Once you reach your forties and beyond, you are never going to be quite as good an athlete as you were in your twenties. If tennis was a game purely based on your physical capabilities, you would have to give up competing with younger players at some time in your mid-thirties. In athletics, for example, there are very few 400m runners competing at the highest level after the age of 35, as they simply cannot match the younger athletes. Fortunately, tennis is not like this. Although the athletic element is still very significant, a good understanding of the game, accurate shots and good mental skills can counteract greater speed and power. Older players with the right attitude and a good tactical plan will often have a very real chance of beating much younger tennis players. So, what are the most important things to focus on if you want to compete with younger players?
Understand The Game and Mindset Of Younger Players
The first group of players to consider are juniors. In all of this analysis, it should be understood that we are not talking about the very best juniors, who are on track to become top 200 players. These players train like the pros, and are extremely difficult to beat for anyone short of professional standard. Fortunately, the juniors you are likely to encounter in regional open events are not as good as the top under-18s. These second and third-tier players may still train a lot, and often have some nice shots, but they tend to be rather one-dimensional and to believe that they are rather better than they actually are. In men’s tennis, typical junior tournament players have nice topspin shots, but may not enjoy playing at the net for example. They often have pacy first serves and heavily spun second serves, which are not always consistent. Such players will normally prefer to play against solidly hit topspin shots rather than slower balls and slices. Female juniors are typically even more limited in their game-style than the boys, often having been coached by people who believe that out and out power is what will succeed in women’s tennis. Many of the girls will hit hard and flat, and may have a solid first serve. However, due to the way they have been coached, they will not always have a strong second serve, will only be able to drive-volley well at the net, and will struggle against slice.
Despite their weaknesses, the juniors you are likely to encounter will be hitting a lot more balls in practice than a typical senior player, and will be faster and more flexible. Even so, there is one other vulnerability which many of them share, and which experienced players can exploit. This concerns their mentality. Many male juniors have developed, through playing and training with their peers, a rather inflated idea of their own ability. When they start to struggle against an older player who is less athletic, and possibly less stylish, than them, they find this very difficult to deal with and can often lose focus completely, sometimes swearing and throwing things. Female juniors can have a similar attitude, but some may react in a slightly less explosive way. Of course, these are only generalisations. There are some juniors with great temperaments who thoroughly enjoy playing tricky opponents, but outside of the upper echelons of the game such players tend to be few and far between.
Unless you are of a top national standard in your age group, any players aged between 19 and 35 you may play in tournaments are likely to be enthusiastic club players. Some of these will have been good juniors, and are likely to have good technique, whereas others will have started later and could be less orthodox. Many of these people will have full-time jobs, so their athletic advantage over you will be much less than for the juniors. Some will have their own stylistic idiosyncrasies, which may mean that they are less likely to be fazed by your tactical variations, but they could also have significant technical weaknesses which you could exploit. In terms of mindset, some of these players will be more mature than others, but intelligently applied tactics can often cause their game to break down.
The Best Tactics For Beating Juniors
The mental battle begins in the warm-up. This offers you five minutes to evaluate your opponent’s game, assuming that you have not been sable to watch them play prior to this. Use this time wisely. Evaluate which shots they hit most confidently, and which ones are most likely to trouble you. Check out their net play.How good does their overhead look? Did they miss a significant number of any particular shot? For your own part, make sure that you have warmed up well physically, and have hit enough balls that you feel sharp. Do not hit too many shots of the type you plan to use in the match, as you do not want your opponent to become used to what you plan to do.
Following the warm-up, you can finalise your tactical plan. This will vary significantly from match to match, but there are certain key elements which will often prove effective against young players.
- Firstly, use plenty of slice. They will be more than used to topspin, but having to deal with a sequence of good quality slices will be alien to them, and could cause them to become frustrated and make errors.
- Secondly, if you get an opportunity to put the ball away try to do so, but apart from this, giving your opponent very little pace can be effective.
- Thirdly, due to the rarity of juniors of this level being good net players, use the occasional drop shot to bring them forward. You can then attemp to pass or lob them, depending upon your assessment of whether their volleys or overheads are weaker.
- Finally, do not be afraid to move to the net yourself, as they will not be used to this and it will give you the opportunity to save energy by shortening the rallies.
The Best Tactics For Beating Younger Adults
As discussed earlier, some of these players will be just out of the juniors, and the same ideas discussed in the last section will apply. Others will be less technically sound, but perhaps more flexible in their approach. If you are playing one of the latter group, it is vital that you quickly assess their weaknesses. Such players often have a weak groundstroke, typically the backhand, and their second serve is typically not of the highest quality. Faced with this scenario, you must pressure their weakness(es) relentlessly.
- If their backhand is vulnerable, force them to hit it frequently.
- If they are nimble, and run around their backhand, play a ball wide to their forehand so that you can force them to hit a backhand on the next shot as they recover their position.
- Accurate serving is vital. If they have a weak backhand return, make them hit it frequently so that you can take charge of the points.
- Equally, if their second serve is not strong, concentrate on hitting telling returns from it as frequently as possible. This will make them try to hit better second serves, which will probably cause a few double faults.
- Finally, remember that many of these players will be less fit than the juniors, and perhaps less fit than you, so do not be afraid to engage in long rallies.
Some Real Life Examples
For some people, their motivation for playing tennis is to enjoy hitting good shots, and to play the game the way they want to play it. These people are to be admired. They will not mind losing matches if they have played well, and they will set themselves goals based on their own performance without worrying about outcomes. Others of us play tennis for the fun of competing. The greatest pleasure for us is in using our mental, tactical and physical skills to win a match.If you are a senior player who wants to beat younger players you need to adopt the latter attitude. This does not mean that you need to play in a poor spirit or use illegal tactics: it just implies that you need to prioritise the game style that is going to win the match above what looks pretty. To illustrate this, I will share a few examples from my own experience.
A number of years ago, I played a match in a tournament against a junior. It was clear to me very quickly that he could hit the ball well, but was not a fast mover. I therefore decided to play drop shots quite frequently. The surface was tarmac, which meant that he was generally able to retrieve the drop shot, but it was then easy to follow up with a lob. I used this drop shot – lob tactic repeatedly and won the match comfortably, despite lacking the quality of shot of my opponent. At one point, as I won another point by drop shotting and lobbing, I heard his father, who was watching at courtside, remark: ‘Is that all he can do?’. The answer, which I did not offer, was of course: ‘No, but that’s all I NEED to do!’. This story illustrates an important point. If you play in an effective way, it may be considered ugly by your opponent and any spectators. Nonetheless, you cannot allow them to pressure you. Your objective is to win the match, not to win plaudits.
More recently, I played a match in an indoor tournament against a young adult, just out of the juniors. I was not used to the courts, which were extremely quick, so I was not very consistent in the warm-up, not helped by the fact that my opponent had a big serve and heavy groundstrokes. Even at that point, however, I could see that he was not a great mover and might miss a few balls. His psychology was all wrong. He saw that his opponent was more than 30 years older than him, had an unorthodox style and was struggling in the warm-up, and assumed that he would win easily.
Once the match started, it quickly became clear that this was not going to happen. The more accurate slices I hit, the more balls he missed, and the score in my favour mounted inexorably. My opponent quickly began to exhibit signs that he had no understanding of what was going on, or what he needed to do to change it. He began shouting a wide range of comments including:
‘You’re losing to a beginner!’ (I had actually, of course been playing much longer than he had);
‘You’re meant to be playing Futures!’ (implying that he would struggle in professional events if he could not beat me); and
‘This is the worst day of my life!’ (self-explanatory!).
He actually retired from the match when I was about to win because he could not handle what was going on. All I had done was play a solid, awkward game and allow him to implode. The lesson here is not to be intimidated by power, or shouted comments. Simply focus on what you need to do.
Another situation which I have experienced frequently is where a frustrated opponent begins to criticise my game during a match. I will be using a range of spins and slices to break their rhythm, and they will start to complain. A common refrain is: ‘This isn’t tennis!’. Of course, there is no rule about how you shouldhit the ball, or how hard, but these people want you to play the way they do. Unfortunately for them, it is not my job to help them to enjoy themselves: my objective is simply to win. The key point is not to let them make you change the way you play. They would not be shouting about it if they could deal with it.
If you want to beat players who are markedly younger than you, you must have a clear, logical tactical plan. Because you are unlikely to be able to match them for power or athleticism, this will probably entail using a variety of spins, giving them little pace, and perhaps bringing one of you to the net. Your opponent will not like this if it begins to work, and is likely to try to intimidate you into changing what you are doing. It is vital that you do not lose focus at this stage. If you can keep doing what is proving effective, you have a very real chance of winning. Most of all, enjoy the challenge of competing.