Not long ago I heard someone remark that the success of the tennis teams in California (as it relates to performance in USTA NorCal Districts), as opposed to Reno players, is the fact that they get to play all year. I don’t think the answer is that simple. It’s not so much that they have year round access to tennis, it’s the fact that they have year round access to a seemingly endless supply of opponents. And with variety comes strategy. In playing new people, you are consistently finding new ways to win. Albert Einstein defines insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If we don’t make the effort find new ways to win by challenging our opponents, or challenging our own abilities, we will never grow as players.
Whether you choose to find diversity in playing tournaments, USTA, Northern Nevada Interclub, Cardio Tennis programs that offer both drills and point play, or a recreational match, there are a number of ways to engage yourself mentally, along with engaging your game. In order to better prepare for “competition when it matters,” find a way to implement new strategies in your everyday tennis.
Tactical tennis starts as early as the warm up. By observing your opponent prior to the match you will start to find cues as to their strengths, weaknesses, preferred shots and even temperament. As you analyze your opponent’s technique you will be able to start to register information beyond stroke production. Look at their size. Are they tall? How do they handle a low ball? What’s their physical condition? How do they move? Laterally? Front to back? Where’s their weight transfer? Back foot? What’s their shot preference? What’s their shot tolerance? How are they mentally? Confident? Aggressive? Nervous? Keep in mind, that as you formulate your game plan early in the match, chances are that is not the strategy you will end with. A good opponent will work equally as hard at changing their game to ensure your tactics don’t work.
The easiest, and most obvious, way to win a match is to win more points than your opponent. By starting your strategy early, based on your opponent’s weakness, you can begin to accumulate points sooner. If you have determined your opponent’s weaker side, you should start attacking their flaw earlier in the match. Use a combination of serves, ground strokes and returns focusing on their weakness. Using more pace might give them less time to respond. Also, employing various spins, speed and adjusted ball height, can work to ensure that your opponent doesn’t get too comfortable and establish a rhythm.
What if your opponent is attacking your weaker side? They have employed the same strategy. Then you must shift your focus away from winning more points, to lose fewer points. Given their formula of exploiting your weakness, you will have to use that shot to test the chinks in their armor, and hopefully allow you to end the point with your strongest stroke.
In being patient, and learning that unnecessary risks will not lead to reward, you will be able to navigate your match easier. I have heard numerous pros discuss concepts like “shot tolerance” or “yellow ball” rallies in setting up points. In essence you are trying to determine how long they can stay in a point – their shot tolerance. If your opponent can keep the ball in play 10 times, then you will have to keep it in play 11 times to win the match. A “yellow ball” mind set works the same way. As we watch the pros play, we tend to focus on the winning shot, the point ender, the green light, without considering the yellow lights along the way. There may have been a 20 ball rally of “keeping the ball in play” before getting the green light for the winner.
In becoming better analysts, we become better tennis players. As we participate in tennis matches here in Reno, we need to develop not only our strokes, but also our strategies. In working on adding variety, dimension and gamesmanship to our games we can actually start thinking through our matches so that when we come across those opponents who are familiar with many different playing styles, we too can make the necessary mental adjustments. We need to find the balance of offensive tennis strategies, married with losing fewer points, in order build a balanced, winning, game plan.