How does your opponent win points against you? First of all, by hitting winners! That’s pretty obvious, but every winner by your opponent is a learning opportunity for you. Pay attention to what her weapons are and how you played into those weapons. What kind of ball did you send, enabling your opponent to rip that unhittable shot? Obviously, you want to avoid doing that again. Even if you’re getting aced, take a look at where your opponent is tossing the ball. That should give you a clue about where to set up for the return.
Second, your opponent forces you to make errors by hitting shots that you reach but cannot return over the net. Analyze these points the same way. How are you setting up these shots? Is your opponent telegraphing where the shot is going? Can you anticipate the location and get into place sooner? Are there certain spots on the court to which you always have trouble getting? Do you need to adjust your positioning?
Third, your opponent scores points on your unforced errors. This is when you are in position to play the ball over the net but don’t. The following are the most common types of unforced errors and how you can correct them:
Execution errors: Technically you are not executing properly.
Solution: Review your SMARTS to figure out why you did not execute. Sometimes a player’s swinging skills will break down, but execution errors also occur with seeing, movement, adjusting, rotation, and transfer skills. Work especially hard on any shots that consistently break down in your game. Go back to the basics. For instance, if you have a weak smash, make it a point to get help on your smash (chapter 3), slow down, work on your form, get your rhythm, and practice as often as possible.
Aggressive errors: You tried to do too much. For instance, you went after the high sitter in the middle of the court and just hit it long.
Solution: Look to repeat the shot again but give yourself a greater margin of error. For example, don’t try to paint the baseline—aim just past the service line. If you’re still hitting it long, then try stringing your racquet a bit tighter. That can help you gain more control over your aggressive errors. Mentally speaking, these are the best kind of errors to have. They mean you’re in the game and trying hard. As a junior player, Steffi Graf had an unforced error rate of over 27 percent, most of those aggressive in nature (Jacobson 1993) So don’t despair; you’re in good company.
Pressure errors: You respond to the pressure of a game situation, an easy shot, or off-court circumstances by failing to execute basic shots. For example, your opponent is off the court and has fallen down, but you’re at the net and miss the easy volley.
Solution: Pressure errors come down to your perception of the situation. On easy shots, you actually can be distracted by an out-of-place opponent or the wide range of options open to you. Redirect your attention to your execution of the shot or your tactic of placing the shot. To use the above example, you might use hard focus, keeping your dominant eye on the approaching ball while your peripheral vision is aware that your opponent is on the court, or focusing on the tactical cue of play into the open court. Lack of mental focus is the problem when you’re dealing with the pressure of game, set, match, and even setup points. Most pressure errors occur on the first shot of a point, before a player’s body settles into the rhythm of the game (Jacobson 1993). You’ll see double faults and missed returns when players allow negative imagery to throw off their normal performance. Focus your mind on what you’re trying to accomplish. Take it step by step.
Strategic errors: These are bad choices you make that play into an opponent’s strengths rather than weaknesses. Say you’re attempting to get to the net as often as possible, but your opponent is a very good counterpuncher who really enjoys playing against an attacker. Oops.
Solution:Knowledge of various playing styles is your best way to eliminate poor strategic decisions. This will come with experience (see also chapter 10). Prepare as thoroughly as possible for a match by learning about your opponent’s style. Formulate a game plan that targets your opponent’s weaknesses. But if that doesn’t work, switch to plan B. If you don’t have a plan B, make one up, once you decide that plan A isn’t working. Your strategy is ultimately judged by your execution and the outcome. If you are winning important points such as setup, game, set, and match points, keep your strategy. If not, consider changing it.
Tactical errors: Certain shots and combinations that make up your strategy are consistently failing. For example, you’re serving and volleying—which is a good strategy against an opponent who doesn’t like to be attacked—but you repeatedly try to finish the point with a cute drop volley (wrong tactic) instead of punching the ball into the open court. Bill Jacobson, founder and president of Sports Software, Inc., said that Boris Becker used to have trouble against Andre Agassi because Becker had a low percentage of first serves in play and frequently served and volleyed on his second serve. Agassi loved to take the ball early on those points, which resulted in lots of Becker volley errors.
Solution: Review your arsenal of shots according to your ability to execute them and your opponent’s ability to handle them. Be willing to limit or remove shots that aren’t working with this opponent. In the example mentioned, Becker’s best play was to stay back on second serves and work his way in to the net—when he received a ball that he felt he could challenge or attack—or make more first serves. Normally serve-and-volley on the second serve was a great way for Becker to put pressure on his opponent—but it didn’t work with Agassi. Becker had to choose other tactics.
Fatigue errors: You fail to execute properly because you’re weary. This happens late in matches, on long points, and on hot days.
Solution: You may need to work on your overall fitness (see chapter 7), but also consider your breathing. How do you breathe when you’re tired? Try taking deep abdominal breaths throughout the match. Work hard on your conditioning. The point after a long point often yields fatigue errors. Players such as Thomas Muster intentionally play faster after a long point because they know that they have the stamina to outlast the competition.
This is an excerpt from Serious Tennis.