It sounds simple to 'play the way you think.' Do you do it?
After years of playing and coaching tennis, two facts emerge. First, you should play a style of game that suits your personality, whether that’s daring, cautious, or somewhere in between. Second, as obvious as this advice seems, it’s often overlooked because of “helpful” advice from coaches or a desire to emulate the wrong champions.
We all have tennis idols, players we love to watch. Models are good to have, but problems arise when we try to fashion our games in the style of players whose personalities don’t fit our own. If you admire someone whose skills are different from your own, that’s fine. Just don’t try to mimic what you love or you may be playing to your emotional weaknesses. And be judicious in accepting coaching suggestions that may conflict with your personality.
In tennis, your most basic choice is whether to focus on offense or defense, and this will depend largely on your personality type and somewhat on your physical attributes. If you are risk-averse, you’ll be more comfortable slanting your game toward defense, where you play consistently and win by attrition and your opponents’ errors. If you enjoy living on the edge, you are better suited to offense, where you attack and win by forcing errors or hitting winners. In my day, such hang-loose personalities as Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe went for winners quickly. In contrast, such conservative types as Pancho Gonzales and John Newcombe played rather predictably, but ground their opponents down by rarely missing.
I was in the conservative category and learned the hard way to play within the bounds of my personality. My coach at UCLA insisted that I must “hurt” opponents if they missed a first serve. So on second serves I dutifully hit my returns flat and hard, and it worked well when I played opponents whom I was confident of beating. But over the years I realized that against worrisome opponents, especially on big points, I made too many errors. My aggressive tactic and conservative nature clashed. My comfort level and percentages were much better if I chipped my backhand return low and forced opponents to hit difficult volleys.
This conclusion fits within the broader concept that you should never “hit and hope.” You have a range of power within which you are mentally comfortable and your error rate is low. This is specific to you and is as much mental as physical. You can adjust your power somewhat within this range, but hitting above it will cause a dramatic jump in your error rate.
It’s a mistake to pattern your game after what you think you “ought” to do or after someone else’s personality. The great players often say, “You must have the courage to go for your shots in the big situations.” That may suit their personality, but not yours. Rod Laver said to keep giving the ball a good nudge no matter how you feel, and you will eventually come good. That worked for Laver, who was a great champion, but it didn’t work for me. Most of us non-greats are better off playing more safely when we are nervous or uncertain of our shots, and leaving the creative winners on big points to the geniuses.
Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.
Originally published in the September/October 2011 issue of TENNIS.