I once had the chance to watch Martina Hingis, who was the top-ranked player in the world at the time, practice up close while coaching several players at the 1997 U.S. Open. Superficially, Hingis was solid, but not great. She was fast, but not the fastest. She struck the ball well, but half the women in that year's draw hit as well or better. Her serve was good, but not great. She was strong in so many ways, but not incredible, with one notable exception.
Hingis was a terrific problem solver. If you closed to the net just a moment too soon, you would be lobbed. If you didn't close the net enough and gave her just the slightest passing angle, you were toast. She could make split-second decisions and execute with adaptive skill accuracy, consistency and remarkable disguise. The end result of these qualities was that her opponents had very little time to adapt to her shot choices.
The million dollar question here is not, "how did she do that?" but "how can you do that?”, and the answer is simple: Practice With Purpose
Problem solving is a highly specialized skill and, like any skill, requires highly targeted practice that emphasizes performance in context. For example, if you want to serve better, just practice your serve, but if you want to serve better in a match, practice your serve after doing a sprint to raise your heart rate and always include a recovery movement after the serve. Most players will attribute serving great in practice and poorly in matches to nervousness, and while they might be right, their reaction is not surprising. Who wouldn't be nervous if they wanted to succeed but spent very little time preparing the exact skills that make you successful?
Here are five of the many problem-solving skills that players can learn for better performance with examples of each.
1. Risk-Reward tactics
Let's say that you are run very wide in the back court by your opponent. You could go for a shot that you will make nine out of 10 times, but it will not be very strong. As a result of your opponent’s superior position, you win one third of those points, or three out of 10 total. If you go for a riskier shot and you make just half of those, you win four out of five because your shot will be stronger. Your winning percentage now will be greater than it was, or four out of 10.
In this case the risk-reward of a less frequently made shot is more favorable than a more frequently made shot.
2. Skills adoption
Let's suppose that you don't love to come to the net and would much prefer to try to win with rallies from the baseline. Your opponent, however, loves to come to the net and does it well. You could try to hit with greater penetration but that might not be enough to keep your opponent from attacking. The question you will need to address is, which position would you rather be in? In the back court with your opponent up, or up with your opponent back? The old saying, "the best defense is a good offense" in this case is spot on.
3. Weakness exploitation
Back in my high school tennis days I played a very good player from Great Neck South High School.
He was known to have a weak backhand and a powerful forehand. I did the obvious and played his backhand. I lost 2 and 2. It turned out that everyone played his backhand and he was really good at running around to hit forehands. It also seemed that the more backhands he hit the more confident he got with that shot. I played him later that season, but this time I went strong to his forehand side first, and found a better opening to attack his backhand. I won 3 and 2.
4. Suitable styles
Steffi Graf had three qualities that, at her best, made her just about unbeatable. She was fast, she had a wicked low slice backhand and she had one of the best high forehands in tennis history. She used these three strengths perfectly, slicing low to make her opponent hit "up" and then using her lightning fast speed to find high forehands. The best style for most players is one in which the "whole" of their game is greater than the sum of their parts.
5. Perfect intensity
I once coached a very high-ranked player whose father told her to compete like she was the fictional boxer "Rocky" and play with extreme intensity. She had high energy like Rafa and it worked for her. An equally successful boy I coached looked like he might take a nap on changeovers much like the great Pete Sampras.
Bjorn Borg was stoic like ice. John McEnroe was explosive like fire. Their genius is that they found what worked for their personalities.
Each match is a unique problem solving exercise, forcing you to learn to perform your best and to challenge your opponent’s ability to perform their best. It takes targeted practice.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.