It takes courage to become a great tennis player. In fact it takes courage to become even a decent player. Whether you are a stone cold beginner or a top 10 pro, every player knows what it feels like to be afraid to fail. To be afraid to lose a match, afraid to lose your sponsors, afraid of embarrassing yourself in a group clinic, afraid to hit the ball over the fence attempting topspin or even of missing the ball completely. Tennis is a difficult sport and there are so many shots to master (or attempt to). I want to discuss the concept of courage in tennis and its role in developing your game.
Courage: “Taking action despite a fear of failure”
Recently I have had the opportunity to watch some of my students play competitive matches without them knowing. It is always interesting as a tennis coach seeing the difference between your players playing standard in a lesson and the playing standard of a tense match. Many of the things you have worked on relentlessly with your student go out the window once there is a little bit of pressure on the line. This is natural and understandable, to a point. No one likes to lose, but lose you will and often as you sharpen and test new skills in match intensity. This is a hard reality of developing a complete game. You must accept this part of the game.
Former world #1 Patrick Rafter served and volleyed throughout his junior career with limited success and although there were times when he pondered discarding this style of play, he stuck with it knowing it would be better for his game in the long run. I can’t think of anything more frustrating than being 5’5 tall serve and volleying on first and second serves.
Pete Sampras was another player who’s ranking suffered after he decided to change his two handed backhand to a one hander during his late junior days. He lost many matches because of it, but the goal was for him to develop the one hander to better handle the low bounce of Wimbledon grass and to be able to switch easily to a slice. An amazing vision that paid off after 7 Wimbledon’s.
Of all the success stories, Novak Djokovic re-structuring his serve in 2010 might be the most impressive. Prior to 2010 Djokovic’s serve was one of the weaker points of his game and opponents recognized that this stroke was prone to breaking down. During the 2010 ATP season Novak committed to re-structuring his technique (particularly the trophy position) in an attempt to compliment his stand out return of serve game and make an assault on the world number 1 ranking. During this time, Novak was already one of the best players on the planet! Can you imagine his fear of failure if he never got a handle on his new serve. Playing for millions of dollars in prize money, he worked this new motion into muscle memory during match play! On the ATP/WTA tour there is very little down time to take a break and work on something, so it must be practiced during matches. I think that is amazing. Djokovic then went on to have arguably the greatest single season of professional mens tennis in 2011 compiling a 70-6 win loss record (92.1% win percentage). If Novak can do it on that scale, you have to believe it is possible to change your own game or style.
Having the courage to change isn’t limited to changing your technique. It applies to adding new shots to your game and practicing them in matches. Also applying new strategies and game plans that you have worked on in practice, in competition. Courage to you might mean pushing that extra step for a reaching poach in doubles, or taking a short backhand up the line on a big point in singles, or closing down further on the net and risking the lob. Also, it takes courage not to quit or bail out when the going gets tough. To knuckle down and fight and play tough takes courage.
Tennis is a constantly evolving game. No sooner have you figured out your opponent, then they change their gameplay and its a brand new match. You need to develop the tools to adapt and find a way to win. Being one dimensional as a tennis player is a death sentence. Some match-ups will just be too tough for you to overcome. You need to grow your game so you can counter your opponent and that takes courage. Sometimes you have to step back and question your game a little bit.
Are you courageous on court?
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