Here we are in April. The weather is turning into spring,
and many of you are out there banging balls around the court in the great
outdoors. Truth be known, I believe that outdoor tennis is the way tennis
should always be played. Playing tennis outdoors is similar to playing
basketball outdoors. It is great to play either game year round, but each has
its own, natural environment.
In my Perfect Tennis e-book I propose an on-court and off court process for learning, improving and enjoying this wonderful
game. The goal is to achieve what I call flow. When we play our best tennis, we are all on
automatic pilot. We seamlessly
execute shots and play our own innate style of tennis.
I truly believe that one can improve the frequency of this being
in the zone by applying the Perfect
Still, there is a place for cerebral analysis and strategy
in the game of tennis. Now, don't get me wrong. Over analysis and conscious
thought can be more harmful than beneficial in tennis. As analogy, I offer the
If you cup your hand, you can hold onto a bit of water in
your palm. But as soon as you close and squeeze your hand to hold onto this
water, it drips through your fingers.
In many ways, I find this metaphor a good example of the
whole "thought" process in the game of tennis. The more we "try" to examine
what to do, the more likely it is that we interfere with flow.
As is the case with many things in nature, we should be
striving to achieve balance. This principle is one reason that I always enjoyed
studying physical sciences. This "rule" is just that in the physical realm.
Having said all of this, I must confess that there is a time
and method for effective analysis when competing in tennis. And, this is the
topic for this month's column.
To my way of thinking, there are two primary types of
players... Type A and Type B.
In fact, I dedicated an entire column to this topic back in
2000. The reader can easily access it by using this link to the article "Type "A" or Type "B" Player?."
Essentially, a Type A player is a person who has some
weapons in her/his arsenal and seeks to simply play her/his game. There is
little, if any, real analysis going on in the mind of the Type A player.
She/he simply hits the ball in the manner that is seemingly natural. These
players often times win because they do have weapons and have spent some
significant time honing their skills.
The Type B player is the thinker. He/she likes to find ways
of taking away the opponent's weapons. The Type B player is often times
referred to as a "heady" player. He/she may even take the form of the dreaded
pusher, who really tries to help the opponent lose. Type B players frequently
do not have the best of strokes. They may be physically out of shape. But
somehow, they find a way to win.
Lately, I have had to become a Type B player. I haven't had
a choice. My right knee is very arthritic (Years of being a baseball catcher
is catching up with me... Forgive the pun.) Truthfully, there is little that can
be done to correct the problem. On the tennis court, I can barely move. At
one time, I was fairly fleet of foot. But now, there are just so many balls
that I can no longer track down.
The net consequence of this injury and its impact? I have
to play smarter not bigger tennis. Like it or not, the only alternative for me
is a total knee replacement. Needless to say, I am not taking this drastic
measure until there is no choice. However, I can still play singles and win.
In fact, I recently played a couple collegiate players and was able to win in
two sets each time. Believe me. They could clearly outrun me!
Well, my biggest weapon is my forehand groundstroke. But
if I can't get to a ball, I can't use this weapon. What am I to do? I simply
ask myself, What if...
Simply put, I know my goal is to minimize the amount of
movement that I need to make on the court, and to keep the points as short as
is possible... while still winning the point.
Despite the injury, I find myself enjoying the competition.
I just have a new set of limitations. Everyone has some limitations. I just
need to recognize my own, set viable goals, and discover ways to win. Really, I am doing nothing more than
This is exactly the mindset of the Type B player. By simply
looking at the match as a set of problems, the Type B player is able to explore
the situation and arrive at possible solutions.
Sometimes, the solutions arrive from a simple trial and
error. But more often than not, the Type B player is deliberately "probing"
and "thinking" her/his way through the match.
All of us, who enjoy this wonderful game, at one time or
another, find ourselves in a situation where our "normal" game is not winning
us the match. In these situations, we all need to, at least, consider becoming
Type B players.
For Type A players, this is probably a frustrating
situation. I would not be at all surprised if many of these Type A players
don't even attempt to refashion a game plan.
For me, the best approach to being "thoughtful" and
analytical involves asking the important What if question.
Phrasing the question in a What if manner is desirable on several
First, the question is not stated in a negative way. If a
player asks herself/himself, "Why is my backhand so bad today?" there is a
negative implied in the framing of the question. Negative thoughts, self-talk
or questions never help in the game of
Second, asking a What if question suggests that there may be more than
one possible answer. If one answer doesn't do the trick, asking What if again may result in a different answer entirely.
Third, the What if question suggests that the player asking
himself/herself the question is curious and is simply looking to discover what a particular change may bring. The implication
is that the change and its effects are observable.
Now, the timing at which you ask yourself "What if" is critical!
If you are in a match and have lost the first set by two
breaks or more, you need to ask yourself "What if."
If you lost the first set in a close score but are down a
break in the second set, you probably need to ask yourself "What if."
Asking yourself "What if"
is not a sign of desperation. Rather, it is recognition of reality, and an
appropriate way to reconfigure your game plan. Still, many Type A players have
a difficult time bringing themselves to ask this question. Hopefully if the
player is a high school or collegiate competitor, his/her coach will ask the
question during a game changeover.
This brings me to the other aspect of when one should pose
this important question. The only times to ask this question are in-between
games!!! If there is a changeover, there
is more time to ask and answer the question. If there is no changeover, one
can always find a little time to pose What if and arrive at a preliminary answer.
I do not advise asking yourself this critical question in
between points. There just isn't enough time for reflection (unless you are
breaking the time regulations). In addition, this question asking will
interrupt any flow that you may have
established in your game.
Consciously posed questions lend themselves to recorded
answers. In part, this is why I encourage every player to keep a "strategy
book." This book contains answers to the What if question that
have worked in the past. If this book is organized well, the player can retrieve
answers quickly during game changeovers. On more than one occasion, I have
observed pros on the tour reach into their tennis bags and pull out notes
and/or a notebook. Certainly, these contain suggested solutions to typical
problems, or specific notes about the opponent.
So assuming that you know when to ask the important What
if question, what are some of the possible
answers? Well, each player needs to discover her/his own specific answers to
this critical question. No two players are totally alike.
Still, there are some probable answers to many of the What
if questions. To illustrate what I mean, I
offer some of the following examples.
What if I was to take pace off the ball? (You would be amazed at how many big hitters do not
like balls sent to them without any pace.)
What if I hit my balls higher and deeper? (If you are winded and tired, or unable to move like
me, this may be the best answer. High, deep balls slow down the rallies, keep
the opponent back, and usually do not result in having to run for many balls.
Of course, this latter attribute is negated, if the opponent can hit a drop
shot off your high, deep balls.)
What if I hit at my opponent? (Crazy as it may seem, this tactic can win you points. Some players
are just better able to hit balls, and even winners, when they are on the run.
The old adage, "Run the turtle, hit at the rabbit" comes to mind.)
What if I vary the spin of my shots? (When an opponent has established a rhythm, it is
difficult to prevail. Sometimes hitting consecutive balls with very
different spins... slice to flat to topspin for example... can unsettle the
opponent's rhythm. The result? Frequently, the opponent hits more errant
What if I keep the ball deep in the center of my
opponent's court? (I recall reading a book
by the legendary Pancho Seguro. The book explored various strategies. On
clay, he recommended that deep balls that are placed in the center of the court
will keep the rallies long. The opponent will probably become impatient and will
try for a risky shot for the winner. Impatience and frustration are two
ingredients that you always want to engender in the opponent's mind.)
What if I hit sharper angled shots that bring my opponent
forward and wide? (This is an answer
straight from Roger Federer's playbook. Roger will hit shots that go crosscourt
and bounce near the junction of the service lines and sidelines. Amazingly, he
can do this off either wing and still hit with some pace. Most of us need to
take pace off the balls to hit these severe angles.)
What if I hit everything to my opponent's weaker
wing? (I will grant the reader that this
answer to the question does not provide any deception. Still, many Type A
players will get very frustrated if they don't have a chance to hit their
stronger shots. This answer is not the first choice, but amazingly, I have
seen it work very effectively.)
What if I change the order and pattern of my shots? (All of us are creatures of habit and exhibit
patterns of behavior. These are true when we play tennis. Let's say that your
normal pattern is to hit each ball crosscourt. Well, your opponent will soon
see the pattern and be able to anticipate your shot. Thus, she/he will have an
edge that may result in an outright winner. Simply hitting two shots
crosscourt then going down the line, may be enough to prevent this type of
prediction. Truth be known, I have three principle patterns that I like to use
when hitting groundstrokes. By knowing these and practicing them, I have
prepared myself to use them in matches. If one isn't working, I will try
another. In most matches, the rallies do not exceed three balls hit by each
player. So, my patterns are three stroke variations. My patterns work for me,
but there are really no universal patterns. Each player has patterns that meet
his/her movement capabilities, stroke preparation, and ability to place the
ball. So, one needs to practice patterns that are "comfortable." If you can
develop three distinct, but reliable, groundstroke patterns, you are probably
very well prepared.)
These are just a few possible answers to the What if question. It is important to note that the
answers do not involve drastic changes!!!
If you are truly a skilled player, you can shift gears from
a groundstroke game to serve/volley without any difficulty. Most of us cannot.
For some, we can prepare either approach, but we can't shift this drastically,
during a match.
Introducing new and uncomfortable strokes into a match is
probably too big a change, as well. If you don't really own a drop shot, you
can't rely upon it in a match. Any strategic change that is based upon faulty
or risky shots is doomed to fail.
In the examples I have provided, each answer to What if involves minor changes. It may seem that these are
too simple to be effective, but I assure the reader that this is not the case.
Tennis is a game of millimeters and milliseconds. Even the slightest change
can have a dramatic impact on a match. In my mind, this is one of the reasons
that tennis is such an exciting and enjoyable game to play and to watch!!!
I should mention that there is a third type of player... Type
C. This is the complete player who has weapons, but also, knows when and how
to be analytical.
As an example of the Type C player, I offer Andre Agassi.
As a young player, he had tremendous groundstrokes. He could dominate many
players with his ability to hit big groundies. But over time, this was not
enough to keep him on top.
Once Andre brought Brad Gilbert in as a coach (truly the
consummate Type B player), Andre was able to learn to play the game in a Type B
manner. When you have a Type A player learning to be a Type B player the
result is a Type C player. Type C players are just amazing to play and watch.
I should also mention that it is very unlikely that a Type B
player becomes a Type C player. Why? Well, developing weapons and being able
to hit with reckless abandon is far more difficult than learning to employ
tactics and strategies.
So this tennis season, I encourage each of you to explore
and discover your own answers to the What if question. Should you begin this journey and record your answers (the
ones that worked), I am quite confident that this year you will become a tennis overdog!