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The Competitive Player’s Five Most Common Errors

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

It is February, and it won’t be long before those of us in the snowy sections of North America can again enjoy playing tennis outside. In fact, it is at this time of year that I begin in earnest to prepare the Men’s Tennis Team at Albertus Magnus College for spring competition. Many of us will spend lots of time getting back into shape, refurbishing skills that were dormant during the Winter months, and making the spiritual commitment to playing better tennis this Summer.

Yet, there is one area that we don’t address as fully as we should as we gear up for the battles to come…correcting our most common errors.

As a tennis coach and professional tennis photographer, I have spent myriad hours watching others duel in formal competition. Invariably, regardless of what level of competition, tennis players make some predictable and repeated mistakes. It should be noted that the player who makes the fewest errors wins tennis matches! No matter how often this truth is stated, many players in their heart of hearts believe that they have won or lost based on their ability to hit winners. Granted, winners play a role in victories. But, more often than not, errors determine the outcome of a match.

What follows is my listing of the five most common mistakes that players make in competition. Some of these deal with technique and some with strategic aspects of the game. As you prepare for the imminent competitive season, keep these common problem areas in mind. In fact, I advise you to print this month’s column and take it with you to practices. A brief review of these common errors will go a long way toward helping you eliminating or minimizing their impact.

  2. If you ever wondered why one day you can be playing outstanding tennis and the next abysmal tennis, it may have a lot to do with your head at the point of impact. I am not referring to your mind. Rather, I speak to the amount of motion in your head as you make contact with the ball.

    Regardless of the stroke, a player’s head should be completely motionless a moment before impact, during impact and for a moment after impact. For years, tennis pros have preached to students, "see the ball come off your strings." Well, it is impossible to actually see the ball make contact with the strings…it simply occurs to quickly for our eyes and brain. However, trying to see the impact greatly facilitates a quiet head.

    When your head remains motionless before, during and after contact, your body remains more balanced and your strokes more controlled. Your body moves to the ball more properly and with less tension. You prepare your strokes better, and you finish your strokes more fully. In short, you see the ball better, move to the ball better and hit the ball better. Not bad attributes to infuse in your game!

    Frequently, I will watch one of my players spray balls or miss easy putaways. During changeovers when coaching is permitted, I will invariably remind him to quiet his head through the shot. Almost without exception, this is the single most effective coaching "command" I can give. It is one that you should give yourself whenever balls seem to have a path and direction of their own.

    Personally, I believe that we neglect to quiet our heads as a result of nerves. This seems to be especially true when our opponent is hitting with lots of pace or is moving us around the court.

    The key to a quiet head is to be conscious of its movement during practice. The more you calm the motion of your head during practice, the more you will find your head being calm during matches.

  4. Next time you watch a tennis match, count how many times the ball crosses the net before the point is ended. I guarantee you that the winner of the point will successfully put the ball over one more time than the loser does. This is the basis of tennis! Yet, often players will forget this simple principle.

    Frequently, I watch players (especially juniors) who try to win the point on the first strike of the ball…talk about confidence! Even on the professional level, adept players will bide their time and wait for the right opportunity to hit a winner. Usually, the right opportunity results from two conditions: the opponent is out of court or on the run…and the player attempting the winner is hitting the ball off her/his stronger wing. Both should be present! Yet, I frequently see players who will go for a winner when the opponent is near the center of the court and when the ball is being struck off the weaker wing. The result…an error! What amazes me even more is the fact that this player who has failed in his/her attempt to hit the winner will likely be angry at himself/herself. What did he/she expect? Even Sampras hesitates to go for winners of his backhand…and his backhand is not really weak!

    To slow yourself down in the quest for winners, I suggest that you count the number of balls you hit during each point. Never allow yourself to go for a winner until at least your third strike of the ball. Granted, from time to time, this tactic will prevent you from hitting a winner when you could or should (e.g. on the second strike of the ball when your opponent is way out of court). However, these "opportunities" are truly very rare. Patience is a virtue and virtue will win you points!

  6. Sometimes, I think that some tennis players should not be allowed to drive a car…why? Well, if they bring the spatial awareness they demonstrate on the tennis court to the act of driving a car…collisions will invariably ensue.

    There are three distinct areas on a tennis court: the defensive zone, the neutral zone and the offensive zone (see my earlier article: Euclidean Tennis: A Geometry of the Game). You cannot expect to win a point by going for an offensive shot when you are in a defensive position. Similarly, you can’t expect to win a point by hitting defensively from an offensive position.

    You must know where you and your opponent are on the court!

    I have a player on my team with an awesome forehand. He truly can crunch the topspin crosscourt forehand! It is his best weapon. Yet, whenever we play, I take this weapon away from him. How? I give him lots of opportunities to hit it from a defensive position. I will hit a high, 3/4 pace ball that forces him to run and that brings him a bit wide out of court. He can’t help himself.

    He always, and I mean always, goes for his weapon. Most of the time (at least 80%) this forehand lands out. The few times that he does strike it in such a way that it will land in bounds, I am at the net ready to putaway the volley. One in ten or eleven attempts, he will hit the winner…but this is not a winning percentage.

    I have a friend who is a fairly accomplished amateur. He has played a few nationals and even some tournaments in Europe and South America. He has great wheels and fair to good groundstrokes. But, his volleys are weak. So, I often times will feed him short balls and then charge the net. Why? I know that he is not going to go for the winner off of his offensive position. He will opt for the safe crosscourt volley that is hit without pace. By setting him up, anticipating his reply, and charging the net…I am ready to putaway his weak volley for a winner.

    To avoid falling into spatial traps, you must be constantly vigilant regarding an awareness of where you are on the court. You need to have a consistent and reliable lob in your arsenal of shots to get you back into a point. You need to develop patience. You must find ways to bring yourself into an offensive position…while forcing your opponent into more defensive positions.

    In addition, you must consider how your opponent uses her/his court positions. If they are simply "blasters" or "dinkers," you need only put them in the spots on the court where these shots are out of place. That is why practicing hitting at targets placed all over the court is such an important part of any training regimen.

  8. Most of us have heard the advice: "just go out there and play your game." This advice plays well with us because it is ego supportive…our game is sufficient to win. Well, I don’t disagree with this advice as a starting point in a match…but it should not be chiseled in granite.

    Probably one of the most difficult things to do is to abandon the gameplan that we have practiced so hard to attain. Doing so means that our game is not good enough. Well, I think that this type of thinking is a little severe.

    Every match is a complex mixture of elements that can never be completely duplicated. Weather conditions, court surface, time of day, ball type, player fatigue and lighting conditions are just a few of the many things that can affect how a match unfolds. How can one expect that one gameplan will be successful in every situation? Even Sampras’ normal gameplan falls short on clay surfaces!

    So, the wise player will never walk onto court with just one gameplan. She/he will always have a predetermined backup plan. Knowing when to change plans is another question. Usually, if you have lost a set and are down a break in the second set, you need to change plans…at least for a while. My benchmark for changing gameplans is very simple: if the opponent has won at least twice as many games as I, I change plans. I have found that this "marker" has served me well.

    To really be able to change plans effectively, you need to practice both plans. I am by nature a baseliner who likes to rally. I wait for my opportunities and go for reasonable winners. I also like to play what I call "pain in the butt" tennis as part of my basic plan. I like to figure out what my opponent doesn’t like and give him/her lots of those balls. My backup plan is drastically different (yours need not be so different). I will go into a complete serve and volley, chip and charge mode when I am really down, but not quite out. I spent a full year playing every match (tournament and practice) using my backup approach. Needless to say, I lost lots of matches…initially. However, in time, I began to win matches using my "B" plan. Now, I have a reasonable shot at turning a losing match around with my "B" plan. Every week, I spend one full day working on the skills needed for my backup plan. This way, I have some confidence in my chances of winning if I should need to change gears in a match.

  10. Sometimes you will watch a match and you can see that one player has for all intents and purposes conceded the victory. We have all been there at one time or another. In truth, there are some players that we are just not likely to beat!

    Yet, I fight very hard to prevent myself from falling into this negative mindset. My colleague, John Murray, who writes the Mental Equipment column for The TennisServer, is truly an expert on the mental side of the game. So, it is not surprising that he has a book coming out this spring entitled, Smart Tennis. I have read an advanced copy of this book, and I assure you that it is the finest work on this aspect of the game that I have read…and I have read most of them!

    Every player needs to develop a mental practice regimen to augment her/his physical training. John Murray’s book will go a long way toward helping you discover the right way to prepare for and deal with the mental challenges presented by competitive tennis.

    Although the mental side of the game is not easily reduced to a few simple statements or insights, there are a few rules that I try to live by. For me, they have enabled me to maintain my enthusiasm for the game…even when things are not going as well as I would like.

    First, realize that tennis is truly a unique game. Unlike football, which is limited by time, the tennis match is not over until the last point has been played. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that the player who is down 0-6, 0-5 at match point, can win! Therefore, a player does a disservice to the game and to herself/himself if she/he concedes the match before it is over. I always try to end a match on a winning note…even if I lose the match. I may lose the match, but I want to walk away realizing that I did something well during the match. It may be that my serves were good, my forehand was on, I was running well, or I came back a bit even thought I didn’t win. Don’t get me wrong…I love winning and hate losing. But, I love the game itself more than either winning or losing.

    Whenever I find myself beginning to despair in a match, I remind myself how lucky I am…there are lots of people who cannot play the game…for many reasons!

    To help myself come to terms with the pressure of being down in score, I will often play sets where I begin each game down (either 30-0 or 0-30). It is amazing how many times I can win a set despite this score handicap. Sure, I lose more sets than I win, but every win inspires my confidence in my ability to win.

    When constructing a hitting schedule, try to play with players whom you most certainly will beat, players that present a fair challenge, and players who you most certainly will not beat. In this way, you will find yourself playing in virtually every type of playing situation. For me, this means increased mental toughness!

Although I have listed only five common errors, I promise you that should you work on making improvement in these areas your winning percentage will greatly increase. And, in a very short period of time, you’ll find yourself becoming 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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