Most anyone who has ever played a tennis match has some appreciation for how mentally challenging this sport can be in addition to the physical aspect of the game. One mistake, at an inopportune time, can turn a match around 180-degrees. If maintaining focus is difficult (hint: it is!), then regaining it after a lull is even tougher. Just like any other part of your game, focus can be practiced and understanding that a switch in tactics can allow you to hang on and can keep you competitive in matches that might be slipping away. The bad news is there’s no one surefire way to get out of a slump, but the fantastic news is the best way to get better at reversing poor play is by experimenting and finding what works for you.
When things are not going your way in a match, it is important to keep your head up, literally and figuratively. Poor body language will only exacerbate problems and give more confidence to your opponents. Ironically the first place to “look” when things go south is your feet, tennis shots are complicated, but they are hit from the ground up and sometimes subtle errors in footwork go unnoticed and players wonder why their consistency is all of a sudden eluding them. I like to suggest using mantras or phrases to repeat in your head. Some options that have worked for me include: On your toes, eyes on the ball, happy feet, quick steps, always be closing, move forward, stand your ground, one more shot). Not only can they remind you of the simple things, but they can help you switch gears mentally, repeating a short phrase over and over in your mind can help reduce the over thinking we all get plagued on court.
There’s a famous quote by Albert Einstein on insanity, defining it as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This applies to tennis. If your out wide serve in the deuce court isn’t as effective as usual, maybe you should hit more serves into the body or down the T. Another option is to take pace of your first serve and improve your percentage. Many times, the first response a player might have when a shot is off is to keep going for it. That strategy is good for practice, but mid-match you may just have to go with Plan B.
I am hard-pressed to think of examples where stubbornly staying the course has turned matches around for players … it’s just not likely to happen. Having a second game plan can be imperative, altering your pace or style can make it very difficult for your opponent(s) to maintain the momentum your less than stellar play has allowed them to build up. Sometimes, a change can be as simple as a change of clothing, a fresh shirt, hat or sweatband could actually be enough to regain focus. In new clothes, it may be easier to execute a new game plan, again everyone’s different, but some players can benefit greatly from something this simple, so why not try it?
It is never fun to lose, however, every loss has an opportunity for learning in there somewhere. If you crumble and say “not today,” and go through the motions playing the same game that got you in a hole in the first place, you are not likely to have learned much of anything. If you try something else, whether it works or not, your ability to implement a new plan under pressure should at least make you feel like a tougher competitor and will ideally expand the comfortable patterns you have, thus effectively increasing the capacity of your proverbial “bag of tricks.”
As a young junior, I hated (as many do) to play counter punchers. I used to have a one-dimensional game with a strike first attitude, and when my forehand or serve let me down, or if my opponent dared to return a shot, my entire mental game could collapse in seconds. At that point in time, rather than trying to be more consistent, I stubbornly decided that I should just hit harder. This often resulted in more errors, and erratic play which is exactly what counterpunchers love to face. Over time, I realized that maybe this whole consistency thing was valuable and I learned how to counterpunch myself. I would not consider my current style of play to be that of a counterpuncher, working at it has added depth to my game and has made it easier to deal with counterpunchers across the net. This is just one example from my personal experiences, and the takeaway here is two-fold. If you don’t make a change in your game, you won’t likely make a change in the score. But if you try something different, even if you fail, you are more likely to gain useful information to implement in the future.
Some tips are as follows:
1. Put yourself in your opponents’ shoes. If you were in your opponent’s shoes, what shots would you not want to deal with? Make them hit those shots.
2. If someone is good on the stretch out wide (fast, tall or a combination of both), see how they are moving up and back or away from the ball. Try drawing them in, hitting down the middle to force them to create angles or keeping the ball low, particularly if they are tall.
3. When someone plays far behind the baseline, they are telling you they like more time … so move forward! They get extra time by increasing the distance between the two of you, if you move forward as they move back, this advantage shrinks and the often high deep balls these players tend to hit may be makeable volleys that put you on offense.
4. It can never hurt to try and play more consistently. Every shot you hit in gives your opponent an opportunity to miss. Any style of play needs some basis in consistency, so working on this is universally beneficial.
5. As I have said in other articles, there is a difference between losing a match and being beaten. Losing is demoralizing, but being beaten builds character and teaches lessons that will help you to beat other players and get beaten less. If a match isn’t going your way, work hard to make your opponent earn it by mixing things up!