One of the biggest challenges of a tennis player is to compete at a high level in an official tournament match. Often there is a big drop, and the things that looked simple in practice at the local club all-week become harder. It seems to be more difficult when you play a Friday night match on court 23 in a remote bubbled facility, after a full-day of school, and against a solid opponent who is out to get you and fist pumping after every point that he wins.
Coaching isn't allowed during the match and having a coach at a tournament is a luxury for most junior players. Once the match starts, players are basically on their own. Clearly nerves are a huge part of the level drop, after all the ability to bring out the best version of your tennis to each match is the secret of this game, the great champions have a natural gift for being calm during tight situations and have the ability to close out matches in a clinical way; essentially, they play the match the same way they do in practice.
It is one thing to have nice strokes and a good game, but another thing to actually execute the plan during a match, it takes not only calmness, but also preparation, and that starts way before the day of the actual match.
Once a tennis match starts there is no telling how it will end, a player can't control the court conditions or the opponent's style, bad calls or bad weather. Junior matches are often filled with rollercoaster lead swings and drama, often there is more than one match a day and many factors come into the picture. The most a player can do is to try to control only the things you can control.
The preparation starts, of course, the week before the event, playing a lot of practice sets and creating tight match situations in practice (start games at 15- 30 or break point down). It is also important to take it easy on the fitness sessions on the days prior to the tournament, you are not going to get in shape in three days, it is more beneficial to let the body arrive to the matches fresh and ready to go deep in the tournament.
On the night before the tournament it is time to start getting specific. Find out your match time, book a practice court, find a good hitting partner in advance, book an early dinner with good healthy food and, most importantly, get a good night’s sleep.
It is highly recommended to prepare the bag the night before and double check that you have all the things that you'll need ready and packed in the bag, the idea is to get to the day of the match with as few distractions as possible. That means you should have your favorite racquet freshly strung and gripped, make sure you have spare grips and strings, sweatbands, towels, extra shirts and shorts and energy drinks and bars, the night before!
On the day of the match, a nutritious breakfast is a must and a proper physical warm up close to the time of the match is required. Often players warm up hours before the match then sit for a few hours, but there must be a good warm up right before the match. You need to go to the match already sweating a bit. Remember, 75 percent of the time, the winner of the match is the one who wins the first set, so you can't afford a slow start if you are going to go deep in the tournament. If you're going to win the tournament, every point counts.
Scouting is obviously important. Knowing some basic information about your opponent can help, however if it's a new unknown opponent you should use the warm up to check out tendencies such as if the player runs around the backhand or if they are using the wrong grip in the volley. Also, try to sneak in a few returns on their serve during the warm-up, you can learn a lot from those small things.
As far as the strategy going into the match, it is of course specific to each player and their style, but going into the match a player should have a certain game plan that worked in the past and set basic simple goals. The main goal should be to simply execute the game plan.
The goals for each match should be based on the history of previous matches, remembering things that held you back in the past and setting simple goals which can help get a better outcome. It can be technical things such as trying to get more first serves in or cutting down on errors on a certain shot or a personal goal to try to hit a forehand after each serve to start the point with a purpose.
It can be a strategic goal such as trying to be more aggressive and daring on big points, or deciding to put more pressure on the opponent's second serve. It can be a mental goal to try and stay calm and tantrum free, or to prevent mental letdowns at the beginning of each set. Having specific goals going into a match can help calm down the nerves and get you to perform close to your potential. Knowing that there are going to be ups and down during a match is key. That awareness during the match will help you get through the bad patches with minimal damage, and can hopefully help turn the match around and shift the momentum your way.
Another key is to have a Plan B, in case your game plan is not working and you are getting beaten badly in the first set. In that case don't keep playing the same way, try to change the losing game even if it means playing against your own style, if you are going to go down the least you can do is give the opponent a different look. Often a tactical switch can change the course of a match and, remember, this is junior tennis. I've seen some crazy comebacks when players don't give up and use their imagination.
The main thing to do while playing a tournament match is to not show any emotions, as hard as that may be. Tennis is like chess or poker; the opponent can use any piece of information to their advantage. It is hard enough to win to begin with, so you shouldn't reveal any information about yourself or your state of mind, and certainly don't show any frustration. The only way to have a chance of a comeback is if you act like you are about to make a comeback, that takes mental work and maybe a bit of acting. Remember, as tired as you are, the opponent doesn't have to know about it. Maybe he or she is more tired than you and is about to cramp any minute. This last one is the toughest thing about tennis. Think about it: how hard is it to play someone who doesn't show any negative emotions even when playing badly?
I would say that the most important trait is to have guts; the guts to put your butt on the line every point, and to keep a positive attitude especially when things are not going your way. The guts to not make excuses and to stick to the game plan, that is what being a good tennis player is all about.
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.