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The Real World: Why playing better players is bad for your tennis health
“When you play better players constantly, you get used to losing,” says Allen Fox, author of If I’m the Better Player, Why Can’t I Win?
Published Jul 31, 2022
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Bob is a 4.0 player with a good forehand, a mildly wicked slice serve, and improving skills at the net. Mike, a former college player that Bob occasionally hits with, strikes every ball with authority, crisp and clean. Even when Mike takes pace off the ball, Bob easily finds his contact point and gets into a smooth rhythm. Usually, they just rally. But the one time they’d played a set, Bob won two games and extended Mike to deuce in two others.
Two days after a hitting session with Mike, Bob played a match against Harry and was flummoxed by his opponent’s slow shots. Bob had recently heard a new term that fit Harry perfectly: “pace-less wonder.”
In the wake of that defeat, Bob decided that the best path of improvement would be to play only against better players, like Mike. Bob’s thinking was that while Harry lowered his game, Mike raised it.
Call Bob’s thinking yet another way tennis players can delude themselves. The belief that one improves only when playing better players has long been a part of tennis. One reason this approach has appeal is that there is minimal downside, as the lesser player has no expectation of winning and therefore will leave the court feeling good, regardless of the outcome.
“You play with such freedom when you don’t think you should win,” says Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin, this year’s Academy Issue ambassador.
Another source of attraction is the speed of the better player’s ball. Because it’s faster and more consistent, there’s little need to generate one’s own pace and extensively deploy technique.
“Hitting the ball against someone who hits harder than you is very comfortable,” says L.A.-based teaching pro Robert Bridgeford. “In a lot of cases, you just feed off their speed and block the ball back.”
But with much less competitive or technical pressure, players who play frequently against better players fail to learn how to compete effectively.
“Sure, the better player gives you a rhythm,” says Lynne Rolley, director of tennis at Meadow Swim & Tennis Club, “but that’s not reality. Competition isn’t about playing with pretty players. Competition is about solving problems and figuring out how to win matches against people who are at your skill level.”
“When you play better players constantly, you get used to losing,” says Allen Fox, author of the book, If I’m the Better Player, Why Can’t I Win?
“Whatever you try, it doesn’t work, because they’re better than you are. You don’t see what strategies work for you.”
The sober truth is that Mike doesn’t raise Bob’s game any more than Harry lowers it. Mike’s faster ball easily lets Bob absorb pace and generate consistency. Harry’s slower shots force Bob to use his entire body to generate racquet-head speed—causing all sorts of havoc with Bob’s footwork, stroke mechanics and concentration. Harry hits the ball at a speed uncomfortably slower than what Bob is comfortable hitting against.
The matter of effective ball-striking technique and handling various speeds and spins is strictly Bob’s responsibility. If you own your technique, the late Tony Trabert once said, you will hit the ball firmly and forcefully, no matter who you’re playing.
“Hitting against someone better can be a nice form of exercise,” says Steve Contardi, operating partner and director of tennis at The Club at Harper’s Point, “but it doesn’t really push your brain.”
If you want to improve, you need to put yourself in all kinds of competitive situations. Tracy Austin
Think of Mike as a physical version of a ball machine, dispensing one user-friendly ball after another. Harry is far more implicating, an invasive, racquet-toting incarnation of an MRI: a deeply revealing diagnostic. That is a fact many tennis players have difficulty accepting. Underestimate Harry at your peril. His playing style will trigger all sorts of counterproductive behaviors and attitudes, from sloppy footwork and overhitting to anger and the declaration of this common statement: How can I lose to this guy?
“If you want to improve, you need to put yourself in all kinds of competitive situations,” says Austin.
“You need to acknowledge the reality of the situation and never think you’re entitled to beat anyone. Learn from Rafael Nadal, who treats every opponent seriously and brings his all no matter who he’s playing.”
“You need to learn how to practice your winning plays,” says Emma Doyle, a former Tennis Australia high performance coach. “You need to learn how to beat people and get those good habits ingrained. That won’t happen versus a better player.”
It’s also possible to sharpen a broader range of tools versus players you can easily beat. According to Rolley, “These are good occasions to work more on your drop shot, or come to net more, or play a set where you only have one serve.”
This is not to say you should never play better players. But while rallying can be a pleasant experience, you’ll learn even more if you compete.