5 Ways to Cut Down Your Unforced Errors

Unforced Errors! AH! You hear that term all the time when you’re watching tennis, and if you’re just beginning to play, it’s probably the main reason why you lose. So how do you stop hitting them? What are they? I’d define an unforced error as a ball you hit out or in the net when you are in a neutral or offensive position. Here are some tips on how to reduce your errors.

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1. Don’t Fool yourself. In a match, it is very rare to have all of your shots firing perfectly. Sometimes I get out there and play, and for whatever reason that day I can’t hit my favorite slice serve out wide on the deuce court. I get frustrated because it’s my favorite serve to hit. “Why can’t I get it!?!?” I think to myself. Each time I step up to the baseline, I think “Maybe this time if I just turn my shoulders more, or toss it differently…” and then I continue to miss the serve. This kind of thinking can have a hugely negative effect on your performance during a match. It’s good to try to work through issues (in practice!), but not during a match. It’s best to acknowledge what’s working for you that day, and what isn’t. If you keep missing your favorite shot – dropshots, down the line forehands, whatever — just hit something else rather than repeat the error and let it get to your head.

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2. Targets. Nobody says you have to aim for the corners. In fact, I wouldn’t ever aim for any target within 1 foot of the line during a match. Some people think the pros actually aim for the lines. No. If the ball gets that close, it is basically a missed shot. The best players are aiming for large targets and give themselves wide margins of error. They’ll aim for 1 foot inside the line at their riskiest. By shrinking the court you play to by 1 foot on each side, you give yourself much more room for small fluctuations in accuracy, without really having any effect on the pressure you put on your opponent.

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3. Choose wisely. Some people don’t automatically sense when they arei n an offensive, neutral, or defensive position. If you too often are trying to hit offensive shots from a neutral or defensive position, you’re gonna have a bad time.

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4. Stay focused, and have a plan for each point. Both as the server and returner, you should visualize your first two or three shots before each point. Construct the point in your head before it is played. Don’t just go out there and wing it – or see what happens. Don’t do either.  Further – you should always have a fallback shot in your mind, so if you’re ever in a 50/50 position where you could either hit it to one side or another, you should have the default side chosen already so you aren’t over-thinking during the point. For example, “Ok if I’m unsure of where to hit the ball on these coming points, I’m going to direct it deep to his forehand.”

5. Footwork and Technique. Your technique is going to be the primary factor in determining your consistency. If you have major flaws with your body rotation, swing, grip, footwork, etc. it’s going to make it very difficult for you to play consistent tennis. So if you find yourself hitting far too many errors, video tape yourself and seriously analyze your strokes.

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How to Beat a “Pusher”

How to beat a Pusher

  • Mentality

First of all, it’s not helpful to mentally designate someone as a pusher. So although I titled this article ‘how to beat a pusher’, really I would not encourage use of the term to describe an opponent, or classify a player.

The problem is that it’s a derogatory term used to imply that your opponent does not hit the ball aggressively, and merely blocks everything back in a neutral way. Since everything is blocked back and keeps you neutralized, you find yourself struggling to attack, making errors, and generally becoming frustrated by their consistent dinks back into the court. It’s easy to scoff at them as being inferior players, and be frustrated at their style of play – but it’s simply one type of problem you must solve when you are playing. They’re presenting you with a challenge and you need to think in order to solve it.

By just saying ‘Oh, Tom is just a Pusher.’ You immediately are on a footing of disrespect, and this can be dangerous because it brings your ego into your shot selection. If you view your opponent as being very beneath you because they are a ‘pusher’, then it is tempting to think that your superior shot-making skills ought to shine through – that you should be hitting winners and dominating the court. When this doesn’t occur, you start to get angry at yourself for not playing beautifully, or your opponent for forcing you to play an ugly match. You might start attacking when you are not in an offensive position, or pressing to try and attack too aggressively in order to end the point.

If you look on the internet or ask a tennis pro ‘how do I beat a pusher???’ usually they’ll come back with some basic tips like ‘be patient’ or ‘finish the point at the net’. And these tactical considerations can be helpful and important. But I believe that 90% of the time when one is playing a “pusher”, they end up losing many points (or the match) because they lose the mental game, and beat themselves.

If you haven’t already read it, my post on Controlled Aggression is particularly important when playing someone who constantly tries to neutralize you, and give you no pace. You have to be very aware as to when you are in control of the point, have some comfort in causing them hurt (get them running), and know when you should finish the point.

When going into a match with an opponent who hits a lot of no-pace neutralizing shots, you should accept right away that it’s going to be an ugly match. You will have to adapt your playing style however you must in order to win. Accept that you are going to hit errors, and hit some bad ones. You’ll hit easy volleys and overheads into the net. It’s inevitable. But in the long run, trust that your high percentage play will win you the match. You’ll find yourself hitting a sitter out – and your internal dialogue has to be ‘Ok that was wide, but I was correct in trying to attack that ball, and in the long run I’ll make more than I miss. It was the high percentage play. So it’s okay.’ Think tactically rather than fixating on your “pusher” opponent.

If you think about it – your consistency should be the same as the “pusher” since you are technically superior. And they likely do not have weapons to attack you with – otherwise they would try to utilize them. So you should be equal in terms of consistency, but you should have a series of weapons you can utilize should you choose to. What determines whether you win or lose is your shot selection, energy spend, and conditioning. You need to be efficient with your emotional and physical energy spend during the match. A “pusher” player can wear you down if you get angry at yourself, and they can wear you down if you try to attack every ball with maximum effort.

You need to work the point – get control of the point by hitting with depth, hitting to their weakness, then use your control to make them run. Angled balls that bounce off the court are particularly effective I find. Most ‘Pusher’ type players tend to stand very far behind the baseline, and focus only on moving forward and backward to cover deep balls and dropshots. They are comfortable running to drop shots and beating you at net. They are comfortable hitting lobs over and over if you hit it deep.  Play high percentage tennis – don’t go outside your comfort zone to try and force the point in your favor.

  • Know Your own Capabilities!

Many times I hear beginners talk about how frustrating it is to play ‘Pushers’ because they hit with no pace. First, take a close look at your own game and ask – if I got 100 balls fed to me with no pace in the middle of the court, am I technically capable – skillful enough – to consistently attack the ball? Would I hit more than 30% of my attacking shots out or in the net?

If your error rate is that high, then yes of course someone who focuses solely on consistency of 100% is going to beat you. You have to match their consistency of 100%, and only attack when you can win the point with near certainty. I’d say attack aggressively in situations where you know you’ll win 90% of the time. If you’re not advanced enough to consistently build points and play with control, then you’re by no means allowed to snicker at ‘pusher’ players. You first have to work on your control, technique, spin, power, etc. Past a certain point in player development and strength conditioning, ‘pusher’ players no longer become a true challenge.

  • Tactics

Let’s say you gain control of the point by hitting a great heavy deep ball to their backhand. You then get a weak reply, and you hit a nice angle ball off the court to get them running. They manage to get it back, and you hit an angled shot to the other side of the court. They’re running again and will only just be able to get their racquet on it. If you are positioned at the net, then you put away the volley and win the point. If you’re positioned at the baseline, then your opponent simply float a weak high slice back into the court, giving himself time to recover, and you have to start all over again. So people say close the net against pushers – but only after you have hurt them and can anticipate the weak return.

Usually ‘Pusher’ players have bad footwork – advanced footwork comes with advanced play. They may be quick running out wide, but if you hit the ball right at them down the middle of the court, they may not be able to get out of their own way. It’s also a higher percentage play for you. So test their ability at responding to deep balls down the middle of the court, and a change of pace – soft, soft, hard.

Gamesmanship

Gamesmanship

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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.

How to Beat a Lefty at Tennis

How to beat a Left-Handed player

Typically, left handed players have weaker backhands. Not always, but most of the time. This is great news for you, because you can hit your highest percentage play, the crosscourt forehand, and direct it to their weakest side. If you can get into a crosscourt rally with them, your forehand vs. their backhand, it will be hard for them to win the point, as they will probably be the first to cough up a short ball which you can attack.

If you get into a situation where you are rallying crosscourt backhand to their forehand, either hit an inside-in to their backhand, a slice down the line, or a down the line topspin backhand, to try to reverse the rally, so you can hit forehands to their backhand.

Often, lefties have loopy weird forehand swings, which are not technically solid. If that’s the case, you don’t have to worry too much about engaging in forehand-to-backhand rallies with them, as their odd technique will likely generate errors.

On the serves, most lefties hit slices down the tee on the deuce side, and slices out wide on the ad side. As such, adjust your court positioning to stand further towards that side, and make sure to move in so as to cut off the angle. It is rare that a lefty can hit a flat ball out wide on the deuce court, or town the tee on the ad court. Most of them have been conditioned to hit nothing but slice serves to your backhand.

Conversely, on your serve, slice serves to their backhand are very effective and you should keep hitting them until they begin to adjust their court positioning.

But don’t change your game too much. Still go out there and hit your favorite shots. Recognize what shots of yours may be more effective, and what shots of theirs may be most threatening. At the end of the day you have to play your game, and play high percentage. Don’t think too much or aim too much, since you don’t want the fact that they’re a lefty to get into your head too much and make you start hitting errors on shots you normally wouldn’t hit. I would just recommend changing your priorities on the margin.

What tactics do you find most effective against a lefty?

How to beat the Continental Grip

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Does this look familiar? Most people use some form of continental grip when they play. This usually involves a slow looping backswing, letting the ball drop to below their hip, and a pretty follow through pose at the end of their swing, with no body rotation. Old people trained in the classical way of playing tennis – back when people used wooden racquets – use this style of play very frequently.

So how do you beat someone with a flat continental grip?

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Their key weakness are high balls (see above), especially heavy topspin lobs.  The reason is that since their grip is flat, and they come through at the ball with a level swing, it’s very difficult to generate any pace or power. They either have to hit something awkward like I’m doing above, or they have to move very far back to let the ball drop to waist-height. So either way you’re going to put them in trouble. If you push them way back, they’re going to have to lob it back or hit from way back in the court. This is a great time to go into the net.

Here’s a close-up of how the racquet comes through the swing when using a continental forehand.

How do you beat players that have a continental grip?

How to Beat a Chip-Returner

A lot of times you will be serving very well but your opponent will just dink back a very high chip or slice shot – just bunting your serves back into play, and then starting out the point.

When playing someone who is returning serve like this, you have a few options. First, you can move in after your serve to hit a volley or swinging volley, immediately taking the offensive.

Second, you can wait for the ball to bounce, and then direct it deep and to their weaker side, hoping to gain control of the point. From there, you can finish them off.

In both cases, do not go for the outright winner. Go for an aggressive control shot, followed by closing in on the net or using angles to get your lazy opponent running. Of these two strategies, I much prefer the swinging volley follow-up, as it sends the message to your opponent that merely dinking back your serves will be punished

Post Match Recovery

Eat something with protein immediately, no later than 15 minutes from the end of your match. The sooner you start eating, the better your body can recover.

Stretch your hamstrings, quads, calves, abs, shoulders, glutes, and back. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds and cool down slowly, relaxing your muscles.

Take a hot shower as soon as possible, and ideally get a massage. If you can’t get one, then massage your muscles with a foam roller.

Drink lots of water to get hydrated for the next match.

For strained or minor muscle pulls in your next match, applying heat-rub gel can be effective for temporary pain relief.

Rituals

Coin Flip – always choose heads or tails. Doesn’t matter, but don’t hesitate and appear weak to your opponent. You want to appear confident and self-assured.

Also know in advance whether you want them to serve, you to serve, or if you want to choose a side. Whoever chooses to serve or return does not get to choose his side, whoever chooses his side cannot choose whether to serve or return.

9/10 people will always choose to serve first for some reason. Maybe it’s because they think that’s what the pros do. But I would recommend against this. I believe it is almost always better to choose to return serve in the first game. Everyone is a bit tense and nervous, and as the returner, the pressure is off you to win the game. You can hit confidently through the ball , and try to add even more pressure to the already nervous server. If you break them in the first game, it can be demoralizing and set the tone for the match. Even if you don’t win that first game, it gives you extra time to warm up your body and shoulders before you start your service game.

Between points you should have a ritual that you follow. This helps you maintain focus on winning each point, and maintaining your desired pace of play. Some pros pick at the strings of their racquet, some wipe their hands down with a towel. But it’s always the same after each point. They are not actually trying to adjust the strings of their racquet with their fingers, instead it’s a way to internalize their focus and recharge for the next point.

Both before the serve and before the return, you should have the same ritual of how you prepare, bounce the ball, move your feet, etc. By making all these rituals consistent, it is easier to keep your timing, and feel like you are just hitting a shot that you have hit 10000000 times before in practice. It relieves some of the stress caused by being in a match scenario.

Pre-Match Preparation

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1)        Make sure you have all your equipment ready: racquets, wristbands, tennis shoes, spare socks, spare shirt + shorts, water, Gatorade, a dry towel, a wet towel (for wiping sweat off your hands), sweat pants and a sweatshirt / warm up clothes, a hat, sunscreen. In very hot conditions, bring a cooler with an ice pack. Placing the ice back behind your neck during changeovers is the fastest way to cool down.

2)        Eat a good meal with lean protein like Chicken, some vegetables, make sure you have vitamins, be well hydrated throughout the day prior to the match. Bring bananas to eat during your match. You should have one after the first set to stay energized.

3)        Think about your gameplan, and talk it over with your coach/friend/parent.

4)        Check in at the tournament well before your match – maybe an hour before. Get a sense for whether or not your match will be on time, and let them know you’re there so you won’t lose if you show up late.

5)        10-20 minutes before your match is about to go on, get warmed up. The on-court 5 minutes they give you before the game is not enough. If there are courts to get warmed up on, then great. If not, then no problem. I like to jog outside, maybe around the parking lot. I do some skips, circles with my shoulders, stretch very lightly my wrists and legs, do shadows with my racquet, or hit some volleys against a wall to get my hand eye coordination warmed up. Skipping a little bit is good too for general coordination warmup. You just want to have your muscles feeling warm and your ligaments loose. You don’t want to be exhausted. A light sweat is ok as long as you know that your match will be on time. The last thing you want is to get warmed up, then have your sweat cool down, and your muscles to be stiff and cold by the time you get on the court. So you need to time your pre-warmup carefully and do it close to the match.

6)        The pre-match warmup is not the time for any technical tips from the coach. It’s too late anyway, so all you want to do is be positive to get the player feeling confident. I typically like to do my pre-match warmup ritual on my own. I do the same thing each time, and the alone-time gives me time to get comfortable. Once I get on the court I’m going to be dealing with everything alone, so it’s good to collect your thoughts.

7)        Check out the conditions of the courts. What side is the sun on? You don’t want the sun in your eyes when you are warming up your serve. Is it windy? Which side has the wind behind you? You probably want the wind behind you at the start of the match when you’re a bit nervous and not swinging through the ball. Are there shadows covering part of the court? Can you take advantage by hitting the ball there and making your opponent have to deal with it?

Tennis Commandments

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  1. I shall bend my legs at all times
  2. I shall stay moving on my toes and always splitstep as my opponent hits
  3. I shall turn my shoulders as fast as humanly possible
  4. I shall maintain balance at all times
  5. I shall always strive to move into the ball and attack
  6. I shall never show negative emotion on the court
  7. I shall construct my points carefully, using depth and angles to hurt my opponent
  8. I shall play high percentage shots, yet remain unpredictable
  9. I shall maintain my focus and never worry what spectators think
  10. I shall follow my game plan and personal code at all costs, because then despite the score, I will never lose what matters most.

What do you think should be on the list?