The junior wanted to apologize after losing to an adult member of his club.
“I’m sorry I played so badly,” said the junior. “I just wasn’t able to play my game today.”
“Don’t you see? I helped take you there.”
The junior had no idea what the adult was talking about.
“Hopefully,” said the junior, “the next time we play I’ll be able to play my game.”
The adult bit his tongue, but thought this: not if I can help it.
An Ill-Fitting Phrase?
Herein, a phrase worthy of dissection: “I need to play my game.” If you had a dollar for every time you heard those words uttered by tennis players, you could probably make a mortgage payment.
But what does it really mean?
“I often roll my eyes when I hear that,” says Judy Murray, mother and coach of two No. 1s, sons Andy and Jamie. “It’s become a bit of a cliché, that comes from coaches and then young players say it too.”
According to Hall of Famer Mark Woodforde, known during his career as a player constantly focused on subtle but meaningful improvements, “A high majority of players don’t know what their game amounts to. They don’t know how they win, or why they lose, or what their opponent is doing. So they’re not really approaching tennis as a student of the game.”
Too Much Coaching?
Look around your parks and your clubs. Be it among juniors or adults, from eager teenagers to ambitious league players, you will see a great many skilled ball-strikers—players capable of whacking a crosscourt forehand, topspin backhand, reasonable serve. But as Murray points out, “There’s so much spoon-feeding around coaching these days, a lot of emphasis on technique and how to hit the ball rather than how to really play the game and understand tactics.”
This does not mean a player needs to simply be a chameleon and neglect to deploy his or her assets. Like a prosecutor trotting evidence, it’s often a good idea to open with one’s best shot sequences. Players like Serena Williams or Naomi Osaka will start off a match with big serves and assertive groundstrokes. Novak Djokovic will commence with one deep crosscourt drive after another. Rafael Nadal will begin with his lefty topspin crosscourt forehand. The message from all is clear: Here it comes. Can you deal with it?
But within the notion of a style—“to play my game”—comes nuance. Your strength might go right to the opponent’s strength, and if their strength is better than yours, that’s not a good place to be. As Bill Tilden wrote nearly 100 years ago in the instructional classic book, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, “Never give your opponent a chance to make a shot he likes.”
There is also the possibility of growth. High-margin groundstrokes were the bedrock of the first four years of Mats Wilander’s career, during which time he earned four Grand Slam singles titles. But Wilander also recognized that if he was to overtake world No. 1 Ivan Lendl that he’d need to broaden his line of attack. In the mid-‘80s, Wilander added a one-handed slice backhand and began to come to net more frequently. In 1988, he won three majors, reaching the pinnacle with a five-set win over Lendl in that year’s US Open final.
Though Wilander’s upgrades were obvious, at the highest levels of the game, changes are often subtle. Having sharpened their skills over the course of hundreds of matches on the way up the ranks, a good pro will usually have a keen knowledge of truly how to improve.
“I knew what would win matches and what would put me in a position to win,” says Woodforde. He admits this was a long-term process, built on years of study, practice, refinement and the lessons that come from losses—and wins—all over the world. Following the end of each tennis year, Woodforde would spend time with his coaches, examining what should be improved. Often, this was the result of a match play situation; that is, a tactic that required a technical upgrade.
“I wasn’t going to have a massive serve,” says Woodforde. “But I could have a troubling serve, one that could help me versus the big returners I was constantly facing.”
Among recreational players, improvement needs are far more obvious—be it the ability to drive a backhand, hit a deeper second serve, consistently put away overheads, or any number of technical skills that can greatly enhance a player’s tactical choices.
Why It’s Accelerated
Unfortunately, use of “I need to play my game” has accelerated over the last 40 years. Once upon a time, players were far more aware of tennis’ interactive dimension. A net-rusher needed to be attuned to return and passing shot patterns. Baseliners studied how well the opponent moved, which side was more dangerous and how those combinations might play out in rallies.
But as thundering groundstrokes emerged—most notably the topspin forehand and the two-handed backhand—players became far more focused strictly on how they were hitting the ball.
“I know you need to develop your own DNA and build the shots that work for you,” says Murray. “But when you’re playing matches, you can’t just look for solutions in technique. It should be about a tactic rather than something like turning your shoulders. Getting too obsessed with technique can become a rabbit hole.”
Added to this technical indulgence has been the growth of dozens of instructors far more skilled at imparting data about stroke production than helping students analyze the ebb and flow of a match. The very economics that govern tennis instruction—the hour-long private lesson, mostly based on user-friendly feeding—are rarely configured to address match play situations. Recreational players who take lessons are often far more eager for technical information and exercise than an exploration of tactics.
Much of Murray’s coaching philosophy was built when—and where—she learned to play. In the Scotland of her youth, there was little knowledge about stroke production. Instead, Murray’s tennis education was largely based on hour after hour of practice matches versus a wide range of playing styles.
“Every time you step on the court, you never face the same situation,” she says. “Temperature, surfaces, wind. And every opponent is different. Even if you play the same person, they’ll be playing differently that day.”
A Better Phrase
A better approach than “play my game” comes from Tilden: “Always look to break up your opponent’s game.” This takes many forms. For players just beginning to compete, it’s as simple as consistency: the ability to hit one more ball over the net. Later comes a spectrum of disruptive concepts, be it power, court positioning, spin, height, angles and many variations of each.
As Tilden further explains, “Never allow a player to play the game he prefers if you can possibly force him to play any other.” Murray’s philosophy boils to one down to a simple word: trouble. As she advises her charges, “Make trouble. Avoid trouble. Get out of trouble.” Her most accomplished student, Andy, brings these concepts to life vividly every time he plays.
The supplemental homework to breaking up the opponent’s game is skills development. “The broader your line of attack, the more weapons you can draw from,” says Steve Stefanki, a California-based coach who was Junior Davis Cup captain in the ‘80s. A preliminary example of this is when a player starts to approach the net more, is frequently lobbed and realizes it’s a good idea to learn an effective overhead. An advanced version of skill-building was revealed by what Roger Federer unveiled at the start of 2017. Having been repeatedly brutalized on his backhand side by Nadal’s crosscourt forehand, Federer made a significant change to his backhand, looking to drive it earlier—a particularly useful tactic versus Nadal. That shift turned into a game-changer, helping the Swiss beat Nadal in the finals of the ’17 Australian Open. Federer went on to win four of their next five matches.
As these concepts and examples show, tennis is not simply an individual sport. It’s a relationship sport, the two opponents bound together. Even among the pros, matches are won less by winners and more by forcing errors.
Per Tilden, “Nothing destroys a man’s confidence, breaks up his game and ruins his fighting spirit like errors. The more shots he misses, the more he worries, and ultimately, the worse he plays.
That is why so many players are said to be ‘off their game’ against me. I set out to put them ‘off their game.’”
Which is precisely what the adult did that day to the junior.