Rafael Nadal beats Gael Monfils to make the quarter-finals

Watching the Rafael Nadal – Gael Monfils match last night, a question popped to mind. Which is worse, choking or discouragement? What brought it up was Nadal, up two sets to love but choking in the third with chances to finish, missing, losing the set and falling behind in the fourth. Monfils, on the other has a propensity to get discouraged when he gets behind or fails to capitalize on opportunities. With Monfils down two sets and a long road in front of him to beat the tireless, persistent Nadal, he was a candidate for, at some point, discouragement.

And in the fourth set, I got the answer. Monfils was controlling most of the points, and Nadal was scrambling and hanging on. With some brilliant shotmaking, Monfils got up a service break and appeared well in control and on his way to a fifth set, serving at 4-3 and up 30 – love. At which point he flogged a couple of easy forehands out, lost the game, and let Nadal back in the set. Then, down 4-5 but up 30 love on his serve, Monfils threw in several unforced errors and virtually handed Nadal the game and the match.

The answer to the initial question is that discouragement is far worse than choking. Monfils showed it in this match with his lack of resiliency after missing an opportunity to finish the set at 5-4, which, in my opinion, caused him to become discouraged, collapse and lose the match. Nadal, on the other hand, though missing opportunities by choking, was able to hang in there long enough for events to suddenly and decisively turn the match in his favor. He won not so much with great play as with perseverance. He hung around until Monfils found a way to lose.

A final note: Choking is never totally under the player’s control. No matter what you do, you can’t guarantee not to choke, so it’s not a character deficiency to do so. Discouragement, on the other hand, is under the player’s control. With mental discipline and by replacing bad thoughts with good ones a player can avoid discouragement. If a player does not do this and allows himself/herself to become discouraged it is a negative sign for one’s character.

Discuss the post and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you! 

Andy Murray loses to Mischa Zverev in Australian Open

The Andy Murray – Mischa Zverev match was exciting, but beyond that, it was fascinating for the contrast in styles, we have been hoping for. People have wondered, “Can the serve and volley work these days against the great groundstrokers?” I think we’ve seen, at least partially, the answer is yes.

As for the match itself, I saw it more like Chris Evert did than Pat McEnroe. P. Mac said that M. Zverev’s game style was very suitable for Murray – a serve-volleyer with second-level groundstrokes. Chris Evert (and I) saw it exactly oppositely – that a serve-volleyer was something Murray has not experienced much in recent years, and he might have difficulty adjusting. And he did have difficulty – for multiple reasons.

First, I doubt that Murray took Zverev as quite the serious threat he really was. (Brad Gilbert said that Zverev had about a 1% chance of winning.) So Murray might have been slightly unprepared for what he was going to face. Murray generally likes to work the point, run with his opponent, and grind him down. With Zverev he was going to have to play quick, violent points. He was going to have to hit very accurate shots very early in the point, and he was not accustomed to this. In the end, he couldn’t do it.

And countering the serve-volleyer requires low, sharp, short serve returns, while baseliners require higher, deep, and sometimes even floating serve returns. Murray’s serve returns were not up to the task yesterday. Second, the persistent net attack, either off of serves or approach shots, puts consistent pressure on the baseliner.

When a good volleyer comes to net, you immediately feel pressure because you must not only fool the volleyer with placement, but you must also hit close to the net and lines. These are tricky, precise shots. It is difficult to hit them over and over, and once you miss a few and doubts appear, the task becomes a serious problem, as it did for Murray. This was an entirely abnormal situation for Murray, and yesterday he was simply not up to it.

Two other points:

One is that I don’t mean to diminish Zverev’s excellent execution and coverage at net, quick closing speed, extraordinary emotional control, even after making a few awful errors on big points (in the closing stages he missed an overhead so short that a beginner could have put it away), and his excellent serving down the stretch. He kept his nerve, which is always in doubt when ahead and playing up.

A second is that Murray was aware that Zverev tends to close tight to the net and assumed he would be vulnerable to the lob. So Murray had, in the back of his mind, the idea of going to the lob, which he did too often and got hurt too often. In my experience, when you have the lob too strongly in mind against the volleyer, your passing shots also tend to suffer. (At least mine did, back in the day. I was inherently a cautious player, as Murray is, and I preferred to lob, if I thought I could get away with it, to hitting passing shots, which are inherently more risky. And when I did this, I tended to miss passing shots.)

Again, it was a great match, not just for the excellent shot execution, but also for the clash of styles, which we have been missing in the game for too long.

Discuss the post and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you! 

Novak Djokovic Stunned by Denis Istomin in 2nd Round of Australian Open

Djokovic’s defeat by Denis Istomin yesterday was the “shot heard round the (tennis) world.” Ranked #117 and having previously lost badly to Djokovic more than a half-dozen times (winning only a total of one set), Istomin did not appear, at first, to be a serious threat. Yet by the end of the fifth set he was simply outplaying Djokovic. Amazing. How or why did this happen? I can only speculate.

I think it is appropriate to mention an old tennis adage: “An opponent will play only as well as you let him (or her).” I felt, in this match, Djokovic turned Istomin from a journeyman into a “player.” It would have been reasonable for Djokovic to believe beforehand this was going to be a relatively easy match, and as a consequence I don’t believe he started the match with his normal intensity.

Now I must admit that I didn’t give Istomin a serious chance to win either. So at first I didn’t watch the match closely. But what I saw was Djokovic making more mistakes than usual. So Istomin was allowed to get into the match. Istomin squeaked out the first set in a breaker and reached set point in the second, a golden opportunity for a two set to nil lead. But he faltered on the brink, fell apart, and didn’t win another game in the set.

Alerted by his narrow escape, Djokovic got down to business in the third and won it handily. I assumed Istomin was done for and didn’t closely watch the fourth set, but when Istomin stayed in there and won it I became more attentive. By now, Istomin was probably tiring but feeling good and playing well. Djokovic was still not playing his best, but he was certainly no longer mentally coasting. But by giving Istomin so much running room in the previous four sets, he had created a monster. Istomin was now staying even with Djokovic in the rallies but ending too many of them with spectacular down the line winners.

Normally one would have figured that Istomin would choke in the late stages and be unable to finish. But in my experience, a bit of fatigue has its upside as well as its downside. Its upside is that it can relax you and allow you to swing away without choking. And Istomin was now swinging away very effectively. Another factor adding to this was that Istomin had played evenly with Djokovic for four sets and well over four hours so he was beginning to sense Djokovic’s vulnerability. His fear of the great Djokovic was diminished if not gone. A service break and some fine serving at 5-4 and it was over. A shocking victory.

The lesson to be learned here, Djokovic should have been fully intense at the start of the match. He needed to take every point totally seriously and beat Istomin down. Part of the winning process is breaking your opponents’ will and spirit down with constant pressure so that their games become weakened and ineffective. Djokovic didn’t do this, which allowed Istomin the mental freedom to get hot.

Discuss the post and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you! 

How to Hit a Strong Two Handed Backhand

The article by David F. Berens. 

Picture of Dave BerensWhen I was growing up, the two-handed backhand became the shot of choice for almost every top professional on tour. They found they could generate more power, disguise the direction they were hitting the ball and hit more of a variety of driving or heavy spins. If you have a decent two-handed backhand but would like to add some pace and spin to make it a stronger backhand, there are a few simple ways to really improve your stroke.

1. Use your legs

It is common for most players to turn well on their two handed backhands, but too many players stand straight up and try to generate all of their power with their arms. You’re leaving a ton of extra power on the table if you don’t get your legs involved with your two-handed backhand. As you take your racket back, begin to bend your legs. You build up tremendous kinetic energy in your torso and legs that can then be thrust up and out into the shot.

2. Use a small “C” stroke

Though more common on the forehand side, this technique of drawing a letter “C” with the tip of your racket as you make your backswing can dramatically increase your power. Many times a two-handed backhand player will turn and drop the racket straight back and low.

This means that before you swing forward, your racket must come to a complete stop before then moving forward toward the ball. Any object at rest (in this example your racket) tends to want to stay at rest, so it’s hard to get your racket back up to high speed on the forward swing.

Next time, try to take your racket back with the tip slight above your hands, let it drop lower as you begin your forward swing and then up and out into the ball. In effect, your racket never has to stop moving and thus will be moving faster when it gets to the ball!

3. Swing with a strong Left hand

Assuming our player is right-handed, I would instruct them to pay more attention to what their left hand is doing. In many cases, I find that a players’ left hand is simply along for the ride and not really helping much. Try turning your left hand (or top hand) in a way that makes it feel as if you’re going to hit a forehand with that hand.

Then when you swing, really activate that hand – grip a little tighter and swing a little harder with your left hand adding power and movement to your swing. Don’t let the left hand be a slacker when it comes to your two-handed backhand. Think of it as a dominant force rather than passive passenger just along for the ride!

Hit correctly, two handed backhands can be devastatingly powerful! Many of the great players of all time have used their two-handers to blast winners past their opponents before they can even move toward the ball. If you’re just relying on your two-hander to get the ball back in play, consider turning it up a notch and adding some serious power by using your legs, making a small “C” shaped stroke and using your non-dominant in a more dominant way!

As I’m fond of telling my students, when it comes to great two-handed backhands, get out there, grip it and rip it! Using these techniques, you’ll see more winners blasting off your backhand side!

Discuss the post and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you!

Four Reasons Why Tennis Players Choke

This article by Marcin Bieniek.

Picture of Marcin Bieniek

Marcin Bieniek

Tennis is a tough sport. Players have to not only train every day to achieve advanced level but they also have to deal with ups and downs through many years of playing career. Adding technical difficulty to these reasons we can clearly confirm that tennis is one of the toughest sports to participate in. It doesn’t matter at which level you play you will have to cope with many uncomfortable situations. And one of them is choking.

This term is especially popular among juniors but we can meet it also at other levels of performance. Choking is a description of someone playing significantly below own potential. If we have a scale from 1 to 10 and 10 means being in the zone, choking will be around numbers 1 to 3. There are many different opinions related to this experience but there is definitely one common factor that is repeated over and over again. These are mental skills.

Tennis puts a lot of pressure on player’s mind. Players compete for only 20-30% of the total time so away from the point there is a lot of spare time to think. If players are disciplined and mentally strong they know how to use this time effectively by performing specific positive routines. Of course there are always down times when even the strongest athletes have problems with but the difference between top tennis players and less advanced ones is the response.

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer are able to recognize choking symptoms and take proper actions to change this negative momentum as soon as possible. Players at lower levels don’t have these abilities so that is why they lose much more points in a row when they choke. Adding fact that tennis is an individual sport and players have to deal with all kind of situations by themselves we can understand how important it is to equip them with effective strategies to fight with choking syndrome.

In team sports it is much easier to compensate for teammate’s weak ability. In soccer, if right defender can’t deal with opponent on his side, another player can double up to make chances bigger for getting the ball back. In basketball, if one player doesn’t have his day from behind the 3-points line coach can make a substition and put other guy who can convert possessions into points.

In tennis, players don’t have this possibility to be changed or to get help. If they miss backhand into the net they know and the whole audience know that it was an easy mistake. If they have a set ball but they are not able to convert it and finally the opponent wins the first part of the match all the negative thoughts are in one player’s mind. If the strategy is not working as it should player is the only one who can change it – coach can’t. So these several examples show how mentally brutal tennis is and let’s remember that this pressure is available right from the first lesson on the court.

That is why it should be not surprising that syndrome of choking happens from time to time. If we recognize it and we know how to answer it won’t have any big impact on our performance. On the other hand if choking is a situation where our hands are tied our tennis is in real danger.

Why do tennis players choke? Let’s find out the four most common reasons:

1. Lack of skills

If you don’t possess solid abilities you are going to have doubts while using them in competitive environment. Imagine that you have worked on your kick serve just for the last 4 days before the competition. The new habit is not automatic yet so your body and mind are not ready to use this skill while fighting for the win. That is why every time you will try to use kick serve during the match you will feel pressure and your performance will definitely drop.

Solution: Have enough practice sessions between tournaments and make sure that you work on new skills with quality. During the match use the shots that you are good at – not the ones you will be good at in the future.

2. Lack of self-belief

Self-belief. Is it ingrained or can it be learned? Definitely the second option. Experiences and your reactions shape your belief system. If you are not aware of your hard work, you don’t use positive motivational words and you don’t celebrate great achievements there is a big chance that you will choke more often than not. Choking is your body response for your thoughts and because tennis is a fast sport you have a lot of thoughts during each rally. That is why it is so crucial to know own value and stick with it every time you hit the ball to avoid choking moments.

Solution: Give yourself positive comments and be aware of your hard work. The more you repeat these actions the harder it will be to destruct your solid self-belief.

3. Others more important than you

You can start choking simply by focusing on others. If you play against one of the top players in your country you can significantly underperform if your thoughts will be focused on the level of your opponent. If you compete against lower-ranked player choking can happen if you will think about what others will tell you after losing to much weaker opponent. Focusing on others is the thing that you can’t control so there is no reason to worry about that.

Solution: Focus on yourself. You have to be happy with your game and results. If you are – congratulations. If you are not – learn and improve.

 4. Past or Future

Top players play great only if they are focused on here and now. During each point there are a lot of variables so player has to constantly adapt. If he is focused on the past or on the future he will definitely won’t achieve optimal performance. Thinking about lost points in the first set or about benefits of beating the highest seeded player in the tournament are first steps to start choking. Your body will react negatively to thoughts about uncontrollable areas.

Solution: Focus on here and now. Have ready routines to help you refocus every time your mind starts to wander.

These are the four common reasons why tennis players choke at different levels. The good information is that you can control ALL of these reasons. It is not easy but with proper amount of work you will definitely reduce the numbers of situations when your hands shake and your legs are extremely heavy.

Discuss the post and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you!