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The six mistakes players make too often—and how to fix them
If you want to improve your decision-making, pay attention to how you’re losing points.
Published Jun 18, 2021
The six mistakes players make...and how to fix them:
Poor Shot Selection
Each ball you receive from an opponent has its own unique characteristics. And these factors— such as speed, spin and arc—as well as your court positioning and balance, all combine to present you with return options. Too often, players calculate these variables and come up with the wrong answer.
If you want to improve your decision-making, pay attention to how you’re losing points. Take a moment to ask yourself if it was a shot you’d make four out of five times.
If so, you can live with the faulty execution. If not, you’re being too bold. Remember that your screaming winner counts the same as an opponent’s forehand in the net, but it’s more difficult to create. If you want the W at the end of the day, learn to identify and favor the high percentage play.
We’re all taught to play to our strengths, which is ultimately a smart strategy for winning tennis. But not only do we want to hit our best shots as much as possible, we want to exploit our opponent’s weaknesses. And sometimes those two directives don’t mesh.
Your bread-and-butter inside-out forehand may be the perfect weapon against Player A, but Player B’s backhand is lights out. If the primary game plan isn’t working, analyze the situation and implement different types of shots, to probe which are more effective against a particular opponent.
Continually using the same shots and strategies also makes a player too predictable. You want your opponents to feel off-balance and uncomfortable for as often as possible. I love to drive the ball hard through the court, but when I’m playing doubles, I know that mixing in soft rollers at the feet of my opponents force difficult volleys and lots of errors. They’re constantly guessing. Sure, it takes more brain power to play this way, but the results are better, and it’s a lot more fun.
Throwing Your Opponent Roses
This gem came from fellow Wisconsinites Tim and Tom Gullickson: When you’re donating lots of (R)eturn (o)f (s)erve (e)rrors, it’s as if you’re throwing roses to your opponent. Instead of forcing them to earn the point, you’re giving gifts. Not only is it a recipe for never breaking serve, it fosters a helpless, demoralizing feeling that filters through your entire game. A well-struck, heavy serve can cause an errant return, of course, but it’s those makeable shots that are borderline inexcusable. (It’s a particularly egregious offence on a second serve.)
I like to tell players to hit the ball in the center of the strings toward the center of the court. This promotes high-percentage contact to a high percentage target. Returning the ball in the court with purpose is very satisfying; once you start doing that consistently, that satisfaction builds confidence. Now you’re feeling good about your return and can start being bolder by aiming closer to the lines. Instead of handing your opponent presents, you’ll be taking points, breaking serve and winning more matches.
Losing the Script
One of the tougher aspects to master between the ears is maintaining focus. Whether forward-thinking toward the finishing line, stewing about a mistake in a past game or simply struggling with pressure, there are many traps that can cause a mind to wonder and performance to suffer.
One of my old coaches—another fellow Cheesehead—Hank Jungle, had a wonderful strategy for simplifying a match. Instead of concentrating on winning a game or a set, make winning consecutive points the goal. At the same time, try to prevent your opponent from doing likewise. Hank determined that the player who strings together the most consecutive-points streaks will win the match.
Changing the approach to winning and losing into small increments can relieve some of the larger pressure of winning the entire match. Since the next “victory” shifts to the next point, it also helps keep a player more in the moment. Your opponent may not be as alert when it’s 15–0, but if you win that next point, your chances of taking the game go up dramatically.
By turning the tug-of-war of an entire match into a series of mini struggles, you may stand a better chance of ending up with the rope.
Work on having a consistent ball toss by repeatedly practicing landing your toss in a chalk-marked zone, without hitting the ball. Jim Courier
Overcooking the Serve
One of the biggest mistakes club players tend to make when serving is favoring velocity over accuracy. It rarely finds the box, and the more they try to crush the ball, the more their mechanics go out the window. And if it does go in, the compromised technique causes placement issues. The serve may have decent pace, but its poor location diminishes its effectiveness.
A better idea would be to emulate Roger Federer. (Yes, that can be said for much of tennis instruction.) He’s got plenty of pop on his serve, but it’s nowhere near one of the fastest on tour. What makes it so lethal is how he can spot it. He racks up aces and easy points with location and consistency, not sheer pace.
Serving is the one instance when you’re not reacting on a court. You get to decide the shot exactly on your own terms. Imagine what a weapon it could be if you get to a place where you absolutely trust it. That won’t happen if you’re constantly chasing M.P.H.
Complicating Net Approaches
One of the best and—theoretically— easiest ways to assert aggression is attacking the net. Moving forward shortens the court and creates better angles to finish the point with a volley; it also takes time away from your opponents and pressures them to hit a passing shot. However, many players squander this opportunity by inventing difficulties that shouldn’t exist.
For one thing, they misuse the approach shot. It’s not meant to be a winner; the purpose is to set up a finishing shot at net. If you tee off and miss your target, the ball gets to your opponent quicker and you lose time getting to the first volley. Hitting a controlled shot that allows you to get in better positioning makes much more sense.
The next hurdle is overthinking how to move at net. Keep it simple and follow the direction of your approach. If you hit the shot up the line, then move up and over, so you’re about an arm’s length from that sideline. Keep the ball in front of you and take away the best passing option. Dare your opponent to produce the more difficult shot that covers more distance and gives you more time to intercept. Without even hitting a volley, a well-placed approach and smart positioning greatly improves your chances of success at net.