During a match there are a number of mental and emotional stages a player needs to go through to win. Understanding each stage will help you greatly in navigating your way through tough matches.
First 4-6 games: – good footwork and fast racket early, get into a rhythm by making a lot of balls, establish basic strategy, lock in your game style and work out your opponent’s weaknesses. You can’t do this if you are making a ton of errors.
Creating Distance: By going up a break, and holding the break. Don’t get anxious about going up and leading – the “scoreboard mentality”. Realize your opponent is going to play better now too as he is down and he has to play better. Be assertive and stubborn not to give up the lead – make your opponent work very hard here.
End of first set: Close it out. Don’t focus on the prize but accept the challenge of playing tough here. It all about discipline when in this position – good shot selection and fast racket! Stay deliberate and determined to fight for it, knowing your opponent will fight hard too to not lose the set.
Beginning of second set: Stay focused and no “second set slumber party” – there will be a natural emotional letdown. However you must treat the early games of the second set as if it was the most important of the match as it will set the tone for the outcome of the match. Most opponents will play fearlessly here and make changes to their game which you must be aware of. Make them fight hard to win games here as it will pay off later in the set.
If you lost the first set: Figure out what you have to do. If it was close just make small adjustments. If you lost it badly make MAJOR changes!! You must treat the early games of the second set as if it was the most important of the match as it will set the tone for the rest of the match
Second set – creating distance: Nerve wracking part of the match because you have done all you need to be the better player you just need to finish it off. Opponents will fight very hard and play very well here. You need to believe in what got you here, be very deliberate, stay positive and determined. The more you win the more confident you will be of finishing off these matches.
End of match: Finish it off. Relaxed focus on what got you here and don’t think ahead. Stay in the present and play point by point. “When your eyes look at the prize they will tell you many lies” Focus on your fundamentals and stay in the process of doing the next right thing, no matter the ups and downs. You have invested heavily in the match and the more you try hold onto it the more you try and play it safe, – this will not work against tough players. Just remain calm, do your best and forget the rest. The scariest time of a great challenge are taking those last steps.
If you lost the first set and your opponent is close to winning the match: – make him win it, they will get tight and nervous – make them play a ton of balls here and force them to come up with the big shots to win. It’s tough to close out matches so make them work for every point, not giving them any freebies.
Third set: Mentally set yourself up as if the match is beginning again. Be very tough early in the set and try creating distance early. You must treat the early games of the third set as if it was the most important of the match as it will set the tone for the outcome of the third set.
Third set tie breaker: Play two separate breakers – first to 5 and then the second first to 5 points. Focus on winning 3 points in a row here. Close it out don’t let players keep coming back at you, keep disciplined when you are ahead.
When ahead – play disciplined, don’t let the player come back at you!
When behind – play aggressive.
When even – play your game, your regular stuff is good enough.
Play many sets against players that you are stronger than, so you can learn to experience the pressures and practice going through all these stages. As you become familiar with them you can use them as reference points in navigating through a tough match.