Is there a particular way in which players should go about overcoming these questions? Maybe we should be looking at how the best players dealt with the mental side of tennis, or maybe players should find the best solution for themselves.
When James Blake says that he plays better when he goes after he shots, he's setting up himself for that mindset so it works. But we generally like to criticise players for either being too passive, too aggressive, not showing belief, so surely there must be some ideal way that players should approach things, even if mentally they aren’t up to it to do so.
So in that case, how should players ideally deal with the following?
How to play the big pointsHow should players approach big points, in order to find their best tennis when it is absolutely necessary? Players can either choose to take the riskier approach and back themselves, to try and hit their biggest serves in, or either go the safer route by trying to maximise the chance of getting a first serve in. Should players try to raise their game under pressure and is it better to aim big or high percentage?
If we look at how the champions have dealt with it in the past, they don't wilt under pressure, instead they relish the pressure. They buckle down, show just that extra bit of determination and simply refuse to lose. The very best players seem to have a knack of refusing to give away points under extreme pressure, when trailing in a match but also seize the opportunity to take the lead by taking matters in their own hands, but without being overly adventurous. Roger Federer tries to make sure his opponents work hard on big points, by making sure he gets the return back into play.
Then there’s that saying of 'sticking to a winning game'. Players should keep it simple, and play each and every single point the same, regardless of its magnitude. There are particular patterns of play that won them points, so the obvious solution would be to continue implementing those. Stick to your strengths, or keep relentlessly attacking your opponent's weakness, whichever strategy was working earlier.
Then there are change-up tactics that can be employed, taking the art of playing big points to a whole new level. Take the opponent completely off-guard, by going against the typical pattern of play and doing the exact opposite to what the opponent was anticipating.
We've all seen Rafael Nadal serve to the same spot, almost time and time again, then on break point, he swings it out the other way. David Nalbandian likes to serve and volley with a three quarter-paced kick serve occasionally on break points to the ad court, for an easy putaway volley.
In the end, the mental side of tennis is a very simple issue, or at least ideally it should be kept simple. Even though there are some methods that might be better in theory, most importantly, the player has to believe in it to work for it to come off, and they have to feel comfortable with it.
What's the point in backing yourself if you missed the last three first serves serving for the set? I don't think it's any good trying to get a player too far away from their comfort zone, but at the same token, that shouldn't discourage players from trying to introduce new things into their game, as long as it is done in smaller steps.
How to deal with an off dayEvery player has their bad days, but how that individual person deals with it, says a lot about how good of a player they are, much more so than how well a player can play on their "on" days. There are going to be days where players can't find the timing on their shots, and they can't even seem to feel or control where it's going. What is the best solution? For players to keep going for their shots, and keep a positive frame of mind, knowing that it will come sooner or later. Or is it more reasonable to temper that game and resort to a more controlled way of playing?
Some people believe that, by resorting to a safer approach, that they are in the process of showing a loss of confidence. When Lleyton Hewitt and Marin Cilic start playing poorly, the racquet head speed starts to drop and shots start to get dumped into the net. Surely by doing that, the outcome will be the same more often than not, whereas if you take a riskier, more wild approach, the results can be more mixed. Although it must be said that both Hewitt and Cilic, simply cannot find enough confidence to be able to play loose tennis. If you're feeling tight, sometimes it's too difficult to be able to swing freely to generate the necessary pace on the ball.
I've noticed a trend these days, where more and more players are playing matches on
their own terms, where if they lose a match, they go down swinging, going after their shots. James Blake and Nikolay Davydenko are examples of players that do this, and Federer has been known to be relatively stubborn as well. In some ways, it's like hitting through your fears to overcome them. Of course, it is possible to be somewhere in between, which seems to be the most effective solution. Keep a better balance by bringing the margins in, while still maintaining the racquet head speed and a proactive, aggressive mindset.
One other thing to consider is how well a player's own problem-solving ability on the court is. Something that is difficult to observe on the court is to know the thinking processes that occur inside of a player's head, that tells them of the various adjustments to make during a match, both technically and strategically. Anyone that has played tennis themselves knows that if they're making particular types of errors, then a big part of fixing it is to figure out what adjustment to make - such as tossing the ball up higher on serve, or making sure the footwork is correct.
Most players will have some sort of idea of what tendencies or bad habits they are likely to get into that causes them problems, but some players are better than others at self-coaching while others may not notice as much, or can't get themselves to break out of the habit in a match situation. This very same issue can also apply to the tactical side of tennis where particular players have a better sense of what to do in that particular situation, based on how their opponent is feeling mentally at that point of time, executing their shots and their playing patterns.
How to deal with playing against higher class oppositionWhat happens when a player is facing off against an opponent that is quite simply a class above them? Immediately it forces that player to go into the match with the mindset that playing their normal style of game isn't going to cut it and that it will just result in getting outplayed. The immediate solution would be to start aiming closer to the lines, maybe inject more pace into each shot and play a more adventurous style of game to disrupt the opponent's rhythm.
Yet implementing that kind of game, is like constantly being on edge, close to self-destructing but not quite. Everything needs to be executed perfectly with the right amount of patience, otherwise the confidence can be shattered quickly and it can turn into a one-sided affair. Is it better to risk losing easily, or play reasonably well for your standards and hope your opponent is below par? There is no real answer to this.
Some people would think that playing within yourself is a defeatist approach because it's like hoping your opponent will have an awful day, awful enough to hand you the win. Which is almost impossible if your opponent is Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. But if you have a strong serve, this method can be quite effective, playing solidly enough, ready to prey on your opponents whenever they throw in a bad service game. It's also a way of mounting pressure. Andy Roddick and Ivan Ljubicic are excellent at this.
What seems to frustrate viewers even more is watching players like Fernando Verdasco try ridiculously difficult shots, in fear of what their opponent is about to do to them before it even happens. Both traps which players can so easily fall into.
In theory, it is best to strike the right balance based on how well that player's opponent is playing that day, but having to execute a game that is outside of a comfort zone is difficult, especially when it doesn't reap its rewards, and particularly on the bigger points when the stakes are higher.
Then there is the additional issue in some cases, of needing to overcome a poor head-to-head record or match-up problem. In most cases, if a player has a poor record over another player, it means they have tried a variety of strategies without the desired success. So naturally, it results in a lack of belief, which you could say is a direct result of not being able to find ways to consistently win points against their opposition. So it's not really a mental problem, but a problem that was caused initially by their difference in ability, at least match-up wise, and the feeling of helplessness that it causes.
How much of tennis is mental, and how much is confidence?We've seen that a player's mental strength is significantly affected by their levels of confidence. Players tend to go through phases. Top players have their moments where they can be incredibly clutch, but might go through particular phases where they are lacking in confidence. Andy Roddick went through a phase of losing almost every single tie-break, then winning almost every single tie-break, and even nearly broke the record of consecutive tie-breaks won, and now he's back to blowing opportunities again.
Whenever players blow opportunities, often it becomes a habit, as players start to think about their previous matches more and more. But after feeling good about their game again and scoring some big wins again, all of that becomes history again, for some of them. Other players become emotionally scarred, and never seem to get over that hurdle, like Guillermo Coria though that is an unusually strong case.
Based on how often players seem to fluctuate in their ability to play important points or matches, it is safe to say that mental side of tennis is a lot about confidence and belief, which can change drastically throughout a player's career. Usually this is reflected by the fluctuations of a players' ranking. Confidence and belief can extend to many things, like the confidence to try to add variety in your game, or make major changes to your technique, then implement it in an actual match situation. I always admired Justine Henin's courage to tinker with her service motion on such a regular basis.
On the other hand, confidence and belief almost stems completely from your own results and things that have happened previously, like whether you were able to close out matches successfully recently or whether you choked a couple away. Some of it is really just a realistic estimation of your own abilities, like if you're playing well, then you're going to be feeling confident, with maybe only a 20% increase or decrease, depending on whether you're an optimistic or pessimistic person. If your second serve keeps getting attacked, then obviously you're going to believe that it's a big weakness. The big variable is what you think your potential is, not how good you are, and that belief has just as much to do with what other people think, specifically those closest to the players, such as coaches.
The kind of nerves that affect the end of sets and end of matches seem to be more easily fixable, because players are able to replicate that situation more often to be able to replace those bad memories with good ones. But the bigger occasions like Grand Slam semi-finals, are almost a completely different issue altogether, quite simply because there are much fewer opportunities to get over that hurdle and maybe it is the one thing that you can really say is dependent on natural mental ability or belief.
Some players handle it better with experience, others get better as they start to become better players and win more often while others remain equally poor with each experience. I'd say that this sort of choking is not necessarily about not believing in your abilities as a player, but having some sort of fear or doubts about whether they can finish off the match. Even a slight hesitation or over thinking about the match would be enough to do it. I'm sure there are many players that have done so in the past, that know how good they are as players.
So in this case, would sports psychology be an effective solution? Sports psychology can teach you ways to deal with pressure situations, like how to manipulate your thoughts and stay positive. Seeing how many players use different approaches to make sure that they remain calm and ensure that they don’t rush points, like Maria Sharapova looking at her racquet strings or Novak Djokovic bouncing the ball, there have to be some advantages in this. As a counterpoint, I've heard that turning to sports psychology is admitting to a problem, hence placing more focus on it. So next time, that player finds themselves serving for the set in a match, they’re just going to think about it even more.
Is it a good thing to think highly of your abilities, or to have an underdog mentality?Some players seem to have a better ability to bounce back from poor matches, and poor sets of tennis, still showing that confidence within themselves to be able to raise their games. It is also necessary to show some sort of belief in your game to be able to challenge the top players.
There are some players that seem to believe that their game can just come together at any moment. David Nalbandian specifically comes to mind, as a person with this sort of mindset. You can easily see the benefit in having this approach since the more confidence you have, the less chances of having previous matches affect your performance negatively in future matches.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you think that your game can just come together like that, then surely the motivation to constantly improve your own weaknesses has to be diminished? What is better? To see your own weaknesses as major problems, and be willing to improve them, while easily getting down on yourself whenever your opponent attacks it, or to just believe in it outright? Is it possible to have both? I find it extremely fascinating in tennis, how on-court, it is necessary to stay calm and not get overly critical of your own mistakes. But the opposite is true when the match is over. You have to care enough to want to learn from those mistakes/weaknesses. Is it a case of just mind-blocking mid-match then, rather than any mental attitude?
At the lower level, players often go through slumps and long periods where they often lose consecutively in early rounds. It even happens often at a higher level for top 20 players, which shows just how common it is. Mikhail Youzhny seems to be an example of a player who has had a moderately fluctuating career from year to year.
It has to be hard to keep finding enjoyment in playing during times like that, when you're feeling down about your game. Imagine going for that like months, and still having nothing change, even after putting in all that work. It has to be discouraging, so it takes a lot of motivation and positive energy to get through that. Then add to that, the potential financial problems that could occur and questioning about whether they should continue playing tennis as a career.