Great Champions Can Maintain Intensity for Long Periods of Time – Allen Fox Tennis

-2Some years ago I was chatting with all-time great Bobby Riggs and asked him how he would rank the great players, since he competed against many of them. Who were the greatest champions of all time? His answer was interesting. He said, “It depends on how you define ‘great.’” Elaborating he said, “If you define it as who was the best player on his best day the answer would be different from who was the best over a long period of time.” “For example,” he continued, “on his best day Lew Hoad could beat anybody. But he couldn’t get himself up to compete every day, so I don’t consider him a great champion at all. The great ones, like Gonzales, Budge, Kramer, Tilden, etc., could do it almost every time they stepped on court and could continue doing it for years.”

Of course great players must have unusual physical and mental talents, but Rigg’s comments bring to mind one mental talent that is often overlooked. This is the ability to withstand stress over long periods of time, and tennis at the highest levels is very stressful. Most people can’t withstand stress very well for an entire match, much less for years on end. They tend to fall apart rather quickly when they are playing below par, when their opponents are playing well, or when the breaks are going against them. By comparison, all the top pros can certainly handle this kind of stress for a few matches in a row or for a few weeks. But this stress is cumulative and builds day to day and week to week. Only the greatest can withstand it for years on end. This is one of the things that separates today’s top players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, from today’s awfully good players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. And it separates Stefi Graf, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert from almost greats like Justine Henin and Monica Seles. Among the men, Federer and Nadal can take it for years whereas the others, are sporadic competitors.

To see how this stress develops, picture life on the tour for the top pro players. They are under constant pressure to perform. They play a tournament almost every week or two and are usually being paid substantial appearance fees, so they need to win. In addition, winning improves (or at least maintains) their rankings, gets them prize money, helps their relationships with their sponsors and the press, and just feels good. But everyone on the tour is dangerous so they must remain constantly sharp. If they relax their vigilance, even a little, they will be out and explaining to the press why they are slipping. To make matters more difficult, they are constantly traveling, packing and unpacking in different hotel rooms, getting used to time changes, adjusting to new court surfaces and conditions, and dealing with business and personal problems (wives or girlfriends). Especially vexing is the almost constant need to nurse or recover from small (and sometimes large) injuries. They worry about and test the condition of their bodies and must decide whether to rest an injury (and get out of practice) or work out hard (and risk further injury). All the while they must keep winning.

An average tournament day might begin (hopefully after a good night’s sleep) with a careful breakfast, some stretching, and a morning hit, all in preparation for an afternoon match. They can’t sightsee or do too much because they must conserve themselves for the upcoming match. Their day is overhung with some level of anxiety and nervousness because the match looms in front of them, and they don’t want to lose it but know they easily could. Lunch is a little tricky because they don’t usually know exactly when they will be playing. It might, for example, be third match on the stadium court, but they don’t know how long the matches in front of them will last. They have to be conservative and assume the matches will be over quickly and prepare for this. If they don’t and end up having to go on court with a belly full of food or otherwise unprepared it could cost them the match. So they take a guess and prepare accordingly. Now they must sit around and wait, maybe watching the match in front of them and hoping it will end within a reasonable range of their estimate and schedule.

This usually means they are pulling for the preceding match to end in straight sets. They’d also just like to get the match over with so they can escape the anxiety and relax. They often find themselves sweating out a second set as one player wins the first but is in danger of losing the second. Worst case: their player has chances but chokes, loses the second and the match progresses into a long, see-saw third. Now they have to consider having power bars or a snack since their lunch plan did not take into account this long wait. And maybe they even need a little hit to loosen up or a visit to the trainer for treatment or tape. In any case, they spend the day emotionally on edge preparing to play.

After the match, assuming they won it, they have a wonderful feeling of relief and relaxation. Winning feels good and the press conference is enjoyable (a lot better than it would have been if they lost). Afterward it’s back to the trainer for treatment and maybe a massage. With the day mostly gone it will soon be dinner-time. They go out to a restaurant or eat at the hotel, but must be careful with what they eat because of nutritional considerations. They might even have a glass or two of wine, but cannot overdo or go out partying because of the match coming up on the next day. By now the euphoria of the last win is over and the next match looms large. And since the best players tend to be in tournaments until the later rounds, this scenario lasts most of the week and almost every week.

Of course there are breaks and days that are different from the norm, but week in and week out the lifestyle restrictions, match preparations, and stress are wearing. After awhile they may ask themselves if they are missing living a real life, and many of them want out. Some leave the tour prematurely for periods of time (McEnroe, Borg, Henin, Capriati) while others are sporadic in putting out their maximum efforts. This is not a knock on any of these wonderful pros, who are all certainly extraordinary people, but there is another level. Only the very toughest, like Federer and Nadal, can keep it up match after match, week after week, and year after year, and this, to me, puts them in the very greatest category.

Don’t Talk About Your Wins or How Good You Are – Allen Fox Tennis

braggingRafael Nadal was beautiful in his interview after his semi-final win at the U.S. Open. He gave credit to his opponent, said he was happy with his game and improvement, and convincingly downplayed any talk about his overtaking Federer’s Slam record and/or being the best player of all time. He was modest, even humble, (as he always is) and it was very attractive.

Nadal provides an excellent example of socially attractive behavior that the rest of us would be well-advised to keep in mind and emulate. We all have egos and building them up makes us feel good. It’s a natural urge. But we need to fight it because other people find it very unappetizing. We want to build ourselves in their eyes, but end up doing just the opposite. Thus an unwritten rule of tennis involves talking about your wins. In a few words: don’t.

Telling people about who you have beaten or how good you are is, in the realm of tennis, similar to businesspeople telling their friends how much money they made in a business deal or bragging about the money they made in the stock market. Classy people don’t do it. Tempting as it may be, it is a display of insecurity, weakness, and ego that is repellent to anyone but your mother, and you are well-advised to keep a lid on it. We all enjoy having our egos stroked, but we all find it distasteful to watch others stroking their own. Nadal (and Federer) do most of their talking with their rackets and downplay their successes if they talk about them at all.

You can tell a lot about a person from this because it takes a certain effort of will for everyone, including Nadal and Federer, to control the impulse to brag. Right after playing a great match in the Open semi-final and beating the stuffing out of his opponent, Nadal, like anyone else, would have loved to jump up on the table, pound his chest, tell everybody that he’s playing great and that he feels like he could beat anybody who ever lived. But of course he resisted. Most (but not all, unfortunately for the few that don’t) great players deliberately control these urges. It is another small example of why the great champions are great – their intelligent minds overpower counterproductive emotional urges. The few that yield to the urge to brag do so, in my opinion, because they have been brought up badly and never taught the “rules.” Nadal has obviously been brought up well, and Uncle Tony is on hand to remind him in case he forgets.

There is one other reason for being humble about your tennis prowess. It is likely to make you a better player. Why? You have less to prove, and it reduces your stress. (In general, I have found that one’s general level of stress will be reduced by becoming less egotistical and less self-centered. Selfishness is inherently stressful, because one can never satisfy all of one’s selfish needs. But thinking of others and becoming a better person is always achievable and satisfying.)

Tennis: Winning the Mental Match – Allen Fox Tennis

Overcome your emotions, fears and nerves and build confidence for success in life and on the courts

**International Customers, please purchase book here

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Tennis: Winning the Mental Match by Dr. Allen FoxTennis is more difficult mentally than most other sports. Because of its one-on-one personal nature, it feels more important than it is. Competitive matches can become highly stressful, and losing is painful. Emotions tend to get out of hand, with fears and nerves becoming difficult to control. Confidence comes and goes; the scoring system is diabolical; and everyone is at risk of choking, even the greatest players in the world. This book attacks these and other issues faced by players of all levels. Dr. Allen Fox’s solutions are logical and straightforward, and most importantly, they have been tested on court and they work.


CHAPTER 1: WHY DO WE WANT TO WIN?Winning a tennis match feels more important than it is because players are genetically wired to compete for position on the social hierarchy. The emotions of a tennis match resemble those of a fight. Players may realize that winning a match doesn’t really matter, but they will always want to win anyway.

CHAPTER 2: THE EMOTIONAL ISSUES OF COMPETITION Tennis is inherently an emotional game. Because match outcomes feel important but are ultimately uncontrollable, matches can become stressful. There is often an unconscious urge to escape this stress, which leads to counterproductive behaviors, among which are anger, tanking, and excuse-making. These can be overpowered by the conscious mind, but it requires understanding, high motivation, and constant effort.

CHAPTER 3: USING EMOTION TO HELP YOU WIN Your emotions will dramatically affect your tennis performance. We discuss how to keep counterproductive emotions in check and how to create productive ones that will help you win. Topics include the use of adrenalin, profiting from the time between points, and maintaining an optimal excitation level.

CHAPTER 4: REDUCING THE STRESS Matches can become overly stressful, and this hinders performance. Stress can be reduced by developing a more realistic perspective of the game. Included are accepting outcomes that can’t be controlled; resisting a narrow focus on winning; avoiding excessive perfectionism; getting over losses quickly; and using goals for hope and motivation rather than allowing them to become expectations and cause stress.

CHAPTER 5: THE PROBLEMS OF FINISHING Most players become nervous and stressed when they are ahead and face the hurdle of finishing the match against a dangerous opponent. The unique tennis scoring system intensifies this problem. The closer players get to winning, the greater the stress. Trying to reduce it gives rise to counterproductive behaviors such as procrastinating the finish or becoming “overconfident” and easing up with a lead.

CHAPTER 6: CHOKING – ITS CAUSES AND HOW TO MINIMIZE ITS EFFECTS Choking is most frequent at the finish of games, sets, and matches due to the uncertainty of outcome. You can limit choking damage by immediate acceptance of this uncertainty. Avoid stressful thoughts of winning by using rituals, focusing, and relaxation techniques. Rid yourself of the idea that choking will make you lose, and recognize that there are usually multiple opportunities to win, not just one.

CHAPTER 7: CONFIDENCE AND HOW TO GET IT IF YOU DON’T HAVE IT Confidence, aka self-belief, comes mostly from winning. Though it’s more difficult, you can win without it by replacing it with sufficient emotional discipline. Slumps and hot streaks occur in cycles and both end naturally with time. Stressing over a slump prolongs it. You can speed its ending by several methods which we discuss.

CHAPTER 8: GAME PLANS Game plans give your efforts direction and structure. They can rely primarily on offense or defense but should be consistent with your personality. With Plan A you are looking for a match-up where you have a relative advantage, most commonly pitting your strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses. With Plan B, which you always employ simultaneously with Plan A, you attempt to tire your opponent mentally.

CHAPTER 9: BREAKING DOWN YOUR OPPONENT MENTALLY You can weaken your opponent mentally by using dominance techniques. Be aware of momentum development – maintain it when you’re winning and break it when you aren’t. Take advantage of the let-downs that occur in transitional situations: at the end of sets, after long points, after service breaks, and after long games. Learn to resist becoming psyched out by opponents.

CHAPTER 10: MAINTAINING MENTAL EFFECTIVENESS IN THE HEAT OF BATTLE Remember the Golden Rule of tennis: Never do anything on court that doesn’t help you win. Decide beforehand how you will handle the frustrations and errors that are likely to occur during match play. Understand the value of intensity and its role in playing percentage tennis. Players who have beaten you too frequently get into your head. Beating them requires exceptional emotional discipline and focus. Learn to deal with injuries, both yours and those of your opponents.

CHAPTER 11: THE VALUE OF OPTIMISM Being optimistic is always helpful during competition. If it does not occur naturally you can become more optimistic by deliberately focusing on the real positives that exist in every situation. Monitor your thoughts and be alert to negative ones. When one occurs replace it immediately with a positive one. A bad attitude is difficult to change in mid-match, so make sure to start out with a good one. When you are behind, hope is your most crucial asset, and it is always realistic.

CHAPTER 12: DEVELOPING YOUR GAME AND THE ROLE OF PARENTS Tennis is a difficult game and not enjoyable until you can control the ball with some level of consistency. The “middle game” is the heart of any player’s game, and is learned by intelligent, repetitious practice, Tennis should generally be made fun for beginning youngsters, but some little push may occasionally be necessary. Tournaments can be motivating for kids, but they are stressful for parents and can impel even a good parent to act improperly.

CHAPTER 13: COURAGE AND HIGHER VALUES Competing successfully in tennis is helped by focusing on character development rather than on winning. Everybody wants to win anyway. Working to develop higher values such as courage, unselfishness, consideration for others, appreciation, and morality is good for your character and will, as a by-product, reduce your stress and help you win.

CHAPTER 14: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DOUBLES An important doubles skill is the ability to make your partner play better. You affect your partner’s emotional state and level of play with your gestures and words. Champions are not concerned with parceling out blame for a loss; rather they are focused on doing what it takes to win. You can also disrupt the opposing team by attacking the weaker player and by intimidation.

Think To Win – Allen Fox Tennis

The Strategic Dimension of Tennis


The outcome of most tennis matches is not determined by how players hit the ball, but rather by how they play the game. In this book, Dr. Allen Fox focuses on developing winning strategies to defeat any opponent in both singles and doubles.

Think To Win by Dr. Allen FoxFox explains the basic geometry of points so commonly overlooked even by advanced players. He then teaches players at all levels how to answer key questions such as: Where to hit the ball, when, and how hard. Which strokes to choose under what conditions. How to attack an opponent’s weaknesses. How to play percentage tennis.

If you have been mired in lessons working on your strokes without seeing results in your match play, this book will open your eyes and teach you a whole new approach to winning.


“The first tennis book I’ve read that not only tells you how to hit the ball, but how to play.” — — Tom Gullikson

“This book will flat-out help you win.” — — Charles Hoeveler, Founder and President, Adidas Tennis Camps International, and number-one-ranked player in the world, 1992, Men’s Senior Division

“Think to Win is an absolutely unique book, revealing the intricate form and function of the art of tennis, explaining the ever-present linkage of strokes and tactics, strategies and psychologies. Allen Fox, a world-class player and tennis thinker, has written a brilliant and witty book which will highly benefit players and coaches from all levels of the game. — David A. Benjamin, Executive Director,Intercollegiate Tennis Association, and Men’s Tennis Coach, Princeton University

“Allen Fox’s brilliant insights on strategy will benefit players at all levels, from the kids that attend my tennis camps to the nationally ranked players on my Stanford team. And as sophisticated as it is, it’s a lot of fun to read.” — Dick Gould, Coach, Stanford Men’s Tennis Team

“Finally, we have a book that deals with strategy. Now you can develop your match-playing abilities with Think to Win, a book that will help competitors of all levels play the points better.” — Dr. Jack Groppel, Executive Vice President, Loehr-Groppel/Saddlebrook Sport Science, Inc.

“I’ve watched Allen Fox beat some of the best players in the world. He plays smart and knows how to win tennis matches.” — Jack Kramer

“The first tennis book I’ve read that not only tells you how to hit the ball, but how to play.” — Tom Gullikson

“This book is so good I’m jealous that I didn’t write it.” — Richard “Pancho” Gonzales

“This book will flat-out help you win.” — Charles Hoeveler, Founder and President, Adidas Tennis Camps International, and number-one-ranked player in the world, 1992, Men’s Senior Division

“This is a fascinating book. I was captivated from start to finish. It’s great to see the insights of my old mentor in print.” — Brad Gilbert


This sketch is for those of you who are interested in what some of the legendary players of the 1950’s and 1960’s were like, both as players and people. I played against them and knew them as well as someone who was not one of them could. It is the first of a few such possible sketches. If you like it, let me know and I’ll do more.

Pancho Segura, born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, was deceptive in every way – little and unimpressive to look at, but smart, tricky, and a tennis genius. Just looking at him you would never imagine he could be a great tennis player. Pancho was about 5’6” or 5’7” tall, had severely bowed legs (the result, so it was said, of childhood rickets), was severely pigeon-toed, and had a massive, oversized, handsome head with a luxuriant growth of dark hair. You soon learned why he had such a substantial head – to house a huge brain that was one of the brightest, most calculating, cunning and diabolical that I ever encountered in tennis. Because of this the other pros gave him the appropriate nickname, “Sneaky.”

He sort of shuffled from side to side as he walked, giving you the impression that he was apt to stumble at any moment. Yet when the match started Pancho’s legs seemed to magically straighten out and he moved with incredible grace and speed. His court coverage was astounding and his balance exceptional as his scrawny little legs churned away under an erect and unhurried upper body. He always seemed to be in the right place with plenty of time to handle his opponent’s most powerful shots.

Pancho’s career peaked late. His earliest success came as a student at the University of Miami, where he won the NCAA singles championships three times in a row (from 1943  to 1945), a feat not matched in this century. As an amateur he was good but not great. Pancho reached the semi-finals of the US National Championships at Forest Hills in the years 1942 to 1945, won the US Clay Court title in 1944 and the US Indoor Championship in 1946. After turning professional in 1947 he had the misfortune to play in the shadows of two of the greatest players of all time, Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales, so he never received sufficient recognition for his greatness as a player.

But he hit his stride as a player at the age of 29 by winning the US Professional Championship for the first time in 1950 and repeating his victory in 1951 and 1952, both times over the great Pancho Gonzales in the finals. He was arguably the number two player in the world during the 1950’s because he reached the finals of the US Professional Championship in 1955, 1956 and 1957, losing each time to Pancho Gonzales. He even reached the finals of this tournament one more time in 1962 at the age of 41, losing to Butch Buchholz. It was at about this time (the early 1960’s) that I used to practice with him at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club and got first-hand experience with his devastating game.

Pancho hit the ball two-handed on both the forehand and backhand, but released one hand on the backhand follow-through. (Starting out small and weak as he did, two hands would have been helpful.) At the net, Pancho volleyed with one hand and, when extending to reach wide balls, he could hit groundstrokes with one hand on either side too. His service motion was bizarre but effective. He would rock back and forth before serving as if he were pumping himself up for the delivery. Then up would go the toss and the ball was smacked deep and with excellent direction. Pancho hit few aces but placed his serves deep and deceptively enough to keep opponents off balance.

Pancho’s big weapon was his two-handed forehand. He hit it flat, and the shot was poetry to behold – smooth, effortless, and projected with incredible and depth and deception. The power came from a compact swing that was moved almost entirely by body rotation and forward leg drive. Pancho stayed low as he hit and turned forward forcefully like a little, dark pinwheel. The shot was so solid that Pancho virtually never missed, even though shot after shot was driven within inches of the net and the lines. Moreover, Pancho could do anything with the ball on this side. He could drive it flat and hard, angle it off, dropshot or lob, all with the same motion.

His strategy on the baseline was similar to most players who have big forehands and weaker backhands. He stood near the backhand sideline and hit every ball he could with his forehand. He liked to open up on you with a flat or inside-out sidespin forehand deep into your backhand. The pace and depth of the shot and the little room he left you made it very difficult for you to hit your backhand back into his backhand. So Pancho usually got additional forehands which he used to put you into more and more trouble. He might take you still wider on your backhand, he might ram it down the line into your forehand, or he might dropshot you. Of course he did leave you some extra room on his forehand side, but to exploit it you had to virtually half-volley one of his nasty, deep forehands up the line with your backhand – not an easy play. And Heaven help you if you tried it and did not hit a great shot. Your court was open and Pancho would murder you. Only one thing was sure – once he got you on the trolley with his forehand, you were going to do a lot of running.

Pancho’s backhand, by contrast, was sliced. This shot was smooth, deep, consistent and well-controlled, but not big. It was a definite weakness but only the greatest players in the world could take advantage of it. And this had to be done at the net. If you stayed on the baseline with Pancho his backhand was deep enough to keep you from hurting him. Eventually he would get a forehand and your troubles would begin. But if you got to the net on Pancho’s backhand he would have difficulty passing you. He would dink the ball crosscourt, lob it or hit it relatively flat up the line. If you were quick, didn’t miss volleys and had a good overhead you could be effective at the net, but you had to keep the ball on Pancho’s backhand side. If you hit into his forehand you had to hit an awfully good shot or you would be hurt.

I used to play Pancho on fast concrete courts with light balls, so I served and volleyed all the time. This was effective if I got my first serve in, but he was murder when I missed it. I had a good, deep, accurate second serve, (in fact it was one of my better shots), but I simply could not get it to his backhand. He was the quickest guy I ever played at running around his backhand on the serve return. If I missed my first serve Pancho was almost sure to ram a forehand down my throat. And trying to fool Pancho by serving wide on his forehand didn’t work well either. He was awfully good at seeing it coming. I found that my best play against Pancho was to take a little off my first serve, make sure to get it in on his backhand, and try to win with my volley. Pancho Gonzales was one of the few guys that could beat little Pancho consistently and did so because he had such a great second serve that he could get it in to little Pancho’s backhand.

In addition to his incredible forehand, Pancho’s other immense strength was in his court savvy. He knew where you were going to hit every ball before you did and knew where you would be least happy to have him hit the ball. He understood every angle, ploy and percentage down to the last decimal point. If you were ever off balance or out of position you could be sure he would move forward, pick off your next ball in the air, and volley it for a winner before you could recover.  He could jerk you around like few others. (I made the mistake of playing Pancho once when I was out of shape and not hitting the ball sharply. He ran me so brutally that at 2 – 4 down in the first set I was so too winded to take another step. With apologies I had to pack up and stagger off.)

Pancho was a very clever and comical guy. He had a way of talking out of the side of his mouth with his heavy Ecuadorian accent and infectious laugh that naturally brought a smile to your face. He was charming and people liked him. He specialized in amusing sexual innuendoes which he could make up for every occasion. He liked women and had a unique knack for saying things that would get the ordinary person slapped in the face and getting away with it. Pancho was lewd, but awfully funny.

He liked to play personal games with people for amusement. For example, he might be hitting with someone and carrying on a line of patter such as, “Great shot! You have a backhand like Budge. The strokes of a champion!” and then turn to a friend watching from behind the fence and whisper out of the side of his mouth, “F…ing donkey. Can’t hit a ball!” He often told people they played like “champions” and, when their egos tempted them to believe him, got a secret laugh out of it. Once we were sitting on the bench after tough practice match and Pancho began telling me how great I was. “Keed, you should be #1 in the world. With your great hands, speed, court sense, no one should beat you. Laver, he quick. He volley well. But he don’t have your talent!” (At the time Laver had won the Grand Slam and was #1 in the world, and I was ranked #8 in the United States. Forgetting about Laver, there was the small matter of the seven guys in the US ranked ahead of me, the other twenty players in the world that regularly beat me, and a few pros that could play a little, like Pancho Gonzales and Ken Rosewall.) I had seen him do it to too many others to fall for it myself. “Oh sure, Pancho,” I said sarcastically. Had I agreed with him I could just picture Pancho walking off chuckling to himself, “What a donkey! Fat ass, no serve, and he thinks he can beat Laver!”


I’m sitting in a cramped and uncomfortable seat on a U.S. Airways flight to Tampa, vowing to fly United next time. But my discomfort is made tolerable by my sweet wife, Nancy, sitting beside me. We’ve been married 30 years and went together for 6 years before that, so my pleasure doesn’t come from the flush of excitement intrinsic in a budding new relationship. We hold hands off and on, and I’ve told her I love her a half-dozen times since boarding the plane, and she’s responded in kind. I just appreciate being with her, and we can be as happy together in a cheap motel in Bakersfield as in a fancy suite in Hawaii. (almost) We take a walk together every day, chatting the whole time, and enjoy spending quiet evenings together, munching popcorn (which Nancy makes fresh using healthy oil) and watching TV.

We virtually never fight, though we disagree occasionally on specific issues, usually involving our kids or big purchases. There is a huge difference between disagreeing and fighting. When we disagree it is never done aggressively or antagonistically. Our objective is always to work through and solve our problem quickly, painlessly, and get past them. We never try to hurt each other, and it never becomes personal or antagonistic. Both of us are concerned with our partner’s needs and feelings, and we try, as best we can, to be considerate of these. We are polite and extend to each other the same courtesies that we would to any important and valued stranger.

Please don’t take these comments as bragging, though they may sound like it. I’m just trying to describe our relationship so you can have better perspective on our strategies for achieving such a positive and happy one.

It starts with a few basic axioms. 1. We are married for the long haul. Essentially, we are in the same boat and neither of us is going to leave it. 2. We have married a basically decent person whom we respect. 3. We are partners, allies, and teammates. 4. This relationship is the most important one we have, and nothing or nobody comes before it. 5. One partner cannot be happy if the other isn’t. 6. You can’t “win” a fight, regardless of the outcome.

Although Nancy and I are soul-mates, we couldn’t be more different as people. Trained as a physicist and experimental psychologist, my brain is very analytic and linear. To solve problems, I want to collect data, chop things into manageable little pieces, and use these to understand why things are as they are. My first inclination is to develop a broad philosophy about any situation. Nancy, on the other hand, could care less about such things. She is the ultimate pragmatist, and approaches problems by instantly taking in the situation as a whole and popping out a solution. When I ask her what made her conclude so and so, she replies, “I don’t know, I’m not sure.” But over time I’ve learned, to my initial amazement, that she’s right extraordinarily often.

If you give me all the pertinent data and let me mull it over for awhile, I’m quite good, and I will come to a correct conclusion more often than Nancy. But if the situation is complex and many of the variables are hard to pin down, Nancy is much better than I am. At first I didn’t understand that there was a way of thinking and problem-solving that was totally different from mine but that was, nonetheless, awfully good. (In fact, when I was a young scientist I thought girls, though sexually alluring, were just like guys mentally except that they weren’t very smart. I’ve since found out differently.) And with time I’ve grown more and more in awe of Nancy’s mental capabilities. I’m very happy that she doesn’t think like I do, and between us we constitute a quite complete individual.

Enough of the background for the moment; let’s get to the “how to” of developing an excellent marriage relationship.
1. Use the “Bank Account Theory” whenever you and your spouse have conflicting desires. Here you start out with a certain amount of credit in your good-will bank account. Whenever you get your own way at the expense of your spouse, you withdraw a little good-will credit from your account. Conversely, whenever you do what your spouse wants at your own expense, you deposit a bit of credit. Your objective is to build up good-will in your account and avoid, at all costs, emptying it.

With this in mind, you should do whatever your spouse wants whenever you can, especially if the issue is not vital. For example, what movie you go to, what restaurant you eat at, or what television show you watch are not, let’s face it, crucial issues. When you do what your spouse wants you are making a small deposit in your bank account of good will. (When you get your own way, you are, of course, making a withdrawal.) And if you have built up a decent amount of equity in the account and need something badly, you are likely to get it. Moreover, all spouses feel more kindly and affectionate towards partners who have built up substantial equity in their “bank” accounts. (figuratively, and maybe even literally) And if you’ve emptied your account, your persistent selfishness will probably have produced a resentful, unhappy spouse.

When the two of you approach each junction in the road with this in mind, doing things for your spouse becomes a pleasure rather than an obligation or something you are forced to do. Remember that meeting your spouse’s needs also includes emotional ones and even ones that appear irrational. We are, after all, emotional creatures, even though we may think logic drives our actions.

This is would replace the oft-cited strategy of “negotiation” in such situations. With the “negotiation” strategy you are essentially saying that if you do this for me (which you don’t want to do), then I’ll then do that for you (which I don’t want to do). This is a negative and non-loving approach, and you both lose. With the bank account approach, you can actually enjoy doing things for your spouse that might otherwise have been unpleasant because you are building equity in your relationship.

For example, Nancy rarely asks me to do things for her, while at the same time she is constantly doing nice things for me. I appreciate this and realize how thoughtful and unselfish she is. I love her for it (and for many of her other qualities) and appreciate her basic goodness and kindness. This makes me want to do things for her. It makes me want to make her happy. I feel like I can’t just sit back and constantly “take.” Her behavior makes me want to pay her back.

So at times Nancy will make breakfast and then have to leave the house, and she’ll tell me, “Just leave the dishes, and I’ll do them when I get back.” Well, there’s no way I’m going to let her come back to a sink full of dirty dishes. So I wash them and clean up the kitchen while I’m at it. And all during the clean-up process I’m happy because I think about how pleased she’ll be when she comes home to a spotless kitchen. (She was probably dreading the job.) And she’ll welcome it as a show of my love for her and my appreciation for her constant goodness towards me. It shows her that I don’t take these things for granted.

This is a win-win approach as both parties are happy doing things they know will make their partner happy. They do them because they want to do them, not because they have to. The “negotiation” strategy is a lose-lose approach, since both partners do things for each other because they are forced to, not because they want to.

As an example of the force approach, I had an Aunt Tillie who was considerate but very pushy. She would call me up and tell me to do things, such as to send my brother a gift for his birthday or to call so and so. Just the fact that she told me to do it and that I felt pressure from her to comply took all the fun out of the act. It made me not want to do it. Had I thought of doing it myself, I would have felt good about it. (We all like the feeling of being a good person, and acts of benevolence give us this good feeling.) But aunt’s pushing made me do things because I had to rather than wanted to. It became an obligation rather than a kindly act originated by my own generosity. All the pleasurable, altruistic feelings were obliterated and replaced by feelings of resentment and obligation.

In a marriage the objective is to create a situation where each partner is made happy by tending to the needs of the other partner. This attitude stokes and feeds the warmth, love, and closeness that make a marriage happy. I absolutely love seeing Nancy enjoying herself. And her cheerful personality makes the weekend in Bakersfield a treat and the shopping expedition at Costco entertaining.

Of course for this to work, both partners must understand and be in on it. My lovely little wife is a naturally giving person. She is people-oriented and enjoys making others happy by doing nice things for them. But she, like all of us, does not like being taken advantage of. She doesn’t keep score, but if I were a total “taker” and accepted her benevolence as my due, without appreciating the effort and care she takes in the giving, even Nancy would eventually feel like a “sucker” and become resentful. Who wouldn’t?

But I get it. She deserves and gets heartfelt thanks for everything she does for me, and I try to give back as much as I can. When I thank her and tell her how wonderful I think she is and how much I appreciate her goodness, I enjoy it as much as she does. These words come from the bottom of my heart, and I am enveloped in feelings of warmth and well-being as I say them. It’s win-win!

But it’s not a 50-50 deal, nor does it need to be. Nancy does more for me than I do for her. And in most marriages the giving of both partners is unlikely to be totally equal. But I do what I can, and she knows I am making an effort. She is just more naturally thoughtful and energetic than I am, and the fact that we are not 50-50 does not worry her. So she makes a point of enthusiastically appreciating my good deeds, even though they occur less frequently than hers. (This, of course, makes me want to do more of them.)

2. Never say anything that will hurt your partner’s feelings, and only say things that will make him or her feel good. You want your partner to be happy to see you. You want your partner to want to be with you. And this will be the case if you continually make your partner feel good. One way to simplistically understand the situation is to consider how a dog might react to reward and punishment. If you constantly pet the dog and give him food, he will be eager and happy to see you. If you beat and abuse him, he will fear and avoid you. So of course it helps the relationship if you stroke your partner with kind, complimentary, and loving words, and never, ever use harsh, hurtful, or even mildly hurtful ones.

Your partner will feel good if you build his/her self-esteem by honestly appreciating his/her accomplishments and by ignoring or making light of his/her failures. If your partner has a conflict with a third party keep in mind that not only are you are allies, but your partner should always “feel” like you are allies. Thus you should side with your partner whenever it is reasonably possible, even when he/she is in the wrong. Turn you head around so that you can see your partner’s side of the issue. This is a particularly positive approach when the issue, whatever it was, is over and your analysis cannot affect the outcome. Most frequently, problems will involve some kind of personal interaction and conflict, and your partner should always feel free to share these with you and expect a sympathetic and supportive ear.

The exceptions, of course, might be when your partner is not only in the wrong but also when going forward would be harmful, immoral, illegal, expensive, or dangerous. Here you would simply be giving your partner valuable but kindly advice. In essence, you are not obliged to hold your tongue when your partner’s car is going over a cliff. (with you in it)

3. Ignore or forget about your partner’s weaknesses. He or she will have strengths too and you would be wise to focus on them. I’m sure your partner already knows his/her weaknesses, and you probably knew about them too before you were married. Since your partner will usually be unwilling, or unable to change them, you’d be wise to accept them as part of a package that is positive overall. Focusing on them and dwelling on them will only make you and your partner unhappy.

Dwell, rather, on your partner’s strengths. Think about them; appreciate them; tell your kids about them; tell other people about them; and tell your spouse about them. I’m assuming your partner is a basically good and reasonable person. (All of us are emotional and nobody is totally reasonable, so don’t expect perfection in reasoning.) This then is quite a good enough basis for a wonderful marriage. The key is appreciation. In appreciating and dwelling on your partner’s good points, you are the beneficiary. Such thoughts generate good emotions within you and will make you happy. Dwelling on your partner’s negatives will make you unhappy, and you will be the one to suffer. (along with your partner) Even worse, thinking about them and pushing your partner to change them will frustrate you as well as make you unhappy. So you have a choice. Play it smart, and be happy, since that’s the object of the game anyway. This is easy if you are clear-headed and understand the simple dynamics of the situation.

Impediments to a happy marriage are: lack of understanding, emotionalism, insecurity, and illogic. Sometimes it’s pathological or just plain meanness. If you fail to look at your partner as your beloved, valuable, delicate ally, but rather see him/her more coldly and distantly, some or all of the following relationship pathologies are likely to pop up. 1.) You will complain about your partner’s perceived deficiencies and in so doing, make yourself and your partner feel frustrated and miserable. 2.) Your feelings will be easily hurt and you will react by becoming angry and by retaliating. 3.) You will take it out on your partner when you have had a stressful or bad day outside the home or are in a bad mood for whatever reason. These are just a few examples, but these and their ilk are not only shortsighted and destructive of your relationship, but they are certainly selfish and even evil.

4. Wake up every day and tell your partner how lucky you are to be with him or her. And don’t just say it. Feel it. When my wife walks in the door from doing errands I greet her with an enthusiastic, “Hi Sweetheart. I’m so happy you are home! How about a kiss for the Old Man?” And I mean every word of it! Our home is a little like a sushi bar. (When customers come in they are greeted as if it’s Christmas and they are Santa Claus.) This should be easy because you should like and love your spouse. If it isn’t, you’d be wise to take to heart the ideas presented here and start changing your attitude. If you treat a valued stranger more politely and more considerately than you do your spouse, you definitely have a damaged or, at best a half-hearted relationship. You need a new strategy. Work to build and strengthen it, and avoid pecking away at your partner. (When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.)

5. It’s important for the kids to see that their parents love each other, are considerate and polite, and that they have a happy home. They learn how they should treat their partners and what to expect in their own marriages. We have two boys, and we have discussed with them the relationship strategies described here. They understand it and see how well it works in their own home, and they are determined to have similarly happy relationships with their wives when the time comes.

6. In some marriages it is not possible to implement the suggestions made here. Here the disaster sometimes occurs before the marriage starts, in one’s choice of partner. Be very careful when choosing your spouse. A bad choice will put you in a position where a good marriage is impossible, and, no matter how hard you try, you and your spouse will be unhappy. Watch out of overly emotional, self-centered people. They are so unreasonable that you simply won’t be able to deal with them. Many of these people actually lack normal empathy and are unable or unwilling to see your side of situations. They are borderline narcissists and are more common than you might think. They may appear fine in the dating situation but they are damaged goods, and you will not be able to save them – or yourself either if you get in bed with them. (I’m speaking figuratively, of course. In the literal sense, they are often quite adept in that department, which, of course, makes it tempting to stay with them.) They tend to be extremely sensitive and emotional. (They are sensitive, I might add, to themselves and not to you). They see the world so unalterably from their own perspectives that you will not be able to deal reasonably with them. Essentially, it will be “My way or the highway!” And if there are no children involved, I would opt for the highway. If there are children, you are in for a world of hurt.

In other cases, so much damage may already have been done that it is difficult or impossible to heal the wounds and fix the relationship. This is analogous to the nursery rhyme of Humpty-Dumpty falling off the wall. “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.” In this case the breakage is so complex and the damage so widespread that a totally viable, happy relationship is no longer possible. But if there are children involved, it may well be worthwhile to stay together and repair it as much as possible.

7. Always keep in mind that one partner cannot be happy if the other one isn’t, so it is to your great benefit to make your partner happy. This is because you and your spouse are together in a small boat, and it will either float or sink with both of you in it. You will be very close to each other in your little boat, so you want to keep it happy and floating. If, through ignorance, insensitivity, or selfishness, you create an angry, resentful partner, you will make your own life a misery.


The ‘Golden Rule’ of tennis, the one simple rule that, if followed, will keep you out of more trouble than anything else is: Never do anything on court that doesn’t help you winGranted, it sounds absurdly obvious, but few people consistently follow it. Adhering to this rule requires one to test any action before taking it with the simple question, “Will this action help me win?” If the answer is not yes, don’t do it.

The great players rarely lose track, at least at some lower level of consciousness, that the object of the game is to win the match. The average player, by contrast, often seems mindless of this elementary fact. Yet even professionals get caught up in the emotions of the match on occasion

A truly bizarre example of what can happen when one does not apply this test was provided by my friend, Jeff Tarango, a brilliant, funny, Stanford-educated tennis professional at Wimbledon in 1996. Tarango, then 26 years old, had never before won a match at Wimbledon. But this year he was in the third round and had an excellent chance of getting to the round of 16 because he was playing Alexander Mronz of Germany, whose name in the tennis world is hardly a household (or for that matter, pronounceable) word.

During the course of the match, Tarango hit what he thought was an ace, but it was called a fault. After fruitlessly trying to convince the umpire to overrule the linesman, Tarango was heckled by the crowd as he walked into position for his second serve. Angrily he told them to “Shut up.” The umpire gave him a code violation for “audible obscenity.” Although it only amounted to a warning, this so infuriated Tarango that he demanded that the referee supervisor come to the court. The supervisor dutifully did so and told Tarango to continue playing. Tarango then called the umpire “the most corrupt official in the game” and was promptly assessed a point penalty for verbal abuse which cost him the game. At this Tarango shouted “That’s it. No way. That’s it.” He picked up his bags, stalked off the court, and entered the history books as the first player in the Open era to default himself at Wimbledon. To make matters worse (yes, it’s always possible), Tarango held a press conference at which he justified calling the umpire “corrupt” by accusing him, on the basis of hearsay, of having, in the past, ‘given’ matches to players who were his friends.

Now let’s tote up the damages. Tarango threw away an excellent chance to advance in the tournament since he was, after all, favored in the match. He was defaulted in his mixed doubles, which did not endear him to his partner. It cost him a lot of money which he could ill afford since he was not one of the stars of the game—total fines estimated in the neighborhood of $50,000 and additional prize money he might have won. Finally, his public image was not enhanced by making himself look like an overgrown brat who would have been well served by a few good spankings as a child. All in all it was not one of Tarango’s better afternoons, the object of the game (to win the match) having apparently slipped his mind.

With all these damages accruing as a result of his actions, one might reasonably wonder how a man of Tarango’s substantial intellect could have so completely lost track of his simple goal of winning the match? The answer is fear of failure (he was losing), exacerbated by the accumulated stress and emotion of the situation, drove his actions. Quitting was his unconscious way of escaping from a painfully stressful situation that he feared would end badly. If you don’t believe this, picture the following thought experiment: God appears over Tarango’s shoulder and whispers in his ear that he is guaranteed to win the match. Now what would Tarango have done? He might still have fought with the umpire, but I would bet a lot of money that he would have stuck around to win the match.

(Just for honesty’s sake, I must confess that during my playing career I did some things in tournaments that were almost as counterproductive as this Tarango story – though they were less dramatic.  So I am by no means taking a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Under sufficient pressure, most of us are capable of rather foolish actions.)

The great champions are different.

John McEnroe had a similar fiery temperament, but his situational judgment was usually able to retain its ultimate rationality even in the throes of emotionality and outcome uncertainty. Because at some deep level he sensed that he was going to win, he was able to comprehend where the line demarcating disaster was and exert enough self-control (although it didn’t look like it) to avoid crossing it. He got into emotional twits where he made unreasonable demands, berated linesmen and umpires, and threw matches into confusion, but he usually benefited from this behavior. His behavior intimidated linesmen into giving him the benefit of the doubt on close calls; it disturbed his opponents and put off their games; and McEnroe stimulated himself with adrenaline and often played better.

One year he did manage to get himself defaulted in the Australian Open, but he said after the match that he had been unaware of a recent rule change where the authorities had cut down by one the number of abuses a player was allowed before default. The progression toward default had formerly been ‘warning’, ‘point penalty’, ‘game penalty’, ‘DEFAULT’, but this had been changed to ‘warning’, ‘point penalty’, ‘DEFAULT’. McEnroe simply miscalculated and thought he could afford one more penalty. In contrast with Tarango, McEnroe may sometimes have looked like an uncontrolled, irrational wild man, but all the while he was carefully counting his penalties so that he could stop himself before he went too far. McEnroe didn’t often forget where his interests lie.

McEnroe was cunning in other ways about expressing his frustration and anger. He knew cursing and abusing umpires would lead to code violations. So instead of cursing them he would say things like, “You are so low that words can’t describe how low I think you are!” Of course this is every bit as insulting and hurtful as cursing the person, but it made the code violation difficult to pin on him.

We are often not as rational as we should be.

Human beings are supposed to be rational creatures, but too often our emotions drive our actions while our reasoning abilities are relegated to the back of the bus. This is frequently the case in tennis matches because the one-on-one aspect of tennis competition makes it an inherently stressful and emotional situation. Errant emotions during match-play tempt us to forget our objectives (winning the match) and engross ourselves in anger, personal antagonism, defeatism, excuse-making, or other counter-productive but stress-reducing mental states. Keeping in mind our Golden Rule test of “Will This Help Me Win?” can help ward off such debilitating and destructive mental states.


murrayOf course we can never actually see what would happen if the two greatest British players of all time faced off on court, but we can compare the attributes and weaknesses of each and hypothesize as to the outcome.

HOW GOOD WERE THE OLDER PLAYERS:First, however, we need to respond to the common notion that modern players are simply much better than the old boys, great as they may have been in their time. After all, the comparative numbers in all the other sports have substantially improved; there are more good athletes in tennis now; modern players are bigger and stronger; tennis strategies have evolved; and the old guys just don’t look very good when we see them play on video tape. These are tough arguments, but not conclusive.

First, most of the older champions were about Federer’s height, and they were great athletes as well. Perry’s famous rival, Ellsworth Vines, for example, was 6’2 1/2” tall, attended USC on a basketball scholarship, played semi-pro baseball, and after tennis became a pro golfer, winning two tournaments on tour and being twice ranked among the top 10 money winners. Perry himself was 6’ tall and a superb athlete, winning the world table tennis championship before becoming a world-class tennis player. Pancho Gonzales, who dominated the tennis world in the late 1950’s, would compare favorably as an athlete with anyone in today’s game. He was 6’4”, quick and agile as a cat, and had great hands. He played a murderous serve and volley game, yet he told me that when he played an aging Don Budge (who was about 40 years old) the only way he could beat him was to stay back on his serve and run him until he got tired. Budge himself was 6’1 ½“ and an extraordinary athlete, playing semi-pro basketball, as did his long-term doubles partner, Gene Mako.

COMPARING OVERLAPPING CAREERS: And culling the overlapping careers of the players over the years you can deduce that their levels of play must have all been somewhat comparable. Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl, is a good starting point. He was one of the originators of today’s power baseline style. At 6’2” and superbly conditioned, he hammered down the competition with his big serve and forehand. If not dominant, he would certainly have been a serious contender at the top of today’s game. Yet he was beaten twice in the finals of the US Open by Jimmy Connors, who was in his 30’s and well past his prime. This suggests that Connors would also have been competitive today. And when Jimmy was asked about great players, the first name on his lips was Pancho Gonzales, who, at the age of 43, beat a then 19 year-old Connors in the finals of the Los Angeles pro tournament. Asked later how good Gonzales was in his prime, Jimmy could only reply, “He must have been unbelievable.” So we have to assume Pancho could have threatened any of today’s players, and it is but a short jump to put Budge, Vines, and Perry in the same class as well. Thus it is by no means outlandish to question who would win between Perry and Murray if they played today with comparable equipment.

PERRY AND MURRAY STYLES OF PLAY: Their differing styles of play would have made the match particularly interesting. (A Wimbledon final would have been an appropriate venue and occasion, don’t you think?) Perry was aggressive. He was extraordinarily quick and agile and was the best conditioned player of his day, reputed to be tireless, and he had a great record of 5th set victories. Perry had the finest running forehand in memory, snapped with his wrist like a ping pong shot, and often played on the rise and followed to net, where his volley and overhead were deadly. Jack Kramer called him a “physical freak” because nobody else could be taught to hit a forehand in this way. His serve was not overwhelmingly powerful, but like Federer’s, it was extremely accurate and deceptive, so he got his share of aces. But he used it mainly to get control of the point and bring his attacking game to bear. If he had a weakness, it was on his backhand side, where he was consistent and accurate rather than aggressive.

Murray, on the other hand, has historically been defensive minded, using his great conditioning, speed, anticipation and court coverage to wear down opponents. Lately, however, at the urging of his last half-dozen coaches, he has finally started to mix in more offense. Murray has a balanced game, with the ability to attack or defend with both backhand and forehand. He also has excellent hands, fine touch, and a well-controlled volley, so he is always a threat with the drop-shot and at the net. At 6’3” Murray has quite a dangerous (but streaky) first serve, and his only weakness would be on his second serve, which at times lacks velocity and depth.

How do their games match up? A faster surface (like grass or carpet) would have favored Perry’s attacking game. A slower surface (like clay or slow concrete) would have helped Murray. Their court coverage and endurance were equivalent – both extraordinarily quick and fit. Their serves were, on balance, also equivalent. However, Murray had the better backhand and Perry had the better forehand.

The match would have been one of maneuver and movement. Perry would have traded baseline strokes with Murray looking for an opportunity to strike with a forehand and follow up with a net attack, much the way Federer does today against Djokovic. He also would have occasionally attacked the net off of Murray’s weaker second serve. Murray, on the other hand, would have tried to get into backhand to backhand rallies, in order to force an error or get a short ball so he could hit a groundstroke winner. He would also have used his powerful first serve to get free points.

MENTALLY: In the mental match, Perry would have had the edge. His actions on and off the court reflected his flamboyant, exuberant, roguish personality. He partied with Errol Flynn and dated countless Hollywood actresses and starlets, among them Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich. He was supremely confident, arrogant and, according to Kramer, “selfish and egotistical.” (In fairness, his daughter said he had a “heart of gold.”)

He was also ruthless in his single-minded ambition and gamesmanship, annoying opponents by making offensive remarks and repeatedly crying out, “Very clevah” whenever they played an especially good shot. (Murray would not have handled this well.) Perry liked action and taking chances, but not rules. These traits did not make him an ideal marriage partner, as his four wives would have attested, but they did give him the nerve to go for risky shots under pressure and make them. In tennis, unlike most other major sports, the points have different values, and winning the “big points’ are crucial, a substantial advantage for Perry.

Murray couldn’t be more different. He is soft-spoken, shy, less confident, and a percentage player, on and off the court. (Unlike Perry, he has had a stable relationship with the same young lady for many years.) In the past he has had a tendency to blame others when things are not going well, even berating his coaches in the stands during matches. This is generally a sign of insecurity, a problem most of us face at one level or another, but for Murray it has been deadly as it has, on occasion, lead to breakdown and defeat. His early 2011 record is an example. After losing in the Australian final to Djokovic in straight sets, he proceeded to lose in the first round of the next three tournaments, all in straight sets, two of them to qualifiers. Unfortunately for Perry, Murray has gotten a lot better in this area since Lendl took over as coach. (Not only is he older and wiser, but a glance at Lendl’s dour, threatening visage would have dissipated any latent urge to scold his coach.)

In terms of will, fortitude, and concentration, they are close. With a father in the “trades” and a leftist to boot, Perry was an outsider in the tennis culture of the 1930’s and felt the need to claw his way up with a ferocious will to win. He would not have quit in a long match until the medics were forced to come on court and carry him off. But Murray is a dogged competitor as well. Today’s game consists of brutal, protracted, base-line body punching, and Murray proved his mettle in last year’s US Open final, beating Djokovic in 5 sets by running him into the ground. So there is little to choose from here between the two.

IN SUMMARY, I would hate to bet on who would win. But if a gun were held to my head, I would, with hesitation, have to say, “Murray.” When it comes down to it, I can picture Murray’s advantage in backhand to backhand rallies being decisive. Murray hits that shot too hard and to consistently well for Perry to escape this exchange. This would make it very difficult for Perry to bring his great attacking forehand into play, so Murray, in my opinion, would control the majority of the points. But it would be a great match between two great players, and I would love to have the television rights.


plan BWhat happens if you can’t conjure up a Plan A strategy that gives you an obvious game plan edge over your opponent? Then you go to Plan B, which relies on a wearing-away process. We all have limited reserves of willpower, and we can only withstand stress and concentrate for so long. Plan B relies on the fact that you can win matches by exhausting your opponents mentally. Most people can concentrate pretty well for 30 minutes, but few can keep it up for hours. So even if you see no glaring weaknesses at first, 2 hours later, when your opponents’ minds have tired and their wills have dissipated, their games may leak like sieves.

Everyone, even champions, eventually break mentally if they are kept under stress and forced to concentrate long enough. At this stage they lose intensity and their errors increase. Small setbacks can now make them lose emotional control and speed their disintegration. Of course it usually takes a long time to bring champions to this point, but average players run out of mental steam relatively quickly. The trick is to get your opponents to run out before you do. (You have the edge in this because you are aware of Plan B and your opponents are not.)

You can increase your advantage by recognizing the times when your opponents are under more stress than you are and slowing the match down so they stay under it as long as possible. One of these times is when they are ahead. Paradoxically, in close matches, most players feel more pressure when they are ahead than behind. So slow up and let them stew under this pressure. They are hungry to get on with it and suspect (correctly) that the longer they stay on court the more likely that something will go wrong.

Of course I’m not suggesting you be unsportsmanlike and stall by repeatedly tying your shoelaces, etc. Rather you simply take a few extra seconds between points to gather yourself and give your opponents a little more time to think. They will be antsy to get it over with, and the extra time will feel like an eternity and be mentally tiring. It will keep them from developing momentum against you as well as force them to play at a pace not their own. Most players  feel uncomfortable when their normal pace is disrupted, especially if they are ahead.

A second Plan B axiom is to play as tough a point as possible whenever you are down game point. Here your opponents have a chance to win the game and are under stress. Keep them there. If they are serving avoid risky returns and quick misses. Force them to play out the point under pressure. (Recall the stress you feel when you are up game point and how happy you are when your opponent over-plays and misses right away.) If you are serving, take a little extra care to get your first serve in. Under pressure, your opponents may be somewhat stiff-handed and slow to react. They want a nice easy second serve to return. Don’t give it to them. On the other hand if you are feeling particularly confident, feel free to go for it. Just be sure you aren’t kidding yourself and trying to live out a bluff!

A third Plan B axiom is to never, if you can possibly help it, give your opponents an easy game or set, no matter how far behind you are. When you are down 0-40 in a game or 5-1 in a set, you may feel the game or set is lost anyway and try careless, low-percentage shots in order to get on with it and start a new game or set. Don’t do it. Keep your opponents under pressure and force them to concentrate and struggle to finish the game or set. It’s mentally tiring, which is part of your plan, and every once in awhile you’ll come back and win the game or set as a bonus.
You will also tempt them to relax a little at the beginning of the next game or set (as they will often want a short break from the stress of fighting to the finish), and you can jump off to a quick lead.

The final Plan B axiom is to always use Plan B in addition to any Plan A strategy, no matter how advantageous your Plan A may seem to be.


angry tennis playerGetting a bad call may cost you a point, but your reaction may cost you the match! Our nervous systems are constructed such that feeling cheated calls forth emotions that are often out of all proportion to the simple loss of the point. Missing a forehand may be frustrating, but being cheated causes moral outrage – no point difference but substantial emotional difference. The counterproductive fallout involves anger, personal antagonism, dwelling on the purloined point, and, in the ultimate case, forgetting about winning the match and getting beaten. Obviously, the first order of business is to confine the damage to the loss of the point itself.

You must, at all costs, remain unemotional and practical about the situation. If you find yourself reacting too emotionally, recognize that this is usually a sign of your own competitive insecurity. In general, players that are confident of winning matches react less violently to bad calls than players that aren’t. Your opponent may be responsible for taking a point that isn’t his, but never forget that you are responsible for the rest of them. So take pride in having the strength of character to immediately get over bad calls and get on with the business of winning the match.

The most important thing is to keep your overall goals in mind. In most instances of recreational tennis, it is best to say nothing and simply forget about the bad call. Of course you would like to win the match, but your other goals of getting exercise and having a socially pleasant athletic experience are actually more important. Unless you dwell on it, the occasional bad call is unlikely to change the outcome anyway.

Questioning your opponent’s call is really questioning his honesty, and this is never conducive to harmonious social relationships. Even if you could win the immediate battle over the point (which is unlikely) you are prone to lose the war. If you have found someone who is giving you a good workout, your purposes are best served by being able play this person again if you choose. Getting into squabbles about line calls is a good way to preclude this.

If it is a tournament match, however, your response might be different. If you are not absolutely sure the call was bad, then it’s probably best to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt and assume the call was accurate or at least that it was made in good faith. (Note how often the pros challenge calls and the electronic replay shows they are wrong.) But if you are certain it was a bad call or if the dubious calls are repeated, then I would, without antagonism, say to my opponent, “Are you sure of that call?” This is code for, “I think you cheated me.” But it’s more socially acceptable. You will have put your opponent on notice, and in most cases the embarrassment will be enough to keep him honest for the rest of the match. If this doesn’t do it, and the cheating is flagrant, I’d stop the match and try to get an umpire. Unfortunately, this is often not possible.

The question then arises, “Should I just cheat my opponent in return?” I instinctively don’t like this approach. Though I certainly wouldn’t go overboard in giving my dishonest opponent the benefit of the doubt on calls, I would not advise retaliatory cheating. If you keep control of yourself and you are the better player you will win anyway, and you will keep your moral system intact.

I am reminded of the Davis Cup tie played in 1972 where the USA played Romania in Bucharest. Ian Tiriac and Ilie Nastase had elevated cheating to a level seldom seen at the professional level. But in the deciding match Tiriac faced America’s Stan Smith, who was a great champion and a great sportsman. Despite a raft of horrible calls and an unfair and hostile crowd, Stan remained cool and aloof and prevailed in the fifth set. Afterward Stan calmly said to Tiriac, “Ian, I’ve lost all respect for you!” It was a beautiful and fitting ending to the affair.

Of course being cheated out of a point is a problem (albeit, generally a small one), but as with any problem, your choices are to fix it or manage your reaction to it. Fixing it would mean getting the bad call reversed, so if you can do this (which is unlikely in that someone will have to admit he or she made a bad call) you are lucky. Problem solved! But if you can’t your next best choice is to stay cool and take it as a personal challenge to get over it immediately. (If Stan Smith could do it playing for his country – 10,000 miles from home on a foreign surface in front of a rabid and unfriendly crowd – you can certainly do it in a less important situation.) Remind yourself that bad calls are an inescapable part of tennis, and being able to get past them unemotionally is a necessary part of your tennis tool bag, just like missing a forehand or double-faulting.