Everyone is eager to improve their tennis game, and USTA ratings are a fair indicator as to a player’s “competitive” skill set. Once USTA posts year-end ratings, I hear a wide variety of comments, ranging from frustration of not moving up, wanting to appeal their rating, or the celebratory “woo-hoo!” upon jumping to next level. Excuses made and reality avoided are clear gauges as to why a player may not advance. So … what does it take to evolve as a competitive player?
I have competed as a junior player since the age of 11, played Division I tennis, competed at ITF, Satellites, high level tournaments and have coached all ages, levels and types of players for more than 15 years. Through this experience, I found players typically fall into five different categories: Practice Player, Match Player, Idealist, Protector and The Grinder.
What type of player are you?
1. Practice Player
You know the type … clinic strong, match play weak. The player performs exceptionally well in clinics, with perfect groundstrokes, volleys, serves and footwork that would make even the most critical purist and coach swell with pride. Ironically, this same player cannot apply clinic skills to competitive match play. The player has a mediocre record because they don’t have the mental strength to close out a match.
2. Match Player
This player is the opposite of the “Practice Player.” They enjoy match play, but have a predictable game and a minimal arsenal in their toolbelt. They are not the type to train or fine-tune their skills, as they prefer competition over practices. They can win matches, in an ugly manner, but not consistently if they play higher lines. Generally, they remain at their current rating and are unable to advance because their skill set is restricted.
Players who have a “dreamy” vision of themselves that doesn’t quite match the reality of their level of play. They always want to “play up” and have difficulty finding or keeping a partner. They want to play with higher level players, but are not aware that their skill set has yet to match that of higher level players. The Idealist recognizes their strengths and ignores their weaknesses. They will appeal their USTA rating instead of earning it on merit. They always have an excuse for match losses (blame their partner, the opposition only lobbed, there were issues with the court surface, the wind and sun factored into the conditions … you get the idea). The Idealist player has a perception of themselves that is not in the same reality as us mere mortals.
4. The Protector
For The Protector, USTA ratings are a primary motivation and it is critical that they practice with those at “their rated level,” regardless if there are athletes who can outmatch them at a lower level. They “chase and protect their rating” at all costs, and dictate who they will and will not play with (even if their coach states otherwise). The Protector wants the name, rank and file of those playing in their practices. The Protector is very conscious of who is on the court with them during training at all times.
5. The Grinder
The Grinder will find every opportunity to advance their training, regardless if they are on the court with the weakest player in their class. They challenge themselves, by fine-tuning every stroke, serve, volley and footwork, to receive the maximum “in that moment” experience. This player is looking to consistently improve and perfect their game when they step onto the court, and is therefore laser-focused. They recognize their strengths, and more importantly, their weaknesses. They applaud their partner and support them when needed. They set aside their ego, ignore ratings and social settings, and train at highest level, regardless of who is on same or opposite side of the net. They’re “Grinders” because they find true pleasure and passion in the game. They recognize who they are (and not!) as an athlete. They may not be the strongest player on the court, but they play with their heart and consistently give 110 percent when they step onto the battleground.
What does it take to advance to the next level?
You must be honest with yourself. You must also have the courage to do the extraordinary every time out on the court. The court is your time, your place of worship and all of the outside variables must be left at home. Try to ignore any and all distractions that negatively impact your game. Play for yourself, not your social circle, coaches or peers. Identify your goals, which could have nothing to do with the physical aspect of tennis, which is important, but your goal may be on the mental aspect of game that so many of us ignore. If faced with a “weaker” player in practice … win! If given a “weaker” partner, accept the challenge and lead to a win. It’s the six-inch court between your ears where the battles are won and lost. Celebrate your strengths, recognize your weaknesses, and above all, remember the feeling that brought you to this fabulous, frustrating, rewarding, sport. Only then will you be able to advance as a tennis athlete. Regarding USTA ratings, earn it through your hard work and results, period.