It is February as I write this column, and I am beginning the 1998 season as the Head Tennis Coach for Albertus Magnus College's Men's Team. Apart from physical conditioning, stroke development/correction and competitive strategies, I invariably must prepare my players for system breakdowns in match situations. In college tennis, players have the advantage of asking coaches for analysis and advice during game changeovers. Unfortunately, most other tournament situations prohibit coaching, even on the junior level. Certainly, recreational matches do not lend themselves to match coaching, even if we had a coach! So, most of us are left to our own resources when things go wrong during a match.
Well, this is what I hope to address in this month's column. It contains the same advice that I give my players. No matter how hard I try; I cannot keep track of six matches that are going on at the same time. Sometimes, one of my players finds himself/herself in trouble and has to figure a way out on his/her own. I call this process Discover then Recover because the player must first limit the damage that his opponent is inflicting upon him/her. Then, he/she must find a way to resurrect his/her game to achieve victory.
The first question that must be asked and answered is "Am I in serious trouble in this match?"
My experience with tennis players is that many panic when have any difficulty in a match. Their answer to the aforementioned question is yes...whether or not they truly are. Sometimes we have a slow start. Sometimes our opponents have a quick start. Frequently, the ebb and flow of a match will go back and forth between opponents...this is what makes tennis so exciting. I instruct my players to answer yes to the above question if:
Should you experience any of these four situations while competing in a match, it is safe to assume that you are in serious trouble. Note that I said serious trouble...not insurmountable trouble. I know how difficult it is to maintain a strong mental attitude and feeling of confidence in any of these four situations. I strongly encourage you to read my colleague's column, Mental Equipment in The TennisServer each month. You'll find valuable advice and techniques for improving these mental aspects of your game. And, it is essential that you do not give up believing that you can gain control and comeback in a match! You cannot win if you don't believe it is possible to win...it's that simple.
- an opponent is consistently taking advantage of a player's weakness
- a player's weapon (e.g. forehand) is being easily neutralized by an opponent
- an opponent constantly puts a player in a defensive position
- a player is down a set and a break in a match
Well, I have some practical advice on discovering the cause(s) of your match dilemma, and some suggestions on turning the tide in your favor. It is important to be aware of why things are going awry. Usually, the cause of the problem can be traced to one or more of the following:
A danger in discovering which of the preceding are causing your breakdown is paralysis by analysis. This phenomenon occurs when you become overly critical and analytical. Thus, you never play on "automatic pilot." However, if you only allow yourself to become reflective during game changeovers, you can probably avoid this syndrome. My advice to my players goes as follows:
- a player is not executing a particular stroke correctly
- a player is not seeing the ball early and clearly as she/he prepares for a shot
- a player is not moving well to the ball and/or is experiencing fatigue
- a player is hitting to his/her opponent's strength
- a player's pace is too rushed causing him/her to experience muscle tension
- a player's strategy is ineffective against the particular opponent
Be aware during points, think between points and analyze between games.
During points, a player needs to be aware of the ball and the opponent. Between points, a player should think about what she/he wants to do in points (e.g. come in on an opponent's second serve, hit more to his/her backhand, slice on the backhand and approach the net, etc.) The only time to really analyze what is going on in a match or what should be happening is between games!
Now that you know when to think analytically, what can you do to correct a problem? Well, let's go one by one:
- You are not executing a particular stroke correctly.
Stroke breakdown during matches is usually capable of being traced to one of the following:
You are not seeing the ball early and clearly as you prepare for a shot.
- You are gripping the racquet incorrectly. This can be very minor and subtle in nature,
but can have a major impact upon the ball's trajectory. Be certain that you gripping the
- You are not striking the ball at the precise contact point for your grip and stance. (For
more information on these see my previous article Picture Perfect).
- You are not finishing the stroke fully. Amazingly, when we are nervous even the most
"grooved" strokes can end up being finished incorrectly.
- You are hitting the ball too hard with tight, tense muscles. Here, the best course of
action is to try and relax the muscles and hit your stroke at 3/4 pace.
If you are missing lots of shots on both wings, it is probably because you are not seeing the ball correctly. If anyone is capable of seeing the ball early and clearly, it is Andre Agassi. He literally attacks even the most powerfully hit groundstrokes and serves. The best solution for not seeing the ball correctly is to pay more attention to its spin and to the points on the court where it bounces. If you really strive to see these, your court vision will improve almost immediately.
(For a more detailed explanation see my previous article, See the Ball).
When you see the ball clearly, you rarely feel rushed. Thus, your shot preparation improves, as does the quality of your stroke production.
You are not moving well to the ball and/or you are experiencing fatigue.
Lots of factors can contribute to fatigue. These include: heat, humidity, lack of conditioning, length of contest, and of course, nerves. When you find yourself slowing down and succumbing to fatigue, there are several things you can do to revive and survive:
You are hitting to your opponent's strength.
- Increase the amount of fluids that you are taking between games, and if possible,
between points. Water is usually the best fluid, but a sports drink can be helpful
in helping you regain a feeling of energy.
- Change your shirt, and if possible, your socks and shoes. Amazingly, whenever I
take these simple actions, I almost immediately find myself feeling revived.
- Stretch between points. Now, I am not suggesting that you do a complete routine,
but, stretching those muscles that seem to be most fatigued often times will keep them loose and flexible. This will greatly help your mobility on the court. Look at Mary Pierce when she competes. She constantly stretches her legs and backs between points.
- Take the full time allotted between points and between games. Give your body
every chance to recover.
It amazes me how often players do not know what are their opponent's strengths and weaknesses. We become so egocentric in tennis that we frequently forget to consider the opponent! How many times have you played an opponent only to learn half way through the match that she/he is
left-handed? It is imperative that you know what your opponent likes and dislikes, what your opponent does or does not hit well, and how she/he may be hurting you. The best strategy in tennis is to find a way to hit most of your balls to the opponent's weaknesses, while striking these shots off your better wing. Ball spin...ball height...ball pace...ball direction...ball depth can all be factors that help you discover an opponent's weakness. Remember that every opponent has a weakness and a strength. Discover both! Then, exploit the weakness and avoid the strength.
Your playing pace is rushed and you are experiencing tension.
It is completely normal to be nervous and tense when things are going well for you in a tennis match. This feeling or fear and helplessness almost always forces a player to increase the pace at which she/he is playing a match. Now, some players naturally like to play at a fast pace...case in point...Steffi Graf. She plays as if she has to catch a plane! However, most of us need to take a bit slower and more deliberate approach to our match pace. Whenever you find yourself becoming tense, irritable and/or fearful during a match, you need to do several things:
Your strategy is ineffective against this particular opponent.
- Control your breathing! Be sure to take deep breaths between points. Exhale
deliberately as you make contact with the ball.
- Slow down! Take your time between points and between games! Don't rush
yourself to lose. Remember; speed up a winning game and slow down a loosing
- Take a vacation between games! When you find yourself very tense and frightened,
it is important that you stop the thought process and relax your mind and body. If you do not, you will probably experience cramping and/or "paralysis by analysis." Whenever I find myself with my heart pounding, my mind racing and feeling like I am ready to explode, I force myself to take full advantage of the between game breaks.
I spend the entire time attempting to slow my breathing, to relax my muscles and often times, I imagine myself on a vacation. The point is that you have to find a way to stop the spiraling nerves! Usually, analytical thinking is not the way.
I always advise my players to "play your game." By this, I mean that each of us has a basic style of play that is comfortable and natural. It is what we like to do on the court and usually affords us the best chance of winning. It may be a strong, aggressive baseline game, a forceful serve and volley game, or even, the infamous "pusher's" game. Well, there comes a time when we must deviate from this basic gameplan if we are to win a match. Whenever, you find yourself down a set and a break, you need to consider a different strategy. It need not be a drastic change. It could be as simple as taking a little off your groundstrokes, spinning more of your first serves, chipping back your opponent's second serves or hitting more moonballs (my personal favorite). Sometimes, if your game depth permits, you can actually do a complete change of strategy (e.g., going from a pushing game to serve and volley). The point is that something has to change if you are going to win. This change need not permanent. Even a change that lasts several games may be enough. The idea is to disrupt the comfortable groove that your opponent is enjoying. Once this is achieved, you may be able to successfully return to your basic game.
Well, there you have it...Discover and Recover. If you can discover what is happening and why, you probably can come up with a method to recover the competitive advantage. Sometimes, you discover and begin to recover, but you still lose the match. In these situations, I console myself with the knowledge that I was on the road to winning...I just ran out of sets in which to do it.
Though I lost the match, I played competitively. I know that if I continue to play competitively in every match, the winning will take care of itself...sooner or later!
Hopefully, you can incorporate some of these ideas into your match framework. I am certain that if you do...you'll soon become a tennis overdog!
Good luck in your game!