What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. – Sun Tzu
The other night I was watching two club players finish their match. They were playing first to 8 games. It was a young turk about 28 years old against an older woman who was maybe 45 or so. They had been playing for some time before I sat down. They were equally flat footted and terrible technically, but his physicality and topspin put him way ahead. He had won the first 6 or 7 games very easily, but then all of a sudden about 10 or 12 other club players wandered in as it was their usual meeting time. They sat on the bleachers by the court and watched the two players finish.
The young man, who I can only assume by his swagger and loud grunting, thought he was pretty darn good. By contrast the lady was very humble and not arrogant at all. When the crowd arrived, the young guy who had been winning fairly easily, suddenly started pressing. He wanted to show off to the crowd just how good he was. The problem was that he wasn’t good. So he started hitting everything out. Balls he had previously been hitting back safely, trying to get into better position, now he was trying to attack! As he continued to make errors, he started losing games. 7-1, 7-2, 7-3, 7-4, until it was 7-5. He was throwing his racquet and was visibly upset. With each game he lost momentum and started pressing even more.
The lady was technically quite poor, but whether intentional or not, she was tactically doing everything right. She was hitting her shots deep and keeping her opponent neutralized. She was hitting 3-4 balls to his backhand, which he could not attack with, making the rally seem long and extended. He was likely thinking “I shouldn’t be having such long rallies with someone I’m so much better than!”, and so then she would hit a ball to his forehand that neutralized him, but he would try to attack from way behind the baseline, and he would fail since it wasn’t a ball he should have attacked.
Going back to the quote up top, you never want to press and do anymore than you have to in order to win. If hitting the ball in an unglamorous way is the easiest way to win, then do that. Never be concerned with your appearance or the crowd who may be watching. Sometimes you have to grind out a win in an ugly way. Also a lesson to be learned is not to underestimate your opponent, or over-estimate yourself!
Interestingly, a reader pointed out that there is actually a name for this phenomenon, and it has been studied. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.