This article is inspired by my experiences as a junior player, professional player and high performance coach. Along with these thoughts I will be mentioning ideas that I have learned from articles and books on tennis, written by people I respect and trust.
I am a very technical and very tactical coach. These two facets seem to me the fundamental development branches in tennis. That being said, there are more intangible aspects like the ability to “learn to win.”
One of the most important parts of learning to win is your training environment. You must make sure that everyone involved in your development as a player has the same goals as you. This allows everyone to be on the same page all the time and work towards the same outcome every day.
Give 100% in every training session
This is a phrase that is commonly thrown around, but I think it’s important to talk about it so that everyone can understand how essential it is.
In every training session your movement must be as if you are in a real match. You need to try to win every point in every practice game and keenly get ready for every new exercise. There must be no let-up…no dragging your feet while gathering balls in-between exercises.
When you manage to do these things every day it will quickly turn into a habit. And guess what? Here is the best part: once you have this habit, you won't even have to think about it. You will be on autopilot and do it without even noticing it. In real matches you will be so used to going at 100% that you will be able to focus on other things that help you win.
How to win a match
I imagine that you already know that to win a match you have to win more points than your opponent. Well, this is true in about 92% of the cases at least, as in certain circumstances a player can win fewer points than his opponent and still win the match. But the ultimate aim of course is to win every point. In order to win as many as possible, you need to know what your weapons are. The second thing you need to know is your opponent's weaknesses, and decipher how you will be able to overcome your own weaknesses with your skills. Once you know how to balance your own strengths and weaknesses against your opponent’s – if you can do so before the match ends – you will likely find a way to win.
Example: If my opponent good forehand but a poor backhand, I will try to push him to the sides of the court so that he can’t use his forehand aggressively. I will also try and force him to run around his backhand to play his forehand, and in doing so open up the court for me to a hit into the open space.
Example 2: If my opponent is very aggressive then I will try to hit very deep in order to push him back behind the baseline. I'll try to make a lot of first serves to protect my second serve from his aggression, and vary my game a lot to keep him from getting into a rhythm. By varying my game I mean mixing up my speed, height and shot type (slice, drop shot etc.).
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You will not always play your best tennis
Don't believe that because yesterday you played one of your best matches, you will do the same today. This is why it is so important to know how to compete and be able to win even on days when you aren’t playing well. I remember an interview with Guga Kuerten the year he ended the season as world number one, having won the French Open that year. The journalist asked him: “How does it feel to have played your best tennis all year round?” Guga replied: “No Lord, my best tennis I played only 2 weeks and they were those of Roland Garros.”
Recently I was training a player who has improved a lot in the last 4 months, but while he will play 2-3 days at a very high level, he will usually follow that with a few days of a lesser level. The key to this whole point is that in order to win a tournament, you often need to win five matches in as many days. In his case, and in most people’s case, you need to win at least a few matches while playing poorly if you want to win a tournament. This is where your head, your body and the will to win will get you over the finish line. Don't beat yourself up, don't complain, and never stop fighting.
How many tournaments do I have to play?
There is no specific rule, but I generally suggest you play an average of 2 tournaments per month. Certainly there will be months that you will play 3 tournaments and others that will play only 1. The important thing is that when you compete you compete hard, and if you win the tournament it serves only to heighten your desire to work harder and train more. At the same time, if you lose early or play poorly, you must not let it get the better of you. You need to learn from each loss and have it make you a better player in the long run.
Why the fear of unforced errors?
I will tell you a personal anecdote which will help you understand my way of thinking about unforced errors. In my first junior year I finished number 3 in the world and I reached the final of Roland Garros. I won several tournaments, but in one match I came up against a very tall, very strong player who hit the ball extremely hard. His technique was very good, but he made a lot of unforced errors. I won the match 6-2, 6-2, and the only thing I had to do for the most part was put the ball back in the court once per rally. When I left the court I told my coach “this guy will be very good.” I think I was right, because a year later this same player was already number 50 and a year later he was in the Top 10. The player I am talking about was Tomas Berdych. A couple of years later we played again in the 2nd round of the Australian Open, but this time he won in 3 sets.
Where I'm going with this story is that you must not fear making unforced errors if the shot is tactically sound and technically executed. Keep going for it until you get it in. Believe me, at some point the shots will start landing, and then you will quickly go from losing your matches to winning them. Today I remembered this after reading similar comments from Franco Davin, a former Top 10 player and coach to players like Juan Martin Del Potro and Fabio Fognini. Another thing that came to my mind was something Alexander Zverev said, which amounted to juniors working for the present but not the future.
- Always train at your 100% so that in matches you do the same thing.
- Learn how to use your weapons to attack the weaknesses of your opponent.
- Learn to win even when you are not playing your best tennis.
- Play enough tournaments, but not too many.
- Don't be afraid of unforced errors, as long as your shots are well executed both technically and tactically.