One of the keys to winning a tennis match is to get your opponent to play worse than her average. The best way to do this is to take away your opponent’s strengths by using intelligent targets and patterns of play. However, there is a second way which is under-appreciated.
Accessing this second way requires that you first and foremost “see” what happened on the previous point. Once you have “seen”, you then ask yourself a simple question: if I were Player X (my opponent) what would I do now?
Here are some concrete examples from doubles:
A returner attempts to go down your line and misses the shot. Put yourself in the returner’s shoes. Most likely, she will be saying:”Why did you go down the line? Just hit your good solid cross court return and get into the point.” This then becomes an ideal moment to poach.
You have poached successfully on the prior point against a particular returner. Again, you should ask:”What would she do now?” The returner is most likely saying:”I need to go down the line to keep her honest.” On the point after a successful poach, use a fake and stay and attempt to draw the ball to yourself at net. Against many returners this play will work like a charm.
Your opponent misses a fairly easy volley AND she is the weaker of the two players on the opposing side of the net. On the next point, you immediately make her play another volley even if this means returning serve directly at her at the net. This works even better when the point is important, i.e. 40-30, 30-40, or deuce. The combination of the scoring pressure and her shaky confidence often results in another error. At this point, her partner begins to panic and may either begin to overhit or just mentally check out of the match.
Players spend an awful lot of time worrying about their own games and this is certainly justified: you must have confidence in your ability to execute your shots. However, an important component of beating a player your own level or somewhat better is your ability to get them to play worse than their average. If you can do this, you can put yourself into winning position.
In the examples above, it is clear that you are beginning to get into the head of your opponent. In #2, for example, a returner, after a successful poach followed by a successful fake and stay will be muttering:”There’s nowhere good to hit the ball.” When this happens to a player, they often respond by missing either out or into the net. Since matches are almost always determined by unforced errors, you are well on your way to victory. Or, as mentioned above in #3, the stronger player may check out:”Whenever they need a point, they simply hit to her. There’s nothing I can do … hmmm, what am I going to eat for lunch?”
Years ago, there was a Czech engineer who used to hang out at Chestnut Ridge. A lot of people thought he was crazy (well, he was!) but he had quite a few interesting ideas about tennis. One of his favorite expressions was: KICK THEM WHEN THEY ARE DOWN. I have given you a couple of examples of how to do this … and it’s important that you recognize and take advantage of these situations … because if you don’t the next thing you know your opponent is playing her best tennis and you are in a dogfight!