Unlike a game of sheer physical competence, winning at tennis revolves around a range of diverse aspects that all impact the end result of the match. Very few sports require anything close to the mental resilience of a professional tennis player, and the reason for that is the utmost volatility of the game flow turnarounds that are simply not a rare sight in this sport.
More often than not, in tennis, we get to witness some exquisitely inspirational moments of persistence and determination. It seems as if the greatest professionals have these characteristics engraved within their mindset. Needless to say, skill is an important factor – however – the ability to persist and not give up against all odds is what makes certain players true champions.
When things get tough, naturally, we get demotivated and feel like giving up. This is a normal response and there’s nothing wrong about it. However, it is of utmost importance to understand that if a certain task is difficult, it’s not implied that it’s impossible, in and out of tennis. This is what plenty of players fail to realize and give up way before the game is over. Take a look at Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal & Novak Djokovic. For these people, the game ends when the game ends, and not a second before that.
Sometimes, we face an opponent who is simply better. Faster. Stronger. More flexible. More precise. Of higher skill and mental resilience – regardless of the reason why, sometimes, an opponent is just better, and we can feel it.
In this article, we’re giving you a list of tips to turn to when things get difficult and you face such an adversary.
Tip#1: Be Ready
No matter what. Naturally, physical readiness makes a tremendous impact on your mental outlook & your perspective of reality, in and out of tennis. Regardless of who you’re facing, make sure you always do your best in terms of your mind and body’s condition at the game day, whether you invested a month of training before the actual face-off, or you were a little short on time and spoke to yourself in the mirror for a minute, half an hour before the match. Positive self-affirmations do wonders and are often understated, labeled as abstract or simply not enough, but instilling yourself with self-belief and confidence could very well make you play rather fiercely compared to the way you’d play with your usual level of confidence. Prepare yourself thoroughly as much as the circumstances allow you. 45 minutes of a light, sub-rosa warm-up before the actual match could potentially give you an abrupt & desirable head start, while your opponent hasn’t even stretched. Then, maintain the momentum.
An example player to look up would be Stan Wawrinka. At the age of 36 & objectively a constantly prepared player, Wawrinka simply always delivers the best of him. Let’s take a look at how he does that and why this man’s backhand is considered to be one of the most fearsome in the history of this sport:
Tip#2: Understand Your Own Skillset
Understanding your opponent’s arsenal is important, but understanding your own power is critical. Focusing on your own abilities allows you to use them against your adversary, who will be searching for cracks in your playstyle by focusing on your shortcomings. If used the right way, this approach is promising. It allows you to absolutely devastate your opponent and overrun them with what you’re good at, while they’ll be thinking what you’re bad at.
Another important point about being aware of your own power is to understand how your strengths would impact another person’s playstyle. One playstyle doesn’t always work with the same rate of success when matched against a variety of other playstyles. Sometimes, it works right. Other times, it doesn’t. Prioritize learning why certain things work at certain times against certain opponents, and vice versa.
This could also be considered as part of the previous point, as this type of knowledge falls into the definition of being prepared.
Let’s take a look at Rafael Nadal & his immaculate understanding of his own abilities, and also how he manages to use it to his fullest potential.
A genuine, lasso-forehand enables Nadal to deliver another level of force on the ball. The kick up high puts his opponents on their toes consistently and he masks his direction like a professional.
Tip#3: Don’t Think Too Much
Developing mental indifference is of absolute vitality to the way we perform at any activity, in all circumstances. Convincing ourselves the person we’re playing against is better from the start is a bad move. It instantly gives our opponent mental advantage and a head start over us, as we’re assuming the position of the weaker player. Ultimately, this actualizes unless we take a different approach from the start, and instead of taking on the cocky, overly-confident attitude, it’s best to completely shut off the stream of intrusive thoughts and allow ourselves to focus only on the game. Nothing less, nothing more. An empty mind means better foresight, better decision-making and faster reflexes.
Roger Federer said that visualization as a form of meditation turned the tide of his career – completely. His confidence and focus improved when he started meditating and emptying his mind to the point of utter emptiness.
The current world champion, Novak Djokovic meditates regularly. In several occasions, he talks about how mindfulness and keeping his mind under control helped him achieve tremendous results.
Milos Raonic meditates during side swapping. You can notice Raonic meditating by tapping his fingers on his legs. There are many approaches to meditation in-game, and his way is to mimic playing the piano.
Additionally, keeping your mind empty and focused will give us an advantage over our opponent, at least in the mental aspect – unless he or she are equally mindful as we are.
Tip#4: Don’t Make Assumptions
The most difficult matches can naturally be followed by the feeling of being frightened. This is, quite expectedly, a bad thing. Secondly, we might assume that the player we’re playing against would use a certain style that they might have shown in the past matches – and this alone could be completely devastating to our performance if our adversary decides to change their style mid-game or get into a series of consecutive mistakes. If such a thing happens, it can automatically be considered as our chance to turn the tides of the match and establish mental and physical lead over the game. This is something that even players at the bare top of this sport fail to accomplish.
Let’s take a look at the 2021 Australian Open finals – Djokovic faced Medvedev, who had previously held an impressive score of 20+ – 0 before facing the world champion, and got completely smashed during the match. Additionally, the post-tournament medical examination showed that the former had a 25mm rupture in his abdominal muscles, which certainly didn’t impact him beneficially, yet he still won the tournament. Of course, comparing this to a senior tennis player is downright preposterous, but serves as a great example of not walking into the face-off with either of too much or too little self-confidence.
Let’s see how totally unexpectedly so, Nick Kyrgios proved the realness of this law by facing Novak Djokovic in Indian Wells, 2017, and showing him he’s more than just talk:
Tip#5: Forget About “The Zone”
If we’re facing an opponent who’s technically better than us, we can’t afford losing a single point. It’s on from the very first serve. Frankly, there’s a high probability that the player we’re up against will enter the match with the ‘first few games are a warm-up’ mentality – majority of them do, however, this could potentially be detrimental and it is exactly where the opportunity lies. In both professional and casual sport, the snowball effect exists and it manifests through a variety of aspects that we may or may not notice. One of them is the likelihood of someone repeating a mistake they have made several times beforehand, and no matter who we’re up against, aiming to get someone out of their zone through hitting weird, unpredictable topspin or shooting underhand serves is always desirable. Simultaneously, we must aim at constantly maintaining our own zone intact. If we manage to actualize both of these scenarios, the chances will drastically shift in our favor, especially if the player we’re up against is physically more capable but significantly less experienced. Enter the zone from the moment you leave your house with the tennis bag.
Gael Monfils explicitly talks about this as a crucial part of facing a powerful adversary, and leaving the court as a winner.
The French tennis player is one of the rare ones who managed to deliver consistent high-level playstyle throughout his entire career, and for Gael Monfils, there is very little to no philosophy about the concept of ‘the zone’.
Simply put, it doesn’t exist. The whole game is the zone.
Tip#6: Stay Cold
If you’re on fire, let the fire be cold as ice. In all truthfulness, nothing is critical to one’s performance like the internal emotional equilibrium that they’re playing with. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s tennis or not, our emotional state determines how we break through the experiences that we encounter, on and off the court.
If we get ourselves into a series of errors, feeling frustrated is a natural response. If we get a bad line call, or get derailed by a person shouting from the audience, it’s natural to feel fury. If we’re serving, it’s natural to question ourselves about the right way to pull it off – however, there’s no such words that could emphasize the importance of keeping your cool while staring into the soul of such adversity, no matter how intense it may seem to be. If we come to terms with the fact that tough emotions are a natural occurrence and can’t be dodged in a sports match, then there’s no reason to feel surprised by their eruption. Focusing on handling these emotions in an appropriate demeanor would be a much better solution.
An effective way of thriving against the tides of bad feelings that may overwhelm us during a match where we’re against the odds is, first and foremost, accepting how we feel. Acknowledging our emotional state of mind is the baby step of doing something about it. The second thing we must strive to do is trying to view these emotions as an indicator, rather than the definition of what’s going on inside of us.
Taking a deep breath, focusing on the texture of our racket, focusing on the surface beneath our feet for a few seconds, and just letting go – they all do wonders. If we’re up against a strong opponent, maintaining frost in our veins is a must.
Take a look at this face-off between Nadal & Ferrer and notice how, as fiery as the battle had become, Ferrer maintains a steady, cold demeanor throughout the game:
Tip#7: Do Not Relax
Establishing dominance over a higher-ranked player is the ultimate checkpoint for a sportsperson of any caliber, but the story doesn’t end there. The next checkpoint is keeping the same energy for the rest of the match, which is, more often than not, downright difficult – especially if we allow it to get in our head. Potentially, it could lead to overthinking, and overthinking is in direct conflict with several of the aforementioned points about being victorious at the end of the match.
An easy method to check this point off the list is, once we gain even the slightest lead, do not let go no matter what the cost(as long as we’re not putting ourselves in physical and mental danger). If we score two points in a row, the dedication to win the third point must be higher than the one of the first two points combined. This is where this point crosses paths with the point about mental resilience, and it is not a coincidence. The vast majority of mid-tier tennis players relaxes once they establish a lead, and it’s completely the opposite of what needs to be done in order for us to secure the victory.
The moment we gain lead, we must hit hard and make sure we do not lose the momentum of controlling the game flow. A lot of relatively good players struggle with this point and it’s what keeps them from climbing further up the ladder.
The best example of this, would of course be none other than Rafael Nadal. He simply fights for every single point as if it were the match point. No matter what, Rafael Nadal simply doesn’t take the point lightly and he keeps fighting until the very end of the match.
Tip#8: Analyze The Opponent’s Current Playstyle
The final point of this article is far from the least important. The vast majority of tennis players can be roughly sorted out into 4 different tennis playstyles: the macho baseliner, the counter-hitter, the runner or the serve & volley type of player. The last one on the list prefers focusing heavily on their serve and rushing the net aggressively and as early as the physical limits allow it. It used to be the favorized playstyle in the previous century. The macho baseliners prefer to stay on the line and hit fast shots along the sideline. The counter-hitters focus on their ability to out-sustain and outplay their opponents through simply lasting longer. Finally, the runners are the most difficult to match as they’re capable of pulling off unpredictable moves and more often than not, they have a variety of tools in their arsenal, locked and loaded.
Once we pinpoint the type of our adversary’s playstyle, it becomes drastically easier to implement the endless variety of techniques that could expose their playstyle’s liability. Each type of player has them, and although it might not be necessarily easy to spot them, once we do, the only thing that’s left is to put the right solution to use.
This, of course, is easier said than done. It’s necessary to already have the idea about the right paths we should take in order to thrive against our opponent, and the best warranty for making sure that we’ll come up with the right choice is to already have the solutions for every possible type of face-off. Unless we’re talking about seriously competitive levels of tennis, most likely there’s a limited amount of tools the opponent we’re up against could turn to.
Analyze, compare, pick a solution, apply, win.
Ultimately, it’s difficult and immature to write concisely about specific moves and hits we should take against a better opponent. Tennis is among some of the most, if not the most competitive 1v1 sport on Earth, considering the amount of physical strain it puts onto our bodies. It’s a noble, but unpredictable sport of mind and body between two individuals.
Unless we’re talking about the very top, or the very bottom of the worldwide tennis player base, it is relatively unlikely that someone dominates us in every single aspect of the game. Practically speaking, there should always be a way to counter particular behavior on court, and although a direct, word-by-word guide on how to pull everything off in specific scenarios most likely doesn’t exist, the points covered in this article will almost certainly allow you to get to do the “conqueror’s roar” at the end of the match.
Needless to say, always maintain a healthy attitude and never allow yourself to be carried away. Safety first.
Godspeed and best of luck!