Volume I: Visualization
Mark McGwire leads the major leagues in home runs, and in blank stares. Visualization, he calls it. Before each at-bat McGwire will imagine the pitcher throwing the baseball. He will imagine how the pitch will move, maybe a fastball or a curveball, and he will imagine smashing the ball with his Paul Bunyan swing.
New York Times, 1998
- It is more than just a buzz word spoken by motivational speakers across the globe. If done correctly, visualization can help you in pre-match prep as well as before or during any set, game, or point in a match (depending on how much you decide to employ this).
- Envisioning yourself doing something on the court, while in deep focus for a sustained amount of time before you step foot on the court, helps you to stay calm and feel confident as well as assist the physical aspect of the sport by performing a bit of a reverse direction in the muscle memory phenomenon and help you execute the strategies, tactics and shots that you previously envisioned executing in specific situations.
- It is also important to keep in mind that you are not playing against yourself, so visualizing some of your opponent’s play beforehand to the degree that you know them as a player will truly make this endeavor successful.
- Lastly, the key to making this all work is to do this with a clear, stable, mind and emotional state. I’m sure most everybody goes into a match with a base strategy, optimistically seeing every game as a potential a hold of serve or a break, and perhaps every point with some sort of pre-determined general strategy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t…but I can guarantee you that it is more likely to contribute positively to your play if it is well thought out in a peaceful mental state. Going into a point upset about previous happenings and saying to yourself, “I’m going to go for a huge winner down the line off the serve” may work, but thinking the same thing while remaining calm is much more likely to be fruitful because you are likely to not rush the return when the serve comes around. This means you will have better footwork, better technique and are more likely to connect on the sweet spot rather than potentially just reaching for the ball and swinging for the fences out of frustration.
- Of course, it is easier said than done, but I have had some success over time through the use of visualization, and have also seen a good deal of success of others through visualization. It also translates to many (if not all) sports, and perhaps other facets of your life as well.
Volume II: Come to the Net!
A dying phenomenon in the game of tennis is seeing a player come to the net consistently. Over the past 15 years or so, there has been a marked decline in players coming to the net, especially compared to the “old days”, when players used to come to the net very often.
In the 90’s and early 00’s, you still had players such as Stefan Edberg and Richard Krajicek who would come to the net early and often and would continue to do so pretty much regardless of the results. That was just how they played. (Sampras often serve and volleyed, but it can be argued that it wasn’t the primary focus of his game)
Stefan Edberg and Richard Krajicek both had incredibly successful careers. Edberg won all four grand slams as a junior, and was ranked #1 in the world in both singles and doubles on the ATP tour. He finished with a winning percentage near 75% in singles, won 59 tournaments (singles and doubles combined) including 6 singles grand slam tournaments and 3 doubles grand slam tournaments. He also had 4 Davis Cup victories. He is now Roger Federer’s coach.
Krajicek didn’t quite have the success of Edberg, but he was also a serve and volley master. He got all the way up to #4 in the world rankings, had 17 career singles titles and won Wimbledon in 1996. In that tournament, he defeated former champ Michael Stich and had his landmark victory of Pete Sampras, which was in straight sets. This was Sampras’ only loss in singles at Wimbledon from 1993 until his 2001 loss to Roger Federer.
Nowadays, tennis is essentially a baseline, back court game. Players love to rally with massive top-spin and power and rely on supreme conditioning and consistency. This isn’t the best way to play and win in tennis, unless you are truly elite with these attributes of the sport.
The best way to win in tennis is not only through consistency, but also variety in the game that you play. Switching up the spins, the speed and the style of play that you use during your matches can oftentimes trump talent and athleticism and help you win a match that you may not have otherwise won. One of the most important aspects in tennis is rhythm, and switching your style up helps break your opponent’s rhythm and maybe even get in their head, affecting them for the duration of the match.
Aside from simple variety in strokes, serving and volleying, or at least coming to the net every once in a while can make all the difference in the world. Doing this can be especially effective if your opponent hasn’t demonstrated the ability to hit effective shots down the line or with general precision. If your opponent tends to just rally down the middle of the court and wait for you to make a mistake, a way to counteract it is to rush the net behind a good shot and put the pressure on them to actually beat you.
Another advantage to doing this comes when you are trying to hide your own weaknesses. If you can consistently hit decent volleys, but you may not be consistent from the baseline or have good conditioning, then coming to the net can help you overcome your deficiencies. Sure, it puts pressure on your opponent to hit great shots and keeps them off-balance, but it also can end the point quickly, which helps you save energy. This is a crucial aspect of tennis because some matches can go quite a long time and be devastating on the body. Instead of swinging for the fences to end points from the baseline to save energy, it is the better percentage play to come to the net and take your chances there.
One of my unconventional strategies that I use every once in a while is to come to the net directly behind a moon-ball. It is a deep and high bouncing shot that makes it hard for the other player to hit an offensive shot back or even see the court as well as they normally would under regular circumstances. I like to wait until I see them take their eyes off the court completely then rush the net to put the ball away.
Generally speaking though, you want to come to the net after a great serve or approach shot. Not all great shots are great to come to the net to however. Too much topspin may give the opponent enough time to get there and hit a variety of shots back that can give you trouble. Ideally, your approach shot will be hit flat and hard in the deep corner of the court, or sliced to keep the ball very low. Then you have to play the angles and read the ball quickly off their racquet so you can position yourself in the right spot to end the point on your volley. In a perfect world, your first volley should end the point.
It’s not for everyone, but even if you are not the best volleyer it definitely suits you well to come to the net every once in a while to throw your opponent off. It gets them out of their rhythm, forces them to hit better shots, saves you energy, can help hide some of your weaknesses and counter-act match-up problems you may have. With the way tennis is primarily being played, chances are you may automatically put yourself at an advantage by coming to the net just because there are so few others that do it that your opponent will probably be frazzled just at the sight of it.
Volume III: Playing Tennis Outdoors
Sure, one can say that “tennis is tennis”, but that isn’t a very accurate axiom as playing outdoors can be far different than playing indoors (especially in the comfortable confines of our wonderful tennis center).
It is even more important in outdoor settings to pace your energy and stay hydrated, as fatigue can become even more of a factor than it normally would. As the temperature rises, so does the importance of mastering the art of energy reservation and hydration. Even if you do not feel thirsty, get something to drink every opportunity that you have. You do not want to get caught in the middle of a long game (or pair of games) before a turnover being thirsty because it could end up costing you.
Another essential part of playing outdoors is simply knowing your environment. The court can get hot and there is less uniformity to outdoor courts than there is for indoor courts. Some are going to play far faster than other and some are going to be affected by wind more than others. Be cognizant of this and prepare accordingly. In strong winds you should tailor your game a bit differently in general and especially depending on which direction of the wind you are facing. This could be the difference between victory and defeat in a close match.
Volume IV: Be Confident, Not Over-Confident
The Importance of Diagnosing Your Opponent
In terms of confidence, there are two terrible things you could do going into a match. The first thing is to go into it thinking you are going to lose and the second is to take your opponent for granted by thinking he/she is not any good.
I wouldn’t quite recommend adhering to the Middle Way of the Buddha Sidhartha Gautama in terms of confidence, but it is definitely best to avoid being at either extreme before a match. I think it is better to come into a match with unwavering confidence that you are able to win the match instead of being directly in the middle and not having any idea or thinking that you have no chance of winning or losing.
If you enter a match believing that you have no chance of losing, chances are you are going to find yourself surprised at some point in the match. Either the other player is going to get off to a hot start and you will find yourself down a break or you will be up early and allow them to sneak back into the match. In any event, it will cause you to perhaps play erratically and lose sense of any semblance of a strategy you have and force you to gather yourself and get your act together…otherwise you will be in a big hole and drop a set or even worse, lose the match.
It is imperative to feel confident in your abilities and also take note of your opponent’s skills and tendencies during the warm-up period if you haven’t yet seen them play.
Regardless of what you see in this period, your confidence shouldn’t change but your preparation and strategy might…as you pick up on things in the other player’s game that you should take advantage of. Warming-up is just as much for your own skills as it is diagnosing your opponent’s skills. Maybe they seem to have a weak backhand, have shotty volleying technique or have trouble with slice. No matter what you see, you should remain confident that you have the ability to expose the player(s) on the other side of the court and be able to play the best match you can against them.
In terms of your own skills during the warm-up…do not get rattled. It shouldn’t matter if you think that you aren’t hitting or serving well before the match. Furthermore, do not find yourself in awe of the other player. They could look like Pete Sampras in warm-ups and end up being more like Tommy Haas (that might be an on-going joke for my writings). Some people simply are practice warriors that look and play unbelievable until the first serve is hit. Just as you shouldn’t worry about your failures in warm-ups, you shouldn’t let the success of your opponent get to you either. It takes two to tango and you should be confident that you can lead the dance regardless of how the warm-ups go.
In conclusion, the only thing that should really change before or during your match should be your strategy. You should always consider different approaches and remain pragmatic and be able to improvise based on what you see…just do not change how you feel. All that can do is put a self-imposed handicap on the match and start an up-hill battle or a slide down a slippery slope. Never waver from the mental plateau.
Volume V: Hitting Down The Line
While dismissed by many as “easy to do”, being able to go down the line with your shots when you want to do so is crucial in match play and harder to do than it seems.
The first instinct of many is to simply adjust the racquet head and perhaps the grip based on where they want the ball to go. This doesn’t lead to consistent nor great results. Once in a blue moon a fantastic shot can be hit… but it is oftentimes fools gold.
What is more important to change, on a base level, is the footwork in preparation to the shot. Don’t get me wrong, the racquet head angle and grips change depending on which type of shot you are trying to hit (slice, extreme top-spin, flat etc.), but this happens no matter what anyway so it is independent of the subject at hand.
In terms of foot-work and going down the line, a quick and easy solution to your problems is to simply attack the ball coming diagonally forward towards the line of which you are targeting. This will bring your body and momentum naturally in the right direction and won’t tamper with your head causing you to perhaps over-think or incorrectly time your swing to make contact. As per most shots, short and quick steps are better than a couple long strides to the ball so don’t get lazy!
It is vitally important to be able to hit down the line in matches. You’re not going to win matches often by keeping the ball in the middle of the court and thus not making the opponent move…and you’re also not going to win matches if you can just hit cross-court. Hitting down the line is particularly useful if your opponent has a glaring weakness in one of their ground-strokes…and is the best (and I’d argue that it should pretty much be the only…with rare exception) shot to hit as an approach to the net. If you have a strong forehand and your opponent has a weaker backhand, the automatic play is to go down the line, especially when A) you want to put away the point aggressively B) want to force the other player to hit a great shot to beat you if you come to the net or not or C) simply try to get an unforced error.
Caution #1: Don’t focus on a weakness too much because it may become less of a weakness as the match goes on. Practice makes perfect, even in a match. Pay close attention to whether they are improving during the match with said weakness or not and adjust game-plan accordingly.
If you do not know from geometry, you can see by looking at the graphic at the beginning of the article that it is a far shorter distance when you go in a straight line. Perhaps shorter than you would initially expect. 4.5 feet is a lot of distance in tennis. It doesn’t take the most vivid imagination to realize how much less time the other player will have to get to the ball when you hit down the line…unless you have an absolute cannon cross court shot or the player is all the way off the court. Another reason for this is that it gives you as a soon to be net player less of the court to cover in order to get to the spot you want to get to. A shot 75% as hard with good precision down the line is more likely to be effective than a shot cross court as an approach shot.
Caution #2: The net is higher at their ends. You need to be able to adjust to this.
In conclusion, hitting down the line well is a necessary ability to win matches…in singles or in doubles. Whether it is to expose weakness in your opponent, put the ball away, hit an approach shot, tire your opponent out by giving them less time to get to the ball, or to just simply mix it up…you need to be able to hit down the line if you want to win more matches than you lose.