Big Points in Tennis Matches
The Mental and Tactical Approach of Champions


How should you approach big points in a tennis match? In my personal opinion, there isn't just one cookie cutter approach that works for everyone.

How to play big points really depends on knowing yourself – which means that you must know what your preferred style of play is and how you react mentally to certain situations.

And just in case you haven't heard of so-called big points – these are points that can determine the winner of a game, set or a match or can cause a big change in momentum.

A big point can be:
  • being 1-3 down and playing at 30-30 on your serve (and all the points that follow in that game!)
  • serving for the set at 5-4 – all points in that game may “feel” big
  • serving to stay in the match
  • serving to win the match
  • playing a tie-break (with many different score combinations)
  • and so on...

Note that some coaches see all points as equal when coaching mental training. It's an approach in which the coaches actually try to influence their players so that the player does not perceive certain points as big because that can immediately trigger anxiousness and fear, and those, of course, bring down the level of play.

I'll come back to this approach later. I personally sometimes use this approach, but I am also aware that it's very rare for a player to be so focused and detached that he is not affected by the weight of the consequences of the next “big point” – and that, according to some, there actually aren't any big points.

That's why you'll find a few different approaches to playing big points, and then you can apply one that works best for you.

How Big Points Affect You

When you are about to play a big point, you start to feel uncomfortable. This discomfort can be many things: fear (there are lots of fears!), anxiety, feeling the pressure and so on.

Your natural hard-wired response to discomfort is to end it. ;) We don't want to feel uncomfortable, and we want to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.

1. Rushing of play - before the point starts

The most common result is rushing of play, which is very obvious with tennis juniors and not-so-experienced club players. They have not yet learned to keep the same pace of play despite the feelings of discomfort.

If you shorten your rituals before serving or returning, you won't reach the same level of concentration as at your normal pace.

If you try to shorten points, you will not play at your normal level of risk; rather, you will increase the risk of missing, and the statistics of success will favor your opponent.

So, the most important rule of playing big points is to keep the same pace of play (that includes change-overs and time between points!) as usual.

Some players were always quick between points, and they remained quick even when playing big points. Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf were perfect examples.

Agassi once explained that if he took too much time before a big point, he would start to over think and overanalyze and that didn't work for him. So he kept his pace and relied on his grooved shots, tactics and instinctive play to make the best of the situation.

Again, he got to know himself really well and found a mental and tactical approach that worked for him.

I don't think I've ever seen players speed up their pace of play on big points because of the reasons explained above, but I have seen many who slowed down the game when they were about to play a big point.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the kinds of players who like to take more time on a big point and really settle themselves before play.

Djokovic used to extend the time between points a lot when he faced a big point. He once tapped the ball 33 times before serving!

He's changed that habit somewhat, but I still see him take more time before a big point. He still does some extra bounces if he is serving...

I also remember Guillermo Coria, who used to take 3 balls from the ball boy before serving, so that he could sort out 2 balls and prepare to serve. But when he faced a big point on his serve, he asked for 4 balls.

Having 4 balls took more time to sort out 2 for serving, and that was Guillermo's way of slowing down the pace when it mattered most.

In short: when it comes to a big point, either keep the same pace of play or slow down slightly, which could help you calm down and really focus on the next point.

2. Rushing during play

Another effect of the big point happens when you actually play that point. Again, you're feeling discomfort, which can range from just feeling slightly anxious to experiencing heavy choking.

Your natural response is again to get away from this situation as soon as possible, and that's why you'll subconsciously want to shorten points. The shorter they last, the less time you'll “suffer.”

Shortening points typically results in poor tactical decisions, which, of course, often results in mistakes.

Here are some of the most obvious examples of poor tactics on a big point and how players want to shorten points:
  • playing a drop shot
  • serving and volleying
  • coming to the net too quickly
  • looking to hit an outright winner

I've seen junior players who have never played a drop shot in the entire match play one (the first one!) at 5-5 in the tie-break of the third set. Guess what the outcome was!

I've also seen players whose entire game is built on consistency attempt a winner from 3 feet behind the baseline on a big point.

It's critical to understand what really goes on so that you don't criticize the player for being stupid when in reality he subconsciously just wanted to shorten the point.

Remember, this is NOT a conscious decision!

The player and his support team (coach, parents, etc.) must understand how the mind works, what it tends to do under stress and what needs to be done to keep the mind under control.

How to Play on Big Points – The Mental Approach

As you have learned by now, your mind wants to avoid pressure and will seek ways to get out of such situations as soon as possible.

You will tend to rush before and during the play on big points. Here's how to get the control back:

1. Practice your rituals on serve and return and DO NOT change them.

That's the purpose of these rituals – sorting out balls, bouncing the ball before the serve, wiping the sweat from your head and similar rituals force you to always spend the same amount of time before serving or returning.

2. Work on awareness of your mental state. It's pointless to learn what to do when under pressure if you are in fact not aware that you are under pressure.

Analyze your previous matches on video and try to see yourself when you're feeling anxious or fearful. That will help you become more aware of it.

Your coach can help you when you play practice matches and remind you that you're starting to rush things.

If you are aware of your mental state, you can do something about it. If you're not, then your subconscious will take over.

So when you're aware that you're under pressure:
  • take more time between points,
  • take a few deep breaths and visualize that you exhale all that pressure that usually builds in the solar plexus,
  • focus on your main strategy and visualize playing it.

One of the main reasons you feel pressure is because you start to think about the negative consequences of the point lost (or the set lost or the match lost).

You need to bring your mind back to the here and now and focus on the task ahead.

How to Play on Big Points – The Tactical Approach

The tactical approach to playing big points boils down to one general strategy: play what you play best.

Counter-punchers need to play an even more consistent and gritty game, all court players need to make the best of their versatility and aggressive baseliners need to establish a dominant position on court as soon as possible and control the point from there.

The next time you watch the pros, become more aware of what goes on during the big point. See what tactics Rafael Nadal, as a typical counter-puncher, chooses.

How does Roger Federer, as a typical all-court player, play a big point? And how does Nikolay Davydenko play as a typical aggressive baseliner?

Once you see them play many big points, you'll start to recognize patterns of play that almost always happen on big points.

Learn from the pros and adapt to your own game.

Summary

Playing well on big points usually determines the winner of the match, especially when players of similar quality play against each other.

The tendency is to rush between and during points because you are feeling anxious or even frightened and wish to end this situation as soon as possible.

Your subconscious will push you to end the point quickly so that the pressure is over. You need to resist the urge from the subconscious and take control into your hands.

Keep the same pace between points or even slow down slightly so that you can have more time to control anxiety.

If your thoughts race to the future and to the possible negative consequences of losing a point (set or match), refocus back to the here and now and think how you're going to play the next point.

In terms of strategy, do not attempt shots or patterns of play that are not your strengths. Play what you play best and add extra determination and focus for those critical big points.

While you cannot guarantee that you will win them all, you can choose a smart tactical approach that will give you the highest probability of winning those big points.

The best way, of course, is to reach the zone where you won't be really aware of the negative consequences of big points. You will just stay present all the time and focus on the task at hand – playing the next point.



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