Years ago, while watching Maria Sharapova compete at the Sony Ericson at Key Biscayne, Florida, I was reminded once again of how important the mental game and mental toughness are during a match. The commentators spoke about Sharapova’s mental strength even though she played without her “A” game. My job as the UMass Women’s Team coach was to prepare my players to bring their best in the absence of their “A” game—to give them the best chance to succeed whether they are at their best or not. Do you prepare to win? Is your team completely ready to compete? Read this and then get ready to go.…
The preparation for a tennis match begins before the player walks on the court. Below are Judy’s top 15 match tips that you can use before, during, and after your matches to help you win.
BEFORE THE MATCH
1. Develop your game outside of match time. It is important to remember that match time is not the time to focus on improving your strokes or implementing a new technique you have just learned. During a match, you will evaluate your opponent(s)’ strengths and weaknesses and consider your strategy, but your primary focus is to play each point–watch the ball, stay in the moment. Developing the different parts of your game (groundstrokes, approach game, net game, understanding singles and or doubles strategy, etc.) should take place off the match court. If you want to improve your game, take tennis lessons, attend clinics or camps or group coaching sessions, read about tennis, watch tennis, practice with other players, use a ball machine, and work on your fitness, but once you step onto the match court, leave game developing thoughts behind and focus on playing each point to win that point!
2. Arrive for your match early. Typically, the UMass team arrives at a site, either home or away, an hour before the match. It’s during this time that the team checks their equipment, fills their water bottles, gets used to the environment, moves their bodies around, and stretches. It’s important for you to warm up quickly, and, since time is a factor, the 20 minutes before you take the court is critical. Move around, ride the exercise bike if available, do a few moving/stretching drills. A slow start is punished in league matches. Preparing before you take the court will help you to calm your emotions, allow you to be relatively focused when you take the court. Check your equipment—2 racquets, shoes, water bottle, towel. Note: do not wear your court shoes on the way to the match or after the match.
3. Move around during the match warm up. Movement is the key to getting off on the right foot (no pun intended). Treat the warm up seriously—control your pace to create a cooperative warm up and move, move, move! Do you often get better as the match progresses? This is your body working its way into the match. Why not allow it to start sooner.
4. Develop a ritual. Sharapova, Djokovic, and Nadal are all driven by their rituals. Watch sometime—Maria turns her back to the net, fiddles with her strings, never steps on a line, bounces the ball the same way each time before she serves. The importance of ritual in play as in life creates a feeling of safety and comfort and can provide the difference between winning and losing.
5. Use rituals during the match whether playing singles or doubles. Once you have developed your own ritual, be sure to use it consistently for EACH point. If you watch Nadal as he is about to serve, whether he has lost or won the previous point, his ritual gets him poised to start the next point fresh and in line with his best effort. In doubles, make physical contact with your doubles partner. The UMass team players make some sort of physical contact with each other after each point either by slapping each other’s hand or just standing shoulder to shoulder and checking in, again, after each point. The more difficult the situation, the more important this is. If one player is playing badly this contact remains crucial.
6. Stay in the present. How often do you hear coaches say, “one point at a time?” Playing one point at a time means focusing only on the current point, not the previous point or the points to come. You don’t want to carry thoughts about missed shots into the next point. Again, think about Sharapova. She turns her back to the net between points, mentally “turning away” from the last point to put it symbolically behind her. I have the UMass players put a rubber band on their racquet wrist and when their focus waivers either past or future, they snap the rubber band to bring them back into the present. As Billie Jean King says, “The only ball that’s important is the one coming at you now.”
7. Relax your mind. A tennis match requires long periods of concentration. Breaks in concentration are built in during change overs and between points. If you don’t use these moments to relax your mind and release some tension, you will exhibits lapses of concentration during the point playing moments.
8. Strategize, don’t analyze. Always work together in doubles to strategize. Do you need to cut down on unforced errors? Do you need to take the net away? Do you need to handle the lob better? Never, never, never analyze your partner, your partner’s technique, or even your own during a match. Evaluate your tactics.
AFTER THE MATCH
9. Why did you win (or lose)? Jot down a few notes about who you played. What went well? What did not? This will help you and your teammates in the future. The UMass team does this after each match.
CRITICAL TIMES DURING A MATCH
10. The beginning of the match sets the tone. Both you and your opponent have a good idea of what to expect after the first three games. Take the first changeover to review what you have discovered and what message you have sent to your opponent(s). Are you moving well? Are you controlling the net? How is the lob part of your game serving you? It’s important to hold serve at this juncture when you are not fully warmed up. The best server of a doubles team does not always start the match. If you are a slow starter, let your partner serve first. If you move around the net a lot successfully, let your partner start. And if you win the toss, think about receiving. In singles, take these first three games to play conservatively aggressive. You can always go for more as the game progresses, but let the beginning be high percentage groundstroking and serving.
11. 4-1 Ahead? Beware the wounded bear, as Brad Gilbert says. This is a time your opponent will try to regroup. Expect this and keep doing what put you in this position. Do not rush. If your opponents’ tactics change, be flexible enough (and aware enough) to counteract that. Keep your mind clear and do not panic. Even if they catch up, remember that this took a lot out of them to do this and just regroup.
12. 4-1 Behind? It’s time to come up with Plan B. I never let my team go into a match without a Plan B. When you are this far behind, be realistic and make a tactical change. That way you will know if this change will have an effect before the second set. I played a National Intersectional singles match in San Antonio in November. I was down 5-0 before I took a breath. At this point I decided to come to the net as a tactical change. I won the next two games, and even though I lost the first set 6-2, I felt my opponent was not comfortable when I approached. I took this tactic into the next two sets and won them 6-1 6-3.
13. Beginning of the second set. You must start again! If you won the first set, expect your opponent to come back. If you reestablish yourself immediately, they may lose heart. If you have lost the first set, approach the second as a 1 set and tiebreaker match—really not that bad, right?
14. Closing out the match. Stay in the present—remember 1 point at a time. This is not the time to play conservatively. Play to win. If you ski so as not to fall, bad things happen. Play slowly in between points and aggressively during the point.
15. Your attitude matters! And finally, remember what Billie Jean always says, “Pressure is a privilege.”
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