The art of winning
Very often there will be no major physical and technical differences between you and your opponent. However, the victory will go to the player who is best able to develop certain mental and emotional processes within oneself.
Working on the fundamentals is essential, but the art of winning is another thing. Winning requires different and higher-level skills.
The inner processes
What are these inner processes?
Those with a winning mentality pay attention to why some points are won or lost. They can handle scoring, mistakes and game strategies. Those with a winning mentality love to adapt to the changing challenges they face to close a set or a match and can stay calm in difficult times.
Observe the opponent
A top player never gets stuck on a single type of game if it doesn't work in that game. He often manages to change his way of playing and adopt a plan B, or even a plan C if necessary. He can lose the first set with plan A, but he will almost always win the game with plan C.
Weaknesses and strengths
The forehand of the top players can be used to attack, stay in a neutral mode (or construction) and be used to employ defence. A player may have a terrific forehand, but if he hasn't learned to have a neutral or defensive forehand as well, that will make his huge forehand highly attackable.
Playing neutral or defensive balls will inevitably result in some mistakes. A shot that can be seen as a strength can also turn out to be a weakness.
I also recommend that you monitor how high your opponent hits the ball. Some tennis players play a wonderful backhand when they hit at waist height, but it gets worse when they hit the ball at shoulder height or higher.
Often a ball with an arched trajectory that passes about two-and-a-half meters above the net will be much more effective than the low-to-the-net shot you have trained so hard for. On the other hand, a player who uses a lot of topspin and a western or semi-western style grip, may have serious difficulties with low side balls or with a very marked slice.
Once you have been able to identify his type of play, continue to attack your opponent's weak point until he is able to solve the problem and respond appropriately. Continue with this method and you will win a lot of points.
The movements in the court
Some opponents are very strong from the baseline, but much less so when they are forced to retreat or advance towards the net. In all the tennis academies in the world you can see the best players hitting hard by positioning themselves on the entire length of the court, and by going back and forth continuously.
By pushing your opponent back only 20 feet with a plan B that involves using high balls, his longest and most powerful ball will barely make it to your service line.
If you learn to use the slice well and to angle your shots better, you will be able to force your opponent come into the court at least by three-five meters. And then his shots will automatically start to go beyond the baseline.
Try to learn an alternative type of game that takes the tennis player accustomed to staying exclusively on the baseline out of his “comfort zone” and you will be able to become famous in your club and maybe not only.
The game patterns
If a certain type of serve is usually good for you, use it for game balls. If your opponent is having success with a certain game plan, expect him to use it at the important points.
If you are scoring with a certain type of play, keep attacking your opponent in this way.
If your opponent has discovered your weakness, I suggest you move a little, leaving the other side of the court unguarded, so that your opponent will get the urge to attack you on the other side.
Remember that it will often be your shot that decides your opponent's response. For example, if you are struggling against a dropshot wizard, you are probably throwing short, low balls at them. Instead, try to hit with a high and deep trajectory, so as to prevent him from practicing this tactic.
The signs of a negative mental attitude
Remember that communication is not just verbal. Between one point and another, try to understand when your opponent is showing a negative attitude with facial expressions and body language. In this case, repeat whatever you did in the previous point.
The ability to bear frustration is a very important aspect of the mental and emotional struggle that takes place in a tennis match.
See how your opponent's confidence level changes depending on the length of the rally and the speed of the ball. Pay attention to the position on the pitch he prefers, his speed and his energy level.
Also observe his rituals between one point and another. Who is monitoring the progress of the match and the duration of the exchanges? Try doing it yourself. Once you understand what is bothering your opponent, try using this type of strike at the important points.
The causes of your mistakes
A wrong shot choice is always the main reason you lose a point in middle and high-level tennis. A good coach can point out many bad choices you have made after a game.
An example would be to continue trading shots by letting your opponent take over the game. Another example could be losing a point because you missed your first serve and hit your second serve right on your opponent's very strong forehand. Or you tried to make an unlikely pass from five meters behind the baseline instead of a defensive lob. Or you hit a smash too hard when you could have placed it better without employing force.
These are just examples. But an inappropriate choice of your shots can and must be improved in the context of an advanced-level training.
You could start by asking a friend or manager to draw up a “cause of errors sheet” during the next game. I advise you to make four columns: the first on the mechanics of the shots, the second on the choice of shots, the third on the movements and the last on the mental management of the match. For every mistake in the game, you simply have to make a cross in one of the four columns. This will be excellent material from which to start improving.
The ways to close a rally
Tennis players are creatures of habit. Once they have learned a game pattern to get out of a certain situation, they tend to repeat it. Think about the ways your opponent usually tries to close the rally, perhaps using a shorter ball, and what are your methods. You will notice that there are four options:
- Take a forward shot
- Hit a winner
- Tighten the corners
- Use a drop shot
Some opponents may prefer forward shots and volleys, while others simply prefer to hit winners from the baseline.
What does your opponent prefer to do? When you have understood this, you will be more ready to react or even prevent him from being able to perform this type of shot, taking away the opportunity.
But always keep in mind that there is a plan A, B and C. Once you have learned how to manage his preferred option, you will need to start understanding how to manage his second choice or even the third.
At the same time, if your opponent has learned to respond well to your favourite shot, are you ready to field your plan B or C if necessary?
Think like a baseball pitcher
Do you always shoot the same ball, with the same speed and the same height? And when the game ends you think: “I had no hope! His forehand was too strong.”
In reality it is often you who make your opponent look better. One solution may be to try to stop hitting just the way you usually do and try to use more hits that can put your opponent in trouble.
Top players don't have one fantastic forehand type, they have five: flat, arched, slice, narrow cross, and lob. How many straight types can you do? And do you know when to use them?
The rituals between one point and another, and during breaks
Most of the time in a match is not spent playing tennis. About 75% of the time is spent between one point and another, and between the start of one game and the next. Every player must know how to use this time to learn how to win. The key is to have rituals.
There are two types of rituals: one internal and the other external. The top players use inner rituals to study strategies, solve problems and analyse the opponent. I recommend that you use the various 90-second pauses within the set for this type of analysis.
The rituals between one point and another are as important as those of the breaks within the set. There are three ways to improve them. Here they are:
Overcoming the mistakes made from an emotional point of view, but at the same time trying to understand how to improve from a technical and tactical point of view.
Decide the tactics of the next point. All high-level sportsmen study and use strategies and schemes, and successful tennis players are no exception.
Perform fixed relaxation rituals. As Jim Loehr first pointed out, players create these rituals to regain confidence and control.
Beating a top player is a very difficult challenge to face. During a game you have to manage many ups and downs not just from a technical but also from an emotional point of view. Often this involves internal conflicts and the management of a level of competitiveness that can reach the limit of disloyalty. The right rituals will keep you playing well mentally and emotionally and thus lead you to play the tennis you need to win.
The correct thought patterns to manage emotions well can be easily learned and put into practice. However, they must be taught by coaches and professionals who are experts in the field.
Players who practice the tips I just gave usually advance easily in tournaments and often have a house full of trophies.
Athletes who manage to develop these inner skills are able to remain calm even in difficult times.
The ability to maintain mental balance even under stress can be learned. Tennis players with a winning mentality train to practice these procedures with the same dedication they dedicate to the fundamentals.