Tennis is a game of milliseconds, where a momentary lapse in concentration can hand the advantage to your opponent and, ultimately, lose you the game. It is, as the American novelist David Foster Wallace famously wrote, “chess on the run”.
After all, when one player hits a shot, their opponent has on average just 500 milliseconds to predict where the ball will travel, get into position and attempt to hit a pitch-perfect return. And that’s on a good day.
Even the cream of the tennis crop aren’t immune to these minute margins. In 2013, Novak Djokovic led Tomáš Berdych 6-2, 5-2 in the quarter-final of the Rome Masters – but went on to lose. “I started playing more defensively, played a bad game at 5-3 and the match turned around,” the then World No.1 told The Daily Telegraph. “He gained confidence, he started to step into the court. At this level, you have to use the opportunities when they’re presented to you.”
Which brings us to a question that sports psychologists and coaches have wrestled with for decades: how do you improve a tennis player’s decision-making? How do you ensure that, come the knackering fifth set, they’re not spraying the ball beyond the baseline or making life easy for their opponents with ill-judged drop shots or volleys?
It almost goes without saying, but before you can master the art of instantaneous decision-making, you need to stay focused on the game. Pushing tiredness and annoying distractions (such as seagulls) out of your mind is far from easy, however. We’ve all been there: when your legs are burning and head is thumping, tactical decisions go out the window. Simply getting the ball back over the net becomes the priority.
However, Andy Murray’s almost superhuman end to the 2016 season, in which he scooped the ATP World Tour Finals to remain World No.1, proves the power of sheer determination when combating fatigue. Murray had been on-court for an epic nine hours and 56 minutes before the final against Novak Djokovic, but triumphed 6-3, 6-4 nonetheless.
Never one to wax lyrical, Murray played down the achievement in an interview with the Guardian: “It was obviously a good performance,” he admitted. “You never beat a player as good as Novak if you don’t play well. I’m not suggesting I played a bad match. I just think the two of us have played better matches than that one.”
Now, we’re not suggesting for a moment that you can simply tap into an endless reserve of Murray grit, but there are methods you can use to clear your mind. American coach-to-the-stars Nick Bollettieri has the following advice: “When you are in a tennis match and you are tired, acknowledge that you’re tired but tell yourself that you find a way to battle through that feeling. Let it be a challenge to you.” In short, you should embrace the burn.
A more pragmatic tip comes courtesy of Timothy Gallwey. In his classic book from the 1970s (a time of short shorts and an even shorter John McEnroe temper), The Inner Game of Tennis, Gallwey offers a simple way of maintaining focus and ridding your head of distractions so you can concentrate solely on the decisions you need to make: “bounce-hit”.
This straightforward drill involves both players shouting “bounce” when the ball hits the ground and “hit” when either of them strikes it. “As the student said ‘bounce… hit… bounce… hit… bounce… hit… bounce’ not only would it keep his eyes focused on four very key positions of the ball during each exchange, but the hearing of the rhythm and cadence of the bouncing and hitting of the ball seemed to hold the attention for longer periods of time,” wrote Gallwey.
And it really works – the repetition of the words and action draws you into the game. Anyone who has ever watched or played table tennis, with its frenetic but rhythmic rallies, knows that managing “the beat” can be the key to success and the same applies for the normal, human-sized version of the game.
Bollettieri, in his Tennis Handbook, agrees: “The beat of a tennis match is established by the speed at which two players rally… Like great dancers, tennis athletes move to the beat with fluid grace as they run everything down and then recover.” If you’re as mobile as me on the court, that may sound like it’s dripping with sarcasm, but it’s hard to disagree when watching a player as good as Angelique Kerber in action.
The sheer distance Kerber runs in the opening two clips is staggering and is a prime example of maintaining a cool head when up the odds are stacked against you.
So you’ve completely focused on the game and are in the zone – now comes the tricky part: the decision-making. If, as mentioned above, tennis is like a dance, who will lead? And will it be a waltz, salsa or even a Schuhplattler?
Perhaps the best-known techniques for gaining the upper hand are visualisation and self-analysis. A particularly nebulous term, visualisation involves you picturing yourself hitting, for instance, a perfect forehand during a rally – something that coach Florian Meier (not to be confused with German pro Florian Mayer) calls an “absolute myth”.
Instead of expecting visualisation to guarantee that you make all of the right decisions, Meier recommends keeping in mind how you performed a shot in practice to stop yourself falling back into bad habits. It’s a question of being more realistic with your goals and drawing on previous experience.
Self-analysis, on the other hand, is far more scientific. In the same way that football players huddle together after a game to talk about, and watch clips from, the match, tennis professionals identify the weaker areas of their game that need to be improved.
In the catchily named paper Effects of Decision Training on Decision Making and Performance in Young Tennis Players: An Applied Research, a group of Spanish sports scientists investigated the impact of videos and questions on the on-court decision-making of young players. Essentially, the youngsters would watch a replay of a game, analysing where they went wrong and suggesting where they could improve next time.
Unsurprisingly, their conclusion was that the techniques improve split-second strategic choices, namely “selecting the most suitable shot for the game situation or developing responses that make it difficult for the opponent to play his or her own game”.
However, most of us have neither the time nor inclination to spend hours endlessly rewatching our matches on a laptop. A better option may be the ITF International Tennis Number (ITN), a system used by coaches around the country. This relies on the amateur giving their, for instance, serve a score out of ten. Here’s a good example of an ITF self-assessment sheet.
The form can then be handed to your coach (who, be warned, may disagree with the 11/10 you gave your forehand…) to fine-tune your technique, but the ‘matchplay’ section can be particularly good for refining your in-game decision-making. If you give yourself 3/10 for concentration, it’s a signal that something may be awry and you need to give the ‘bounce-hit’ drill a try.
Slowing down the action
Professionals seem to mentally slow down the action to give themselves an advantage – waiting until the very last moment to unleash a shot, be it a thundering forehand down the line or a cheeky dink over the net.
A case in point is this stunning, improvised “lob wedge” by Frenchman Benoît Paire from last year (note: you may want to turn down the volume for the commentator’s reaction):
Luck obviously played a role in Paire’s shot, but what’s truly impressive is how quickly he gets into position while also keeping his eyes absolutely fixed on the ball – even as the backspin flicks it up centimetres away from his face. It’s almost superhuman.
Speaking to the BBC, Dr Nobuhiro Hagura from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London suggested: “John McEnroe has reported that he feels time slows down as he is about to hit the ball… Our guess is that during the motor preparation, visual information processing in the brain is enhanced. So, maybe, the amount of information coming in is increased. That makes time be perceived longer and slower.”
However, before you accuse Roger Federer and co. of tampering with the Matrix, there could be a very simple explanation for this remarkable ability: practice. Instead of being a divine gift, what seems like instinct is the result of thousands of hours of trial and error (10,000 hours, to be precise – if you believe Anders Ericsson and Malcolm Gladwell).
Matthew Syed, a former professional table tennis player turned journalist, has written extensively about the psychology of practice. “If I want to be a great musician, I must first play a lot of bad music,” Syed told the Daily Mail. ‘If I want to become a great tennis player, I must first lose lots of tennis games.”
Glasgow-based sport psychologist Dr Paul McCarthy agrees and told Tennis Talent that “although time is crucial, it is the quality of this practice and instruction that really matters”. It’s all very well, therefore, repeatedly hitting forehands as a practice, but the best way is to put yourself in a situation where you have to flex your decision-making muscles – a match or a complex drill.
So where does that leave us amateurs? Well, close to where we started. We all know that practice makes perfect, it’s drilled into us from the moment we pick up a far-too-big racket as kids, and we try to do as much as possible. However, by using techniques such as the ‘bounce-hit’ method, visualisation and self-analysis, we can build on that experience to make effective split-second decisions. So take to the court and put the theory into practice!
An excellent way to fine-tune your decision-making is to take part in a league or tournament. Here’s our guide to joining one
Image: Luca Bolatti Guzzo on Flickr