How to Begin a Match: Build a Fire
Match preparation begins with your pre-match routine. The modern routine involves dynamic stretching before stepping out on the court (see the USTA website for details). For me, a short ride on a stationary bike followed by static stretching/relaxation exercises help most to bring me to the place where I’m ready to FEEL the ball once I step out onto the court. You should each develop and use a pre-match routine as much as possible when preparing for play.
The warmup should immediately follow the pre-match routine. For me, the ideal is to have completed the warmup at least an hour before the start of my match. This way there is an easy transition to being ready to play right at the start of the match. However, circumstances do not always allow for anything but a 5- to 10-minute warmup. You should occasionally practice getting right into a practice set with only a short warmup so that you are better acquainted with how you should acclimate to this shorter warmup.
All tennis players begin a match with some nerves. This is because of the uncertainty of playing against a new opponent or, even if you’ve played and beaten someone before, the uncertainty of whether or not your opponent played near her best level the last time that you met. Typically, two or three games must go by before you feel like you can play your game.
The metaphor which I like for beginning a match is “Build a Fire.” If you are impatient when building a fire and you try to light the big logs first without adequately getting the kindling well lit and hot, your fire will go out. On the other hand, if you light the kindling well, but fail to add the big logs, your fire will also go out. In some matches (when you are the better player), you may rely on a smaller fire, but even in this case you should be aware of “Building a Fire” because you will need this skill against opponents of equal or higher ability in a later round or later in your competitive season.
It is important to understand that your opponent is experiencing the same set of nerves as you are! This means that you do NOT need to come out of the gate playing your best tennis. You only need to play good tennis for the first few games.