Every time we take the field for a singles match, mistakenly and even naively, we believe we have to face only one opponent. Instead every time, inexorably, we have to try to beat five opponents simultaneously and for each of these opponents, there is an infinite world of training that one has to do.
The first great opponent is the ball. Reading the ball, its trajectory, its direction, its depth, and its speed, in order to be able to better predict its trajectory after the bounce is a fundamental skill for a tennis player who requires thousands of hours of training and experience. Learning to work the ball by hitting it low, high, down-the-line and cross-court is another skill that requires an infinite number of hours of daily exercise. Just as it takes a lot of effort to quickly realise if our attitude should be that of expert defenders, brave attackers, or valiant midfielders to tackle the ball that comes at us.
Playing for convenience with the same brand of balls, for example, is a great way to not really learn to control it like a real player. Ivan Lendl, for example, world no. 1 in the second half of the eighties, trained with his own tube of balls wearing it almost to the rubber, because he said he wanted to learn to control the ball at all stages of his life.
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The second big opponent of a tennis player is the net. Learning not to get our shots trapped by the tennis net, as happens in the sea to fish that end up in fishermen’s nets, is essential to become a good player. For this we will have to learn to use the right parabola for each of our shots based on the manoeuvring area of the court from where we are making it and based on the target area where we want to direct it, while also paying close attention to the height with respect to the court and the network of our impact points. Also, in this case there are thousands of exercises you can do to make the parabolas of our shots realistic, agile and flexible.
The third great opponent of any tennis player is the court. Learning to play from an early age on very fast courts, very slow courts, outdoor courts, and indoor courts, with natural or artificial lighting is really essential. For example, getting used to playing with or against the sun and wind outdoors without a word is a very important training for someone who wants to become a professional. Just like it is important to train athletically to cover the huge manoeuvring area on our half of the court, obviously also including the out zones, and to train technically to reach the down-the-line and cross-court shots in the smallest target area of the opponent.
The fourth great opponent to defeat is precisely… the real opponent who we have in front of us on the other side of the net. Knowing the opponent’s mental, athletic, tactical and technical strengths, and defects is a fundamental factor in trying to overcome them and also in this case we will have to play many matches, from an early age, to acquire adequate experience to learn how to limit their qualities to a minimum and highlight them, or at least, their defects.
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Like people, each of our adversaries is different. There are those who hate being moved side-to-side, those who hate being moved forwards and backwards, those who play worse while stationery, those who get worse when increasing the pace of the rallies and those who reduce it, those who struggle against volleys, those who end up in the madhouse with short balls and slices. There are those who hate being attacked and those who hate to attack and come near the net, where they feel like a fish out of water.
Everyone is different and quickly understanding their diversity makes all the difference in the world. Otherwise, by constantly applying, and I would say even obtusely always using the same tactical schemes, we will end up annoying only those types of players who can tolerate them, greatly reducing our career-win percentage.
The fifth and most important opponent to defeat is not visible to our eyes, except with the help of a mirror: ourselves. Taking our fears and insecurities head on, learning to kick our indolence, keeping our euphoria, our anger and our presumption at bay, and training our attentional and perceptive skills is a process that takes years of profound and fundamental psychological work. It is a job that will make us better as tennis players, but, above all, better as people even when we have stopped running after a stupid ball and that will make us deeply love and thank tennis for the rest of our life for all the wonderful and indelible teachings that it will have left engraved in the depths of us.