Most tennis players underestimate the importance of strategy and preparation. But the deeper you think about your game, your opponent’s game, and how you can exploit your opponent, the more optimally you will perform. And having a game plan helps prevent many of our biggest mental distractions, from getting nervous to a lack of concentration.
Why Do You Need a Game Plan?
Think of yourself as a general leading your troops (your tennis game) into battle. A general prepares its army by thinking about its own capabilities and all information about its adversary. Every single detail is analyzed before the battle begins.
Similarly, you must consider your game, your opponent’s game, the conditions, and then formulate a winning strategy based on that information to give yourself the best chance of winning your match.
When you have a game plan in place, it serves as your roadmap to success. You can play your match with one simple objective: to execute the strategies in your game plan. I will go into detail about the numerous advantages of having a game plan in the next section.
If you are still skeptical, I encourage you to read Brad Gilbert’s insightful book, “Winning Ugly” (affiliate link). Gilbert had what many considered “ugly” strokes, but he maximized his capabilities (and his bank account: $5.5 million in prize money) by thinking his way through matches and executing superior strategy to defeat his opponents. Gilbert reached #4 in the world and has coached several grand slam champions, including Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray (if your first name starts with “And” and you are a top tennis player, Brad is coming for you!).Gilbert takes his readers through his thought processes while preparing for big matches, including wins over Boris Becker and John McEnroe. Gilbert’s pre-match considerations of how to play his opponents was the key reason for his victories. Gilbert would not have stood a chance against his more talented and athletic opponents without formulating and executing the optimal game plan against them.
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, this sounds great and all, but I won’t know who my opponent will be, so a game plan is pointless.” While your contention deserves a soft, slow clap at best, you must still prepare for matches by considering your game, what you do best, your weaknesses, and then apply a strategy that will optimize your capabilities.
You Will Win More Matches with a Game Plan
Answer this question: How many matches have you lost that hinged on one break of serve or were decided by a tiebreaker?
You’ve probably replayed the crucial points in your head countless times, wishing you had played them differently. Maybe you should have hit the approach to the backhand or played more aggressively on the key points. I bet you could live with some of these losses easier if you had tried to execute the optimal strategy.
Strategy is especially crucial when two players are evenly matched. When this is the case, the player who executes the superior strategy will win. A one or two point swing is all you need to win these matches. And a well-thought out game plan will make a huge impact in your match results.
If you haven’t been formulating a game plan before matches, I don’t blame you. I used to be that guy who heard he had a match and just showed up, 30 minutes removed from a pleasant nap. However, I realize how huge of a difference it can make to analyze your game, your opponent’s game, and formulate a strategy based on that knowledge to help you win.
Now that you know the importance of a game plan, let’s examine the specific advantages of having one.
Advantages of a Game Plan
1. Helps you play under pressure
Do you get nervous during crucial points in your matches? That’s because your mind isn’t focused on strategy, but instead on winning and losing. You need a game plan to fall back on to prevent this from happening. If you know what you need to do to win points, and you focus on executing your strategy, you will block the results-oriented thinking that causes you to get nervous. I have interviewed several top coaches, players, and performance coaches on The Tennis Files Podcast, may of whom suggest that focusing on the process is the key to optimal performance, especially in high-pressure situations.
2. Helps you stay focused
Having a game plan keeps you mentally engaged in matches. Many of you have emailed me and said that your number one issue is they have trouble focusing during matches. My response has always been that if you formulate a game plan with strategies and point patterns that you can use during a match, then it will be a lot easier to stay focused. It doesn’t matter whether you are down 0-5 or up 5-0. Concentrate on sticking to the strategy that got you to 5-0 and keep using it until the match is over. If you are down 0-5, keep fighting and consider whether you are losing because you aren’t executing your strategy, or if you need to adjust your strategy based on what has happened in the match.
3. Helps you start the match off strong
If you know the point patterns, strategies, and tendencies that you can take advantage of during the match, you can start using them immediately. This is the direct opposite of how most players start off “feeling out the match.” Playing without a game plan will often result in a slow start. Making a comeback from way down is difficult and a royal pain in the rear. Why not have a game plan in place and use it to dismantle your opponent from the beginning? 10 minutes of planning is much easier that spending 40 minutes grinding your way back down two breaks of serve.
4. Helps you feel in control of the match
If you play a match with no game plan, you might feel lost or uncertain on what to do. This will negatively affect your performance. It is like running through a forest with a blindfold. All you are doing is reacting to the play of your opponent. If you have a plan of attack in place that you can execute, you will be comfortable and in control of your play because you know that you need to do X, Y, and Z to be successful. A game plan will make you feel confident about your game and provide you with a direction to follow during the match.
5. Helps you become a smarter player
As you practice analyzing your game, your opponents’ games, and formulating successful strategies, you will become a more intelligent tennis player. And you will become better at dealing with all sorts of different players. Your mind will be engaged, your problem solving skills will improve, and you’ll keep adding strategies and point patterns to your repertoire. Who the heck wouldn’t want this to happen to themselves? Keep formulating game plans and you will become a smarter tennis player.
When Should I Formulate a Game Plan?
You should formulate your game plan as early as possible so that you can practice implementing it before you play your match. Tournament draws usually are released several days before the first round matches, so you’d have time to practice your game plan. For those who play league matches, you often don’t know who you are playing until a couple minutes beforehand.
In the latter case, you should still think about how you can play the match in a way that takes advantage of your strengths and masks your weaknesses. Then, as soon as you find out who your opponent is, you can start to think about strategies and point patterns you can use to exploit his or her game.
If you have time, you should definitely write down your game plan. Writing down my game plan helps me remember what I need to do much easier than just thinking about it.
You can even go the extra mile and store notes of players on your computer. This may sound hardcore, but it will help you later down the road when you have to play the same player again. I highly recommend you download my free guide on how to formulate winning game plans, so that you can create and keep records of each player you face on your computer.
If you don’t have time to write out your strategies, use your time while driving to the match to think about how you should play against your opponent.
When I played a kid in Texas at a national open many years ago, he had a piece of paper with notes on it that he would read during changeovers. I remember questioning the kid, thinking he had done something wrong by having secret notes on me. But he prepared for the match well and it paid off. He had a written game plan in place, executed it well, and won the match.
How do I Formulate a Game Plan?
The key to formulating an optimal game plan is to ask yourself a series of questions about your game and your opponent’s game. Even if you don’t know who you are playing, you can still think through how you can set up points to favor your strengths and minimize exposing your weaknesses.
1. Answer The Following Questions About Your Game
- What are my strengths?
- What are my weaknesses?
- How do I win most of my points during matches?
- What is my biggest weapon on the court and how can I use it the most?
- What shots do I hate hitting the most?
- What style of play am I most comfortable with?
2. Answer these Questions About Your Opponent
- What do you know about this player?
- What are this player’s strengths?
- What are this player’s weaknesses?
- If you have played this player before, what made you successful against him/her?
- How was this player successful against you?
- Is my opponent a mentally tough player?
- What shots bother or annoy my opponent?
- What style of play does your opponent primarily use (i.e. baseliner, serve/volley)
You may have heard people advise you to “not look at the draw.” This is not entirely optimal. Sure, you shouldn’t look at the draw to predict who you are going to play in future rounds. You have to focus on one opponent at a time.
But one reason that people advise to not look at the draw is so you don’t get psyched out by who you are playing. I don’t think this is good advice. To debunk this claim: if you are going to get psyched out about your opponent, wouldn’t it be even worse to find out right before you are about to play him or her as opposed to beforehand?
If you know who you are going to play, and you have played that person before, seen them play, or gotten advice from a coach or friend on your opponent, you should ask yourself several questions.
3. Formulate Your Game Plan
Once you ask yourself the questions above, it is time to formulate a plan based on your answers. There are a couple main things you have to focus on when formulating your strategy
- How can I use my strengths to exploit my opponent’s weaknesses?
- How can I minimize my opponent’s ability to exploit my weaknesses?
- What point patterns can I use to win a lot of points?
- What point patterns will frustrate my opponent the most?
An Example of How to Formulate a Game-Plan
Here’s an abbreviated example of how I used a pre-match game plan to effectively dismantle an opponent.
At a US Open Sectional Qualifying tournament in New Jersey, I decided to research my first round opponent. My friend suggested that we check if my opponent had any videos of himself playing on Youtube. We found a video of my opponent, and learned that he rarely attacked serves and would often block back his backhand return.
I also knew that my forehand is my strength, I am an aggressive baseliner, and I prefer not to hit as many backhands. Based on this information, I knew that I could go for more of my first serves and throw in serve and volleys to his backhand. I also knew that if we got into a backhand rally, I could hit a safe topspin or slice backhand down the line to get the point back to hitting my forehand. My game plan was to hit as many forehands as possible (my strength) to his backhand until I got a short ball which I could attack, preferably to his weaker backhand.
Since I had a game plan, I felt a lot more comfortable about what I needed to do against my opponent. I started the match off strong and won much more handily than I would have without considering this information and formulating strategies to take advantage of it. Without the game plan, I would have been more nervous, have had to take a few games to discover my opponent’s tendencies, and had no direction as far as what I should be doing in the match to maximize my strengths against my opponent’s weaknesses.
The pre-match game plan is one of the most underutilized and overlooked advantages that a tennis player can use to win tennis matches. The smarter, more strategic tennis player will win far more often than the one who shows up to the court without a roadmap for success. I encourage you to ask yourself the questions above and then think of how you should play points to give you the best chance to succeed. Thinking about what to do before each match is well worth your time and effort. Think like a general, and your game will salute you no matter what the result is in the end.
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