Most players have a particular style of play that they find difficult. When I was a junior, for example, I hated playing “pushers,” patient players who were good defensive lobbers and who seemed content to run and defend all day. Since I didn’t have a great overhead and found high, soft groundstrokes hard to attack, I feared running into these guys. When I did, I grew irritated and impatient rather than staying calm and alert. I was in a hurry to finish points and frustrated when I found that the only way to do so was to miss quickly myself.
I compounded my difficulties by berating these opponents in my mind as being defective individuals who would never be any good because they were using an essentially immoral style of play. (I was young and didn’t get it.) This emotionally driven chain of logic (or illogic) blinded me to more productive approaches to the situation. There were ways to beat these guys, but I wasn’t going to find them when my focus was on what evil humans they were.
Whatever style of play is problematic for you, your first response should be to avoid getting emotional, frustrated and negative. Otherwise, you are likely to make a lot of errors and blind yourself to rational countermeasures. For example, had I kept my head when I ran into pushers as a junior, there were several approaches that would have been more effective than moaning about having to play this type of player.
A better one would have been to hit more overheads and develop a good one, rather than complaining about the erratic one I had. Like me, most people hit a half-dozen overheads in the warm-up and think that’s enough, even though they have shaky overheads and know it. If your overhead is unreliable, hit enough in practice to make it solid.
The other approach I could have used would have been to become content to play long points myself. In those days, my impatience played right into the hands of my opponent, who wouldn’t, I’m sure, have enjoyed long points any more than I did. He depended on my haste and early errors, and the last thing he wanted was for me to be willing to spend two or three hours body-punching under a hot sun. To become more patient, I would have had to purposely try to enjoy the long points rather than trying to end them quickly.
Years later when I was on the tour, there was a different style that gave me particular trouble: The big guy with a huge serve and aggressive volleys on bad grass. (In my mind, they weren’t evil, just big and unpleasant.) Luckily, I had matured enough to resist getting frustrated and emotional. My approach then was to try to figure out what to do about it. In practice against players who didn’t have huge serves, I stood in close for the returns so I could get used to serves that rushed me. In tournaments against the big guys I learned to play deeper on returns and anticipate direction better.
This is the essence of countering problematic styles of play: 1) Stay calm and rational; 2) figure out exactly what part of the style is causing the problem; and 3) set up practice drills or mental approaches that help you nullify the specific difficulty. If you do this, there won’t be any style that makes you think evil thoughts.
Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.