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The Concept of Tempo in Tennis

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Once again, I have been given the inspiration for a monthly column from one of my readers. Initially, this month's topic came to mind as I answered a specific reader question. Later, I received a specific request from one of my faithful readers to address the whole concept of pace. So as is often the case, I thank my readers for their e-mails.
Tempo in a tennis match is really a very broad concept and is affected by many different factors. Generally, the term "tempo" is used with respect to music. Wikipedia defines tempo as:
"In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for time, plural: tempi) is the speed or pace of a given piece. Tempo is a crucial element of any musical composition, as it can affect the mood and difficulty of a piece."
Well, I believe that tempo has a meaning that is relevant and applicable to this wonderful game of ours. I would define "tennis tempo" as the pace, momentum and psychological dynamics that occur within a competitive match. As is the case with music, tempo clearly affects the mood, difficulty and outcome of a given match.
If one examines how pace, momentum and psychological dynamics fit together in a given match, there are factors that affect each one of these separately and collectively. The collective effects are what I believe constitute "tennis tempo."
So this month, let's explore what affects tempo more specifically, and how one can control the tempo of a match more successfully. In doing so, it is imperative that the reader recognize that with respect to tennis tempo, the whole is more than simply the sum of its parts. But in learning to recognize these parts and how each can affect our play, we can better learn to control the overall tempo of our matches.
Tennis is a game of control!!! First, one must control himself/herself. Second, the one must control the ball. Third, a player wants to control points, which invariably leads to a control of sets. Once you are controlling points and sets, you are in reality controlling your opponent and the match. Tennis tempo is really an amalgamation of all of the above.
Well, these are many factors to control, each of which has myriad factors that come into play when competing in a match. For me, "tennis tempo" is just another way to approach competition... one which I believe can be very useful.
Tennis is a physically demanding game. Regrettably, it can take its toll on one's muscles and joints. As we age, our tennis prowess begins to fade a bit in regards to physicality. Still, one must always try to be in the best physical shape as is possible before competing. Good tennis physicality incorporates:

  • Flexibility
  • Speed
  • Strength
  • Endurance
  • Body Hydration Level
  • Proper Nutrition (Overall, pre-match and during a match)
  • Individual Awareness of One's Body Normality. (Knowing and paying attention to what our bodies our telling us.)

Any serious competitor in this great game of ours will spend off and on court time dedicated to maintaining and improving each of the above factors. Most intermediate players, junior competitors and recreational players, however, do not pay attention to all of these important aspects.
For example, younger players rarely pay attention to any of the above in a deliberate manner. Junior competitors may train for their "season," but often times, they do not work on any of these physical attributes off season. Hey, they are young, agile and in the prime of their lives. Why get worried about these things?
Well, the truth is that I have seen many a talented junior lose a match... particularly in the third set... because she/he really wasn't as physically well prepared as she/he should be. The same is often true for recreational players who are older. But, their time constraints, life responsibilities and purpose in competing are a bit different from the competitive junior. So, it is a bit more understandable that recreational players may not be always "primed" to play their best tennis.
Intermediate players, especially those who are collegiate age or older, will indeed take the time to work on most if not all of the above factors. Frankly, I would state that sometimes the difference between a 4.0 NTRP player and a 4.5 NTRP player in major measure can be traced to one or more of these physical factors.
When you are not stretching regularly (on and off the court), weak due to lack of physical training, susceptible to cramping or stiffness due to dehydration or have not taken in the proper caloric sustenance before and during a match; your "tennis tempo" automatically drops at least one or two levels.
This gives your opponent an incredible advantage. Yet, I would argue that most non-professional and non-collegiate players are bit neglectful in this general area.
Being acclimated to the playing conditions can also affect physicality and your overall "tennis tempo." If you take a vacation during the snowy months to a warm climate and begin to play tennis in very hot, humid conditions; your body is not acclimated to the playing situation. Give yourself a week or so in the warmer environment, and your body will adjust and accommodate better play on your part.
There is no denying it. If you can smack a ball really hard and keep the ball within the lines, this pace is going to quicken the "tennis tempo" of any match.
Conversely, if you can negate an opponent's use of pace, you are in a position to slow down the overall tennis tempo of a match.
Some years back, I wrote a column that addressed the factors that influence pace and racquet head speed in tennis. I entitled it "Play with Power." I remember when I first published this article; I had many responses from readers who were interested in increasing the power of their strokes and found this particular column to be useful. So, you can access, if you seek to increase your stroke's power, by going to: Play with Power.
In addition to the above, I have my own "theory" on how to increase racquet head speed. I invite the reader to take a look at my previous article that addresses my hypothesis at The Need For Racquet Head Speed.
Still, being able to absorb a player's power and use it against him/her is a wonderful way of being able to control the 'tennis tempo" of the match. By lowering the "tennis tempo" a level or two; you may be putting your opponent at a disadvantage. The dreaded "pusher" is the type of player who can take "tennis tempo" levels down several notches!
Those of you who wish to learn how to take your opponent's power away from him or her will need to wait a little bit to read one of my future columns.
My point is simple. Each of us on any given day has a "tennis tempo" that is ideal for that particular match. Simply imposing your preferred "tennis tempo" on an opponent can help you dominate play. If not, playing at your ideal "tennis tempo" gives you the best chance of succeeding.
Clearly, pace of shots is an important component in fashioning what is a match's "tennis tempo."
Unless players are really mismatched and/or one of the players is having a particularly great or awful day, the momentum in a tennis match swings back and forth quite a few times. It is the nature of the game!
Momentum really refers to which opponent seems to be dominating or controlling a match as it is being played.
The best work that I have ever encountered regarding momentum in this wonderful game of tennis comes from Bob Love a USPTA Master Professional. Momentum as presented by Bob Love is not simply the game/set scores; it is really recognition of how many consecutive points has been won by either player.
Once again, I refer the reader to a previously published article that addresses momentum and Bob Love's great method of knowing how to change momentum. You can access this article at: The Big "MO!!!".
Every sport seems to have times when momentum shifts. It is particularly true in tennis. Most of us probably spend all of our mental energy reflecting upon either "am I winning or losing" or upon "why can't I hit this particular shot." Both of these are negative thoughts.
Any negativity will almost certainly shift momentum from you to your opponent.
An important similarity between baseball and tennis is that the game is never over until the last out, or the last point. There are times when watching basketball that it is highly unlikely that the losing team can mount the number of points needed for a comeback with the few seconds remaining in the game. One of the things that I believe makes tennis such a wonderful sport is that it "really isn't over until it's over!"
Concentrating on gaining or maintaining momentum can be very useful to players. If you are focused upon momentum instead of score, you will never be "out" of a match. You will never be "tanking." You can always end on a somewhat positive note regardless of the final outcome.
As the great Yankee All Star Yogi Berra put it" "You can't play baseball and think at the same time." I firmly believe that the same is true with respect to this great game of ours.
Frankly, I do not believe that I ever possessed the mental fortitude (more less the physical fortitude) to play a five set match of tennis!!! As I watch the men play in Grand Slam events, I marvel at the mental discipline, fortitude and courage it takes to play really competitive tennis.
Those of you who read my column frequently know that I am a devotee of Oscar Wegner when it comes to the best way to produce strokes. Truly, Oscar was teaching the modern game decades before today's standard stroke production principles were embraced by the tennis teaching community.
On the mental side of the equation, I believe David Ranney's new book, Play Zen-sational Tennis is a great addition to any tennis library. David speaks of his encounter with Tim Gallwey (of the book, The Inner Game of Tennis fame) who gave David the best tennis lesson of David's life.
"Tennis tempo" is greatly affected by the overall psychological "moment" of each player!
Please note that I use the word "moment" in the above statement. If you are psychologically up, you probably are winning more points, more energetic, and perhaps most important, more forgiving of yourself.
On the other hand if you are psychologically down, you are probably hitting more reckless and errant shots, feel more fatigued, and you definitely are more prone to be angry at yourself, your opponent, your racquet, the ball, the people playing on the adjacent court, your third grade teacher... Well, I am sure you get the point.
I have written quite extensively on the mental side of the game and will list some links to previously published articles which address this important topic:
There are more previously published columns that I could cite, but this is a fairly broad and representative mix of my thoughts.
I was recently asked at a forum to which I was invited, "What are the key elements of proper mental frame of mind when playing tennis?" It is a fair question, but not one easily answered. But, there are some principles that I would suggest are common among those players who are playing at their mental best.

  1. You really have to know WHY you are playing tennis. Is it for exercise? Is it to compete? Is it for social interaction? What is it that really draws you to this wonderful game?

  2. When you hate playing tennis (Let's be honest. Each of us have been a bit disillusioned by this game at some point.), why do you hate it?

  3. Allow yourself to consciously think only at certain times. Generally, the conscious mind should simply be a window for providing your non-conscious mind with data to make the proper muscle movements. Tennis can become like driving a car. We drive many miles safely, and our conscious mind is listening to music, thinking about work-related matters, having a conversation with a passenger. Really, it is our non-conscious mind that is driving the car! There are times when the conscious mind should be engaged in what it does best... analyze and problem solve.
    The conscious mind should only be engaged in between points, or better yet, only between games... and then... only when absolutely necessary.
    A good way to engage the conscious mind is by asking it questions. For example, maybe you ask yourself, "When am I winning points and why?" What can I do to negate my opponent's very strong forehand? "Which wing does my opponent seem to prefer to hit?"
    In the above, please note that the questions were always in some way directed at the opponent or what is working... not on what isn't working. Even the second question above assumes that there is something that you can do to negate your opponent's awesome forehand.
    Another good way to engage the conscious mind is to say positive things and dismiss that which is unavoidable in tennis... errors!!! "Nice forehand, Ron, keep it up." "You're moving better every point, Ron." Hey, no problem. I will make the next running forehand." Don't be afraid to say these affirmations aloud.
    Of course, the best place for the conscious mind to be is simply in the role of observer and data giver to the non-conscious mind. I grant that this is not always easy to do, but each of us can learn to distract our conscious mind when it is interfering with the non-conscious mind's automatic pilot.

  4. Wanting to win is a good mindset... being afraid to lose is not. They are two different mindsets.

  5. Recognizing that one errant shot, misplayed point or any other tennis action only affects future tennis actions... IF YOU LET THEM. The past is the past.

  6. Thus, you need to learn to stay focused in the present.

  7. You can't really predict the future, so forget about it. Stay in the "now."

  8. Realize that at worst; the only thing you have lost is a "game." Live to fight another day.

These eight factors are the most critical in my mind if you truly want to develop your mental game!
So, as I end this month's column, you are within your logical rights to ask: "Okay Ron, how do I know when the overall "tennis tempo" is or was right?
Very simply put: "If you are not breathing too heavily, if you are not muscling the ball, if you believe that you are not being rushed or delayed by your opponent, and if you could physically and mentally survive a three set match... you are at the right "tennis tempo."
"Tennis tempo is just another way to approach playing and improving one's play in the great game of tennis. I am quite confident that if you spend some time utilizing this "window" on your game that in no time you will 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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