between games, you still cannot allow yourself to be distracted by sounds, people or anything else that is outside your court. You either should look at your "court book," daze into a daydream of match analysis, or simply bury your face in a towel and try to relax your body. I cannot stress how important avoiding this "oooops" is. Talking to your opponent during changeovers may be friendly but in similar manner it takes away focus. Don’t do it.

  10. Don’t rush!!! From an outside observer’s perspective, it seems that some players are in a hurry to lose. They rush in between points. They take very little time between first and second serves. They won’t take the full rest permitted during game changeovers. There is the old adage, quicken up a winning game and slow down a losing game. Although I agree with this, I would rather see players err in the direction of caution. In my mind, it is probably best to take your time at all times.

  11. Don’t talk to yourself aloud!!! I am not one who subscribes to the belief that on court expressions, of any kind, are desirable. I don’t praise my self when I do something great in a match. Why? Because, this usually means that I will chastise myself when I make an mistake on the court. I don’t curse when competing. I rarely, if ever, react to anything one way or another. Yes, I have emotions. Yes, I have demons. No, I don’t want my opponent to know anything about what is going on in my mind. I take confidence from a player who is expressive on the court. If they are yelling "come on" great! That’s energy expended with no point benefit. If they are angry and self-abusive in their expressions, I know they are more likely to play poorly. Okay, I am not a sports psychologist. But, I have played, taught and coached this game for many years. 9 times out of 10, the placid player who appears emotionless is the more consistent player. She or he may lose, but it will only be because the opponent was better at that time on that day.

  12. Don’t argue line calls!!! Yes, there are some very obvious "hookers" playing this game. When you get one, the only solution is to either deal with it, or to get an official to call the lines. This latter situation should only be pursued when there have been some respectful and vocal questions (not accusations) raised with your opponent. Personally, I just let cheaters cheat. I realize that they cheat because they are weak. Okay, each of us makes some bad calls. We do so honestly and without deliberate intent. Cheaters know they are cheating. I have yet to play one who isn’t frustrated by my indifference. I like to let them "know" that I realize they are cheating and it doesn’t matter. I am still going to win. I state this by my indifference. The reality is that each player calls his/her side of the court. Why get upset or angry? This only helps the cheater’s cause.

  13. Don’t forget to hydrate!!! Tournament players usually do not fall into the category of players who don’t take water throughout the match. But, recreational players frequently under hydrate or don’t hydrate at all. I don’t care if it is the dead of winter and the temperature on the court is 40 degrees. You need water. Without it, you are simply breaking down your ability to play long and hard. I have seen high school players lose a match that they were winning because they were cramping. In two instances, the players had to default the matches!!!

  14. Don’t forget to stretch!!! Stretching before, and more importantly, after matches is necessary for every player. However, I would encourage stretching during matches as well. Within the time guidelines of the game, I like to see players stretching in between points and during changeovers. For a senior player like me, it is critical. It helps prevent fatigue and injury, and it helps to relax the body. What’s not to like about stretching?

  15. Don’t think during play!!! This is probably one of the most common statements I make to players and students. Yogi Berra once said, "You can’t think and play baseball at the same time." He is absolutely correct. I cannot tell you how many times a person’s mind and thoughts have gotten in the way of her/his tennis game. Ever change your mind about the direction of a shot only to discover that you hit the net? When executing don’t think. The time to think about things is in between games, or maybe in between points. I would rather see a player never think during a match than to think constantly.

Print this list of 15 "oooops" out and take them with you to your next match. Before the match and during changeovers, read them. I suspect that some of these will be "oooops" that occur during your match. Don’t be surprised if they come and go during a match. Such is the dynamic nature of this great game.

Invariably, you will want to add some of your own "oooops" to this list. If you take the advice given in last month’s column, create a personalized "oooops" list, and maybe notes on players you consistently face; you will have the beginnings of a great "court book."

Refer to this "court book" often and certainly during matches, and you will be well on your way to becoming a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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