| By Lawrence Kleger
Photo credit: Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures

Do you ever win the first set easy and lose in three? Of course! It happens to every competitive player at some point in time. The scenario goes something like this …

You start the match against a very good player totally pumped-up and ready to kick butt! Your focus and concentration are at their highest levels. You move as though you were gliding on air. You get to every ball and execute each shot to perfection. The ball looks the size of a beach ball and appears to be moving in slow motion.

The service boxes on your opponent’s side look like football fields and you make 85 percent of your first serves. Your only bad shot hits the top of the net and dribbles over for a winner. The pros call this being “In the Zone,” And you stay “In the Zone” for the entire first set; which lasts 12 min. You win 6-0 and you’re thinking, “This is great!”
The second set begins with you holding serve, as you did in the first set but not without a struggle, 1-0. The next game is a long one in which your opponent records his first ace and you make your first two unforced errors It’s all tied up 1-1, no big deal. You serve the third game and start with your first double fault. You follow with a volley error and then witness two winners by your opponent that Rafael Nadal would never have returned. Now you’re down 1-2. The fourth game goes to deuce six times and your opponent holds serve when a let cord dribbles over on your side on game point to make it 1-3. You get broken at love and change ends at 1-4 trying to figure out, “Just what is going on?” You think that you are playing the same as in the first set, but lose the second set 4-6.

“I can’t believe I just split sets with this knucklehead that I beat 6-0 in the first set! A score of 6-0 didn’t even indicate how badly I mushed this guy! I was about to play the second set lefty!” You go out to play the third set muttering, “I can’t believe this … I suck!”

You know the rest. You lose the third 6-3 and you are at a loss to explain just how it happened. Friends and relatives politely say, “Nice match,” but you just keep telling yourself, “I was up 6-0, 1-0, cruising!”

What really happened?

Let’s go back to that marvelous first set and look at it objectively. While it was obvious to you that you were tennis perfection, maybe not so obvious was that your opponent’s poor play and/or bad strategy might have contributed to the one-sided score. It is possible that your opponent came out tight and could not establish any rhythm or timing. Maybe your opponent underestimated you, and temporarily, could not find any answers to your shot-making onslaught. Maybe the first set was not a true indication of the relative abilities of the players. Remember that you started the match psyched-up to play “a very good player.”

Ask yourself these questions: If you felt like you played a perfect set, isn’t it a little bit unreasonable to expect to play perfect tennis throughout the entire match? Is it not reasonable to expect your opponent, down a set, to make adjustments and improve his level of play? Would you not expect him to change a losing strategy and to fight harder in the second set?

Every match has ebb and flow, peaks and valleys … stretches where you can’t do anything wrong and some where nothing goes right. A good competitor understands this and works hard to maintain an emotional balance. He does not become overly seduced by his play “In the Zone;” and likewise, does not get mentally down by a stretch of misfortune. The good competitor is always prepared for the unpredictability of a tennis match. He is not intimidated by the possibility of his opponent turning it around; he is challenged by it. If he wins the first set easy, he expects the next set to be tough. A good competitor never loses his respect for an opponent’s ability to compete.

When you win an easy first set against a strong opponent, acknowledge it, be proud of it, and then expect the rest of the match to be a heck of a lot tougher. If you prepare yourself mentally to win a war, you won’t be thrown so much when you lose any of the battles.

Lawrence Kleger is co-director of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy. He is recognized as one of the top developmental coaches in the United States. He has trained more ranked juniors than anyone in the history of the USTA Eastern Section. His students have won numerous National and Regional Championships, and 20 USTA Eastern Year-End Sportsmanship Awards