Winning a Losing Battle
When you fall behind, don’t panic. There are plenty of things you can do to change your fortune.
What action should you take when you have gotten off to a slow start in a match and find yourself down 0-3, 1-4, or 2-5? Before making any changes you must first answer a couple of simple questions, the first being, “How am I losing most of the points?” There are only two basic possibilities: one is that you are making too many unforced errors, and the other is that your opponent is hitting too many winners or forcing you into too many errors. Your answer will dictate two different responses.
If you’re making too many unforced errors, you need to relax and, quite obviously, play more safely, hitting further away from the net and lines. Become less creative, and play more crosscourt patterns, which involve less risk. Hit higher over the net to extend the rallies. Your objective is to regain your normal rhythm and “feel,” and cut down your errors. You need to avoid becoming negative and discouraged so your game doesn’t further deteriorate. You want to stabilize the situation as soon as possible and, essentially, use the rest of the set to play yourself good. Keeping the ball in play longer also tests your opponent. You can then see what level of shot difficulty will be required, the general rule being: Take the minimum level of risk necessary to effectively execute your game plan.
If your opponent is hurting you and hitting winners or forcing you into errors you should consider stepping up your own level of aggression so that you are no longer a “standing target.” Pushing your opponents around allows them less time to set up and makes their offensive shots more likely to miss. This assumes, of course, that you have the capability of doing this without increasing your own errors too much. You can only increase your power up to a certain level without experiencing a dramatic increase in errors, and you must never try to play above this level. If you do, you may hit some great shots, but you will have no chance of winning the match.
If you can’t match power for power, you will need to try other means of making it more difficult for your opponent to tee off on the ball. One is to hit high, looping shots, since most people have trouble generating controllable power on balls at shoulder height or above. Another is to work to increase your depth. A third is to try low slices. If you remain calm and poke around, you’ll usually find something your opponent doesn’t like.
If none of these actions work, but you have kept your head and executed normally without excessive errors, you will still have one more thing going for you. That is the possibility of your opponent tightening up as he or she nears the end of the set. All of us have had the unpleasant experience of starting out a set playing well and building a comfortable lead, only to become tentative toward the end, stop hitting our shots, and have our opponent come back to beat us. So when you are the person behind, don’t forget your opponents have the same problems you would have in their position. Your objective then is to keep making your shots and applying consistent pressure so that your opponents will be forced to play well to beat you. It may turn out that they can’t.
Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.
Published in the January/February 2012 issue of TENNIS.