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The Big "MO!!!"

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Ron Waite, USPTR

For me, tennis is not only an enjoyable game to play, but is equally enjoyable to watch... live or on television. In part, my fondness for watching tennis is related to the fact that the match is never truly decided until the last point has been played. Tennis has no game clock and there is absolutely no score that is insurmountable! I take comfort in this fact when I am competing and behind in score, and I try very hard to prevent myself from becoming complacent when I am ahead. Truly, I have seen some unbelievable comebacks in this wonderful game.

What is, perhaps, more important than game score is whether or not momentum is with a player. There are three distinct states in tennis when it comes to momentum: a player has momentum... a player does not have momentum...or a player is in the transition state of gaining or losing momentum. It surprises me that so many players I know or have coached are completely oblivious to what momentum situation they are in at any given time in a match. They always seem to know the score, but rarely do they know if they have or do not have momentum.

The Big Mo, as momentum is referred to by many athletes, is critically important in tennis. In football, you can lose momentum, but be so far ahead that it is virtually impossible for the opponents to win given the amount of time left for play. Not so in tennis! Even when I lose a match, I take great comfort if I end the match with momentum! I may not have had enough to win, but ending on a positive note is critical to my psychological perspective. Frequently, when players practice with each other, they do not want to end the session with a double fault or a poor return. Why? Well, instinctively they know that the mind remembers beginnings and endings better than it does what occurs in the middle. So, they will often times keep playing until both players end on a respectable note (e.g. One hits a great serve and the other returns for a winner.)

If you play tennis or even watch it, you will learn that momentum changes many times during a match. This is why a player can win the first set 6-0 and then struggle to win a second set 7-5. Players need to understand that it is rare that momentum lingers with either competitor for any great length of time. Rather, players need to accept these ups and downs. They need to know what momentum state they are in at any give time in a match. And, they must learn how to gain and recover momentum. If a one can pay more attention to momentum than he/she does to score, the chances of winning, given my experience, greatly increase. Of course, you will not win all the time. However, when you focus on momentum instead of score, every point becomes an opportunity! This attitude greatly reduces the negative feelings that accompany "being behind."

So, how do you monitor and control momentum? Well, here is my advice.

Bob Love is a USPTA Master Professional who is widely known for putting forth his conversion concept. In his system, every time a player wins three consecutive points, he/she has made a conversion. If one wins four consecutive points, she/he has a double conversion... five consecutive points is a triple conversion, etc.

Given the way in which tennis is scored, to win games you must have conversions. Every time you make a conversion, momentum is shifting in your direction. Every time you split consecutive points, you don't have momentum nor does your opponent... both of you are in a state of transition. Lose two or more consecutive points and you have lost momentum. In a close match, momentum may actually shift many times within a game. The transition points are in my mind the "key" points. Why? Because, these points determine the direction of a momentum change. When I play matches, I may actually lose track of the game score. I realize this is a risky and undesirable situation (I am certain that some opponents may take advantage of this memory failing), but it is symptomatic of how much attention I give to momentum! Obviously, double and triple conversions are desirable. However, it only takes one point to put the two players in a transition situation... and transition points can and do result in a change of momentum.

How many times have you read or heard advice from sports psychologists that goes: "stay in the present." This is great...but, how does one stay in the present if she/he is losing? Rarely, do these pundits offer specific methods to achieve this present-tense mindset. Well, "momentum tennis" automatically keeps you in the "here and now!"

Now that you understand what momentum is...why it is so important...and how to monitor the momentum in your matches, the next step is learning to control momentum. I have actually read many different and conflicting passages on controlling momentum written by a broad spectrum of tennis professionals. Many of these authors make controlling momentum a very complicated, and thus, confusing process. Truthfully, it need not be so difficult!

Let's begin with the situation where momentum is with you. Here, the player should attempt to do two (virtually opposite) things:

    Increase the Game Tempo. By this, I mean that the player having momentum should actually try and speed up things, and to reduce the amount of time in between points. If she/he is serving, one should try and get ready to serve a bit more quickly. If she/he is receiving, the goal is to get set up as quickly as possible…thus, encouraging the server to take less time. Momentum is with you... so, don't lose it by stalling. Keep the positive flow going!

    Don't Rush Matters Once the Point has Started. I see too many players who have momentum try and win points too quickly. They become too anxious. When you have momentum, you should be aggressive, but not hasty! I am not suggesting that you play tentatively. Rather, be patient and wait for your opportunity... or for your opponent to hit an errant shot. Don't force the issue... just keep doing what won you momentum in the first place.

If your opponent has the momentum, the tactics are the exact opposite:

    Slow Down the Pace of the Match. The rules of tennis prohibit deliberate stalling. However, within these regulations, the player who is without momentum should take full advantage of the time permitted to him/her. Don't be rushed! Get relaxed and fully prepared for the next point. You want to stop the "bleeding" by taking your time between points.

    Play Aggressively. I am not advocating reckless abandon! But, in this momentum situation you need to take the momentum back. Defensive play usually will not do this! Play serve and volley, hit aggressive groundstrokes, go for reasonable winners. Show your opponent that you are still ready for a fight! This is not the time to "push" or simply hit the ball back. Rather, you need to muster all your confidence and get in your opponent's face. Having said this, I remind you not to be reckless!

As I mentioned earlier, the transition points (where neither player has a conversion) are of key importance. Win these points and you are never out of it! Here is my approach:

    Play with Caution. If there is ever a time that I encourage players to play cautiously, it is during transition points. This is not to say that you should avoid hitting winners, but you really want to concentrate on these points. Don't play foolishly. Play with a safe margin for error. Don't be afraid to work the point. Hit more to your opponent's weaker wing. Stay on your toes. Be prepared to run for every ball. Hit at 3/4 pace. Hit shots that are in your repertoire. Really make an extra effort to see the ball. No one can stay totally focused on every point... but these are the points that you must give your complete best.

Now, I know the TV commentators talk about the key points, but they almost always relate these to the game score. And, if you want to "win ugly," you will give those deuce court points extra attention. But really, these approaches have never really helped me. Since I have played "momentum" tennis, I find that my winning percentage has certainly improved. However, more important, my consistency and mental fortitude have soared!

Having said all of this, let me clarify the use of momentum tennis by "walking" your through an imaginary game. Assume that it is about the third or fourth game in the first set and it is your turn to serve. Your opponent won the last game (and as such, she/he had to have won the last point). However, you won the point prior to the last point in the preceding game (assume that you won the 40-15 point which forced your opponent to win the game at 40-30). So, as you serve the first point of your service game, neither player has momentum (Despite the fact that your opponent just held serve, he/she has not made a conversion...so, everything is neutral.) Since you are beginning your serve game in a transition state, you play the point very carefully. Fortunately, your percentage tennis style pays off and you win this firstpoint. Still, you are in a transition state since neither opponent has made a conversion. Thus, you continue the 3/4 pace, high margin of error style that won you the first point. Again, this pays dividends and you win to bring the game to 30-love. You've won two consecutive points, but not three! You are still in a transition state but you are very close to gaining the momentum. Now, you decide to go for the big first serve...but, your most reliable placement (let's say, down the "T"). It's an ace! You now have momentum! Why, because you have won three consecutive points. Since momentum is on your side, you now take a little less time to set up for the serve at 40-love. Your opponent, however, knows momentum tennis and decides to go for an aggressive return that is deep to your backhand (assume this is your weaker wing). You are caught off guard, and your reply hits the net. Score?...40-15. But, you are both back to a neutral transition state...neither of you have momentum.

As you can see by the above example, most of your points in a match are going to be played in a transition state. In this state, you play carefully, with focus and with plenty of margin for error. Now, if you played most of your points in this state, how many more matches would you win? Many, I assure you!

On some points, you will have momentum and on some you will not. When these times arise, you "change gears" accordingly. These changes should follow the aforementioned guidelines, but they should not be drastic! Just slight shifts.

So, give this approach to the game a try. Put the score in the back of your mind and the momentum situation in the forefront, and I'm certain that in no time you'll become a tennis overdog.

Good luck in your game!!!

Green DotGreen DotGreen Dot

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1996 - 2002 | 2003 - Present

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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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