Forget everything you know about tennis. It’s not about playing beautiful points with rallies that last longer than a Fellini film. It’s about winning. Venus Williams earns her victories by blasting 117-mph serves; you can achieve the same end by doing things that will make your opponent’s life miserable. Recreational tennis is often a messy game, full of double faults and forehands that flutter like wounded pheasants. Learning how to take advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses is easier than developing a new topspin backhand. Trust us. Here are four down-and-dirty, amateur-tested tips on how to win matches. As coach to the stars Nick Bollettieri says, “It’s not what you look like, it’s the final result.”
Take Charge Early,
The Strategy: Win the point (or at least don’t lose it) the first time you hit the ball.
The Tactics: Most points in club-level tennis don’t last more than two shots. “Your serve and return decide who’s in charge of the point,” says Bollettieri. “So get your first serve in at all costs.” Bollettieri advises hitting the return straight back down the middle of the court. It’s a high percentage shot for you, and it gives your opponent another chance to visit Choke City. (We didn’t say this was going to be complicated, did we?)
The Payoff. Lots of short points … that you win.
Probe the Open Wound
The Strategy: Once you’ve zeroed in on a weakness, poke it like an open sore.
The Tactics: Sure it sounds simple. Few people do it, though, according to Mike Estep, Martina Navratilova’s former coach. Estep says most club players unthinkingly hit to keep the ball in play, even if it favors an opponent’s strength. Why? “It feels good,” says Estep. After all, that’s the polite way to keep a rally going when you’re just hitting. Save the good feelings for Deepak Chopra. If the backhand is her weakness, hit the ball to that side of the court until she starts crying.
The Payoff: Hearing your opponent mutter to herself like John McEnroe on a bad day.
The Strategy: Want to clean a player’s clock?. Find out how someone else did it.
The Tactics: “There’s a lot of gossip around the clubhouse,” says Bollettieri. Be smart; listen. On the court, use the rally to assess your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses: Throw up a few lobs, then run her from side to side, hitting to her backhand and forehand. Find out which shot makes her wish she’d taken up bowling, and you’ll be halfway to victory.
The Payoff: You’re not just warming up, you’re gathering intelligence.
Win the Mind Game
The Strategy: Mess with her head until she feels as if she defaulted on the mortgage.
The Tactics: “You want to change the rhythm of the game,” says sports psychologist John F. Murray, M.D., author of Smart Tennis. Go to extremes: If your opponent wants to) play fast, tie your shoes left-handed. If she dawdles between points, toss the balls back quickly. If she’s sociable, be as stone-faced as Alan Greenspan. If she’s all business, try making Seinfeld-ian small talk between points: “Hey, how do they end up getting three balls with the same number in every can?”
The Payoff: An unhappy opponent is often–how should we put this?–a loser.