I entered my first tennis tournament when I was 13 years old. I lost my first match by a score of 6-0 6-0. The following day, I fared no better in the consolation draw, eating two bagels and needless to say, they weren’t tasty.
The second tournament I entered saw some improvement. I won two games in the first set and went down by a score of 6-2 6-0. When I was able to win my first game, I remember being in a simultaneous state of shock and euphoria. It felt absolutely wonderful to win a game but I wasn’t exactly sure how I had done it as my opponent was far superior to me.
Three months later, I tested the waters again, hoping my improved skills and experience would serve me well (no pun intended). Unfortunately, they didn’t. I lost 6-3 6-0 to another opponent whose skillset exceeded mine many times over. A funny side note about this match worth mentioning was that the score was actually 6-2 6-0, but when my opponent clarified that the score was 6-3 6-0, I went along with it just to boost my confidence and make myself look better (not that anyone was looking at the results of a local tennis tournament involving 14 year olds).
Eventually, I was able to win my first match and got that annoying monkey off my back. For the next year or so, I would occasionally win a match or two but, more often than not, I was bounced in the first round.
So what was I to do? How was I going to raise my level of play and begin to beat these higher ranked players?
The answer, so I originally thought, was firepower. I slowly realized I could hit the ball pretty hard and established a strategy by which I would enter each point with the intention of ending it on my own terms. Such a hastily contrived formula for success encompassed me being able to hit winner after winner after winner over the course of a match without letting up.
Putting this policy of power into action, I remember one specific tournament where I was playing the number one seed in the second round and I jumped out to a 3-1 lead, blasting winners left and right, injecting every ounce of strength and energy behind each shot.
Ten minutes later, I was down 5-4, my opponent was serving for the set, and the streak of untouchable, superior form that allowed me to grasp control of the opening set had vanished as quickly as the first set. My opponent won the first set 6-4 and went on to win the second set 6-2.
I implemented this strategy of attempting to dominate matches, albeit to a significantly less extent, for about another year until I lost a match when I was leading 3-1 in the first set and 4-1 in the second. It just wasn’t working.
Strangely enough, I didn’t realize it wasn’t working until I actually started to do the right thing. Later that year, I made the finals of three straight tournaments (winning two of them), won 9 out of 10 matches, and was as confident as ever. Several months later, I made the quarterfinals of a higher level tournament and made the finals of one more tournament at the end of the year.
So, what was the difference? How was I able to go from losing in the first or second round of nearly every tournament I played to making 4 finals in 6 tournaments? The answer is simple—I became more consistent.
It is something so inherent to the game of tennis, but as almost any club level or junior tennis match demonstrates, consistency and just putting the ball back into play are overlooked and often undervalued. And part of the problem is what we see on television. Players of all levels see the flamboyant forehands of Roger Federer, the immaculate passing shots of Rafael Nadal, the cannon bomb serves of John Isner and immediately want to step on court and replicate what they see happening on TV, creating an obvious disconnect with the parameters of reality.
The frustrating part is that the professionals are also ridiculously uncanny at something else that their shot making often overshadows—making shots and putting the ball into play. These players have gotten to the highest levels of the game not only because they can hit fearsome forehands and smashing serves but also because they can get the ball back into play just one more time than others can during a point. So instead of trying to hit a down the line forehand passing shot from 6 feet behind the baseline or a drop shot that bounces and dies immediately upon impact, just try to just get the ball in the court more than your opponent.
The most resonant example of the value of consistency that I learned was from one of my tennis coaches, Ryan Reidy. I was at a tournament and I had been continually attempting to destroy every short ball like it was my last. This led to me making overly gratuitous unforced errors. In between matches (round robin format), Ryan pulled me aside and said the following:
“There is no reason to go for so much. You are playing every ball as if it’s do or die. Instead of attempting to hit a winner on every short ball, hit a safe, yet forceful approach shot that puts your opponent in a position of trouble. When you have done that, end the point with another safe shot, a simple volley, into the open court” with the point being that over the long run, I would see much more consistency with the approach shot, volley combination than with the plan of hitting a winner on every shot.
If you look at a tennis match, and this even goes for professional tennis matches, there are almost always more unforced errors made than winners. Points are most commonly ended by someone messing up. Ryan always describes this occurrence as being a luxury because in no other sport does your score increase because of the mistakes your opponent makes. In basketball, you receive no points if your opponent misses a shot. In football, you receive no points if the kicker misses a field goal. In baseball, if the opposition’s batter strikes out, you receive no runs. It goes on and on.
So, basic logic tells us being a smart tennis player involves playing the percentages. And if the percentages say that more often than not, mistakes are ending points, then let your opponent make the errors and you’ll be well on your way to winning more tennis matches.