Breaking Down the Complexities of Tennis

Photo credit: Paul Bradbury
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For more than 40 years, I have gone onto the court on an almost daily basis, 20 years as a player and now 20 years as a coach. I am still in awe of the complexity of this game … its beauty, ugliness, joy and frustration. It’s all there, just like life.

Roger Federer seems to be a guy who loves the game and enjoys it more than anyone alive, and has done so for a long period of time, still playing at a high level at the age of 35. But most of us regular tennis players have a love/hate relationship with the game, yet with all the frustrations and disappointments, most players continue to play for as long as they can. What is it that makes tennis such a perplexing yet captivating sport?

I play and love other sports, including team sports, but in my mind, tennis is the toughest sport—from a physical, mental and technical aspect.

Yes, there are many individual sports that are pretty rough, boxing for example, and at the highest level, all sports require mental strength, but tennis is a unique sport in many ways. It is a taunting sport as it plays with your mind, challenges you, and takes you to great heights, but can also take you to places you would rather not be.

You first need to learn a variety of shots that have different grips, footwork and swings. It is a highly technical sport that requires repetition and instruction, which takes a few years to develop. Once you have mastered the strokes, you begin to realize that it is all about movement. Even if your technique and footwork get to a high level, you then need to know how to win points, construct a rally, close out games, what shots to use in certain situations, how to perform under pressure, etc.

Many of the experiences that I had in the sport of tennis have taught me about life and helped me after I retired from the game, including the fact that the paradox of tennis is that the more you lose, the more you learn, which is just like life. Being a competitive tennis player is like putting a mirror in front of your face every day, testing what type of player and person you are.

I have put together a few typical lessons that I have learned from tennis that have helped me in life that I am sure many of you can relate to:

1. You never own the game
This happened to me more than once. You play great one day, have a great win over a higher seed, only to show up to the next match and lose to an unseeded player. The mental letdown after having a big win can easily be explained. Your coach will warn you about it, but it can still happen. The life lesson here is that you are always judged by your last performance. What you did yesterday is ancient history. Great players learn how to put the last match behind them and come back down to Earth, refresh themselves and treat it the same no matter who is across the net. The key is to not celebrate until the end of the tournament, and even when you win, know in the back of your mind that there is another tournament next week.

2. Losing your confidence
We have all been there (even Roger Federer). At some point in your career, you will go through a streak of consecutive bad results, where no matter how well you are hitting the ball in practice, you still cannot put it together in the match. The only way to come out of losing streaks is to stay positive and play the match one point at a time. If you manage to stay positive through tough periods, you will give yourself a chance to turn things around. Just like in life, nothing lasts forever, including bad streaks. Feeling sorry for yourself and panicking won’t help, but continuing to fight for every point until the turn tides your way will.

3. The random nature of tennis
You can play great and lose, but you can also play horrible and win. Sometimes it’s not up to you and your outcome can be heavily influenced by the luck of the draw, your opponent, the referee, the weather, injuries, a bad call, etc. More than once in my life, I was on my way to losing and then something happened that was out of my control that changed course of the match. Realizing that there are things beyond your control teaches you that you should only worry about the things in your control, such as a proper warm-up, nutrition, mental preparation before a match, and being alert to situations during a match that allow you to change momentum. The lesson is that you should never take anything for granted and you never know what the next day will bring. But be prepared for it and always keep your eyes open for the next opportunity.

4. Practice makes perfect
I have never met a player who achieved greatness without working hard in practice. Even the great Johnny Mac didn’t train for long hours like Ivan Lendl, but was intense while on the court and left his heart out on the practice court. Performing under pressure in a tournament situation is something that starts with good practice habits. Pushing yourself to the limit physically will not only get you in shape, but will help build confidence heading into a tournament. The attitude from the practice court should carry over into your matches when your instinct takes over. You don’t want to think about movement or technique during a match … it occurs naturally because of the work you did in practice. When you watch a top player hit incredible shots with ease, you should know that they have repeated those shots in practice thousands of times.

The life lesson is to hone your craft, whatever it is, and keeping working on it because no matter how good you get, there is always another level to reach.