Playing the Middle Game

middlegame

I was recently watching a match between a hard-hitting, talented junior player and a cagey senior. The junior hit every shot better than the senior yet was managing to lose anyway. I was puzzled. To all appearances the junior should have been winning in a walk, but wasn’t. What was happening? Careful observation provided the answer. The junior could hit great shots but lacked a “middle game.” Without this he was able to look flashy and play close matches with excellent players, but not to win.

What do I mean by a “middle game?” The middle game is the stable platform of consistent shots around which successful competitors build their games. It is the base of shots that they can make nine out of ten times, and it is as essential to victory as is blocking and tackling in football. Only when it is in place can players afford to try the occasional risky winner or the deceptive change-up. Winning players use their middle games like the Chinese water torture. Its drip, drip, drip keeps their opponents under constant, wearing pressure. Without a middle game, players must bank on making large numbers of lower percentage, difficult, hit or miss shots, and the odds are heavily against putting enough of these together to actually win matches. Like pulling for inside straights in poker, it is a losing proposition. By contrast, winning players employ their middle game shots to win most of their points, saving the risky, tricky stuff for situations of lesser importance, to throw opponents off balance, or for times when they just feel gifted.

Middle game shots on the baseline are generally crosscourt, particularly on the backhand side. Successful baseliners are generally able to drive the ball crosscourt over and over again with their backhands, pushing their opponents ever deeper and wider. They continue this until they get a short reply which they can attack down the line, or until their opponents, out of desperation, try a low percentage up the line shot that either misses outright or leaves him or her open to attack. In any case the key is to develop a crosscourt stroke sound enough to go toe to toe with your opponent and be confident that you can keep it up longer than he or she can. Conceptually, having a superior middle game allows you to occupy the high percentage part of the game and forces your opponent to go around you with low percentage, risky, and, ultimately, losing shots.

At his peak, Andre Agassi had a great middle game. Of course he had a killer forehand and was a great shot-maker as well, but he won many of his matches by simply hitting his backhand crosscourt better than his opponent. He would drive the ball crosscourt three or four times until his opponent was playing from outside the doubles alley. From this position his opponent had limited options, and all of them were bad. His court had an opening the size of Russia, so any mistake or short ball would instantly undo him; continuing to hit crosscourt into Agassi’s backhand was getting him farther out of position all the time; and attempting a down the line winner might pay off with about the frequency of a solar eclipse. It was a great situation for Agassi and, when his head was right, he used it over and over to win countless matches.

How do you get a reliable middle game? The first step is to realize that having one is absolutely essential to your success as a tennis player and to become determined to develop one. (Most people do not realize this and spend most of their time just running around hitting shots. This is mentally easier, but it only works if one sticks to opponents who don’t know how to play tennis well.) Second, you develop a middle game with will and deliberate, painstaking effort on the practice court. Dependable strokes come from good technique ingrained into your muscle memory by proper repetitive practice. This takes mental as well as physical exertion. You must concentrate on getting into position early, relaxing, and using body rotation and forward leg drive to generate racket speed. And until these habits are totally internalized and developed you must consciously focus on them in practice, constantly correcting any deviation from proper technique. This is a laborious process and requires great mental discipline – a lot less fun than just whacking balls around, but well worth the effort in the long run.

Developing a middle game should be at the heart of any beginning player’s training. This is the early, hard-work part of becoming a tennis player. During this stage one should be in no hurry to hit the ball hard. Learning proper technique is the primary objective, and this is best accomplished by hitting the ball easy and in the court. Once good technique is ingrained, power can be gradually ratcheted up.

The middle game also extends to the serve. Here having a middle game involves having a reliable and effective second serve. Without this you will be in constant peril. As with the rest of the middle game, the second serve is meat and potatoes; the first serve is gravy. And watching a pro like Andy Roddick hit four huge, un-returnable first serves in the final game of the 2003 US Open throws a lot of people off. Observing this tempts amateurs to work on increasing the power of their first serves rather than on the technique and consistency of their second. Roddick only had the confidence and leeway to try these giant first serves because he has a deadly and reliable second serve. Without a useful second serve you will have to reduce the power of your first serve and try, at all costs, to get the first one in rather than risk a double fault or a patty cake second that your opponent can attack.

And the reliable second serve that you need is generally going to depend upon spin. Spin allows you to impart a great deal of energy to the ball, yet have it move slowly enough through the air and clear the net by a wide enough margin to be safe and effective. You must practice hitting spin serves diligently and often in order to educate your hands and wrists on its intricacies. Controlling your serve while maneuvering your racket around the ball instead of flush and directly through it is, at first, tricky and difficult. Your hand does not automatically know what to do, and balls go everywhere but in the court. After awhile, however, you develop a feel in your hands for using the spin and the serve becomes secure. The next step of learning a flat, hard first serve comes far more easily.

In the end analysis, tennis matches are not won merely by hitting great shots. They are won by applying consistent pressure and, if the moon and stars are right, hitting a few great shots. At the recreational level particularly, they are usually won if you can make fewer errors than your opponent. And this is only possible if you have and use a well-developed, reliable middle game.

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