Practice Matches

Indian Wells: Roger Federer returns serve during a practice set

Practice Matches: The key to improving your tennis

Practice matches should be part of every player’s development that wants to play better tennis in competition. Many players neglect practice matches and spend the majority of their time working on their game in lessons and clinics, even choosing “hitting sessions” with other players in favor over the live form of our game. Let’s be clear about what practice matches are good for. Developing and working on your game in the format that we compete in. Anyone who has competed in tennis will tell you that there is no comparison between the pressure of a practice match and an official one.

Players shouldn’t be concerned with wins and losses on the practice match court. They should be focused on running plays, trying new tactics, working technique, sharpening your weapons, and developing parts of their games that aren’t 100% ready for live matches. Start looking at your practice matches as opportunities to hone your skills rather than focusing on winning and your tennis will improve. Being able to practice executing these things in a setting that doesn’t officially count allows players to become more confident in areas of their game that they otherwise may avoid in a sanctioned match. 

Ash Barty prepares to return during a practice match at Indian Wells

There are three types of practice matches players should be fitting into their schedules.

  1. Playing against someone who you are alot better than
  2. Playing against someones who is about as good as you are 
  3. Playing against someone who is alot better than you

Sometimes players won’t play practice matches unless they can find someone who is as good or better than them. Parents can often play a role in this as they think that playing down will hinder their Childs progress. The truth is that players of all ages need all three types of opponents to truly be able to work on every part of their games. There is value in playing practice matches against all levels of opponents. Im going to give you an example of how you can use each level to your advantage. 

Dimitrov Serving during a practice match Indian Wells

You are alot better than your opponent 

Ok so you are alot better than your opponent. You know for a fact that your “D” game will be enough to get you over the line. So set some rules for yourself. Some of the rules against this level of player could be

  • Commit to hitting slice backhands only 
  • Serve and volley on all 2nd serves 
  • Chip and charge against all 2nd serves
  • Attack your backhand but be more conservative on your forehand
  • Target deep middle on all ground strokes

No matter how much better you are than your opponent you can find things to work on. Since there is little risk you will lose, against an opponent of this level you can really work on some unusual tactics and parts of your game that may come in handy to surprise opponents of a higher level. 

You are about even with your opponent

You and this player are even. You always have tough matches that come down to the wire so you feel that your level needs to be good to win. With this level of opponent it is important to remind yourself that this is a “practice match” and focus on running primary and secondary plays. Primary plays are your best patterns that you typically use when you need a point the most. Secondary patterns are change up plays that surprise your opponent and keep you from being too predictable. Some rules to set for yourself against this level of player might be.

  • Start every game on serve with a slice serve out wide (for right handers)
  • On Break points run around as many second serves and hit a forehand as possible
  • All 2nd Serves target the forehand when you are up in the game
  • Change your return position depending on the score (when you are up return close to the baseline and look to be more aggressive, when you are down stand back to defend more)  
  • Serve and Volley every time you are up 40-0 or 40-15

Thinking about the score and what patterns of play you use will help you to take the emotions out of the match and develop the ability to think strategically in competition.

Indian Wells: Nadal returns during a practice set

Your opponent is alot better than you 

These are the matches that all players want to play and parents want their children to be apart of. If there is already very little pressure in a practice match, then there is a whole lot less against a player who is much better than you. I talked about primary and secondary patterns above. Against a player who’s level is much higher than you, primary patterns are needed more often. This is a great opportunity for you to test your best tennis. Here are some examples of  things you might work on against a player of this level.

  • Going for bigger 2nd serves at the body to limit their attacks
  • Standing back further on return to get more returns in play (limit return errors)
  • Hitting more aggressive ground strokes to larger target areas
  • Looking for Serve + 1 (forehand) and Return +1 (forehand) as often as possible 
  • Taking some pace off your first serve and working on better location to make a higher 1st %

This level of player is a great test for your game. It can be hard to consistently find players that are much better than you and want to play practice matches. Sometimes you might have to consider paying them for their time. 

Indian Wells: Medvedev hits a forehand during a practice match

As a side note to this article. As I coach I happily connect as many players as I can to play practice matches with each other. If you are new to an area or have trouble connecting with other players, reach out to a coach and see if they can set you up. There is no harm in asking. Another option is to play a practice match and have your coach on the court to observe. In my opinion this is one of the most valuable ways to utilize your coach. They can see how you compete and give you on the spot feedback on your strategy and technique. Hopefully in this article I have convinced you about the value of practice matches and how you can utilize all levels of player to help you develop. Start thinking of practice matches as opportunities to work on your game and you will bring more skill and confidence to the match court. 

See you on the courts 

Joel Myers

USPTA Elite Professional

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