Tennis is a funny game, different from most, in that you get 30 seconds between each point, rests between games, and lots of opportunity for mental disruption. There is a lot that happens in between points, and there are a lot of ways players can try to affect the outcome of the match when the ball is not in play. Gamesmanship. Unfortunately it’s an aspect of the game that cannot be ignored, and it is important to understand all the subtle games that can be played so you can recognize them and not let it bother you.

I’m going to list some of the things that I’ve encountered over the years, just so you can be aware of the games. By knowing of these mental games, you will never feel like you are not in control, and the power they may have over you is mostly removed.

1)        Delaying beyond 30 seconds – some players will purposefully wipe down with their towel after a point, slowing the game down dramatically. Instead of standing furiously at the baseline fuming about how they are breaking the rules by taking so long, use the opportunity to towel off yourself. You can mention to them politely at the net that in between points there is a 30 second limit before the next point must be played, and you think they may be going over. If they continue to take a ludicrous amount of time between points, you can either get a tournament umpire to watch the match, or if that is not an option, find a nice place in the shade to stand or talk to a spectator. Be calm. Have fun. Do NOT show to your opponent that you are bothered at all by their stalling, or you will just encourage it more. They’re doing it to try and get into your head. If you don’t react, or take advantage of the extra time, they will be less likely to do it again.

2)        “was that out”, “that wasn’t out”, “are you sure?”

These are common questions annoying players will pepper you with anytime you call a ball out. Even if it’s way out, they’ll still ask, just to be annoying. The rules of tennis state that you can only call a ball out if you are 100% certain it was out. If you are only 99% certain it was out, then you must by regulation call the ball good and lose or replay the point. If they ask you one of these questions, and you hesitate, you are encouraging them to keep bugging you, and if you say that you are almost positive, then technically you are not completely positive, and the ball should have been called good. So with these players, just say with authority – “Yes. It was out.” and that’s that.

3)        “What’s the score”

Some people will ask you this, or as you toss the ball go “wait, wait. What’s the score” to try and mess up your rhythm. You should be in the habit of calling out the score at every point, so it’s maybe good for you as annoying as it is.

4)        “you didn’t call it”

This is a common phrase used by annoying dolts. If a ball was clearly out and you didn’t indicate that it was out through either a verbal call or a pointing motion, then they’ll harass you about not having made the call. If you admit that you did not call it out because you thought it was obvious, then that is not legal according to the rules of tennis. The ball must be called out either verbally or by a pointing motion. If your opponent obnoxiously tries to get a point replay using this rule loophole, the best thing to do is just say you called it out softly, or they must not have seen your finger or something. But again, you should be in the habit of calling each ball out clearly, so this annoying habit of theirs may be good for you.

5)        Technical tips, or talking between changeovers “you should keep your arm more bent”, etc.

By far and away the best way to screw up someone’s game is to say anything technical to them. “Gee, Bill, you’re really snapping your wrist nicely on that forehand” or “Your backhand would be just great today if only you were turning your shoulders more”. Any kind of technical talk or ‘tips’ during changeovers will get the opponent thinking about their technique, over-thinking, and tight. There should be no talk during a changeover if it is a serious match.

Also, in more social matches, they can ask you about your girlfriend, or something outside of the game that they know your mind is on – it will pull your focus off the match.

6)        Not calling out the score when serving, and then arguing over the score later in the game. Call it after every point, out loud so there can be no dispute.

The server should always call out the score loudly before each point – their score first, followed by the score of the receiver. If the server does not call out the score, then you as the receiver should call out the score for them. Too many times I have been in competitive matches where the server does not call out the score, an extremely long point is played, and then instead of being up 40-30, the server claims it is something like 30-30, and you have to go back and retrace all the points you previously played to get to the right score. If they’re a particular jerk, they just lie about some of the previous points, and you’re completely stuck with your word against theirs. I suppose they could do the same thing even if the score was not being called out loudly before each point, but they are less likely to do so. Honest people make mistakes too, so keep track of the score and make sure you are in agreement before each point. If they’re a known cheater in this regard, probably the only way to guarantee proper scorekeeping is to have an umpire watch the match, or set up a video camera that can easily be replayed in the event of a disagreement.

7)        Returning an out serve into the net, and then slowly clearing the ball from the court to disrupt your service rhythm.

This is a common one. The returner calls the serve out, and then whacks the ball into the net. The ball then rolls into the returner’s court, and they slowly walk to clear it. Meanwhile, as the server you are standing there cold, waiting, watching, and generally losing the rhythm of your serve. It’s annoying. It’s bad etiquette to return a serve that was called out, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. But if they take a very long time clearing the ball, it can begin to hinder you as the server.

Technically, according to the rules of tennis, if the returner has to clear a ball from their court and it disrupts the server’s natural rhythm, then the server gets their first serve again. The server’s natural rhythm is said to begin as soon as you initiate the service motion, so rocking back onto your back foot, or bringing your arm up. As the server, if you feel your opponent is trying to disrupt your rhythm between your serves, you can use this rule to thwart their mental gamesmanship. Conversely, some servers like to use this rule even if you clear a ball quickly and do not disrupt their rhythm.

8)        Returning an out serve hard back at you.

Idiots do this to try and intimidate you on your serve. You can ask them not to, and instead just let it go, or clear it into the net. If they continue, just whack it back hard at them.

9)        Generally being obnoxious – saying ‘come on’ when you make an error, etc.

There’s not much you can be done about this. Yes, it’s annoying. But it’s very silly. And at the end of the day, your opponent is a tool you are using to improve your own game. So if they want to be a very annoying jerk out on the court, and try to get you to hate them, then that is an obstacle you must overcome – just as if they have a good forehand and you have to learn how to deal with it intelligently – so must you learn to deal with their antics, and win the ‘inner game’. Not letting yourself get bothered is winning in a way.

11)     Faking injuries and taking time-outs.

Nothing can be done about this, but it occurs frequently. Remember that you get the time-out as well. Use the time to get hydrated, go over your game plan, stay focused, breathe, have a banana, etc. Don’t fume over their gamesmanship.

12)     Calling a ‘let’ on an ace

Nothing can be done about this really. You’d need an umpire or a video replay to prove it wasn’t.

13)     Showing up late to the match

In tournament play you are awarded games and sets for each few minutes your opponent is late. Take advantage of this if they decide to come late. Ask the umpire for the official

15)     Bathroom breaks

Yet another time-changing tactic. Bathroom breaks stop the match for a few minutes and can change momentum of the match. Don’t let it bother you.

16)     Getting coaching

This happens all the time and it’s against the rules. People get hand signals, or even get coaching from their parents in the bathrooms. But really it doesn’t matter. If anything it’s going to mess them up mentally to constantly be trying to please their coach and change up their strategy. Just deal with the changing tactics as they come.



Handling Nerves and Choking


Everyone gets nervous before and during the game. That’s normal – it’s just human nature. But you have to just accept it. Often it’s just indicating that you care about the outcome of your match. Nerves can be good in that they keep you focused, but they can more often be detrimental to your performance because your muscles are not relaxed, and you aren’t swinging freely like you do in practice.

The best ways to get over nerves are to stop worry about the outcome of the match. Whether you win or lose is already written, and what you just need to focus on is doing your best with a positive attitude at all times. Be aggressive and have fun. If you’re feeling very nervous and up-tight, sometimes forcing yourself to smile and laugh is a good way to release the tension.

When you’re playing, breathe out with each shot as this will regulate your breathing and keep your muscles loose for full proper extension.

Choking is a phenomenon that happens in all sports from amateur levels all the way up to the pros. It’s a mental thing that starts small and then begins to compound and get worse. Just accept that it will happen to you at some point. It tends to occur when you are focusing too much on the score, or the future outcome instead of just hitting one shot at a time. People begin to adjust their play – either being overly aggressive or too passive. They start losing points, and tighten up. They think to themselves “I’m better than this! This shouldn’t be happening!” and they stress over the fact that they might have just choked away a few points. Stressing over it makes them lose more points, games, sets even – and then they’ve entered full mental meltdown mode. It sounds ridiculous but I’ve seen it happen.

Once I was playing a ‘super-set’ in a qualifier competition, which I think was first to 8 or 10 games or something. I was down 6-2 and came all the way back to win 8-6. The guy I was playing got so rattled after I won a couple games in a row, that he choked away the set. He started throwing his racquet and couldn’t believe what was happening. If he had just said to himself “ok, I tightened up on that last game but lets just focus on watching the ball and breathing here”, I’m sure he would have won at the end of the day.

You only have to win once in such a way and you’ll realize that even if your opponent is way ahead, and all seems lost, there’s always the outside chance that they may implode and let you back in the match. So you should always put in a strong effort.

Sympathy is for Suckers


“Conan, what is best in life?        TO CRUSH YA ENEMIES”.”

Would Mike Tyson ever let up on a guy if he felt he was beating him too badly? Just to let the other guy get a few punches in and not feel so bad about himself? No.

Would General Patton ever have let another army crush a few of his tank divisions because he felt he was being too hard on them? No way, José.

So how come in a tennis match people start feeling sorry for their opponents?

‘Oh well maybe I’ll just let him win a few games so it’s not such a lop-sided set’

You’re out there to do battle! Never underestimate your opponent. Nothing is predictable in tennis. Anyone can come back to beat you at anytime. Each point is sacred and you have to play it to the utmost of your ability. If you are crushing someone badly, and you choose to hit them some soft ones, or hit the ball to their stronger side, you’re not doing anybody any favors. In fact, I would argue that since tennis is indeed a game of etiquette, the best way to respect your opponent is to never underestimate them! Always assume they have the capability to come back and beat you – so never let up.

If you’re “just rallying” to warm up, then okay – don’t crush the ball and be overly aggressive. But if you’re playing a match, then there is no room for sympathy. Your goal should be to win the match without your opponent ever winning a point. And if they get upset and start being a crybaby about it, then that is an internal battle that they will have to solve on their own. It’s not your job.

Now, to be VERY clear on this point – I do not condone being a jerk. You can crush someone with your game, but still be absolutely pleasant and polite about it. There’s no need to fist pump and do primal screams over the net to rub it in. Just play your game, win quickly and efficiently, and try to make it pleasant for both parties.

This saying also goes for making line-calls in tournament play. You have to be certain of your calls and call them out loudly with confidence. Once you make a call, NEVER over-rule yourself if your opponent questions your call. I will devote a different article to tournament play line-calls, but just remember not to feel any sympathy. If it’s out, then it’s out. It’s not your job to hand over points to your opponent.

Be Clever, not Showy

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.  

Playing a Jerk


So I went to the courts today to film a little bit and do some footwork drills. A guy and girl look at me and ask me if I play. I tell them yes I was planning on hitting some serves and doing some drills, and he asked if I would like to play. I said sure.

First he asks me how old I am (12?), and if I am USTA ranked. I laughed off both questions and was just happy hitting back and forth. It’s always good to hit a live ball, and people with weird technique can sometimes really keep you on your toes because the ball doesn’t behave as it usually does! We rally around and I am coming on the court totally cold so I’m taking my time warming up, not really running for balls too much. I congratulate him on his series of accidental drop shots.

Then the girl he was with came over with another old man who just started learning(both beginners) and the original guy (the jerk) gets a game of doubles going, pairing me with the old man who just started last week.

My partner and I won the first four games in a row, and the jerk started doing things like barking at you every time you didnt’ call the score, or every time you called a ball out, he’d say in a loud voice ‘WAS THAT OUT?’. It was funny. But I actually got angry at a couple points, which I should never do. The point I got angry at was when I hit a weak ball near the net, and he smashed it right at my partner who was also at the net, and then he smashed the net with his racquet letting out a primal scream in some sort of caveman-esque display of verility and aggression. No sorries here! My partner had literally only started playing tennis 1 week prior. Not cool! The jerk never said anything good about another player, and never said thank you to a compliment. Apparently after we switched teams, when my partner said “good shot” to the guy, the guy replied “Pfft. Obviously. Everyone already knew it was a good shot”. Ha.

He’d also do super annoying things like instead of passing you the ball, he’d hit them really hard onto your side of the court away from you. Stuff like that. God I haven’t seen such ridiculous behavior since the juniors 10 years ago.

I was really tempted throughout the “match” to just start letting them rip right at him while he stood flat footed at the net, and I have done this before during a match against jerks. As satisfying as it is to hit them and get them even more riled up /throwing their racquets, it’s just not worth it. Instead, I cleaned the court and was nice about it. Great try! Just missed! Unlucky there! Wow so great to play with you. He went bonkers. At the end of the 2nd set where he lost badly again, he threw his racquet. It was great.

But I think the moral of the story is not to let a jerk get into your head, or to start trying to hit the ball hard, or hit the ball at them, or away from them. Don’t even think about it. The simple fact is that tennis is a hard enough game as it is. There is so much going on with the ball, the racquet, the wind and everything. Once you start losing your concentration on the important things like footwork, tactics, etc. you are at a big disadvantage. You want to maintain your composure at all times, ideally showing no emotion at all. Save the energy. Have fun.

Iceman Bjorn Borg was famous for his on-court composure. And that is how you should strive to behave. As satisfying as it can be to get into the stupid mind games of an idiot or a jerk, and beat them at it, it’s just too tiring, and you aren’t playing tennis for that kind of mental game garbage, you are playing because of the technique and tactical challenges (hopefully).

Stay frosty!


The Racquet Man Creed

Some of you may have heard the creed of the U.S. infantryman, but probably not many have heard the racquetman creed…

‘This is my racquet. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
My racquet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
My racquet, without me, is useless. Without my racquet, I am useless. I must swing my racquet true. I must hit straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must attack before he. I will…
My racquet and I know that what counts in tennis is not the power of our shots, the noise of our grunts, nor the length of our rallies. We know that it is the points that count. We will win…
My racquet is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its gromets and its strings. I will keep my racquet clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will…
Before God, I swear this creed. My racquet and I are the defenders of my court. We are the masters of our enemy.’

Reasons to never throw your racquet:

1) Racquets are costly, and you might break it. You will certainly damage it.

2) It is bad etiquette and people will look down on you.

3) In tennis and in life, you should strive to be in complete control of your emotions

4) It is childish and silly.

5) It does not solve any problem, not even your anger.

6) You can lose points over poor sportsmanship if an umpire gives you a penalty, making your problems even worse.

7) Perhaps the greatest reason not to hit or throw a racquet is that it gives your opponent a surge of positive emotion. When I see my opponent throw or smash his racquet, I know that I have him so rattled he cannot contain his anger. He is seeing red and not thinking clearly. This, I can take advantage of. Perhaps I hit a series of neutral balls down the middle causing him to press, hit errors, and get even angrier. Perhaps I intentionally irritate him a little bit just to drive him further over the edge and guarantee his self-destruction….

8) If you break a racquet, then your strings break on your spare, you won’t be able to continue playing because you don’t have a racquet!

9) You will earn a reputation as a player who is easy to break mentally. From then on, opponents who know your reputation will go down fighting hard. You may be up 4-0 in the last set, but if they know you can implode at any moment, they will hang in there tooth and nail on the off-chance that you get upset and throw tantrums, and let them back in the match.

The same goes for never showing anger in any way. Never bang your racquet. Never Yell, etc.