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Why There Are No Key Points in Tennis

by Ron Woods, Ph.D. USPTA Master Professional

Some tennis coaches and players believe that winning certain key points in a match are the difference between winning and losing. Conventional wisdom has typically held that if you win certain points during a match, your odds of a victory are greatly enhanced. Some coaches insist the first point of a game, the 15-30 point or the ad- in or ad-out points are critical. Similarly, the first game of a set, the 7th game and winning your own serve consistently are judged to be crucial. Of course, playing a tiebreak magnifies the importance of each point especially when used to decide a match instead of playing a third set.

The fact is each point in tennis counts as one point won or lost. 99 percent of matches are won by the player who wins the most total points no matter when they occur. Adding more value or importance to any one point over another is simply a trick of your mind that often leads to failure. If you believe certain points are critical to the match outcome, that just amplifies the pressure and tension that you feel which often leads to poor execution. The result is self-induced tension, nervousness, and anxiety rather than self-confidence and self-esteem. Notable psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis who was a founder of cognitive behavior therapy has labeled the behavior described above as “musterbation.” He describes it as an irrational belief that certain “musts” formed in your mind are self-defeating. If you can learn to change your thoughts, you can change your behavior to result in more positive outcomes.

You may recall the 2010 Wimbledon match between American John Isner and Nicolas Mahut of France that was dubbed the “longest match in history” in which Isner prevailed by scores of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68! The complete match was played over three days and lasted a total of 11 hours and five minutes. Of the 980 total points played, which points do you think were the most important, other than the last point?  

When you come right down to it, people only play pressure points, games or matches because they think they do. The difference between a friendly game, a practice match or “the MATCH” is in the mind. Nothing changes in the game except in the mind and emotions of the players and their exaggerated belief in the importance of the outcome. Don’t let players fall into the trap of focusing on the “outcome” of a point rather than the “process” of executing to the best of their ability.

Here’s the bad news about magnifying the importance of any one point. Your emotional arousal level will likely skyrocket to a level that is too high and thereby increase your anxiety level and feeling of nervousness. The consequences will be both physical (tight muscles, freezing in place, and shallow breathing) and mental (loss of focus, confusion, and poor shot selection.) Virtually all tennis players have experienced this perplexing and frightening feeling that we typically describe as “choking.” When players choke during a match, they may become passive or defensive and afraid to make a mistake while others choose high risk shots and become impatient. Inexperienced players often tend to rush during and between points seemingly just to end their misery sooner.

The good news is that we can help all players develop a strategy and the psychological skill to deal with choking no matter their age, experience, or level of play. The first step is to shift emphasis to the process and performance rather than worrying about the match outcome. Teach them to focus exclusively on the current point rather than points from the past or coming up in the future. Encourage them to expend energy instead into playing each point with intensity and effort. Be sure to have them employ the best strategy or tactic that they can execute with confidence. Resist the allure of high risk shots and rely instead on shot and pattern sequences with lower risk that they virtually own. Suggest that they play their way into every point by allowing a safe margin for error on serves and returns to begin the point.

Help players learn to keep their emotional level steady throughout a match and use time-tested psychological skills to adjust negative emotions if they threaten to interfere. Use breathing regulation and progressive relaxation skills to relax along with positive self-talk to boost confidence. Focus full attention on the present point and block out distracting thoughts or events. Ignore the elements like the sun or wind, lucky shots from the opponent, bad bounces, and bad line calls.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, learning to play with pressure begins in practice. Embrace situations in drills and modified games that heighten the pressure by varying opponents, using handicap situations, and agreeing to consequences for success or failure. Invite significant spectators to watch and critique play to add pressure. Practice the psychological skills suggested elsewhere in this article.

When match day rolls around, you and your players don’t need to worry about the key points, they really don’t even exist. The real challenge is simply in the mind.

Ronald B. Woods, Ph.D. has been a USPTA member for over 40 years which includes serving as president of USPTA Middle States division, member of the national executive committee, and frequent speaker at both national and division conventions. He was honored as national USPTA Coach of the Year in 1982 and as a Master Professional in 1984. Ron is the husband of Kathy Woods, former national president of USPTA, who is now the director of tennis at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Tampa in exercise science and human performance and lives with Kathy in nearby St. Petersburg, Florida.
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