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Developing Consistency

Q. Whenever I go to low-level tournaments like level 5 tournaments I generally get all the way to the finals. Then, when I go to L2's I cannot even win my first round. During clinics, I can beat players in the top-30 but in tournaments I lose to players ranked in the 50's. What do you think I should do to improve my consistency throughout my game? My general style is hitting the ball hard, but I think this may make me inconsistent while playing. What do you suggest I do?

A. I suggest that you continue to compete regularly. Over time, you will learn to play as well- or even better- during matches than you do in practice. This will happen if you take the time to really learn from your defeats. Be objective, or rely on an impartial coach’s viewpoint, to determine why you lost.

This is a normal learning process that takes some tennis players a long time to figure out. Trust me that you are not the only player who struggles in this manner. Do not get discouraged.

Q. I've been playing tennis for close to a year now. Just recently I've gotten a lot better. However I keep losing. I'm playing well against good players, but I'm playing bad against the weaker players. I believe their slow bad shots are taking me out of my element. I just can't seem to beat players who are worse than me, any tips?

A. This is a common refrain. Hang in there. It is sometimes harder to beat “ugly” but consistent players than those with classic strokes who demonstrate no consistency.

I would advise that you continue to play these “worse” players until you gain some sustained success. They will force you to play many shots that are always necessary to have in your arsenal (such as floating mid-court balls, lobs, routine groundstrokes, etc.). Eventually, as you improve, you will handle these players and THEN you can freely refer to them as being “weaker players.” First things first though...

Q. My coach has told me that I have really powerful shots, and even my serve is unbelievably fast, but I am not very consistent on my shots. About 50% of the time, I hit down the line shots or something really awesome that my opponent is not able to return, and other times the ball goes completely out. This is basically why I lose a lot of points. Do you know how I can become more consistent?

A. Uhhh, I am guessing that your shot selection is unbelievably risky. If you always attempt to hit awesome or really powerful shots, then you must accept that you are going to miss more often than if you play conservative shots. There are times when discretion will be the better part of valor.

In other words, Jennifer, it is all about choosing when to say when.

Q. Can you tell me why I make every one of my matches go three sets? In 75% of my matches, I usually come out on fire and win the first set. But I almost always lose the second set, even against much weaker players. The third set can go either way. What could be happening to me after I win that first set, and more importantly, what can I do to stop it? I live in Texas and playing three set matches in 100-degree weather does not help me get very deep into tournaments.

A. After you have won the first set, begin the second set as though you are losing. Convince yourself that you are playing from behind. This might force you to compete with the same sense of urgency that allowed you to win the first set.

Playing this mind game with yourself might help you to minimize the number of matches that are unnecessarily extended to three sets. Good luck!

Q. When you’re playing a singles match, after how many rally's back and forth should you hit a winner down the line?

A. It depends on how good you are, Emily. If you are strong enough to blast a ball past your opponent from the baseline regularly, then do it. Remember that keeping a rally going is often enough to win the point.

If there is an opening down-the-line, then take it. If you miss too often, learn to become more conservative. Every player’s shot tolerance is a little different. Experiment and choose wisely.

Q. I have been a tennis player since 1976 and I have been so frustrated with my forehand ever since then. There is no pace on the ball. I can totally understand the frustration that I create when hitting with other people with the weak depth on my forehand. The best shot in my repertoire is my backhand slice. I am very good at hitting the ball on the run, but the regular groundies are gruesome at times. HELP!

A. You are asking me for help when, in fact, it sounds like you have found a style that is effective. After 28 years, you realize that keeping the ball in play WILL frustrate opponents. Luckily for you, and for most of us, we are not judged on style points like in certain Olympic sports. Results are what matters in tennis.

Instead of worrying about what you do poorly, instead focus on the things that you do well. If you lack power on a certain shot, simply keep the ball in play until you get a shot where you can do something aggressive. Tennis is all about maximizing your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses.

Q. I am a good 4.0 player. I can play well against players at my level and higher. But when I have to play some part-time club players, I lose matches, because they play unorthodox tennis. What should I do to overcome this weakness? Thank you.

A. Respectfully, it sounds like you need to improve your consistency. As I see it, an inexperienced “part-time club player” will often just battle to get the ball back over the net. While “unorthodox,” these styles might be pretty effective. You need to demonstrate your proficiency by moving these less experienced opponents around the court with control, and when you get an opportunity to become aggressive you should pounce.

Try to concentrate on your own tactics, and do not concern yourself with their style (or lack thereof). Thinking about whether or not you should be beating your opponent during a match is counterproductive. Instead, just concentrate on how you can win the very next point. Eventually the result will take care of itself.

Q. How do I bring my practice serves into a match? During practice I serve great with all the right motions, speed, distance - I know how I should serve, yet during a match all of that goes out the window and my serves become short, weak and I never finish my serving motion - I totally tense up.

A. Help is on the way! If you are sincere about your desire to develop a great serve, there is one sure antidote: practice. Make sure that your service motion is sound. Consult with a good, certified (PTR and/or USPTA) teaching professional. If there are any hitches in your swing, then these flaws will be magnified during the pressures of match play.

Once you feel satisfied with your service motion, get out on that practice court with baskets and baskets of balls, and keep hitting until everything feels completely natural and you begin gaining a measure of accuracy. These repetitions, hundreds of repetitions, will enable you to eventually gain full confidence in your ability to execute during matches.

Q. How does one go about tracking the ball from your opponent’s racket to your own the way the pros do? Are there any drills to aid in this task?

A. You have picked up on a skill set which top players possess that is rarely discussed. Professional players do track the ball better than recreational players. This skill is both nature and nurture. Certainly, some athletes are born with a keen sense of judgment and coordination. This is honed by years spent on the practice courts where players learn to simply react. I liken your question to how a major league outfielder in baseball successfully tracks down a long fly ball. They make this extremely difficult task look virtually effortless.

I would recommend that the practice drills you do be of the “live ball” nature. This will make your training more sport specific. I always remind students to “move first, think later.” Which is to say, many players pause for just a moment to evaluate whether they can reach the shot on one bounce. A moment is WAY too long. Practice reacting toward the incoming shot immediately, without thinking, until this action becomes natural.

Q. I have trouble consistently finding my hitting zone. As a result, my groundstrokes are very inconsistent. Sometimes I’m too close or too far from the ball or I take my swing when the ball is too high or too low. This happens even when I have plenty of time to set up properly and prepare early. Any suggestions?

A. My suggestion is that for forehands and backhands you need to clearly define where your ideal “strike zone” is for contact. If you had one shot to hit for $10,000, where would you want this ball? Waist high? Thigh high? Chest high? Rehearse the swing on this “ideal” ball until your swing feels perfect.

Once you’ve done this, really move your feet to get into position so that as many shots as possible are in this ideal “strike zone.” On the other hand, when the ball is not exactly where you want it to be, play your shot more conservatively.

Old-fashioned practice will eliminate many of your troubles. Once you get grooved, your consistency will improve considerably.

Q. I am a good 4.0 player. I can play well against players at my level and higher. But when I have to play some part-time club players, I lose matches, because they play unorthodox tennis. What should I do to overcome this weakness? Thank you.

A. Respectfully, it sounds like you need to improve your consistency. As I see it, an inexperienced “part-time club player” will often just battle to get the ball back over the net. While “unorthodox,” these styles might be pretty effective. You need to demonstrate your proficiency by moving these less experienced opponents around the court with control, and when you get an opportunity to become aggressive you should pounce.

Try to concentrate on your own tactics, and do not concern yourself with their style (or lack thereof). Thinking about whether or not you should be beating your opponent during a match is counterproductive. Instead, just concentrate on how you can win the very next point. Eventually the result will take care of itself.

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