One of tennis' big mystiques in the world of sports is the "choke." We have all been there, including the great champions. A player will put together a set and a half of perfect tennis, but when it's time to close out the match, all of a sudden, things change … the level of play inexplicably drops, legs get heavy, hands get tight, the toss on the serve falls too low, and routine put away winners turn into unforced errors. Before you know it, the match slips away, the momentum shifts and the window to win a match closes forever. Afterwards in the locker room, you will sit with a towel over your head and wonder how come you lost a match that should have been yours. It's very frustrating when you are playing well enough to win and still come up short. You often wish you could play those key points again in a different manner.
Closing out a match is the toughest thing in any sport. In tennis, it is especially hard because you cannot play the clock, you actually have to win the last point. Closing out a tennis match is an art in and of itself, and perhaps the most important skill for a tennis player to master.
It is human nature to grow more anxious when you are ahead and closer to victory. You start to think about the winning shot, and it takes your mind off the actual point-by-point mindset. Because of tricks of the mind, you might change your strategy for no reason or start to make bad decisions. In many cases, players would become passive when leading, playing too safe and expecting the opponent to fold. Other ways of "choking" might be getting overly aggressive and self-destructive, literally bringing the opponent out of the grave by giving up easy points. Another factor is that when you are leading, it is common that your opponent will play without pressure and start making shots that were not going in earlier in the match.
Of course, the Million Dollar Question is how to avoid being that player who cannot close out a match. Here are a few tips on how to avoid that stinging feeling of losing a match that was yours …
1. Nobody is immune to choking. Even the great John McEnroe, holder of seven Grand Slam singles titles, admitted to me years ago that he choked, specifically speaking about the famous French Open finals in 1984 against Ivan Lendl when he was up 2-0 in sets and a break up in the third set. So if you do end up choking, don't let it bring you down … suck it up, learn from it and don't forget that the choke has two sides. The next time, you might be on the other side. If you expect that it is part of the game and don't let it get to your head, you can survive a few chokes in your career.
2. Smell the blood. When you are leading in a match, try to keep the pressure on your opponent and avoid complacency. Try to be greedy and run away with the match. Great champions smell when the opponent is bleeding and hit them where it hurts without mercy. The key is to keep the same strategy that got the lead, and remain aggressive and relentless. Show your opponent through body language that you are there to win the match, and preferably, in straight sets.
3. Do mental exercises to improve your performance. There are breathing techniques that help get the heart rate down and calm your system down between points. Also, being bouncy on your feet can help relax the muscles and bring you to a necessary optimal combination of alertness and composure. Ideally, you want to get to a level where you play totally instinctively during the big points without having to think too much.
4. Have a specific game plan to close out matches and stick to it. Many times, we change our game plan during big points. It is important to be gutsy and execute a game plan. It's especially important to stay aggressive during critical points of the match. Usually in higher level tennis, the one who dictates the pace of the match will win. Before critical games, I would actually plan the first two points on my service game while sitting down during the changeover. It is easier to execute your plan, if it is planned ahead of time.
5. Think outside the box. Tennis can be a stressful sport and there are some ways to decrease that pressure. For example, I never used to look at draws when I played on the pro tour. That meant I went to sleep without a specific name or face of an opponent in my head. It helped me focus on my preparation and not think about the opponent. Another method of fooling yourself is when you are leading, tell yourself that you are losing. For example, if you are up 5-2, you tell yourself during the changeover that you are down 2-5 and that you should play as if you are down. It is an interesting exercise which actually worked for me in some cases.
6. Don't pay attention to practice sets, use it as an experiment. Practice makes perfect, and if you practice a lot of point situations in training, you will be more ready for it in an official tournament. However, you cannot ever forget that what matters is the tournament results, so “chokes” during practice don't count. In fact, it's better to play those bad sets in practice and have it all come together in the actual tournament.
7. Most importantly … keep the big points simple. Most matches are won with basic tennis, by making your first serve when needed, playing the percentages, making your cross-court shots and not missing the easy shots. You don't have to go for the spectacular shot unless you need to. If you can make the opponent hit the extra shot, then who knows, your opponent just may be the one who chokes.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.