I. Thou shalt train with an event in mind
Practice and training can be monotonous, and at times, more of a chore than a diversion. Think of practice as a business. Approach it with planning, forethought and focus. Two weeks before any event, practice with the event in mind. Create a journal. Record all of your workouts, practices, lessons, eating habits, sleep patterns and thought processes leading up to the event. If the results of your practice are favorable, go back and repeat all that you have done. If your performance is poor, or does not meet your expectations, make the appropriate corrections and modifications to your event preparation. Get input from outside sources, and focus on the areas of your game that need the most work. You may just find the perfect recipe for success after only a few events.
II. Thou shalt practice like playing a tournament match
I have found that many players, especially junior tournament players, take regular private lessons, join group programs, use personal trainers and practice their serves. However, seldom do they schedule and play a regular scoring, two out of three set practice match with new tennis balls. Approach your practices the same way that an actor approaches a dress rehearsal of a Broadway show. Do not just wing it. Rather, make sure you have rehearsed several times before you hit the stage.
III. Thou shalt place one’s feet on fire
Footwork and speed differentiate good players from great players. Regardless of how a player swings the racquet, if the feet are not in position it is not likely that a good shot will be produced. In the weeks before a tournament, work hard on footwork skills. Quick movements through the agility ladder, on court spider drills, and short sprints are a few of the techniques that I use to ensure that my feet are blazing fast during a tournament. Remember that when in a pressure situation, ramping up your footwork is a great way to combat nerves.
IV. Thou shalt place one’s brain on ice
If only we could all know what goes through Roger Federer’s head during big Grand Slam championship moments. Unfortunately, Roger has not been quick to divulge many of his mental secrets for consistently being able to rise to the occasion and snag title after title. If you are like me, and are not always sure what should be going through your head at 6-5, 40-30 in the third set of the tournament finals, then DON’T think at all. You will be amazed at how well this works. Have a short mantra to utter to yourself right before the crucial point. For example, I tell myself, “Don’t think—watch the laces.” I rely on my muscle memory to get the job done. I just need to make sure my brain does not get in the way. Thoughts about holding the trophy after the match, the pressures of work or school, or concerns about what my coach or parent might say if I lose match point, will ultimately get in the way of success.
V. Thou shalt be faster, stronger and fitter than one’s opponent
Confidence is a key ingredient to playing in the zone. There is no easier way to boost confidence during a match than to know that you have outworked your opponent during your training leading up to an event. On the surface, there is no difference between running wind sprints at six in the morning or at four in the afternoon. Except for the fact that you will be less likely to allow yourself to lose knowing the sacrifices you made to wake up early in the morning and train. Pushing yourself past your limits off the court can instill a sense of right and belonging in the winner’s circle.
VI. Thou shalt keep the first two shots in the court
A vast majority of tennis points end after the first four shots. These four shots include the serve, return of serve, and subsequent two shots. If you watched the recent 2010 Wimbledon tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, you may remember that seldom did these players even get to the third shot of a point. If you find that you are making errors during these four shots, you are shooting yourself in the foot. When playing a tournament match, be accepting of errors that come after these four shots, but demand perfection during them.
VII. Thou shalt learn to pace oneself for success
The theory here is fairly straightforward, and it seems to work for many players. Play fast while you are winning or up in the match, and slow when you are losing or down in the match. When you are ahead, make sure to maintain your pace and avoid changes to your game plan. The goal is to just keep winning points as long and quickly as possible. On the other end of the spectrum, nothing can be as demoralizing as losing a two out of three set match in 45 min. If you find yourself in this situation, take the full amount of allotted time in between each point, as well as in between each game and set. You may just lull your opponent to sleep or rattle them by breaking their rhythm. Of course, the momentum changes during tennis match, but recognize the flow and take advantage of it.
VIII. Thou shalt not mimic one’s opponent
In all my years as a player and as a coach, I have never once heard anyone ask to practice with a player of lesser ability, or players who do not cleanly strike the ball. To the contrary, I have frequently heard how much people hate playing “ball pushers” and “junk ballers.” We all enjoy practicing with players who hit the ball better than we do. It affords an opportunity to mimic superior shots, bring our game to a higher level, and ultimately, make us feel better about our own game. The same thing happens when we practice with players of lesser ability or those who do not hit conventional shots. We find ourselves mimicking lesser, poorly hit shots, which can frequently lead to feeling worse about our own game. Do not be afraid of practicing against these players. It most likely will pay off the next time you face a tournament player who hits soft, junky or crumby balls. But, the main point here is that when you are playing a match against someone you consider to be a much better player, stick to what you know and do well. Do not mimic their strokes or play outside yourself. Doing so will undoubtedly be the root of dozens of errors.
IX. Thou shalt treat one’s body like a race car
Be very aware of what you are putting into your body days before a tournament begins, and through to the end of the tournament. Good nutrition, as well as hydration, should be ongoing, but it is especially important at tournament time. Likewise, stretching each day for 10 min. or more is equally important to stretching a half-hour before a match begins. In order to compete at your best, you must make sure your body is feeling good and is in top shape. If a race car is not tuned to perfection, it probably will not win the race, despite the ability of the driver.
X. Thou shalt worry only about things one can control
The more you worry about crying babies, referees with poor vision, wind, sun, shadows, dead balls, cracked courts, incorrect string tension, poor lighting, cheaters, rankings, draws … and the list goes on … the worse you will perform. Ignore all of these uncontrollable factors and take charge of the things under your power. Focus on making your first two shots on every point. Think about your readiness and foot speed on break point. Concentrate on the amount of time you are taking in between each point. Log your workouts before each tournament until you have found the winning formula. Let your opponent complain about being seeded below a player he beat twice this year. Focus on and stick to implementing your game plan.
<p>Darrin Cohen was a top-ranked national junior player who went on to play four years as a scholarship athlete at the University of Virginia. He is now the director of tennis at Sportime in Kings Park, N.Y. He may be reached by e-mail at <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a>.</p>