You've battled for 12 straight games against a formidable, evenly matched opponent and now it's come down to one game. Your heart rate is picking up and your feet are barking. The end is inevitable, sudden and even the name, “Tiebreaker,” coined by Tennis Hall of Famer Jimmy Van Alen, says, “Everything is on the line!” You’re praying for divine guidance, and all the while, cursing the person that came up with this convoluted way to end it all.
Thanks a lot Jimmy Van Alen!
Some of the greatest players in the history of the game have called it a “crap-shoot,” and I won't mince words either, this is the most important moment in the match so far. All the other points, games, disputes, heroics, snafus and miscues that have preceded this moment are mere prologue to the next series of points you will play. This is a tension-filled moment that has sent shivers up the spines of even the best of players.
Take a moment and breathe. You have a job to do. It’s time to play one good game for all the marbles.
Save the prayers, have a plan
The past informs the present but it won’t dictate the future. Somebody’s got to win. At this point in the match, you’ve learned enough to make an educated assessment of their strengths and weakness. You know if they have a good serve or a better return. If they are quick or slow and powerful, and whether they prefer to hit their forehand cross-court or inside-out. You know if they hit over their backhand when they’re under pressure or if they tend to slice the ball. And you know if they are prone to having outbursts in pressure situations. By this time, you have most certainly exploited your opponent’s soft spots and evaded their assets with varying degrees of success as they have exposed some of your game’s shortcomings and specialties. All of their nuances, matched against yours, create an informative backdrop for you to draw from. Now it’s time to put everything that you’ve learned in the back of your mind and refocus.
Fundamentals, not trickery
Getting into the habit of good fundamentals (in practice and in matches) combined with percentage tennis, especially in the biggest moments, will bring you success. There are many wrong ways players turn when they are under pressure. Some get ultra-tentative and start “pushing the ball,” while others do the opposite. They get overly anxious and try to end the points too soon. This is often called “going for too much.”
Another mistake undisciplined players make in tiebreakers is they look for a tricky play to win the most important points rather than relying on their fundamentals and straightforward persistence. They might try to sneak a drop shot in unexpectedly only to drop it in the net or go for a giant second serve and double fault. It’s when points become especially important that the proficiency of one’s fundamentals and their adherence to those principles will hold up or breakdown. Fundamentals such as: Deep cross-court groundstrokes, up-the-line approach shots, high first serve percentages, and making returns. Simply put, if you are more willing to keep your fundamentals intact than your opponent, then you will win more big points. And, in case you’ve forgotten, all the points in a tiebreaker are ‘big’ points.
Manage your emotions
So you’ve come this far and your goal is still to win this match. You have rode the mental rollercoaster this far and now, you must make sure that you keep it together and manage your emotions at all costs. It may be the most important thing that you can do in this situation. Keep the energy positive. There is no way you are going to win every point in every tiebreaker. You should actually expect it to be tough. Your opponent wants to win as much as you do. I can remember watching tennis legend John McEnroe play those shenanigans filled matches but when it got down to the end of a set he was almost always all-business. He had a way of setting his emotions aside when he sensed the finish line and it allowed him to go for it in those big moments.
This is your tiebreaker, be brave
Take your opportunities to put pressure on your opponent when you can. Good players don’t make unforced errors for no reason. Pressure makes them miss their targets. This might mean that their balls start landing shorter in the court or their second serves are sitting up a little higher. These nuanced changes are subtle, but if you can start to recognize them, you should let it be your invitation to be brave and put some pressure on them. Take your opponent’s time away from them by moving into the court (Roger Federer and Serena Williams are masters at this concept). When you get a chance, watch how they stand closer to the baseline relative to their opponents. Oh, and don’t be afraid to come to the net and hit a couple of volleys.
Thanks again, Jimmy
The good news is that the end is in sight. You’ve worked hard in this match and more importantly, at improving your game. Finish it with your best tennis. Let’s face it, even great players, have clenched up or choked in the face of a big moment. It’s okay to get nervous, but the key is to use the nerves to focus your energies into creating a clutch peak-performance. So go into your next tiebreaker knowing that you are going to stick to your fundamentals and let it go. I promise that you will win more tiebreakers and you’ll be thanking Jimmy Van Alen for getting you home before dinner.
Mike Williams is the Tennis Director at Roosevelt Island Racquet Club (RIRC). He captained the Clemson University Tennis Team and played on the Satellite Tour following his collegiate career. He won the Men’s Open Doubles Championship in 2013 and has more than 20 years of coaching experience, dedicated to helping players of all levels by focusing on the fundamentals of the game and designing programs that will help each individual reach their highest level. He can be reached by e-mail at MWilliams@AdvantageTennisClubs.com.