I am asked all the time from competitive tennis players … is the game more mental or physical? In my life-long adventure through the world of competitive tennis, I have found that the mentally tough players win more than the physically gifted.
When I was a young player in the juniors, most of my problems came from a lack of consistency with my shots. I had the ability physically and I knew how to accomplish the goal, but I was too young, stupid and impatient to maintain a long rally. I grew out of it by competing with the length of rallies, rather than winning or losing the point. For example, before the point would begin, I would make a goal of 20 balls in the court. I would count right from the serve to the last shot. I would not try to end the point until the rally reached 20. I would change the number depending on if I was winning or not. Most of my success came from putting the number at 50 every point.
As my game grew, so did my mental approach to training. My ability to drive myself through pain when my body told me to stop. I began demanding more performance from my body in practice, so in any match, I had one more gear to shift to for a victory. I won a five-set match at the U.S. Open and my mindset to my fitness approach was the main key for the victory.
At the very crest of my career on the ATP Tour, I felt I was capable on any shot, in any match, against anyone. I knew when I had enough firepower to win and when I needed more. In 1996, I played Andre Agassi who was at the top of the game with the most feared return of serve since Jimmy Connors. Andre's return was bigger than any serve I could hit. So my approach to the match was simple. I could not hit any second serves under 110 miles per hour. I had to throw flames at him at every opportunity. My ability to serve left-handed and right-handed never bothered Andre in previous matches, so I needed to fire the heavy artillery from both wings. My mental approach was a “go for it” mindset, and even though I hit a ton of double faults, Andre never had a read on my serve in my two-set victory that night.
Now, as a coach of aspiring pro tennis players at Syracuse University, my mental toughness is challenged all the time. I explain to all my players and their parents that they will all be treated fairly, but not the same. I put the same extreme effort into every player on my team that I put into my game towards winning a French Open Title. The main difference is that I had more drive and commitment than they do. I take every player individually and break down their complete game, from their best to worst. Then, I go to work. Most of my coaching is instilling a mental toughness and self-confidence in my team. You are who you think you are. I always believed I was the best player when I walked on the court. Regardless of the situation. In the Agassi match, I knew the odds and I knew I was capable. Now if you think you are a chump, well then that’s how you will play under pressure. It’s not easy taking a wimp and making them a warrior. It takes time and a commitment from the individual and their tennis parents to believe in the fighter and not the score.
That is why our game is ALL mental. The space between the ears can be a weapon or a meatball.
Aim for the lines!
Raised in Ludington, Mich., Luke Jensen’s resume includes 10 ATP Tour doubles titles. He was also a member of the U.S. Davis Cup teams that reached the finals in 1991 and won in 1992. His ambidextrous play, including his ability to serve the ball with either hand at 130 mph, earned him the nickname “Dual Hand Luke.” Luke is currently director of racket sports at West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. He may be reached by phone at (315) 403-0752 or e-mail LukeJensen84@yahoo.com.