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How To Truly Master The Mental Game Of Tennis

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You’ve heard that old cliche many times in sports: it’s 10% physical and 90% mental. To me, those numbers look lopsided. I believe you need both in equal proportions to excel at your chosen sport, and tennis is no different.

It irks me when I see articles titled “The Secrets To Mastering The Mental Game”. I’ll tell you right now, there are no secrets – only common sense information you need to do and think about before every match.

I’m going to show you how to truly master the mental game of tennis – and it comes from proper preparation, knowledge of yourself, knowledge of your opponent, past experience and adapting to conditions.

Has anyone told you to “just be confident”? Have you noticed that this advice doesn’t work? Why? I believe it’s because confidence only comes from successful experiences. If you don’t have successful experiences, there can be no confidence. Small wins over time equate to confidence. Like building our physical skills, the mental game takes time to build as well. No secret tip is going to change your outlook overnight.

So how do we achieve small wins for yourself? It starts at the lower levels of our sport (tennis) and grows from there. Everyone starts at the bottom and works their way up. In this post I am going to reveal how to truly master your mental game, including my personal journey from virtual scrub to a player with over 1,000 wins under my belt coming at the college, club and tournament levels. This win amount spans 25 years.

 

Proper Preparation

Everything with the mental game starts with proper preparation. If you’re not physically prepared for battle, no amount of confidence, visualization or prayer will work. It should go without saying that you are playing regularly, practicing often and always thinking of ways to improve your game. If this is not the case, I’m afraid the rest of this post will not apply to you.

You see, physical preparation is a given in sports. If you consider yourself a player and care enough to improve your game (and you do or you wouldn’t be reading this article right now) then you’ll at least be willing to put in the hard work to maintain your conditioning and skills on the court. Right? If you are not doing this, then spend a month doing so, work your tail off, and then come back to this article and start from here.

When I started playing tennis, I had no lessons, no coach, no instructional youtube videos and no knowledge of how to hit a ball other than watching tennis on TV. I tried to learn tennis by watching the pros hit, but even after two years of playing my strokes were fair at best and technically flawed. I didn’t know proper footwork, how to construct points or the many things I know now. This caused a severe lack of confidence and I was unsure of myself on court.

 

Small Win

When I was a junior in college, a buddy of mine convinced me to try out for my college tennis team (a division II school). I had never played on a tennis team before, much less a tennis tournament or an organized match. My entire tennis resume up until that point (I was 21-years old) was casually hitting the ball around with a few friends from time-to-time. I thought my buddy was crazy but he knew the coach and promised to get me into tryouts. He said the team lost several good players to graduation the previous semester and they could use me now. I really thought he was putting me on.

So my buddy walked me down to tryouts on the last day they were being held. I could see him pleading with the coach. After a minute. the coach reluctantly consented and allowed me to try out. I had to beat two players that day to make the team. I played each one and to my surprise won both quite easily. I thought for sure I was going to get creamed, but sometimes life surprises you.

With that mission accomplished, the coach walked up to me and asked what size shirt I wear. “Medium,” I chirped. “You made the team. Our first match is Friday in Boston,” the coach told me. I again couldn’t believe I so easily beat those two guys. I did it purely by using my physical gifts of speed and stamina plus my dogged determination. I had forced them to miss over and over just by being consistent.

 

The Will To Win

From my earliest childhood memories playing sports, I had no quit in me. I wanted to win at all costs. If I lost, I would cry and sulk all day. To this day, I haven’t met a single person in my 27 years of playing tennis that wanted to win more than I do. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I’m willing to die on the court. That’s how passionate I am about tennis and winning.

I’ll do whatever it takes within the rules to ensure victory. In a way, and all by itself, that degree of thinking is true mental toughness – the ability to fight through pain and fear in the face of uncertainty to earn victory. But only a very small percentage of the population possesses it. You’ll find this mentality in the Michael Jordans, Kobe Bryants and John McEnroes of the world.

I’ve played points that would make Rafael Nadal proud. In some of those points, my opponents have called me “insane” because I ran down shots that no other mere mortal would retrieve. I’ve played day matches in 95-degree heat in the middle of the Florida summer with no quit. Several times opponents on those days ending up stopping on me, saying, “It’s not worth it”.

I’d rather first be taken to a hospital than quit. I bring the warrior’s code to every match: I fight to the death – of either me or my opponent. By death, I mean the winning or losing.

On many occasions, I’ve played 4-5 matches in one day with few breaks in between. I did this to improve my skill and conditioning and because I love tennis. By playing so much, I quickly earned many small wins. I love the famous quote by Thomas J. Watson:

“If you want to succeed faster, double your rate of failure”.

 

Small Wins Are Good, But Not Enough

At the time I made the tennis team, I had no offensive weapons to speak of; I was all defensive with a less-than-stellar serve. My volleys and overheads were no better.

Instead, I relied on my opponents to make unforced errors. But if they were skilled and could place the ball out of my reach, I could not contend. Yet, the two wins in tryouts gave me a confidence I never had before. I took that confidence and those two small wins on the road trip to Boston, where I’d play my first collegiate matches. The coach put me at the #6 spot – the last spot on the starting roster.

The moment had come to play my first official college tennis match. In warm-ups, I knew I was in trouble. My opponent wasn’t big in stature but he had a powerful forehand with excellent topspin. Handling the high shots was always my weakness in tennis. I like to hit flat and feel much more comfortable hitting low shots.

Still, I was mentally prepared to do battle. I’d fight to the end no matter how badly I was getting beat. And that’s what I did. I fought with all my heart like my life depended on the outcome. Funny, but I still play like that today. In the end, I lost in straight sets but had managed to secure at least a couple of games in the match. I thought I might get shut out. Glad I didn’t.

The next two matches in Boston went the same way. I lost both contests but felt I had a chance to win them. If I just had a little more skill, I could beat those guys.

The only reason I lost was that my technique was not quite up to speed. Everything else was in place – my determination, my speed, my conditioning. Even though I lost all three matches in Boston, I returned home with a sense of hope, believing I could make that needed improvement in technique.

 

Knowledge Of Yourself

When you play tennis, it’s important to know your level of fitness, level of skill and how much you want it. Some people play to have fun, get exercise and socialize. I’d be willing to bet money they’re not the type of people to read this post. The information here is for the hardcore players. You know, the ones who are tired of losing and want to beat their rivals. This post is for those players serious about tennis and making improvements.

It’s so important to know your capabilities when you step on the court. I know exactly where I’m at in terms of my playing ability, conditioning and confidence at all times. I tailor my game around it. If I’m playing an opponent up to the task and my ability is low that day, I’ll tone down the offense and make them earn the victory by forcing them to hit more-and-more shots.

If my conditioning is not there for some reason, I’ll force the issue and get to the net to end the point quickly. And if my confidence is low, I’ll start the match cautiously, play my way into it and remind myself of all the small wins.

 

At times, when I’m not playing well, I’ll utter the mantra “I’m the best” or “this is my match” through the competition. I visualize myself winning at the end, even as the match goes on. So many times this strategy has worked for me. This is how a mentally strong mind thinks in tennis.

 

Knowledge Of Your Opponent

If you want to win in tennis, you need to know your opponent. Have you ever played someone new and unfamiliar? You have no idea of their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses until you begin playing them. If you know your opponent’s game, you can expose their weaknesses. Often, just being familiar with your opponent’s game will make you feel more comfortable during the match.

When I play someone new, I like to assess them as much as possible before the match, primarily in the warm-ups. When the match begins, I like to hit up the middle, be consistent and take few unnecessary risks. In my mind, I’m taking note of how my opponent reacts to various shots. Here are some questions to consider when playing someone, especially a new player:

 

  • Which is their stronger/weaker wing – forehand or backhand?
  • How do they handle high shots (those hit with topspin that they have to catch up high)?
  • Where do they like to serve? Can I consistently attack their second serve?
  • Do they volley well? How are their overheads?
  • How do they react to my slice shots?
  • How do they react to pace? What about the slow looping shots?
  • How is their conditioning? How quick are they? What is their footwork like? Can they get to my drop shots?
  • Do they approach the net on short balls or retreat back to the baseline?
  • Does my opponent hit with various spins or are they primarily a flat hitter?
  • How good or poor is their mental attitude?

 

I try to find the answer to as many of these questions as possible, as soon as I can. I have a tennis mind, so I can quickly analyze and sum a player up quicker than most. In every point of the match against an unfamiliar player, take note of what’s happening. Once you see a weakness, attack it often without being predictable. Almost every club player has at least one serious weakness if not two or more.

There is so much I can talk about in regard to this. On occasion, I’ll play a very good junior or former college player. These players can hit all the shots and possess excellent, textbook groundstrokes and serves. From the outside, it looks like there’s no weakness in their game. But if you probe further, you’ll find that their mental game is often suspect. Once this makes itself evident, I’m positive I’ll soon break my opponent’s will. Doing so gives me strength and before long most completely crack under the pressure. I’ll give you an example.

 

Exposing Your Opponent

I live, train and teach here in South Florida. On occasion, I used to give lessons at a famous resort hotel on the beach. It’s a fancy establishment with two Har-Tru clay tennis courts. I was called by the hotel one day to play with a “boy”. That’s all I knew when I drove there. I wasn’t expecting much other the usual teaching lesson. Well that boy was 17-years-old, 6’3” tall and had been playing since he was a kid.

His family was wealthy and he had been given expertly coached since being a child. His strokes were no different than any tour pro. I could see it in the first minute of hitting with him. I know I shouldn’t admit this, but I was a little jealous. If I had been afforded the same luxury growing up, I certainly would have been a tour level player (at least in my mind).

We started hitting and after a couple of minutes he asked to play a set. I thought, “Cool, I get to play an excellent player and get paid for it.” If I lost to him, nobody would know anyway. It would be my secret.

I had played young men of his pedigree before and did very well against them. Why? Not because my strokes are better or that I am more decorated. Just the opposite. But it all comes down to the mental game when you reach a certain level in tennis. Yes, I can run down many shots and neutralize my opponent’s power with slice and placement. At the same time, I know they can hit me off the court if I give them anything short. I had to play smart to win this match – that was my only chance.

The first few games were tough, but I was gauging his play and analyzing his game on every point. I decided that being consistent was my best option for victory; I wasn’t going to hit him off the court. After 15 minutes of play, I took a 3-1 lead. I saw he was flustered but he still retained hope of beating me. 15 minutes later the set was over and I had won it 6-1. I could see he was surprised by the result but thinking it might be a fluke, he asked to play another set. Now that I knew his weaknesses (conditioning and the mental game), I quickly beat him 6-0 in the second set.

I could see and feel the quit in him up 2-0 in the second. For the remainder of the set the fight was taken out of him and he chalked it up to not being used to the hot conditions. Being I was paid to play and was the club pro, I encouraged the kid and really didn’t hit that many winners in the match. He beat himself. I don’t think he expected to play someone like me. Someone who runs down every ball (proper preparation). Someone who knows his capabilities and limits (knowledge of yourself). And someone who could dissect his game and quickly key in on his weaknesses to the point of breaking him mentally and physically (knowledge of your opponent).

I went home very content that day, but I felt for the kid too. I told him to his face that he merely beat himself that day and needed to be more consistent. I encouraged him by saying he had a great game, should learn from playing someone like me and keep playing tournaments.

I thought I’d never see the kid again. I was wrong. The next day I got a call from the hotel. The kid and his father requested I come back to play him one more time. The next day I returned to the hotel and this time his father was there to watch the whole match.

I’ll spare you the detailed play-by-play of the match. All you need to know is that it was a repeat of the first match except this time I won 6-0, 6-0. His father was a nice man and applauded the great shots I hit. After the match, the kid looked disgusted. I asked him what’s wrong. The only thing he said to me was this: “It’s extremely annoying playing you. You get everything back.” That was the last day the hotel ever called me. My competitive spirit would not allow me to lose even one game. I guess that was looked on badly by the hotel. Still, I’ll take those two decisive wins even if it meant the end of my stint.

 

Past Experience

If you don’t have experience, you’re going to lack confidence – no matter who you are. I elaborated on that earlier in this post. You’ve got to build up your experience by playing matches. There’s no other way.

I know a ton of players who only want to hit. They’re afraid of playing matches because they might lose or don’t like the stress of playing a match. Some even shun competition. If you’re one of those players who just want to have fun and stay in shape, then great. But if you’re looking to get into competitive tennis, there’s no substitute for actual match play, whether in tournaments, leagues or recreational matches.

I’ve built my game from the bottom up by playing hundreds of matches. In the beginning, I would play anyone that could hit the ball over the net. I played players of all styles, ages and levels. It was fun beating the players I could out-hit. But many times in those early days I got my ass handed to me and was torn asunder.

After a humiliating loss on the court, I cried by myself – literally. I vowed to quit tennis and never return more than three dozen times in my life. But I kept coming back to it, thinking I would be better the next time.

In his book, “Open”, Andre Agassi admitted he quit tennis “a thousand times”. So if the great Andre Agassi quit tennis, we probably have all felt that way once or twice in our lives too. It’s normal. However, if you really decide to quit, you’ll never be a winner. That’s the way of the coward. And if you’re a reader of this blog, I won’t allow it!

What I love about experience is that I can draw on it before and during the match. If I’m in a tough match, I can say to myself, “I’ve beaten better players dozens of times before. Just stay with it and be consistent. He’ll fold in the end like most of them do.” If I had not beaten dozens of good players in the past, there is no way I’d have that level of confidence. Instead, I’d probably be thinking, “Wow, this guy is good. He’s getting to all my shots. He’s the best guy I’ve ever played. I don’t think I can win this.”

It’s amazing how experience and positive self-talk can so drastically change the outcome of a match. During the match, sometimes you need to remind yourself of all the great wins you had in tennis to keep up your fighting spirit.

The bottom line here is that you need to play matches.

Please don’t fear losing. It happens to all of us. Some professional tennis players have never won a single pro tournament – even in their entire playing career. It doesn’t stop them from competing. A great man once said, “You miss every shot you don’t take.”

Play as many matches against as many different players as you can. At the end of the match, talk with your opponent if possible. Tell them something positive about their game and then ask what they thought about yours. You specifically want to know what they thought was the weakest part of your game. Get feedback on your weakest links and then work to resolve those weaknesses.

As you play more matches you’ll get better, gain match toughness and become difficult to beat. I really feel that being match tough is what gives me the decided advantage in so many of my most challenging contests.

 

Adapting To Conditions

Being adaptable in tennis, like life, is mandatory for success. You must be willing to change your game in real time and without negativity. No amount of complaining or excuses will earn you victory. You may show up to your match and find it very windy, or ultra-sunny, or too hot, or too cold. Maybe the condition of the court is not to your liking – they haven’t been brushed that day or they’re too slippery. Maybe it’s too noisy because the court is right next to a main road. Or perhaps there are people playing next to you or the lighting isn’t good.

There could be a thousand things that distract you. You only need claim one of them to be the scapegoat for your poor performance that day. I say this, but admit I’ve used many excuses during my playing days. We all think we have valid excuses. I hear them all the time – my grip is too slippery, I just ate, the balls are not bouncing, etc. I want you to completely forget about excuses and take full responsibility for everything that happens on the court. If you lose, it’s your fault, period. That’s the only way you’ll evolve as a player and human being. That’s being mentally tough.

It’s not only the conditions, court and equipment you need to adapt to. You also need to be adaptable to your opponent. Like mentioned before, you may play someone completely new. Every player hits differently. Now you must adapt to a new kind of hitting that you are unfamiliar with. Remember, the greatest tennis players in the game are problem-solvers on the court. Yes, they falter like the rest of us. But they take full responsibility (ownership, as Agassi likes to say) and figure out a way to win.

Here’s an example that happened to me on more than several occasions. You may be playing a baseline opponent who you feel very comfortable hitting against. Things are going your way in the match. Suddenly that player starts serving and volleying and chipping and charging. He or she has changed their style because the previous style of staying back wasn’t working. What now?

If you continue hitting the same way, you’ll likely lose. So now your opponent is forcing you to hit harder, lower to the net, and closer to the lines. If you can’t adapt, you’ll be taken out of the match and knocked out of the tournament. This is why it’s so important to be fluid in tennis. On a second’s notice, you have to be willing to go outside your comfort zone to win. When you play to win, you do what works and you do it without reservation. That’s the mark of a winner! That’s mental toughness.

 

Summary

The mental game is extremely important in tennis. For players close in levels, the one who has the stronger mind will win almost 100% of the time. Having a formidable mental game in tennis can allow you to beat players you never thought possible.

I hope this article inspires you to think more about the mental game and use it in your matches. At the top levels of the game, the physical differences are so slight that the mental game is really what separates the all-time greats from the rest of the pack. The mental game can be a great overlooked weapon in tennis. I hope my tennis stories motivate you to make your own. So go to the court, be strong, be brave and win!

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