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From the "Life of a Scrappy Player" Series


I have written about this before, remember? You are playing against a player who holds all the advantages and should be able to beat you comfortably. Finding ways to level the playing field and beat that player is a very interesting undertaking for me. As I play tennis over the years and every once in a while play such a person, it always amazes me how those theories of mine hold up and prove to be right. And I'm continuing to set my sights higher and higher. Very soon I'm going after some players I lost to badly last year.... you know who you are, haha, watch out!



But back to the subject of this Blog post. Jack is about my age, a player who plays 5-7 times a week, and who beat me soundly in two sets last time we played. We met this week and played only one set. It's a long story, but I think Jack acted like a sore loser who gave up claiming the courts were so dirty he couldn't see the ball anymore. I admit the public park court we played on looked like it hadn't been washed in 6 months, and the balls turned a reddish brownish dirt color within 15 minutes. However, I had fewer problems seeing the ball and maybe my new Maxx Cinco HD Sports Sunglasses gave me the edge here, who knows... (I hope the manufacturer sees this Blog post and my plug of their product:



Jack started out strong during warm-up. I served the first game and Jack broke me right away because of my tentative beginning and a service double-fault. He showed me his mastery with one stroke I always have problems to read: ripping a backhand down the line. While I am waiting for a cross court return, the ball goes deep down the line to my right and is unreachable for me, while he moves in behind it, ready to deal with my return.


Then he held serve and I was down 0-2. At that time I was FINALLY remembering some of my writings and Blog posts and thought about how I could possibly level that playing field. I realized I was a little more mobile than Jack, and he had the ability to anticipate my shots very well. Also, he was not wearing sunglasses. I planned a 3-phase strategy. And I decided not to give up and hand him the set. He had to beat me if he wanted to take that set.




Jack had better shots than me, no doubt. But I was playing to his strengths by hitting my shots right at him or close to him near the baseline. That had to stop. In game three, on my serve, I waited for a short ball, came in and hit an angled soft shot, which he didn't even attempt to run down. Two more slow returns from me caught him by surprise and, running them down, he made some unforced errors and hit them out. 1-2.




In the next game he was on the side of the court where looking up made you look directly into the sun. When he came in to return a short ball of mine, I was able to lob him twice deep into his court. He had to look up and was very irritated about my actions. Jack doesn't like lobs, he thinks this is Senior Tennis, haha. He lets the fact that he's being lobbed cloud his vision and distract his game. But I don't care about that, I do what I have to do to win that game. And I embrace lobs in singles and in doubles. When my lobs are on, they can be devastating. I broke his serve. 2-2.




Remember that ripped back hand down the line? I decided to MAKE him do that shot on my terms and be ready for it. It began with me purposely hitting to his backhand. His cross-court slice returns were not too dangerous for me, I could run those down. All I had to do is wait for him to show me through his body motions that he was setting up the down the line approach shot and come in after it. And, there it was. I saw it, was ready to be there, and returned it for a hard, angled cross court winner. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw that ball sailing by. Next time I made him do that shot I lobbed him easily when he approached the net. It was just a matter of seeing the shot and getting it back. And me forcing him to set it up made all the difference in the world.



I think when Jack saw that his best weapon against me lost all its teeth, he gave up mentally. He managed to win one more game because of some sloppy shots from yours truly. I need to learn to stay focused longer and hit EVERY SHOT* alert and with purpose. However, I won the set 6-3.



Now, I do realize that my win would have been much more decisive if I could claim I had taken two sets from Jack. The fact that he gave up after losing the first set stole my thunder and robbed me of that claim. However, on a 1-set basis, with 9 games played, it proved my theory: there are ways to level that playing field.



-      Find one or two weaknesses** in your opponent and capitalize on it.

-      Make your opponent hit certain shots on your terms, so YOU can deal with them.

-      Never give up. Believe in your own abilities. Make your opponent work for every point.



Makes sense? Try it out, you may have found your own ways of dealing with better players. Wanna share some?



* When I used that phrase EVERY SHOT it reminded me of Helen Wills (Moody). She dominated the tennis world long ago. They called her “Little Miss Pokerface” from California. For many years and hundreds of matches, thousands of games, and tens of thousands of shots, she always chanted “EVERY SHOT” silently to herself before hitting the ball. It kept her focused and the rest is history.



** Finding weaknesses is sometimes not easy. As I wrote in my Blog post from July 25 “Need to win that match? Become ruthless! (In a nice way)” sometimes an opponent’s weakness isn’t easily identified. You warm up and can’t find any. But at one point in time you should be able to find his or her killer shot. If that killer shot comes e.g. from the forehand you have to make a conscious decision NOT to hit to the forehand anymore, and then stick to it. By taking killer weapons away from your opponents, you are giving yourself more chances to exploit some of their weaknesses AND capitalize on your own strengths.

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From the "Life of a Scrappy Player" Series


Jason Jamison is a professional tennis coach. I saw him for the first time holding a Recreational Coaches Workshop in the San Diego area many years ago. He has since moved up the ladder of success and works for the USTA now, managing their National Schools Program. In that capacity he travels all over the country to lecture on school initiatives and that's how met him again in Indian Wells 2 weeks ago. He spoke at the SCTA Community Development Workshop, and I gave a presentation about Web Based Social Networks to the same crowd.


The night before the organizer (SCTA's Melanie Bischoff, great as always!) put on a small tennis tournament for two levels of play: 4.0- and 4.0+. It so happened that I signed up for 4.0-, got a great female partner (Mookda West from Balboa TC in San Diego), and we won it. That's just to set the mood for what transpired afterwards. Don't worry, I'm getting to my story right now.


It was dark and it was getting late, but I overheard two women who both played in the 4.0+ division, theat they wanted to to go out and hit some more. Being the cocky myself, right after winning the 4.0- division, I asked them if they wanted maybe a friendly mixed doubles match if I found another male player. They agreed and and I asked Jason, who was standing right next to me, if he wanted to join in and be the male on the opposite team. Jason is the nicest guy and I guess he, too, can't say no to a friendly game of tennis. We walked on the court and started to warm up, when I began to realize I made a BIG mistake. Each one of the two women seemed to be two levels above mine. They hit so hard during warm-up I had my hands full just to return those balls back over the net. I just wished I was back in my hotel room, tucked in safely and reading my book (at the time I read "Wimbledon", written 1947 by the person who ran the club and the tournament in the 1920ies and 30ies). Jason, on the other hand, had no problems returning any shots. He seemed to have a jolly good time.


The two jock women realized the situation I was in and that I was way out of my league in that match. They approached us and proposed to play one set women against men. The way they looked at each other I knew right away this would be a slaughter. I knew as soon as they began concentrating their efforts on me, the scrappy 4.0 player, they had that set literally bagged. When I saw my girlfriend, who would have been the ideal 4th player in that match, turn away and run for the club house, I knew she, too, sensed what was about to happen on court 8 of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.


When Jason took me aside for a little pre-match powow, I was surprised hearing him telling me how we would beat these two advanced female players. Here's how he provided me with a set of instructions before I had the chance to hit my first ball. He said:


1. I know you like net play and volleys. I'll stay back and you'll play your game at the net and jump on EVERY ball coming over the net close enough for you.

2. When I, Jason, hit the ball and you, Rich, see me hitting it, you're not doing your job. Your job is watching our opponents, and especially the net player. NEVER watch me.

3. These are two hard hitting ex-college players. They love speed. We'll take that away from them, slow it down, and make them run and get our angled shots. This will neutralize some of their power.

4. We'll talk about strategy before every point.


I started to serve and lost my service game right away. Not good. My serve was too slow and just not dangerous enough for them. And Jason was still watching them and working on the strategy. They won their serve and we were quickly down 2-0. Jason sensed my mood and kept me positive, telling me how we would win his service game now. He positioned me more towards the inside of my box, much closer to the center line than I usually stand trying to cover the alley. "You'll offer them the alley, which is one of the hardest shots in tennis, but you gain more chances to poach service returns". And that's what happened. Throughout the set they each tried once to return a serve down the alley, not knowing this is one of my favorite shots to put away. The first one I volleyed deep into their court, unreachable. The other down the line service return went way long. They didn't try this one again.


Jason's serves were both well placed down the middle and bounced high. I hit two nice volleys and Jason gave them two lobs they couldn't reach, game over. It was 2-1. Then we broke their serve by again and again taking some pace off and letting them struggle to get drop shots and angled volleys. I won my next service game by hitting the serves down the middle with ehavy underspin and Jason putting away the returns. Then we broke them again.


Interesting on Jason's next service game: Our opponents were able to get us down 15-40 when Jason explained more strategy to me. He said: As soon as my serve hits the opposite box, you move forward one step and raise your racquet. I tell you this little action frazzled our opponents again and again. We won this game and the next one. Set score: 6-2.


What did I learn from this set? A whole bunch of things many of you may already know. Here it goes:


1. Listen to the experienced player. There is a reason why he wins more matches than you.

2. Watch your opponents during warm-up, then develop a strategy. If that strategy works, stick to it.

3. If your opponents are hard hitters who can do baseline shots all day long, slow the game down, give them drop shots, and make them run.

4. If your opponents love hard cross court returns of serve, serve them down the middle.

5. Recognize your and your partner's strengths and include them in your strategy


There is probably more to learn from this experience. I just know I walked away smiling. It was a good night. Yes, I admit we beat two women. But they were excellent players way above my level. Did I mention it was a good night? Thanks, Jason, for the lesson!


Rich is MrTennis on Twitter: 
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Look up the Tennis Network's Fan Page at: California Social Tennis Network on Facebook

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