[by Nick Tchernikov]
In the semi-finals of U16 nationals eons ago, I played an opponent with a game-style very similar to my own. He was aggressive, at times flashy, with well-placed serves, and counter-attacking returns. We were pretty much evenly matched on paper, and this was one of the more important matches of our lives up to this point. It decided who got a chance at the title, the one all the kids in the country were training for!
So, I went into this match with an attitude of wanting to go shot-for-shot with my opponent and to try to out-hit him. This, however, turned out not to be a good strategy, as my opponent was simply better than me at my own game for one-and-a-half sets. In no time at all, I was down 1-6 1-4, and two games away from losing my chance at the nationals final.
On the changeover at 1-4, I remember: “I’m already losing, so I might as well try something completely different to prolong the match. If I can just scrounge together a few games, I still have a chance to get back into this. Don’t give up now.” Maybe I felt that my opponent was getting a bit tired, or maybe I spotted some psychological chinks in his armour when he missed some attacking shots previously, but what I did next was to play as defensively and track down every. single. ball. The strategy was to wait until he went for too much and started to miss, hopefully.
Contrary to my every instinct, I played like a “pusher,” prolonging rallies to 10, 20, 30 shots, no matter what. I sent loopy balls to my opponent’s one-handed backhand and annoyed him to no end with this. Soon enough, my opponent started to get frustrated and I started climbing my way back, slowly. The score-line went 2-4, 3-4, 4-4, 4-5, and then I won 3 games in a row to win the set 7-5. Whew. My opponent was livid at the end of the set. So much so that he actually had to go take a bathroom break to cool off.
It wasn’t pretty, but I won the 2nd set and my opponent absolutely fell apart afterwards. I was even able to start playing my “own game” again, this time with more confidence and consistency. 6-1 was the final set score for a score-line of 1-6, 7-5, 6-1. The next day, I won the nationals title final in a much less dramatic fashion, 6-2, 6-2.
The lesson from this story is that tennis is often a complex psychological and tactical battle, especially when physical and technical abilities are evenly matched. Always look for opportunities to adjust your tactics if you are losing, or even to do a complete 180. Keep your opponent off-balance, try different things, and most importantly: Never Give Up! It goes without saying, too, that if something is working, then keep doing it, even if it may go against some of your instincts. Most importantly, always believe in your ability to tough out a win, no matter what.
I hope you take this lesson with you to your next tough tennis encounter, or to any competitive activity. Remain tactically flexible and remember: even if you are ‘winning ugly,’ you are still winning 😉