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The Hardest Part in Tennis

Updated: Jun 5

In the realm of tennis, numerous obstacles test players, but which one reigns as the most formidable?

Often, players become fixated on the technical aspects of their shots, their struggles to remain composed under pressure, or their inability to execute a topspin serve. However, they frequently overlook the true cause of their mistakes.

For some, the most demanding aspect lies within the technical realm:

  • Understanding proper racquet grip

  • Mastering the double bend on the forehand

  • Nailing the appropriate footwork when approaching the net

  • Learning the intricacies of the tennis serve technique

Others find the strategic elements to be the greatest challenge:

  • Overcoming "pusher" opponents

  • Adapting to different court surfaces

  • Making opponents cover more ground

  • Choosing the right shots against serve-and-volley players

The physicality of the game presents its own set of hurdles, but knowledge alone cannot overcome them. It requires active participation and practice.

However, an even greater challenge surpasses all of the aforementioned aspects.

The most arduous part of tennis is the split-second decision-making process regarding WHAT and HOW to play each shot.

During a set, a tennis player must make approximately 200 to 300 decisions within a set. These decisions must be made in half a second!

Female hitting backhand in NSW tennis UTR tournament
Australian female tennis player

When the opponent hits the ball toward you, your next shot's decision depends on:

  1. Your tennis abilities and skills (quickness, coordination, ball judgment, proficiency in different shot types)

  2. The nature of the incoming ball (speed, spin, height, direction)

  3. Your court position (behind the baseline, inside or outside the court)

  4. Your opponent's skills (weaknesses, strengths)

  5. Your opponent's court position (approaching the net, retreating, etc.)

  6. The court surface you're playing on (clay, carpet, etc.)

  7. Environmental conditions (wind, sun glare, court conditions)

  8. Your mental and physical state (nervous, relaxed, confident, fatigued, etc.)

  9. Your opponent's mental and physical state (agitated, composed, fatigued, etc.)

  10. The score (winning or losing, game or set point, etc.)

To execute the most effective shot in each situation, you must consider all these variables and make a quick decision. Your brain must then send signals to your muscles to perform the necessary actions before the ball reaches you.

The ability to make accurate decisions swiftly is the most vital and yet frequently overlooked skill needed for effective shot-making and playing exceptional tennis.

This is also why developing tactical expertise in tennis requires considerable time. Players must accumulate a wealth of correct and incorrect decisions, storing them in their memory to recognise patterns and recall successful strategies in similar situations.

Consciously analysing all ten points in less than half a second is practically impossible. Instead, decision-making relies on visualisation, where players mentally visualise the desired trajectory of the ball.

To enhance decision-making skills rapidly, follow these approaches:

  1. Practice specific scenarios, focusing on storing decisions made in each unique situation. For instance, play crosscourt and attack down the line when receiving a shorter ball.

  2. Gradually introduce more options and variations. For example, play crosscourt and decide between attacking down the line or executing a drop shot when receiving a short ball.

  3. Watch tennis matches attentively. Observe patterns of play rather than fixating solely on the ball. Try to comprehend and remember the shot selection in specific situations.

When playing tennis and deciding on a particular shot, envision the ball's flight in your mind's eye—its direction, speed, spin, depth, and height. Store this information visually to facilitate quick recall when needed.

Engage in numerous matches with diverse opponents. This helps create a vast database of accurate decisions by learning from both mistakes and successful shots.

So, before attributing a mistake in tennis solely to a flawed technique, reflect on your decision-making process. What shot did you intend to play? In what direction, height, spin, speed, and depth? Pondering these factors may take too long, but envisioning the ball's trajectory merely requires a fraction of a second—just the time necessary to conquer and master the most challenging aspect of tennis.

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