Points tend to be won and lost in streaks. This happens because the players winning them start to feel good and play better while the players losing them start to feel bad and play worse. When the game is going against you there is a natural tendency to rush around, make errors, and not play points one at a time with sufficient diligence to arrest the slide. Allowing your opponents to get “hot” like this opens you up to losing a lot of games in a hurry, so you want to do everything in your power to disrupt their momentum as quickly as possible.
Slow down when you are behind. Your first thought, when points start to tumble against you, should be to slow the match down. I’m not suggesting you become deliberately disruptive and unsportsmanlike by strolling around stalling and tying your shoes. I just mean you should take a few extra seconds between points to gather yourself together and allow your opponent to wait a little and think.
I learned this lesson as a 19-year old playing against an older, experienced player named Noel Brown, then ranked in the top 10 in the USA. I won the first set playing well and was eager to start the second. But then everything started to take an awfully long time. Noel walked very slowly and deliberately back into position after each point and sat down for the maximum allowable time on changeovers. Although it was only a few extra seconds, to me it seemed like an eternity. I now felt like I was playing with a sack of cement on my back, and each point had to be slogged out separately, leading to a brutally difficult 12-10 second set.
Noel was a friend of mine, a great gentleman and a fair sportsman, so I had no hard feelings about his slow-down tactic. It was all within the rules and within reasonable limits, but most importantly, I learned something from it that I afterwards put to good use myself on countless occasions.
Toughen up after each lost point.Another way of stopping your opponent from gaining momentum is to strengthen your resolve to win the next point after losing the previous point. The great players naturally do this, and the weaker players naturally do the opposite. For example, Jimmy Connors got more intense and tougher with each point he lost. So did Lleyton Hewitt at his peak, and Rafael Nadal does it now. When they lost a point they redoubled their concentration and efforts to win the next one. And if they lost that one too, they stiffened their resolves still further on the following one. In a sense they dug in their heels mentally with each point they lost in an effort to resist a downward slide. Against such players an opponent finds it very difficult to gather any momentum.
In contrast, when weaker players lose a point, they become more likely to lose the following one. Their resolve decreases slightly, they don’t mentally dig in their heels, and their opponents are actually induced to gather momentum. This is an unstable situation, and their opponents are likely to win streaks of points and games. Since most players will play as well as you let them, give them running room by making too many errors and they will begin to feel more comfortable and play better. If you are tough, resist, and keep them under pressure by being miserly with your errors, they will deflate and play worse.
Stop the slide before the set ends.Another momentum issue arises when you start out a match playing poorly and find yourself substantially behind in the set, say 5-1 or 5-2. In this situation many people feel like the set is going to be lost in any case and are reluctant to put too much effort into what appears to be a hopeless cause. So they decide to get it over with quickly and start out fresh in the second set.
This is a big mistake for many reasons. The most obvious is that no matter what the score you are not certain to lose the set, so it always pays to give it your strongest effort in hopes of a come-back. The second is that you forgo the opportunity to tire your opponent mentally. He is ahead, and players in this situation often feel the pressure to finish and get the set tucked comfortably away in the win column. Forcing them to struggle for it is mentally draining and can set them up for a breakdown if you can get them into a third set. A third important reason is that you fail to halt momentum that is going against you. Turning the match around may require tactical and mental adjustments, and it is best to make these as soon as possible while you have a little leeway and before your back is completely against the wall. Otherwise, you must stop the slide immediately in the second set from a dead stop, and if you fail you will find yourself running out of options. It’s best to end the first set playing on even terms, even if you lose it, so the second begins without you having to counter negative momentum.
In summary, momentum is an issue separate and aside from who is winning and who is losing. Smart competitors are aware of it and take deliberate steps to avoid allowing it to build against them.