Does your elbow turn to concrete, and your legs to lead, when you try to serve out a match? Learn to settle down with our 10-step plan:

Every tennis textbook teaches you how to reach up for your serve, extend through your forehand, and take little steps between your shots. These skills are essential, but most authors and teaching pros leave out the final chapter in the book of tennis success: How to Close. You can have the world’s most elegant strokes, but you’re not going to get very far if you can’t use them to win the final game of a match.

Everyone recognizes that serving out a match requires a different mental approach, and a higher level of confidence, than serving at 2–1. So why don’t we teach players how to cross the finish line? Maybe it’s because we believe mental toughness is something you’re born with, rather than something you learn.

According to Dr. Alexandra Guhde, a clinical psychologist who has worked with tennis players, this is a harmful myth.

“The difficulty is that people start to think of themselves—and others begin to think of them—as chokers,” Guhde says. “There’s no such thing. A choker is just a person who’s still learning to be clutch.”

With that hopeful idea in mind, here’s our version of that final chapter in the tennis textbook: A 10-step plan on how to close.

Before you head out to play, identify something you want to work on for that day. Having a clear focus in mind is going to help you improve that much faster, and make being on the court even more fun! —Jan-Michael Gambill


1: Practice: Getting Nervous

Everyone reacts to pressure differently, so before you can overcome your nerves, you need to discover how they manifest for you. “Put yourself in tight situations and you’ll find out what your tendencies are,” says former No. 1 Tracy Austin. “My feet would stop moving, and I would lose racquet-head speed, so I knew to be aware of those things.” Schedule matches with players who are competitive with you, but who you feel you should beat. The prospect of losing to someone lower on the totem pole should get your nervous juices flowing. Pay attention to what happens when they do— do you start to push, do you go for too much, do your legs get heavy? Whatever your issue is, you can begin to combat it.

2: Hit Extra Buckets of Serves

The most important word in the phrase “serve it out” is serve. The better yours is, the easier it will be to finish matches. The serve is the only shot that you have total control over, and the only shot that can win you a point before you have time to get nervous. But like any stroke, it can also break down under pressure, so practice your first and second serves equally. At 5–4 in the third, nothing helps as much as a service winner, and nothing hurts as much as a double fault.

Beating an opponent always feels good, but there’s a special satisfaction in overcoming your own nerves and serving out a close match.

Beating an opponent always feels good, but there’s a special satisfaction in overcoming your own nerves and serving out a close match. 

3: Know What You Can Control—and Control It

Rafael Nadal is famous for his mental strength. One thing that sets him apart is his ability to focus on what he can control. “I’ve been practicing the right way,” he likes to say as a tournament starts. Nadal understands that selfconfidence isn’t a state of being; it’s a step-by-step process he must constantly repeat. When you’ve prepared properly for a match, it’s easier to keep any doubts you have about winning it at bay.

4: Prepare Your Mind Alongside Your Body

Research has increasingly shown that the same issues that cause players to break down physically also cause them to break down mentally. “You can choke because you’re not properly hydrated, or if you haven’t slept enough,” says Dr. Jim Loehr, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute. “It may look like you’re just gagging, but there’s more to it. If you’re not physically ready for a match, you won’t be as ready mentally, and you’ll get frustrated more easily.” So drink up and get to bed early; your brain will be as grateful as your body.


“Being clear and specific about your tactics will keep you from worrying about the future,” says former No. 1 Tracy Austin.

“Being clear and specific about your tactics will keep you from worrying about the future,” says former No. 1 Tracy Austin. 

5: Find Comfort in Discomfort

Nerves are essential to helping you perform well. “For every person there’s an optimal level of anxiety,” Guhde says. “When I’m [working with a player], we focus on embracing anxiety as a sign of personal engagement. The anxiety shows a player is invested, and getting comfortable in that uncomfortable place is key to preventing anxiety from turning into panic.” Nerves aren’t a sign of weakness; they’re a sign that you’re progressing toward your goal.

6: Recall Your Successes

“When athletes think about themselves screwing up, they’re more likely to do it,” Sian Bielock writes in Choke. Conversely, those who think about winning are more likely to win. Keep your selftalk positive, but also reality-based, by recalling your past victories. “It’s not just positive thinking that helps,” writes Jonathan Fader, Ph.D. in Psychology Today, “it’s positive statements that are true. ‘I’ve succeeded in this situation before’ is a much more effective self-statement than ‘I can do this!’”

Getty Images

Getty Images


7: Lock Yourself Down

The most famous clutch performance of recent years was Novak Djokovic’s Houdini-like win over Roger Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final. Despite being outplayed, Djokovic prevailed because he made no errors in three tiebreakers. Rather than playing conservatively or aggressively in those moments, Djokovic found the sweet spot between them by taking the ball early, hitting it with pace, and never flirting with the lines or trying anything unusual. You probably can’t match Djokovic’s consistency, but you can practice “lockdown mode.” Instead of trying to end points quickly with aces or winners, use each shot as a way to keep your opponent on the defensive.

8: Keep Thinking

The last thing an athlete should do in a tight spot is think about the task at hand, right? Yet trying to clear your mind may invite negative thoughts to fill the empty space. Crowd them back out by continuing to think tactically. “Your mind may be racing ahead, so you need to bring it back to the here and now,” Austin says. “Think about what you need to do on the next point. Plan where you’ll serve, tell yourself to keep the ball deep, think about where you want to move your opponent.”

Getty Images

Getty Images

9: Redouble Your Rituals

If you’re serving for a match, you’ve been doing something right. Now isn’t the time to try anything new. Loehr recommends a “16-second cure” that will keep you too busy to get negative. Before each point, (1) start by walking purposefully and showing positive body language; (2) relax by looking at your strings, so your eyes have a place to rest; (3) get ready for the next point by gazing confidently across the net as you plan your first shot; (4) finish by going through your service rituals.

10: Savor Your Success

When tennis players win, they can celebrate conquering an opponent. But the sport offers another reward: the chance to rise above your own nerves and doubts. Too often we only remember when we choked, in part because, as Guhde says, “Negative experiences imprint on our brains far more powerfully than positive.” When you prevail in a tight match, take in as much as you can about that experience for future reference. You’re not just a winner now; you’re a closer.