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How To Win A Match

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Most of us who play this wonderful sport compete, even if only recreationally. In any given match, 50% of all players are going to win and 50% are going to lose. Of course, we all want to be on the winning side, and presumably, we wouldn't be out competing if we did not believe this to be at least a possibility.
This great game of ours presents many challenges. But, one of the great opportunities associated with this game is that the match is never over until the last point is played. We are never really out of a match until it is over!
I know something about losing in tennis. In my first year competing in USTA events, I believe I lost every one of my 22 matches, and within these, I won a total of 4 or 5 sets. Needless to say, I was a bit down psychologically. Yet within several years, I was ranked 4 by USTA New England in Men's 5.0 singles. I proudly display the plaques on my wall.
In essence, I improved my game to turn the tide toward winning, but more important, I learned how to win. Learning to win is a process! I can't promise that any player can learn to beat a pro on the tour, but I can assure you that a winning mindset is necessary before a winning record can be achieved.
It is with this reality in mind that I write this month's column. Let's begin.
How many times have you or another tennis player have been heard to say the following: "I am a better player than he/she, but I still lost!" These words are probably the most dreaded among competitive tennis players.
We spend lots of time preparing strokes for competition. We devise strategies for various opponents and for varying tennis surfaces. We frequently will train off court to put ourselves in the very best possible physical shape for competition. We usually have pre-match rituals and warm-ups. Yet despite all these preparations, we may find ourselves losing to what we perceive as being a "lesser" opponent.
Well, the first realization that each of us must accept is that there really are no truly "lesser" opponents. As soon as you assume that you should and will beat an opponent, you may be setting yourself up for a major league disappointment. In this wonderful game of tennis anything can happen. The match is not over until the last point is played. Even on the pro level, seeds are beaten at times by relatively unknown and/or significantly lower ranked players. This is why we actually have to play the matches! Seeding and past performances have no real bearing on the competition at hand.
This concept of not expecting the past to influence the present is a key concept in competitive tennis. Indeed when interviewed, pros on both tours rarely speak specifically about their next opponent. Certainly, they are never looking beyond this next opponent in the draw. Invariably, pros will make reference to the fact that the next opponent is skilled, and that she/he poses a real challenge. In other words, they are acknowledging that there really are no "lesser" opponents on a given day, and that one must try to focus on the present... not the past or the future.
With this mindset firmly in place, the competitive tennis player should certainly prepare physically for the match. In some instances, players are very particular about what they eat and when they eat, prior to competing in a match. I am not certain if these dietary concerns are a primary factor in winning or losing, but why take the chance.
Personally, I prefer to eat pasta the night before a match and keep my total intake of foods minimal on the day of the match. If I am scheduled to play in the afternoon, I will take some more carbohydrates (usually oatmeal) in the morning. For me, having a relatively empty stomach during a match is important to my overall "feeling." I don't move as well if I am still digesting food during the match.
Allied with this, hydrating the body before and during a match is of key importance. I literally force fluids 12 hours prior to a match. I will throw a banana into this hydrating process as its potassium helps the body tissues hold onto this water. I know some players who take a daily supplement of potassium to be certain that they have this mineral in sufficient quantity to be useful.
Waiting until the match has started to hydrate oneself is usually too little... too late! Still, once the match has started, the player must recognize that he/she is losing water... if only through perspiration. So every game changeover, a player should take in water to replace what has been lost.
Not hydrating properly is leaving the door open for cramping. Even if full cramps are not a result, fatigue in a match can be amplified by not having sufficient fluids in your body.
I am not a big fan of sports drinks. For the most part, they are water that contains high levels of sugar. Still I like to keep these drinks handy during a match. If I feel that I am becoming tired and need energy, I will drink some sport beverage during game changeovers... in addition to taking in more water!
The 5 minute warm-up associated with most matches is another important component in helping oneself to win a match. Some years back, I dedicated a column to this subject which is available in my article How To Win The Warm-Up.
I see the warm-up as having several principle functions. First, it is an opportunity to loosen up and to become acclimated to hitting the ball. A player can get his/her "eyes" on when warming up in addition to loosening up muscles.
Equally important, the warm-up can give you an opportunity to evaluate an opponent, if you have never played this person before. The key questions to which one can get preliminary answers include:

  • How well does this opponent move?
  • Which groundstroke side is stronger?
  • Can this person volley well?
  • What kind of first and second serve does this opponent possess?

Apart from these answers there is a critical question that many players do not answer before the match begins: Is the player left or right handed?
Now warm-ups may not be able to provide all the answers to the above, but the more you know about your opponent the better. In fact, it is important to be somewhat other-directed, rather than self-directed, during the warm-up. It is easy to start evaluating your strokes during a warm-up. This kind of thinking is never productive. Your strokes are your strokes. If you hit one ball poorly, it doesn't mean that you will hit the next one poorly. One shot has no bearing on the next unless you let it! Here again, you can see the importance of "present tense" thinking.
In the vast majority of matches (on any level of the game), winning results from making fewer errors than your opponent. We often times deceive ourselves into thinking that the number of winners we make determines the match. Well, there is some truth to this "deception" but the data clearly shows that errors... not winners... determine the outcome of a match.
Given this, each player should recognize that she/he is attempting to make the fewest number of errors, while at the same time helping the opponent to make more errors! When I compete, I am certainly attempting to "play my game," but I am also attempting to help my opponent lose.
If I know that the opponent has a weaker backhand, I will hit more shots to this wing. At the same time, I know my forehand is my better groundstroke. So whenever possible, I am attempting to round around my backhand and hit my forehand to my opponent's backhand court. Thus, I am hitting from my strength (my game) to his weakness. Of course if I am not in shape, properly hydrated and possessing energy, I will eventually be unable to execute this game plan.
I don't advocate too much right brain thinking during a match. By this, I mean that being too analytical can be very counterproductive. However, this may not be true for some players.
Again some years back, I wrote a column that addresses this issue... see my article Type "A" or Type "B" Player?.
If you are a "heady," Type B player, thinking your way through a match may not be such a bad thing. However, it has been my experience that even Type B players can fall victim to paralysis by analysis.
My belief is that any performance (including tennis) is best executed in a mindless, non-judgmental, "auto-pilot" manner. The time for thinking and analyzing is in between points, and more likely, during game changeovers. How many times have you lost a point because you changed your mind midway through the stroke? This is an example of how thinking can be very counterproductive while actually performing. You want to know what you want to do before executing, but once the point has started, it is best to just go with the flow. Those of you familiar with my book, Perfect Tennis, will know what I mean by this term, flow.
Suffice it to say that flow is what naturally occurs when you are in the zone. Your conscious mind becomes an observer for the non-conscious mind. The latter is really controlling your strokes and actions. This phenomenon is very similar to driving a car. When we drive, it is our non-conscious mind that makes all the decisions and performs all the necessary actions. Our conscious mind is really just providing the data that is necessary to make these decisions.
Once again, I have a past article that explores the whole concept of the mind and its impact upon performance. You can access this in my article Tennis as Performance.
Every competitive player should have a starting game plan. It may be that you prefer to serve/volley. Maybe, you are a big groundstroke player with a huge forehand. Perhaps, you are the ultimate retriever and get every ball back. Each player should begin a match by attempting to play her/his natural or preferred game style. However, it may be necessary to change this plan as a match unfolds. The questions that arise are: When should I change plans, and for how long should I stick with the new plan?
The best rule of thumb for changing a game plan is to move to a new strategy when you are down two breaks in a set and/or when you have lost a set and are down a break. In these situations, the odds favor your opponent. You need to do something different to get back into the match. Of course, a player needs a back-up plan of attack in these situations.
These back-ups need not be elaborate. It may be that you simply decide to hit most of your shots as moonballs. Maybe, you decide to hit your shots with less or more pace than is normally the case. It could be that you decide to alternate spins more to unsettle the rhythm of your opponent. Sometimes, a drastic change in plan works as would be the case if you went from a groundstroke game to a serve/volley approach.
Sometimes, you can "figure out" what back-up is most likely to be successful. At other times, it may be a process of trial and error.
The key point is that you cannot expect to repeat the same actions and get different results when you are behind as indicated above! Something needs to change.
There is a golden rule in all sports: "Never change a winning game plan." If you are in front, keep doing the same things. If you need to change plans because you are behind, stick with the back-up until the momentum changes.
It is imperative that each competitive player realize that in most matches there is an ebb and flow. It is rare that we go out on the court and dominate from the first to last ball struck. Equally unusual is a match where our opponent dominates from beginning to end.
Every competitive player needs to be patient and diligent. If you accept the fact that every match will have ups and downs, you are more likely to remain composed throughout the match. Composure is a key ingredient in winning tennis!
This leads me to the mental side of the game. Truthfully in matches where players are fairly evenly matched, the player who is more mentally stable and tough usually prevails.
Now, we have all seen the head cases out there on the courts. He/she will throw racquets, yell at themselves and/or they simply give up (tanking).
All of this results from a player being evaluative while playing points. Simply put, there are three stages to performance: preparation, execution and review/evaluation. It is absolutely critical to keep evaluation out of the execution phase as much as is possible. Of course, we all have conscious minds that believe they can "solve" any problem.
In some matches, the conscious mind can evaluate what is going on and arrive at a suitable solution(s). But, this kind of thinking must never occur while a point is actually played. Usually, this kind of thinking is counterproductive in between points, as well.
The time for analytical thinking is during game changeovers. This is the only time when you can be certain that the conscious mind will not interfere with the process of flow.
So, this begs the question: How do I prevent my conscious mind from kicking in during points and in between points?
The keys to answering this question vary from player to player. But, there are some common things that seem to help most players.
First, make every practice session and practice set a time where you not only practice strokes and strategies, but also, practice turning off the conscious mind while actually playing points and/or hitting strokes. If you can't do this during practice, you will probably have no chance of reaching an "auto pilot" mindset during a match.
Second, develop specific rituals in between points. Rituals tend to reassure the conscious mind that everything is "okay." Thus, the conscious mind is less likely to believe that it needs to "solve" a problem in your match.
Watch the pros. They always prepare for serve and return of serve in precise ways that never vary. It may be that a player turns his/her back to the opponent, looks at the racquet's strings, and then, goes to the baseline to serve. In all probability, this player will bounce the ball a precise number of times before actually beginning the service motion. The player returning serve probably has a ritual that she/he prefers before becoming "set" to receive serve.
Watch how many players will do the same exact things in between points. They may towel off (whether it is really necessary of not). They frequently will adjust the strings on their racquet. There are many little variances with respect to rituals. The important thing is to realize that you need rituals.
Our whole lives are a series of repeated rituals. For instance, you probably dress yourself in the same exact order each day. First, you put on your under garments. Maybe next, you put on your shirt. Then, you may slip into your pants, etc. But, I am fairly confident that you perform this daily routine in exactly the same way each time you dress yourself. Your conscious mind is probably thinking about anything other than getting dressed while you perform these actions!
Frequently, performing ritual actions can calm the conscious mind and prevent it from becoming frightened or nervous during a match.
Apart from this, each player needs to have some sort of distraction which will shut down the conscious mind. We can only consciously think about one thing at a time! If your conscious mind is thinking about something peaceful and calming, it is not likely to go into panic mode and start analyzing the effectiveness of your strokes, etc.
Some players simply count numbers and visualize these numbers in between points. Other players may think of something relaxing like a favorite beach location. Still others may actually sing silently in between points. The list of possible distractions is endless.
Personally, I will do one of two things. I will focus upon making certain that all my racquet's strings are parallel and straight. I really think about this as I adjust my strings. If this doesn't do the trick and I am beginning to find myself "worrying," I will find any mark on the court surface. It may be a smudge left by a shoe on a hard court, or on clay, it may be a slide mark. Once I find such a court mark, I try to look carefully at its shape. I will consider its length, its color, whether its shape resembles something else (like the wings of a bird), etc. By focusing my conscious mind on these things, I am preventing it from focusing upon evaluating what is going on in my match.
Each player needs to discover for herself/himself what diversions will work for her/him! But, you do need them. My only caveat is that you keep your eyes inside the "four walls" of your court when you are "pondering" these distractions. Looking to adjacent courts or to things outside the court diverts your non-conscious mind from the matters at hand: your match!
My friend David Ranney in his book, Tennis: Play the Mental Game, makes a very important insight. As he puts it, as soon as a player thinks about winning or losing, certain death will result.
I couldn't agree more. Thinking about winning or losing really is an evaluative thought process. It diverts the playing of points away from the non-conscious mind's realm and puts the game into the conscious mind's hands. The goal is to establish flow. Thinking about the score, and thinking about winning or losing the match; will invariably destroy flow and result in negative results.
Finally, we who play this wonderful game are too results oriented. We forget about why we began to play this great sport. For most of us, there was a fascination with hitting a fuzzy ball over the net. It was fun! When tennis becomes a chore or an exercise in stress, we no longer are having fun... whether we win or lose! Given this, my advice is to forget the score, forget the outcome and to try and enjoy the competition.
Competition can be fun! The key is wanting to win... not being afraid to lose. As soon as you free yourself from the "shame" of losing, and place emphasis upon the "joy" of winning, you will discover or re-discover competitive fun! When you are having fun, your body and mind are relaxed. When the mind and body are relaxed, you are likely to play your very best tennis. Playing your best tennis is all one can expect!
Let's be honest. There are some players that are so much better that we cannot reasonably expect to win against them. Certainly, I would stand no chance if competing against a Andy Murray, Roger Federer or Serena Williams. But with the right mindset, I can in a sense win.
Once you learn "how to win," you will benefit from every match... win or lose. Why? Well, you will take from the wins an energy that makes you eager to play again. The losses will provide you with an opportunity to learn and grow in your game.
So learning to win a match is a process, and one that is well worth learning.
Tennis truly is a game for a lifetime. If you look at this wonderful sport with a lifelong perspective, the wins and losses become relatively unimportant. You become free to develop as both a player and as a competitor.
I assure you that when the process of learning to win develops within you, the victories will increase on their own... and you will soon become 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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