In tennis, it's the little things that add up to big victories
Imagine you show up to your match and you see your opponent doing sprints in the parking lot.
How many times have you showed up to a match not ready, not prepared, and you knew you should have done something about it?
I wasn't prepped for the match this week, and time was running out. I wasn't feeling confident in my strokes at all, and I didn't have any practice lined up. I was just planning on winging it this week.
While on my break, my mood immediately lifted when I see an unexpected "Hit later?" text from my practice partner. I quickly pulled up the radar and it looked like the recent series of match cancelling storms would steer clear of us this evening.
In a last ditch effort to get one more practice session in before the big match I rushed home from work, thinking of what strokes needed work as I fought through rush hour traffic. "I'm on my way" says a text from my hitting partner as I got home to grab my gear first.
Throwing on my tennis clothes I look at my phone to see another text "the sky looks funny". Clay courts can take a little water, I thought.
I threw the tennis bag in the trunk, started the car and jammed it into reverse. I was off to the courts.
But before I could even reach the end of the driveway - the bottom fell out of the sky and dropped a session ending deluge like never before.
"I'm done with this" was the next text I received from my hitting buddy - he wasn't the only one feeling the blues. As the rain pounded the windshield I began to wonder if there was another way, a plan B.
At Vacation we are always searching for little ways to unlock your hidden potential so you can play your best tennis. Let's look at the little things you can do when coming into a match unprepared, how you can come up with an emergency plan of attack, and how you can become the person doing sprints in the parking lot.
IT'S CRUNCH TIME
The storm quickly passed but closed the courts for the day. I stood in the dark hallway staring at my running shoes, contemplating. I must have gone back and fourth a hundred times on wether or not I wanted to do it.
I shook my head and forced the running shoes on. On a mission, I was heading up to the courts but not with a racket - just a solo on-court footwork session.
Just being on court can make you feel better. You can practice footwork patterns and use the lines as an imaginary ladder. There is a satisfying feeling when you're the only one out there doing footwork drills. You're putting in the work that others aren't.
EMERGENCY MATCH PREPARATION
Before the match I reviewed a simple version of my strategy. I knew what my general game plan was, how I was going to serve, return serve, and my mental plan. Like a north star, having a simple plan will guide you through the match.
Now for my favorite part, the anthem. It helps to choose a song that you know the lyrics very well. Since it was Thursday, I threw it way back to one of the first hip hop groups I ever heard.
EQUIPMENT CHECK UP
On Monday we did a fresh restring of Solinco Tour Bite Soft 18 gauge - the third round of this string.
Tension was set to a lively 43 lbs in the name of comfort and power.
At that low tension and temperature close to the 90s here, the power can be a beast and you may send some to the back fence. You have to be careful with truncating your stroke to "tame" the power and must go for the full stroke and trust that the spin and bite will bring the ball back down into the court with attitude.
But when you connect with a full stroke you get a HEAVY ball with almost no impact feel.
Having confidence in your setup is a good feeling, and is another slight advantage on your side.
SPRINTS IN THE PARKING LOT
It was match day. Arriving at the club early I threw the headphones on and did a prematch warm up to get the blood flowing.
A series of footwork routines, short sprint bursts, full body range of motion test, calf raises and wrist stretches.
One thing I like to do is perform stationary high jumps like you see Rafa doing. These take a ton of power and let you know what your overall energy level is - how much pep you have in your legs. If you're running a little low on energy you'll notice, but they should help you wake your muscles up a bit.
I was feeling better than before. Not the best, but better. Taking this extra step is one advantage you can gain on opponents. It warms your body up, loosens up everything, and with music is a time you can shut out everything and just prepare for battle.
As opponents showed up to the courts, I knew I was doing something they weren't. I knew I had an edge.
GREAT, A LEFTY
It took me a while to settle in. His forehand was moving through the court quicker than I imagined given the thick humidity and was all of a sudden in my face. To adjust, I went for an earlier takeback to give a little more time.
Because of the side spin component of the forehand, a lefty's ball will spin towards your body and rob you of space on your forehand. Shanks were flying over the fences.
Going down a break on my second serve game wasn't my first choice, but I kept telling myself we are in it for the long haul - this is nothing yet. Between points my song brought me back to a good place.
Immediately breaking back I started to settle in more and feel more comfortable and in control.
Taking the first set 6-3 was a relief, but I knew it was going to be a long match and could not let up one bit. You can't win at halftime.
Coming into the 2nd set I was a little shaky and wasn't feeling so hot. I was on my 3rd shirt and 4th water bottle. My fault though, I had been slacking the past couple weeks. Heartrate was skyrocketing and have a feeling I was looking a little green in the face.
Going down another break in the second set was not fun, but I was ready to weather the storm. I didn't let it get me down and was going to grind back every single point. My song was there for me, almost rooting for me.
At 5-3 and 40-15 with match points on my racket I was careful not to think about the end. I knew that that every single point needed to be earned just like the previous ones.
I was so focused and in the zone that I didn't really react when I won the match point at 40-30. Like I didn't know that I had won it in straights. Out of shirts, towels and waters, I took a minute and enjoyed the poolside views from our court.
1) Scouting out weakness and exploiting them. I quickly found that he wasn't as comfortable on his backhand side (he was a lefty), so slicing down the line instead of crosscourt was giving him trouble and I stuck with it.
2) Going for a heavier 1st serve, as we identified in last match, was paying dividends. Since I'm going for a heavy kick 1st serve the percentage is higher of it going in, while the movement off the bounce keeps the returner guessing.
3) Not getting too low. Both sets I went down a break but was able to grind back and finish the set strong. I attribute this to not letting the early break get me down and just focus on the long haul.
4) Not getting too high. When I broke back and started taking the lead I didn't celebrate yet. I knew there was work to do at 4-3. I knew there was work to do at 5-3. I knew there was work to do on match points.
Not getting too high or too low helped keep me in the zone and focus on the grind.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
1) I was hurting out there. Going into the second set I felt like I was going to throw up any second. I was out of shape and wasn't playing my best physical game.
Two weeks ago I was feeling in great shape but I fell off. Even though I was able to squeeze out the win, this was a slap in the face and call to stop making excuses about conditioning.
2) Couldn't attack second serve returns. If you've been reading you know that applying pressure to 2nd serve returns is an important part of my strategy, but because he was a lefty and hit every serve to my backhand I was only able to chip them back.
I should have looked to step around and take a forehand and tee off on these 2nd serve sitters.
WE LIVE TO TELL THE STORY
Walking back up to the overlook to meet up with my team there was a muted feeling - like I didn't know that I had won yet. I reported the score, 6-3, 6-3, to the scorekeeper - but there was something different and I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was that won the match.
Greeted with an ice cold beer from one of my teammates, the feeling of the cold can in my grip reminded me of how fortunate we are to be playing tennis with each other, at all. A warm breeze of relaxation washed over me as I watched the last match on the court below.
As the sun ducked behind the trees we exchanged tales over beers of the ups and downs of our matches. Even though the scoreboard didn't work out for everyone, it became apparent that there's a unique story behind every score - and if you look from a different perspective there are priceless lessons to be learned from each one.
Having been on the losing side so many times, it hit me - things were working. I was starting to win tennis matches at a higher level than I've ever played before with a new confidence. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together - after all these years I was finding my game, but what was it exactly?
It turns out it was picking the right song, it was doing footwork drills alone, it was following a strategy, it was feeling good about my strings - it was doing sprints in the parking lot before the match.
It was the little things.
What little things work for you? Send us a message on insta, we'd love to hear about it.
See you on court.