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April 2014 Article

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The Concept Of Control In Tennis

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Although this month's column may be a bit briefer in terms of the number of words, it hopefully proves to be one of the most thought provocative columns in my repertoire.
 
It is true that the modern game is dominated by the use of power. Newer racquet and string technologies have revolutionized this wonderful game of ours. Sports science and nutritional insights have made the serious tennis player a much better athlete in terms of strength, speed and endurance. The advent of modern tennis academies throughout the world has created a base of excellent players on both professional tours and in many collegiate players.
 
No matter how the game changes over time, there is one element that must be emphasized at all times... the concept of control.
 
Control should be a goal in every player's game. It actually takes a variety of forms in this great game of ours. Each of these "control" facets needs to be addressed if a player is to improve her/his game. Indeed, the fastest way to accelerate progress in one's game is to focus on "control" first and foremost!!!
 
Regardless of whom you may be playing there is one facet of "control" that you can always keep within your influence...You can always control yourself!!!
 
Tennis played as a singles game is one of the most solitary and lonely experiences... when things are not going well. All eyes are upon each player, and there is usually not a coach to intervene and provide concrete and useful advice. This is certainly the case in recreational competition. High school and collegiate players may have visits from their coaches. The pros are not usually allowed to be coached (there are some exceptions on the WTA circuit), but players on both tours are looking to their players' boxes to get instructions and encouragement. I know this to be true because as a photographer at courtside at ATP and WTA events, I have actually heard the "dialogs" between players and their coaches. Still once the point begins; each player is literally on his/her own!
 
The mental side of the game is something about which I have written much. If you search my archives, you will find an abundance of columns that address specific aspects of improving this important part of the game.
 
Essentially, controlling oneself during a match is a mental attitude. I am not a firm believer in allowing any emotions to be generated (positive or negative) during a match. I am in agreement with Dr. Alan Fox who clearly puts forth in his writings that allowing yourself positive expression during a match leaves the door open for negative emotions to creep into your mind when things "go south."
 
If I had a mental "ideal" it would probably be Bjorn Borg. I have watched many of his epic matches at Wimbledon and the French Open on videotape. Looking at Bjorn while he competed, one never could tell by his facial expression or his body language whether he was winning or losing! I am sure that inside Bjorn experienced the same emotional roller coaster that we mortals experience when we compete. However, I believe that Bjorn realized an important truth about behavior and attitude.
 
Behavior can actually dictate attitude!!! By always being calm, even keeled and self disciplined in his "behavior," Bjorn Borg was able to maintain the same attitude inside his mind. In a sense, Bjorn may have been "faking it until he was making it."
 
Now, this is in stark contrast to his arch rival, John McEnroe. I love to watch John on tape. His lefty strokes, unusual but effective serve and sense of determination on the court are beautiful to watch. However, John in my opinion is one of the very few people to be able to benefit from anger. Almost without fail, anger hurts one's tennis performance. For John, I believe anger was a positive force! However, like his continental forehand grip on groundstrokes, most of us cannot execute well when we are angry.
 
The time for "emotions" of any kind in my opinion is after the match is over.
 
This approach to the game can be learned by anyone. It requires patience, commitment to the objective and some realizations.
 
There are times when emotions (positive or negative) will swell within you. Whenever you feel emotions arising, take deep breaths and say positive affirmations like... "stay calm"... "keep focus"... "let it go and get on with the game"... "stay on course"... "stay in the now"... "relax and keep things going forward"... "one ball at a time," etc.
 
I don't believe that yelling "Come on!" after a good point is wise for most of us. It does provide some positive adrenalin, but sooner or later, this adrenalin dissipates and the player is left feeling flat. Perhaps Dr. Fox's warning is even more important. Enjoying these positive moments emotionally leaves the door open for us to endure negative emotions during the challenges and errors in a match.
 
For me, tennis can be a true up and down experience emotionally if you allow this to happen. Keeping our emotions as neutral as is possible and constantly maintaining a constant outward appearance/behavior will make a player's game more consistent and matches more enjoyable.
 
As a closing note to this concept, I will relate a real life anecdote from my coaching experience. Years back, I had a junior who was probably one of the most talented players I have had the pleasure to coach. He wanted to play well in high school to secure a scholarship for college. He had all the tools needed. But, he lacked one thing... self control.
 
Ultimately, I spent most of a summer and the entire fall season training this young lad. In truth, I did little to improve his stroke production. We did correct a few flaws and we did add some variety to his tactics. He was playing well and winning. But as the fall season was coming to a close, he was facing more and more competent opponents. His comfort level was beginning to crumble.
 
Finally, I asked him the most important question... "What is your biggest fear when you play?" He thought about this a bit and responded, "That I will lose badly to a player who I should beat." There in was the crux of his problem. He was afraid of losing... not striving to win."
 
After 20 plus years as a teacher and coach, I can honestly say that this is probably the most common mental problem faced by tennis players of all calibers. This emotion of fear is as damaging to one's game as anger.
 
How do you want to approach this great game of ours? Do you want to win or are you afraid of losing? Do you want to be positive on the court or do you want to dwell on the negative? Are you going to allow emotions to rule you or will you rule your emotions?
 
The simple but deep truth is that you simply choose the answers to the above questions.
 
Half of all people playing a tennis match win, and half lose. The worst that happens in a match is that you come away having competed without a victory. In the grand scheme of things, is this all important? If you put all your self-esteem into a win/loss record, your self image is likely to be on the proverbial roller coaster along with your emotions.
 
I always remind my players and students that the game itself is what is important. Think about this... If you won every match you ever played and couldn't be beaten by anyone, would you still want to go out and play this great game?
 
Adopt proper motivations, be patient with yourself, avoid all emotions while you are competing, and think positively at all times... these are the ingredients that will lead to self control.
 
In addition to self control, each player needs to have a pyramid of control in mind.
 
Very simply put here is the ideal pyramid
 

Control of the Match
 
Control of the Opponent
 
Control of the Point
 
Control of the Ball
 
Control of the ball is the most important facet of control after self control. In controlling the ball each player needs to focus on the following pyramid.
 
Power
 
Spin
 
Direction
 
Depth and Net Clearance
 
Each player needs to focus on getting the ball over the net and deep into the opponent's court as the first step toward ball control. When this is firmly in place, where you put the ball in your opponent's court (direction) is the next step in our pyramid. Spin is the third factor and power is the last.
 
I watch many players (especially juniors) who try to execute power first! Ideally, all four of these variables are in place and reliable at the beginning of a match. This is where proper practice, pre-match preparation and the right 5 minute warm up come into play.
 
Still, I encourage each player to begin matches with a deliberate and focused attention to each of these four factors... in their proper order. Generally, it takes one or maybe two games to "anchor" each firmly into place. If indeed it takes a bit longer, do not dismay! The process always leads to the best ball control in a match.
 
Controlling the point can be very difficult. Here is where a firm understanding of your own limits... and those of your opponent... is critically important.
 
I am not an advocate of too much "thinking" during a match. Frankly, this often times can lead to "paralysis by analysis." Still, there should be an awareness that each player has when she/he competes.
 
Too frequently, players are only aware of what they themselves may be doing wrong. To control a point, you need to know what you can do at a given time in a match. This can change during the course of a match due to fatigue, sun and wind conditions or an opponent who simply adapts to your strengths. Tennis is always a game of ebbs and flows. Momentum in a match can change quickly and profoundly. Sometimes, sticking to a game plan even when things are going wrong is the best course of action. Other times, a person needs to know that it is time to change tactics or strategies. A good rule of thumb is... always change strategies and/or tactics when you are down a set and a break.
 
But, to control a point you need to aware, realistic, optimistic and flexible. Hit every ball with a purpose and sooner or later you will begin to control points.
 
The best time to reflect upon strategies and tactics is during game changeovers. The next best time is in between points. However, it is rarely wise to "analyze" and "evaluate" during a point. Hit with purpose and evaluate the wisdom of your purpose after the point has ended. To illustrate my point, I am sure each of you reading this has experienced both of these:
  1. You toss the ball up for a serve and change your mind about something regarding the pace, spin or placement of the serve. Invariably, you double fault.

  2. You are about to hit a shot and suddenly decide to change the direction of the shot. Invariably, the ball goes wide, long or into the net.

It is not always possible to control the opponent. In most matches, this kind of control comes and goes. This is to be expected.
 
However, there are some things that you can do that will help the likelihood that you will be in control of your opponent.
  1. Scout your opponent before each match. Know what you are facing before you get on the court if at all possible.

  2. During the warm up, note what you perceive to be your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. This is just a preliminary assessment. Warm ups can be deceptive. However if you blast a ball directly at your opponent while he/she is at the net taking volleys, whichever side (forehand or backhand) is used to hit the volley is the opponent's stronger net side.

  3. During a match, make note of every error that your opponent makes. Sometimes, these are just temporary flaws. However, it may be that the running backhand is not a shot that she/he hits reliably.

  4. Try to determine any patterns that your opponent may like to execute. For example, it may be that he/she loves to hit the forehand groundstroke down the line when on the run.

Tennis is a game of errors more so than a game of winners.
 
One of the secrets to controlling your opponent is to follow this simple rule: Give your opponent lots of what he/she dislikes and very little of what he/she does like.
 
Being observant of your opponent's patterns allows you to anticipate her/his shots. This is critically important in the quest to control the opponent.
 
Coming full circle, being in control of yourself is essential to controlling your opponent. No opponent is fully comfortable when you are always calm, unemotional and unfazed by whatever is happening in the match. I wish that there was a foolproof way that all of the above could be permanently evident in each player's match performance. If I could discover this secret, I assure you that I would be a millionaire many times over. The tennis world would flock to my seminars.
 
Still, the process that I have described can be adopted by each player. The specific methodologies, tips or cues that work for you may be different than for another player. But if you do give attention to this process, you will discover what works for you.
 
Let me end by asking you this simple question. How much more would you enjoy this great game of ours if your control was constantly increasing?
 
Behavior can dictate attitude. Attitude can lead to enjoyment. Enjoyment is always a positive.
 
Learn to control your game this April and I assure you that by summer 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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