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In tennis, crucial moments are often followed by mental lapses. Here’s how to keep your mind from wandering.

Imagine that you’ve just finished a long, arduous point with more than 20 strokes. Or perhaps you’ve completed a long game with 10 deuces. Maybe you’ve just broken serve, or had your serve broken by a crafty opponent. It could even be a moment as simple as finishing a lengthy set and taking a sip of water before heading back to the court. What do all these scenarios have in common? I call them transitional moments. Something important has just happened on the court, and that important event will have consequences. Usually, the result is that one player has a bit of a letdown, or perhaps even a meltdown. At times like these, you need to do two things: Make sure you are not that player, and know how to take advantage of such an opportunity should it arise. Here’s my cheat sheet on what mental approach you’ll need at these key moments in any match:

After a long, difficult point
Even at the pro level, particularly long and mentally draining points are often followed by short points. Serve returns are missed and quick errors are made as one player simply isn’t ready for another bruising battle. Knowing this can help you. If you are serving, make a mental note to get your first serve in after a long point, rather than going for an ace. Wide serves can be especially effective against opponents who are winded, tired, relaxing, or in any other way unprepared to reach or move quickly. If your opponent is serving, hit a high-percentage return rather than going for the quick winner. And in any case, be determined to play another long, tough point. Your opponent may not be.

After a long, tense game
When a game requires prolonged concentration and lots of stress, players tend to relax afterward. Don’t. The game following a marathon is the perfect opportunity to run up your lead or kill your opponent’s momentum. Put the length of the game out of your mind and take the same approach to the next game. Tell yourself you’ll stay out there as long as it takes to win. Playing tough in situations like these is not only liable to win you the next game, but it will also intimidate your opponents. It shows them they’re up against a dogged competitor and in for a grueling afternoon.

After a service break
The best time to break an opponent’s serve is after they have broken your serve. They are likely to either relax or become conservative, as they feel they should hold and consolidate their lead. Go after the next game with your most intense and solid tennis. Don’t give anything away; go for deep returns, but don’t play too close to the sidelines. Make your opponent play and see if he or she shows any signs of nerves. You can often break back immediately, not only evening the score, but also deflating your opponent and turning the momentum in your favor. If, on the other hand, you have just broken serve, deliberately try to increase your intensity and generate a little extra adrenaline to forestall any tendency to become complacent or conservative. You’re up a break, so use that opportunity to step on your opponents; don’t expect them to roll over.

After your opponent has blown several chances to break your serve
When your opponents serve after having had their hopes of a service break dashed, they will often be unprepared to focus immediately on holding their own serve. This is a great time for you to break. Your opponents will have seen a promising situation come to naught and will be suff ering some disappointment, so they may not be quite ready to play. Be prepared to take advantage of any droopiness.

Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.

Illustration by William Varner

Originally published in the May 2011 issue of TENNIS.

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