| By Lisa Dodson

Whether it’s money, health, work or sports, goal-setting is an essential component to success. All goals take time and effort to reach, and planning is required to make meaningful progress. Goals can be slow to achieve, but amazing when we succeed. Understanding this for tennis makes it all worthwhile.

Tennis goals can be a little tricky. First, we must realize that we need to improve and then we have to want to make the effort. Typically, we want too much too soon and don’t understand the process of learning to play our best tennis. Skipping elements and taking short cuts just doesn’t do it.

Maybe you have one big end goal. Achieving this big goal requires another set of goals. For example, a friend of mine wants to win one round in a Men’s Open Tournament. To do this he’ll have to get fitter, play more practice matches, sharpen up his entire skill set and believe that he can do it. That will take a lot of work and love of the game.

Let’s think about some big, realistic goals that tennis players of all levels aim for. We’ll choose essentials to reach the goal and form a simple plan that will allow you to grow. Below are four examples of some basic and realistic goals.

1. Beat an archrival
Just can’t beat the guy or gal you play every week? It’s always close and you’ve taken a few sets, but haven’t yet won the match. It’s the same old story. You don’t really believe you’re going to win, you just hope you will.

What essentials do we need?

►A good, solid, positive attitude

►​Countering skills to make the opponent uncomfortable

►​Willingness to work through uncomfortable and difficult situations

►​Consistency

What’s the plan?
Go to the match thinking that you are going to win. Chances are your skills are good enough, but your mindset won’t let you do it. If the difference is a few points here and there, be aware of where you are giving away points. For example, are you missing service returns, double-faults, over hitting or under hitting in rallies? Sometimes we don’t recognize how many points we just throw away.

Every point you give away is a steal for the opponent. 

Play high percentage tennis and attempt to determine what makes the opponent uncomfortable. If they like to receive a hard flat ball, give them a high ball. If they serve and volley well, respond with an off-speed chip return. If they like to rally high and keep you back, then return a high ball to them and run to the service line to hit the next ball as a volley. Basically, the better your counter skills are, the more effective you will be.

It’s all about the fight. The biggest fight is your willingness to stay focused, make good decisions, stay energized and keep up the intensity. The rest of the stuff falls into place.

Get some professional advice on a specific strategy that will work against this player. Chances are, you need some stroke work for better consistency, but sometimes, we simply need to form a better tactical plan. All of it will help you grow.

2. Hit aces and double fault less by swinging the same speed on all serves
Is that really possible? Yes and it is also essential. The key to serving success is swinging the same speed on both first and second serves. This is the only way you will both hit aces and reduce double faults. In fact, you will often swing harder on a second serve than you will on a first serve.

When talking about a “second” serve, we are simply referring to the serve that follows the first one, or your second opportunity to start the point and not a serve that just has to get into the box.

First and second serves are interchangeable and use the same basic technique and tempo. They are delivered with different spins, speeds, arcs and target points.

Typically, a second serve will have a lot of spin to allow height over the net and to bring the ball into the box, but this “second” serve can also be used as a first.

In order to hit more first serves in, you need to stay in rhythm by swinging the same speed all of the time. Swinging slower on a second serve disrupts timing and takes away your natural rhythm. Then, your first serve percentage decreases and your double faults increase.

What essentials do we need?
►​A Continental Grip (and willingness to modify grips for varying serves)

►​Knowledge of where the toss contact point is located for varying serves

►​A slice serve

What’s the plan?
Bite the bullet and move your grip to the Continental. Be willing to fail first in order to make a big improvement. Slight variations of this grip are used for varying serves so first master the Continental Grip. It is your base serve grip.

Learn a slice serve first. Slice spin should happen naturally if your grip and toss are in place. This teaches your brain that the front edge of the racket should be heading to the ball, and the arm and body what the correct serve action should feel like. Hitting a slice serve lets you branch out into hitting more complex spin serves. 

Practice away from the court and without a ball. If you cannot go through the movements without a ball, then you don’t need one.

Experiment by getting on the court and let yourself make mistakes. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Have fun and just see what you can make the ball do.

Variation in serve types comes from grip changes and ball toss location, not from changing the serve motion or tempo. Changing a grip allows your hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder to move on different planes. This allows you to strike different parts of the ball and creates spin. Spin will let you swing away on all serves.

3. Never miss a return of serve
Here is an ugly fact: Missing a return has the same point value as a double fault. It can also give your opponent the same sense of power as hitting an ace. All in all, it is a giant boost and a free point for the opponent.

Just like the serve, the return is necessary to start a point. It’s really that simple. Typical errors are over- or under-hitting the return.

What essentials do we need?
►​A specific landing point for our return

►​Quick recognition of what you are receiving

►​Shot selection that is deliberate and not impulsive

What’s the plan?
Keep it simple! When in doubt, go for depth on returns. Remember your opponent has just come out of a service motion that typically lands them inside the baseline. Depth will drive them back and reduce their shot selection and power.

Be specific about where you want your ball to land, but allow yourself “spray room.” Whether you are going cross-court or down the line, aim for a specific spot about eight-feet inside the inside alley line and 10-feet inside the baseline. If you miss it long or wide by three to six feet, you are still well inside the boundaries. Aiming closer to the lines is a sure way to miss frequently by a small margin.

Watch your opponent’s serve carefully. When they toss the ball, look at the strike of the ball, not at the toss. React immediately by turning first, not moving first. Recognize quickly which way to turn: Right or left for forehand or backhand preparation.

Don’t be impulsive, but return smart, clean and at a high percentage.

Serves can be difficult to return if they are very hard, have a great deal of spin or are very soft. Figure out a way to make a good play on every ball. It has to go back in order to make your opponent play.

4. Begin playing league matches
This doesn’t sound difficult to many, but for those who have never really competed, it can be a truly frightening experience.

What essentials do we need?
►​Know how to score

►​Basic ability to rally from the baseline, volley and hit overhead from the net area and get one out of two serves in the box

►​Reasonable expectations of self

What’s the plan?
You don’t need anything high-powered yet. Remember you are just venturing into playing matches that count for something besides your own personal gain.

Practice the basic skills of tennis—ground strokes, volleys, overhead and serves—outside of playing sets and matches. Find a practice partner to do organized drills with. For example, five minutes of cross-court forehands and backhands, controlled groundstroke to volley series, overhead/lob drill, and serving to targets.

Improvement happens quickly if you stay with a plan. Get some lessons to supplement and speed up skill development.

Drills form your points in a match. The patterns we practice are ones that happen over and over in rallies. You just need to recognize the situations and be able to handle them. Working on skills and technique is much more important than playing points at this stage.

Determine your own essentials for improvement in one area then set your plan into action. Don’t hesitate to get some advice from a friendly pro. If you ask nicely, you might even get some free tips! Be brave, be willing to fail and you’ll soon be a very happy tennis player. It’s really that simple.

Lisa Dodson

Lisa Dodson is the developer and owner of Servemaster, a USPTA Elite Professional and a former WTA world-ranked player. She is currently the director of tennis at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye, N.Y. She may be reached by e-mail at Lisa@TheTotalServe.com or visit TheTotalServe.com.