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Momentum Revisited

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

In most sports, it is pretty clear when the "momentum" has shifted from one team or player to another. This is certainly true of the wonderful game of tennis. One of the greatest aspects of our great sport is that given the scoring system, the game is never over until the very last point has been played. A shift in momentum can and has taken a player from the depths of defeat to ultimate victory!
Some years back, I wrote an article on Bob Love's conversion principles. In this system, a player tries to gauge momentum by counting the number of consecutive points that have been won or lost by an individual or doubles team. Rather than focusing upon the game and set scores, Love's system seeks to focus the player's attention on patterns of won or lost points. For a further understanding of this system, the following link will bring the reader to my previously published column that addresses this specific topic. See: The Big "MO!!!".
This month's article may be a bit shorter than some of my recent efforts in terms of length, but its content may be of major help to those of us who compete on a regular basis. In addition, I have tried to make my comments brief to allow the reader to print out this column and bring it with her/him to matches. I have found in coaching players that having them review these guidelines before and during matches can really help with respect to the match's final outcome.
It is almost inevitable that each tennis player will experience a rise and fall in momentum during any given match. This is completely normal, and in my opinion, makes the game exciting to play. In truth, when a tennis competitor is not challenged or is completely "blown off the court," this great game can be a bit less enjoyable.
So this month, I want to revisit the concept of momentum during tennis matches and provide some simple, but hopefully useful, tips on how to approach different momentum situations.
First, I must define what I mean by momentum. Momentum is where a player seems to be "in control" of the direction and outcome of the point, game, set and/or match. If a tennis player truly plays with a mental focus of "one point at a time," he/she is more likely to control the momentum of all the above... much of the time. Yet even the best players in the world do not often win matches with scores like 6-0 or 6-1. More often than not, set scores are 6-2, 6-3 or 6-4. Tiebreakers are not uncommon either.
Game and set scores are important indices of what the overall momentum in a match may be. Quite frequently, players only focus on scores to determine: "What is going on with respect to momentum?" Other factors must be considered as well.
Has the "tenor" of points won/lost changed in some way? Has a player adopted a different strategy or set of tactics? Is a player experiencing any physical fatigue as a match unfolds? What is the emotional "mood" of each player, and are there any changes in either player's mental frame of mind? Have court conditions changed during a match and are these affecting the performance of either player? These are just some of the factors that must be considered when one is trying to assess: "Who has momentum in a match?... at any given time during a match! Again, it is important to realize that momentum shifts do indeed occur in almost every tennis match played.
The player who knows how to adjust her/his overall approach as momentum shifts occur is most likely to be the player who prevails!
When competing in USTA tournaments, I learned very quickly to focus my attention on the momentum of the match rather than on the score. Momentum is so important to me, that I truly would take comfort in a loss if I ended the match in manner where I had captured or recaptured momentum.
In truth, capturing or recapturing momentum can be "too little, too late." It is very difficult to recover from a 5-0 deficit! It can be done, but the odds are probably against this happening. Still, one can play the final game, two or maybe even three with momentum on his/her side... and ultimately lose the set. If it is not the final set, this momentum can help you control the set to follow. If it is indeed the final set, you can walk away with a sense of confidence despite the loss.
I do strongly encourage each reader to review my aforementioned column that describes Bob Love's conversion system. It in fact does work for many!
But for our purposes, I want to present an overall approach for several distinct momentum situations. Over my many years competing, teaching and coaching, I have found that for the vast majority of players the guidelines that follow yield the best results.
It may be that some players who attempt to employ my suggestions find that it takes a little while to "personalize" the specific approaches that I suggest be employed in different situations. But, I assure the reader that he/she can indeed arrive at a "system" that will work for him/her.
I would encourage the reader to print out what follows and carry it with her/him to every match. Review the suggestions (and your additions, changes, deletions) before each match. During matches where you feel confused or bewildered, reviewing these guidelines can help "bring you back."
So, here we go...
The essence of this situation is that you are actually "in control." You are doing things right! You are probably playing well. Even if you are not playing well, you are somehow moving forward and should feel comfortable. These situations call for a "killer" instinct to be adopted. You want to "hurt" your opponent and put as much "pressure" upon him/her as is possible. In brief, you want to play your most aggressive tennis. You are on "offense!" To this end, I recommend the following:

  1. Don't be afraid to go for your big shots (within reason). If you have a deadly forehand, try to use it as much as is possible. Have faith in it. Hit with authority. Hit with your maximum but viable pace. Don't be reckless, but do go for it.

  2. Serve big. Have faith in your second serve. It is there for you if you need it. But, try for a few "free points" off of your first serve. This may mean increased pace, but more commonly, these winning serves are a result of varied and careful placement.

  3. If you know or notice that your opponent has a weakness... pound it!!! This is the time to really drive home to her/his that she/he is not in control of anything in the match... including her/his strokes.

  4. Within the rules of the game, shorten the time you take in between points. Always remember to speed up a winning game!

  5. Run your opponent into the ground! Even the fittest opponent becomes more easily fatigued when he/she is running hard to lose points. Everyone has a bit more difficulty hitting great shots when she/he is on the run. If you have momentum, you want to help the opponent make errors in addition to winning points on your own strokes. At every level of this outstanding game of ours, errors dictate who wins... not winners.

Invariably, you will probably lose some points, make some errant shots and possibly even lose a game. But, you will know you have momentum by how you feel. If you are feeling comfortable, eager, confident, aggressive and/or unfazed by anything, you indeed have momentum!
Obviously, this is the situation at the very beginning of a match. And as such, this should be the starting approach in any match. However sometimes, a match is close. Neither player seems to be "in control." Scores are most likely "on serve" or there may be one "break." The key attitude to have when in a match situation such as this is patience and persistence. In these "neutral" momentum match situations, I recommend the following:
  1. You want to hit every ball "perfectly!" By this, I mean that you really want to focus your attention on executing every stroke you hit with as much proper form as you possibly can. Execution is of paramount importance! I cannot stress how important this mindset is when things are "balanced" in a match. Just hit every stroke as well as you possibly can.

  2. Balance your serves. The most important aspect with first serves is variety. Here again, you want to have faith in your second serve. But, you are really seeking to try to determine what first serves are likely to yield you good results. You may hit an ace or winner now and then, but the real focus is on determining which serve paces, spins and placements allow you to win points. You're probing the opponent with your serve. Most important, you are determining which serves are "on."

  3. You are seeking to setup and craft points. In neutral momentum situations a player wants to put together her/his points. Perhaps, a backhand that forces your opponent to run followed by an aggressive forehand is a combination that wins a point. The focus is upon discovering what series of shots wins you points.

  4. Minimize your efforts to hit winners. This is not the situation where truly aggressive tennis pays many dividends. This is not to suggest that going for a winner is out of the question. Rather, a player wants to play judiciously. When an opportunity for an outright winner presents itself, go for it. But, two "flaws" in approach must be avoided. Don't over hit your shots, and don't attempt to do "too much." With the latter, trying to change the direction of a hard hit, sliced ball sent by your opponent is a bit "over the top."

  5. Analyze your opponent in between points. Even if the match is in its third set, you want to be analytical about your opponent's likes and dislikes in a neutral momentum situation. Remember, things can and do change during a match. The player you face in the first set may be very different from the player you face in the third set. In neutral momentum situations, you want to assess: "What is my opponent doing well and what is he/she not doing well?" The answer to these questions will help you to determine "tactics" that will help you move momentum in your favor.

If you follow the above in a neutral, momentum situation; there is a good chance that you gain some consistent and persistent momentum. You will know when this occurs as you will truly feel the change.
No one enjoys being in this situation!!! You are probably feeling a bit nervous. You may have the feeling of being a bit frustrated, dejected, pessimistic, or in some cases, you may feel a bit frightened. Believe me. Every player knows when she/he has lost momentum. Again, the score may be an indicator. But, it is not the only indicator. Here, the key words are faith and fortitude. If you have lost momentum or never had it, there is hope! If you are ahead in the score but feel that you are losing momentum, you probably are. These are the situations in matches that bring out the "champion" in each of us... if we allow this "champion" to emerge or re-emerge. In this particular situation I recommend the following:
  1. Play high percentage tennis. Hit your strokes high and deep. Rely more upon spin. Don't push the ball, but attempt to hit with a bit less pace. Go crosscourt more often than not. Run around your backhand, if this is your weaker wing. Forget about winners for the most part. Make sure you allow a margin for error. Try to control each shot well with respect to placement. Be the consummate "retriever" and get every ball back.

  2. Get every first serve in. Statistics from every level of this game indicate that the server has a greater likelihood of winning a point when he/she gets his/her first serve in the service box. To do this, spin and placement must be in emphasis. You don't want to simply "putt" the serve, but you don't want to hit big, flat risky serves either. In these situations, most players benefit when they hit their first serve like a second serve. Varying where you place this second serve-like, first serve will help prevent an opponent from stepping in and crushing her/his return.

  3. Be a counterpuncher. When you don't have momentum, you don't want to try and control points. Why? Well, every failed effort contributes to a loss of confidence within you and increases the intensity of your opponent. But, you can turn your opponent's strokes against him/her. For example if your opponent is hitting with lots of pace and authority, use that pace against him/her. Step in and take the ball on the rise if you can, or perhaps, slice your reply back so that it stays low and has little pace. To some degree, Newton's Law can apply: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Meaning no disrespect, but "pushers" realize this law of physics and applying it they win lots of points in a match. Here again, focus on getting every ball back over the net.

  4. Eliminate errors! I realize that this is easier said than done. But, in a situation where your opponent has momentum, you cannot afford errors. More often than not, focusing intently on the ball, deliberately relaxing all of your muscles, making certain that you are breathing properly as you make contact with the ball, and visualizing where you want the ball to land in your opponent's court will eliminate errors.

  5. Slow down a losing game. Within the rules of the game, you want to slow down the pace at which the match is going when you do not have momentum on your side. Take the full time allotted in between points and during changeovers. Try to avoid playing points that force you to run hard. Focus on why you are being forced to run and attempt to hit replies that prevent so much running. For example, Jimmy Connors was the master of hitting balls deep and into the center of the court when he had been running hard in previous points.

The temptation is to want to move from a losing momentum position all the way to an "in control" momentum situation. This is not likely. More often than not the ebb and flow of a match forces each player through all three situations. The neutral momentum stage is rarely "skipped" as the transfer of momentum occurs.
Applying momentum "attitudes" and "approaches" should not be determined after each point. Rather, momentum is a more prominent "swing." One or two points do not really dictate momentum. As already stated, score is only one indicator of who possesses momentum at any given point in a match.
Momentum is really a matter of "control." As I often state in my columns, there is a hierarchy of control in our great game.
  1. First control yourself.
  2. Next, control the ball.
  3. Control the point.
  4. Control the game.
  5. Control the set.
  6. Control the match and the opponent.

I have found that paying attention to momentum and using momentum situations to drive how you play during a match pays huge dividends.
Be aware of momentum in a match, adjust to keep momentum in your possession as often as is possible, 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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