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Hey Coach! I’m Losing Here!!!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

As a collegiate coach, I can well assure the reader that the title of this month’s column is something I have heard more than once. In college tennis, the coach is allowed to coach his/her players during game changeovers which are definitely an advantage for the player and his/her team.

Well in tournament and recreational competition, there is no coaching allowed. The pros have experimented with on court coaching with mixed reactions from the players.

For the vast majority of matches, the singles player or doubles team must find answers to problems without the assistance of a coach. Of course, good doubles teams communicate with each other, and in the process, many issues may be resolved.

Well, this month’s column is dedicated to the player who is out there alone and having a difficult time with her/his game. Competing in tennis can be a very lonely endeavor, but it is one of the components of the game that makes it so fascinating to watch and/or play.

The first problem a player must face is answering the question, "Am I truly losing?" The score may indicate that you are, but in reality, the nature of scoring in this wonderful game means that the match isn’t over until the last point is over.

You know you are truly in trouble when you are down two breaks in a set, and/or when you are down a set and a break. I am assuming, of course, that you are not playing best of five sets!

If you find yourself in either of these situations, you can assume that matters are serious and that something has to change! Until either of these situations arises, you should stick to what your game plan may be. Play the kind of tennis that you play best. Of course, you always want to try and improve your play as the match unfolds. This is not a game that allows one to sit back on one’s laurels and expect to win. The momentum of a match can shift in a heartbeat.

Some players really benefit from Bob Love’s system of "scoring" when competing. Instead of thinking in terms of the actual score, the player is measuring her/his performance with respect to "conversions." It isn’t for everyone, but some of my players have embraced this system with effectiveness. One of my previous articles addresses this approach in greater depth -- see: The Big "MO".

Whether you are using traditional scoring or conversions to measure your status in a match, the first rule is NOT TO PANIC IF YOU ARE LOSING!!!

It is amazing how instantly our nerves and self-doubt appear when things aren’t going our way in a tennis match. When I go out to speak with one of my players, I can sometimes literally see the fright in their eyes.

As tennis players, we don’t spend enough time learning how to physically relax quickly. I have trained myself to close my eyes in between points, take a deep breath through my nose, and exhale slowly through my mouth while saying the word, "relax." I do this in practice, and I do this frequently during my off court, day-to-day activities. You can teach yourself to physically relax, but you must practice this.

Physical relaxation is only part of the equation. Mental calmness is an entirely different matter. However by physically relaxing first, the mind senses calm and it is easier to quiet the demons inside.

If my mind is racing (and believe me it does from time to time) while I am competing, I will literally add to my physical relaxation a visualization of a place in which I feel secure and comfortable. I will imagine with my eyes closed the little beach club of which I am a member. I love to sit on the beach, listen to the waves and let my stress dissipate. For me, this is a secure and comfortable environment.

Again in practice and during moments of daydreaming while off the court, I will conjure up images of this "favorite spot." I follow my physical relaxation exercise described above, and then, take a second to imagine the beach club scene.

This may sound like it would take lots of time; but in fact, I can complete the entire physical and mental relaxation process in a matter of 5 to 6 seconds. I do these with my back to my opponent, my eyes closed, and frequently while I am fetching a ball off the court.

With my players, I stress that it is important to incorporate these rituals in practice and off the court whenever possible. Some players have taken my advice and others find this uncomfortable. I assure you that the latter are more likely to panic in critical situations than the former.

I do not hold to the commonly promoted concept of "pumping oneself up" with positive adrenalin. I know there are many sports psychologists who have done research to suggest that this practice is a help to athletes. That may be true, but I think it is less true in tennis.

Players like Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer are examples of the placid player. My thinking is simple. If you allow yourself to celebrate when you do something well, you will necessarily have to permit the demons to enter when you are not doing so well.

Of course, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe belie my belief. It may be that some players are better off being placid and others are better off being emotional. If someone were to survey the successful tennis players over history, the placid player is probably more common. But, this is just a guess.

If you buy into my theory, you will know why physical and mental relaxation control is so important. Generally, we play our best tennis when our muscles are relaxed and our mind is on automatic pilot. For me, this is the first steps necessary to turn a losing game around.

Regardless of whether you believe my theory has merit, one thing you never want to think about during a match is winning or losing! Of course, this is impossible to do, but the goal is to stay in "the present." Don’t play one point at a time… play one ball at a time. As soon as you start thinking "future tense," you will begin to lose. If you dwell on the past, you are not in the present. Remember, a previous shot has absolutely no bearing on the present shot, unless you let it.

The second most important step in changing a losing game, in my mind, is making certain that you are truly seeing the ball well. It is no accident that my very first column for the Tennis Server was entitled, "See the Ball!!!"

Simply working on seeing the spin of the ball, its bounce, watching it carefully as it comes off the opponent’s strings can make a world of difference in changing the tenor of a match.

Allied with this is the concept of "freezing" one’s head at the moment of impact… and for a fraction of a second after the contact. I watch Roger Federer and he is absolutely the best in the game, at present, in keeping his head quiet. I listen to TV commentators constantly analyzing why they believe he is so good. It amazes me how many of them miss this key aspect in his game.

So, the third step in changing a losing game is to really force yourself to quiet your head during all strokes… including serves and volleys!

Assuming these have been implemented by a player and things are still not turning around, there are some practical things one can do to salvage a match.

I must state that the time to figure out which of these to do is NOT during games! Use the changeovers to think about what is going on, and what needs to change from a practical perspective to put you on the winning track. Tennis and any other performance activity do not benefit from analysis while executing. These must be separate or the mind will interfere with what the body needs to do.

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To prove my point, consider this situation. You are moving toward the net to hit an opponent’s short ball. While moving forward, you change your mind about what you "instinctively" want to do with your shot (let’s say the instinctive "you" wants to hit it cross court). You ultimately hit it in the opposite direction (in this case down the line) and you miss an easy put away. What happened? The mind got in the way of your game.

Focus on simply executing during points, and leave strategies/tactics to the changeovers. Of course if you are playing doubles, the discussion between points may be useful. It really depends on the dynamics of the players.

In coaching on the collegiate level, I have seen many coaches who will break the rules and call out commands or corrections to players during a game (the rule is that coaching is only allowed during game changeovers). I have never seen a single player benefit from this practice. In fact, I don’t complain when an opposing coach does break this rule. Why? Almost without fail, the player will play more poorly on the point that follows the "suggestion."

Having said this, here are some practical aspects to consider during the game changeovers.

  1. Am I hitting the ball deep? You would be amazed at how hitting higher and with less pace can change the overall momentum of a match. Why? The ball lands deeper in the opponent’s court and you are hitting more relaxed with a greater margin for error. You will know if you are hitting short if most of your shots land within three feet of the service line. Even with pace, these shots are short except when playing on carpet or grass.

  2. Am I hitting the ball too flat? Flat balls significantly reduce the margin of error on every level of the game. Topspin and slice are "safer" by their very nature.

  3. Am I hitting too many balls to the opponent’s strength? Wise players know how to hit to you in a manner that will likely result in your replies being hit to their stronger wings. It is amazing how often this happens! If the opponent has a better forehand than backhand, more of your balls should be going to her/his backhand side. I like to see if I can make the opponent always be running when he hits his better groundstroke and I rally without movement when we are exchanging shots cross court to his weaker side.

  4. Sometimes the best change of strategy can be to see the court in terms of vertical space, not horizontal space. We frequently will think in terms of left or right, forehand or backhand, side to side. Sometimes the best strategy is to rally a little, but try to bring your opponent to the net. Once at the net, if you have good passing shots, go for them. If you don’t, simply lob over the opponent’s head. This "in/out" approach to the game can win lots of points and turn a match around. It is also one of the arrows in the quiver of the dreaded "pusher."

  5. Where am I standing in the court? We frequently will be standing too far back or too close for the opponent we are facing. Simply changing how far from the baseline we are as we receive serve and rally can make a huge difference. This change worked for Jim Courier in the French Open when there was a rain delay. His coach, Jose Higueras confirmed after the match that this was the advice he had given Jim during the rain delay.

  6. Assuming that your first serve is working but still coming back, try to hit every first serve directly at your opponent… especially if you can hit it reliably with pace. I see so many players going wide or down the line with their first serves. Opponents are prepared for these serves, and some actually can read which way you are going with your serve. No one likes being "jammed" on the serve.

  7. If you are double faulting a lot, it is probably due to nerves. The best way to recover your serve is to hit a three quarter paced, second serve that has whatever spin you can impart. Here, just try to direct the serve to the opponent’s weaker wing. It will probably come back at you, but not as a winner. Now, you are in the point. Double faulting is giving your opponent free points.

  8. Am I moving the opponent? There is an old rule: run the turtle and hit at the rabbit. There are some players that seem to get to every ball. With these, you are probably better hitting at the opponent. If however the opponent is becoming fatigued or just not fast on his/her feet, hit angles that force him/her to run.

  9. Am I fatigued? If you are losing gas, there is one thing you can do to buy some time until your energy comes back… hit "moonballs" deep to the center of the opponent’s court. I am in my 50’s and play kids in their teens and twenties all the time. Needless to say, I get a little tired from time to time. Whenever I need a break to catch my wind or to rest my legs, I simply hit the high "moonball" deep in the opponent’s court. Fortunately for me, this is one of my best shots. Ask any of my team’s players.

  10. Am I being out powered by my opponent? If this is the case, you must shorten your backswing and try to use the opponent’s pace to your advantage. Sometimes the best way to play the big hitter is to simply bunt the ball back. Usually, they are shocked to see their normally devastating shots come back, and frequently your dinks make them over hit, resulting in errors.

  11. Am I mixing things up? We are all creatures of habit. We do the same things over and over without realizing our patterns. A wise opponent, however, sees the pattern. With almost all of the players I coach, I know where they will hit a ball before they do. I am very sensitive to patterns. For you to mix things up, two things have to happen. You need to know your opponent’s patterns (not as difficult to discern as you might imagine) and you need to vary your patterns. Mixing things up can change the direction of a match.

  12. Should I do a 180 degree change? Sometimes the only way to turn a match around is to play in a completely opposite way. If you are a groundstroker, play serve/volley. If you are a serve/volley player, go for the groundstroke rallies. If you have been playing it safe, go for broke on your shots. If you are pulling the trigger on winners too quickly, forget hitting them at all.
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Many of the answers to winning are inside of us, more often than not. Physical and mental relaxation, seeing the ball clearly, quieting the head while hitting, staying in the present… are all things that do not require special tennis skills per se. These can make anyone play better.

Sometimes a more analytical approach must be taken to turn a match around. Of course to really be able to apply tactics, you need to have a full arsenal of shots. Most of us do not. But, we just may find something in our bag of tricks that may help, if we think about it… at the right time… during game changeovers.

When I am seriously competing, I take the ideas that I have put forth in this column and take them on the court with me… literally. I have a little typewritten, laminated sheet that I carry in my tennis bag. It is a list of all the "tactics" I am able to employ. When things aren’t going well for me, I take it out and read it during game changeovers. I am not alone in this practice. In this year’s French Open, Serena Williams pulled out a notebook during a changeover. I am fairly certain it contained "information" that she needed to consider to win her match.

The single most important aspect of changing a losing game, however, is recognizing that in the grand schema of things, tennis is a blessing that isn’t really all that important. Take the pressure off of yourself. Even if you are a junior who seeks to play college tennis on a scholarship, or maybe, seeks to play professionally, pressure doesn’t help! Don’t put your whole identity into this wonderful game. There is life beyond tennis. But, I must admit that life is much better with tennis.

Follow the above suggestions, and I am certain that you will become the tennis overdog that you are meant to be.

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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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