How Your Enjoyment of Success in Tennis Determines Your Style
And How That Can Hurt Your Game in The Long Term


Some of the key characteristics of the very best tennis players in the world are versatility and adaptability.

They are able to adapt their game to any opponent and court surface so that they maximize their strengths, protect their weaknesses, neutralize their opponent’s strengths and exploit their opponent’s weaknesses.

In order to do that, they need to be able to change their game.

But most of us are very rigid when it comes to changing tactics and using different strokes during a match.

To understand why this is, we must not only look at how someone has trained in the past to develop a certain type of game, but also why this type of game suits them.

There are physical factors why someone becomes a counter-puncher, an aggressive baseliner or an all-court player. These include:
  • Height
  • Body type
  • Whether the player is better in short bursts of speed or possesses greater stamina
  • The talent of the player: perception of the ball and hand-eye coordination (better, talented players are typically attackers)
  • Whether the player can develop their technique well in order to play volleys.

But there are also mental reasons why a player might prefer a certain style of play.

All-court players and serve and volleyers are willing to risk more, while counters prefer a safer and more controlled type of play.

There’s another reason why players differ between those who prefer a more aggressive style of play – which means that they are looking to create opportunities to get advantage in the point and eventually score – and those who prefer to neutralize their opponent’s play and win by not making mistakes and looking to get points when their opponent makes an unforced error.

This reason is the difference in (ego) satisfaction that we get when we win a point.

Why ego satisfaction and not just satisfaction? It is possible to feel satisfaction in tennis regardless of the score – that comes from the joy of playing, feeling that we are a complete and excellent player, and so on.

The ego satisfaction comes from comparing ourselves to our opponent and feeling that we are better in some way. This is not what should drive us to become better because we then base our self-esteem on external factors, and that can hurt us very deeply - when those factors don't work out in our favor.

Therefore, one should build self-esteem and confidence upon comparisons within ourselves and how we have improved in a certain period of time.

But most people cannot and will not do that since their ego is so strong.

So instead of avoiding the topic of ego satisfaction and pretending that it doesn’t exist, I prefer to address it and make the best of it.


I Enjoy Beating and Dominating Opponents

If the predominant ego satisfaction we have is to enjoy being better than others by out-playing them, by beating them, by hitting winners past them, by humiliating them and by playing in a style that is clearly “better” looking than our opponent’s, then we will gravitate towards a game style that gives us this satisfaction.

This means we will try to play aggressively, hit winners and attack the opponent. We will develop this style of play further than, for example, defensive skills and ways to neutralize opponents.

I Enjoy Outlasting and Smartly Out-Playing Opponents

But if the predominant ego satisfaction is to enjoy outlasting opponents in long rallies (where you’re proud of your stamina and strength, never-give-up mentality, speed around the court, and are able to save yourself from difficult situations) and you enjoy that feeling of being a smarter player (when you’re not making mistakes and when your opponent makes unforced errors because you simply frustrate them by keeping the ball long enough in play), then you will develop a playing style of a counter-puncher.

Roger Federer is a player that likes attacking and Andy Murray is a player that likes to counter-punch. Note the big difference in their playing style and how they enjoy winning points in their preferred style.

When I have talked about this to some of my tennis students, I could see a clear distinction between these two types of ego satisfaction.

Almost every player who enjoyed beating others by being aggressive found no satisfaction in out-playing opponents by neutralizing them and by getting free points through their unforced errors as a result of being the better player in long rallies.

The counter-punchers on the other hand did feel some satisfaction from hitting an occasional winner, but their satisfaction of outlasting their opponents was still much stronger.

Disadvantages of Having Just One Type of Satisfaction

The disadvantages of having just one type of satisfaction are obvious: you will prefer one style of play and will develop that one well, but you’ll be lacking in the other style of play.

Aggressive baseliners are typically not good in defense, and counter-punchers are not good in offense.

This means that both styles of play have weaknesses that can be exploited and that you will have no answer in a match when someone starts to exploit your one-sided style of play.

Becoming a Complete Player

The key to changing that and making your game complete is to realize that it is your type of ego satisfaction that causes you to prefer one type of play where winning points in a certain way gives you more pleasure than winning points in another way.

It is not just your physical abilities that give you a certain advantage in and preference for a certain style of play and it is not just the technical skills that enable to you to play a certain style better, there is also a preference of your satisfaction that pushes you in the direction of only one style of play.

Just training in the other style of play will help very little if you don’t actually like it.

If you only enjoy winning points in aggressive ways, then you need to find the reasons why you enjoy winning a point when you simply rallied better than your opponent and when you won the point through an unforced error.

Although it may seem to be an unforced error, in reality your consistency, ability to play deep shots over and over again without hitting short, excellent footwork, stamina, ability to keep 100% focus in a long rally and your never-give-up mentality FORCED the opponent to eventually lose their strength, determination, and focus, causing them to miss the shot.

You have created that point – even though it doesn’t look like it if you just consider the last shot. You are the one who drained the opponent of their physical and mental strength, and you are the one that remained the last guy standing in an excruciating rally.

This is where an aggressive baseliner must start to find satisfaction and feel that sense of internal strength with which confidence grows.

You need to realize that if you keep winning these tough rallies by playing intelligent tennis, your opponent will conclude that you are stronger and smarter. After your opponent realises this, you will then get very little resistance until the end of the match. You have won the mental battle.

Roger Federer had to become a master of defense if he wanted win so many Grand Slams. One of the few players that regularly pushes Federer into defense is David Nalbandian. Note how well Federer defends and neutralizes Nalbandian's attacks.

A counter-puncher on the other hand must look for the satisfaction in the last shot when the opponent has clearly already been beaten.

Whether that was a fast winner, a slow drop shot or a forcing fast forehand, it is in that moment of winning that point that both players realize who the better player is.

Of course, experienced players do not place much emphasis on losing one point just because you hit a winner. But you’ll also play many inexperienced players, and if you keep attacking and winning points, you will eventually break their resolve and their belief that it was just luck.

If you continue to win points by dictating play and ending the points by being proactive, you are clearly demonstrating that you have taken the lead. You are the leader in this contest and the only position left for the opponent to take is that of follower.

As soon as that switch is flicked on in your opponent’s mind, they will mentally lose the match. They will still play and run around, but will stop believing that they can win the match – and that’s because you have very clearly demonstrated that you are a better player and that you are the leader.

Rafael Nadal used to play much more passive tennis and was typically looking for his opponent's mistakes to win points. He has become much more aggressive in the last few years and is looking to win points with forcing shots and winners too.

As you can see, there are two ways of imposing your will and breaking an opponent’s resolve – either by winning longer rallies and demonstrating strength, stamina, a never-give-up mentality and winning points in a smart way, or by taking the initiative, clearly demonstrating a better shot-making ability, a more versatile game and showing that you are controlling the match.

In order to be a complete player, you must know how to win in both ways.

To become better in attacking and in neutralizing, you must feel satisfaction through winning points in both ways – in an offensive way and in a neutralizing way.

Examine your feelings of satisfaction the next time you play and try to find that feeling when you play a style that’s not really your natural style.

In practice matches, deliberately practice playing a style that’s not really you, and while developing that other aspect of your game, also look for signs of satisfaction and pleasure that you get from playing in that way.

The more you like it, the more you’ll want to play it.

Eventually you’ll choose a style of play not according to your likings but according to the most effective strategy that needs to be played in order to win a match. Imagine how tough such a player is to beat...



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