The benefits of playing against a stronger opponent are more obvious than those of playing against a weaker opponent. A player who “plays up” has the opportunity to experience first-hand the skills of a stronger player and hopefully learn from it. A stronger player might implement tactics against you that are unfamiliar with and produce more powerful shots and spins that you have never had to handle before. All of these things are benefits to a weaker opponent because they sharpen their defensive skills. In order to challenge a stronger opponent you must be able to move faster, prepare earlier and defend without abandon. As coaches, it is our belief that the more a player is exposed to a higher level, they will learn to handle it and improve over time.
It is my assertion, however, that stronger players learn just as much from these experiences as weaker players do. The benefits of “playing down” are more numerous and, in my opinion, even more vital to improving your game. As a coach, I often hear things like: “I play better against better opponents,” or “I have trouble playing against weaker opponents.” I interpret all of these types of phrases as a pure lack of offensive skills. If you are truly stronger than your opponent, shouldn’t you be able to soundly beat them over and over again? If you are unable to do so then maybe you have it backwards.
In order to beat another player, you have to do something with the ball that they are unable to handle. If you simply keep the ball in play against them, you are giving them the opportunity to play within their own lesser skill set. In order to beat them, you must use your additional skills by forcing them into situations that they cannot handle. The best way to get better at doing this is to practice against weaker opponents. I am not advocating that players should exclusively practice against weaker opponents, but I do firmly believe that you must “play down” on a regular basis to practice attacking.
Controlled offensive skills are improved through repetition like anything else. The more a player practices attacking, the more successful they will become doing it. “Playing down” gives players more opportunities to improve their offensive skills than “playing up.” In order to develop weapons, volley skills and all of the other specialty shots in the game, you have to practice using them in real match situations. Often times, I have told my players that “playing down” is an opportunity to serve and volley, to hit more forehands from different positions on the court or to work on their ball control by being more aggressive with their placement. Qualified coaches understand this principle and often encourage their players to take more risks, attack the net, and finish points quicker against weaker opponents. With these instructions (and supervision), a stronger player benefits more from playing down than his opponent does from playing up.
Another benefit of playing against weaker opponents is working on decision-making. How often have you had a high sitting volley or a slow mid-court shot and have been unable to select the correct shot to use? “I had so much time,” or “I had so many choices I didn’t know what to do,” are common thoughts that all players struggle with at some point. These are the types of problems that can be corrected by giving players enough opportunities to make decisions quicker and more assertively. If you are constantly put into these situations, you will get better at knowing how to make a good decision and commit to it.
How many times have you felt nervous or unsure during a match especially when the pressure starts to build up? We have all felt the pressure of playing a weaker opponent, especially if we are behind in the match. Again, the best way to get better at handling these situations is to practice it. Often times, when my students play matches against each other there is a discrepancy in their levels. One trick I use is giving the weaker player a lead, such as 0-30, in each game. Not only does the stronger player have to work harder to come back each game, but it also empowers the weaker player to take more chances and fight. This can also be done by giving the stronger player only one fault on their serve to increase the pressure on that particular shot. This can be very effective in taking away a stronger players primary weapon (in this case a big first serve) and forcing them to use other skills to beat their opponent. The idea of all of these game changing tools is to put additional pressure on the stronger player so they become better at handling it.
Any athlete can tell you about the value of staying focused during competition. It is an essential characteristic of any successful tennis player. The ability to win a single point or game is much more common than the ability to win two out of three sets. Making a player understand the importance of not letting up is essential to their success. As players, we can all agree that after winning the first set 6-0, it is easy to become complacent and lose focus. In this situation, you should challenge that player to stay focused, maintain their intensity and replicate their results. Anyone can win a set, but tougher players more often approach the next set with the same level of intensity. Playing another set against the same opponent forces you to stay focused and engaged, and not lose sight of your match goals.
The only way to get better at tennis is to play more. It can be very difficult to schedule a practice into our busy lives and coordinate schedules with others. We all need to be less selective about who we play against and keep in mind that it is better to be playing than not playing. Age, gender, level and experience should not prevent you from having a successful match against someone. Those aren’t sufficient reasons for choosing not to play. The benefits from playing against players of all different levels are endless and should be respected. I recommend seeking out three different levels of practice partners: Players who are stronger than you, players who are weaker than you, and players at the same level as you. This combination will help transform you into a well-rounded player. Above all, keep in mind that there is so much to be gained from playing tennis. While a tough opponent can certainly make for a memorable match, a weaker opponent affords you the opportunity to work on your skills more.
Jimmy Delevante is a USPTA-certified teaching professional and a National High-Performance Coach. He is the director of tennis at the Suffolk County Junior Tennis League Training Center, a former ATP professional tennis player, and master pro at Sportime Kings Park.