I’ve had several tennis coaches in London over the years. They’ve shared some great tips with me, and these are the ones which made the biggest impact on my game:
1. Watch the ball
Watch the ball like a hawk right from the moment it leaves your opponent’s racket string, right up to the moment it leaves your racket strings. This takes real discipline, particularly keeping your head still through contact. Roger Federer is the best in the world at this.
2. Focus on the here and now
It’s so easy to get distracted by what’s going on around you, what’s going on in your life, what went wrong in the last game. Bring your focus to the here and now, devote 100% of your attention to the ball you’re playing right now.
3. Relax and enjoy yourself
Remember how lucky you are to be playing tennis, one of the most amazing sports in the world. Enjoy it! Don’t get hung up on errors, learn from them and move on. Laugh them off. The more you berate yourself and get down on yourself, the worse you’ll play. Keep a positive attitude and enjoy the process of hitting the ball and interacting with your opponent.
When I say relax, I don’t mean go to sleep. Stay alert mentally, but stay loose and relaxed physically. You can’t achieve that well-timed whip-like shot on your serves and topspin groundstrokes if you’re tense and anxious. Deep breathing helps a lot to keep you physically relaxed.
4. Keep moving
Tennis is a game of movement. Keep your feet moving while your prepare to receive the server’s ball, remember to split step every time your opponent hits a ball, make those micro-adjustment steps to get into position before hitting your ball. And between points, stay loose and keep moving around. This dissipates any anxiety or tension you have, and keeps you alert. Make some shadow-strokes to correct any weaknesses you’re experiencing in the match.
5. Play within yourself
Tennis is a game of errors. Let the opponent make the errors, your job is to make sure you keep the ball in play for one shot longer than the guy on the other side of the net. Get your ball comfortably over the net with plenty of topspin. Don’t flirt with the lines, keep your ball a good foot or so inside the lines. Move your opponent around until you have the opportunity for a winner, but don’t over-hit that winner.
On the other hand, don’t be over-cautious. Play with aggression and confidence, never timid shots, always fully committed shots. But play within your skill level, to cut right down on errors. Play the percentages. Remember, the lowest part of the net is the centre, and you have the most runway if you hit cross-court.
6. Observe your opponent
Don’t get so hung up on your own game that you forget to observe your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Probe his shots. How does he respond to deep groundstrokes to his backhand? How well does he run forward to take short balls? Can he handle your lobs? Test your opponent across the whole spectrum of shots, and tease out his weaknesses. Then exploit them relentlessly.
7. Be fast
There are several things you need to do very fast. Move to the ball fast, coil fast to prepare for the hit, accelerate fast through contact to achieve that all-important spin, recover to the optimum ready position fast. This last one is so easy to forget. The ready position for your next shot may be at the baseline, midway between your opponent’s possible angles of shot, or it could be at the net if the opportunity presents itself. Wherever it is on the court you need to get to, be fast and decisive, no half-measures.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London, and keen tennis player.