With tennis, imperfect practice makes perfect
Tennis matches are oftentimes uncomfortable, so I decided that my practices should be too.
- Tennis balls: In high school, I had a soccer coach that would check to make sure that each player brought a fully inflated soccer ball to practice. After discovering an underinflated ball, he picked it up and said to the team “if you practice kicking this [deflated] soccer ball in the corner, it means you won’t kick a normal ball there.” His point was that a deflated ball behaves differently than an inflated one. However, unlike a soccer game where the ball is basically the same at the end as it was at the beginning, tennis balls can change drastically and will typically move slower and bounce lower over the course of a match. In fact, during pro matches, the tennis balls are completely replaced with new ones at least every nine games. Although all of my USTA tennis matches start with new tennis balls, and I still prefer to play with new tennis balls during practice, I’m now totally OK playing with used (but not dead) tennis balls. Intentionally practicing with tennis balls in the state that they’ll be in at the end of the match, when each shot and point matters most, can make a big difference. Also, tennis balls from manufacturers like Wilson and Penn play differently, so I try to mix this up now too. (For USTA matches, the home team or tournament organizer chooses the brand and type of new tennis balls to play with.)
- Grip: A solid and stable grip is a foundational part of a tennis shot, but over the course of a match, the racquet’s grip will become less tactile and more slippery, making it harder to hit a clean shot. I no longer put a new overgrip on my racquet before practices because, like tennis balls, it’s very helpful to practice with the racquet in the state that it’ll be in towards the end of the match. (I still put a new overgrip on my racquet before each USTA match.)
- Location: My tennis teams play matches at many different clubs, both indoors and outdoors. Although every tennis court has the same dimensions, there are so many things about the court that can impact the match like the court surface, ceiling height, lighting, temperature, atmosphere, and even altitude. Instead of playing at the same indoor facility with near perfect conditions all year, I now actively seek out new courts to play on so that I’ll hopefully be more prepared the next time I play at a different club.
- Fatigue: Most of my tennis matches last around one and half hours, and because it’s both an upper body and lower body workout, it’s not uncommon to be fairly tired by the end of the match. Instead of trying to rest up before my practices, I now look for opportunities to play two practices matches in a row so that I get more experience playing while tired.
- Opponent: Tennis matches are unpredictable because every opponent is so different. Each player has a unique combination of ball speed, spin, height, and depth across each shot and serve, not to mention the player’s strategy, movement, fitness, and experience. Instead of playing the same players at practice each week, I now look to play against a wider variety of players on a larger spectrum of skill levels because you can almost never predict who’s going to walk out on the court with you each match.
This new mindset has worked well for me, and I hope it brings continued success on the court.
Remember, if you want to play that perfect match, prepare with intentionally imperfect practices.