To beat an opponent better than yourself, play tennis ‘one point at a time’

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Have thoughts like this ever crossed your mind before a match: I’m not sure I’ll beat player X, because my rating/ranking is lower than theirs; there’s no way I can beat player Y, because they played at a really high level; and I have no chance against player Z—they are just too good. Or on the flip side: I really need to win against player A, because it’ll look really bad if I lose to a hack like them.

For many juniors, college athletes, club players, and even professionals, these are common ways of thinking about competition—we can all fall victim to them.

Admittedly, it’s hard not to get caught up in these types of calculations. Tennis’ one-on-one nature often makes it feel as if you’re engaged in a life-and-death struggle against your opponent. A loss means you are unworthy—and worse—than they are; and its ill effects can linger for hours if not days afterward.

But this view of competitive play is damaging because it forces you to focus solely on the result of your match as opposed to staying present and performing well. Not only that, this attitude also limits your enjoyment of tennis to an outcome: your victory.

Instead of gaining satisfaction from everything that tennis gives us—the fitness, the pleasure of striking a ball well, the challenge of figuring out an opponent—this way of thinking is also inhibitive when it comes to competing against players whom you perceive to be better than yourself. We tennis players know that often a match is won or lost before we’ve even stepped onto the court. And the “better” you think your opponent is, the higher the chance you’ve already consigned yourself to your fate (losing).

So what to do if you’re constantly thinking about the quality of your opponent instead of focusing on your own game?

Play tennis one point at a time.

This mindset proposes that a tennis match should be played as a series of miniature encounters with an opponent—where every individual competition (point) is the most important.

It is not a new or radical way of looking at things, but it is powerful. To emphasize how powerful this philosophy can really be, I want to relay an anecdote from my days of coaching at an NCAA D III school in the New England Small College Athletic Conference.

In an effort to highlight the impact of playing one point at a time, while giving players private lessons, I used to ask student-athletes to walk through a simple process with me. (Here I want to be clear and say that this is not my original process, but simply the best way I’ve found of explaining the power of a one point at a time mentality to players. I recall reading an article over a decade ago which applied a similar method, but have been unable to locate it.)

The exchanges with players used to go a little something like this:

Me (speaking to player): Great session. Continuing on from before, I want to try to show you how powerful it can be to adopt this idea of playing a match one point at a time.

Player: Ok… let’s hear it.

Me: Think of the best player in our conference. Now, what chance would you give yourself of beating this player? [Let’s say that the name of this hypothetical player is Roger.]

Player: Beating Roger? I don’t know. Maybe… 20%. Why?

Me: Ok. What about if you were to play just one point against Roger? What chance would you give yourself of winning that one point? Discount things like a lucky netcord, a flukey winner from you, or anything of that sort. You actually earned this point.

Player: (would pause, understand what I’m getting at, but answer regardless): Probably… 50%.

Me: So you have a 20% chance of beating Roger in a match but you have a 50% chance if you were competing for just one point? Correct?

Player: Yes (lightbulb moment). No. I mean….

Me: Ok… but what is a tennis match except for a series of points strung together? You’re saying that that you only have a 20% chance of beating Roger, but on the other hand, if you both were competing for just one point, you’re saying that chance goes up to 50%? Even discounting netcords or unexpected winners from your racquet?

Player: I see what you mean.

Me: Obviously winning one point is a different story than winning the 48–80 required to win a best of three set tennis match. But if you’re backing yourself to win 50% of a singular exchange, why not try to replicate this mindset across all of the points you play against Roger? I’m not saying that your forecasting of your odds is accurate at all, but it’s your mindset that we’re working on here. Next time you play Roger, why not try to focus on treating each point as an individual contest? You’ve given yourself a 50% chance of winning these individual contests. It’ll probably help to look at the match through this perspective as opposed to seeing Roger as this insurmountable opponent who is extremely difficult to defeat.

These exchanges often reflected this discrepancy—where players thought they had a way higher chance of winning one point against a difficult opponent compared to winning the match. And making players aware of it was usually a lightbulb moment for them in terms of understanding the importance of treating a tennis match as a series of individual competitions all stacked on top of each other.

This was especially the case after they spent some time reflecting. They realized that whenever they played opponents they perceived as “better” than themselves, they had gotten into a mindset of viewing them as unbeatable because their focus had been on calculating their chances of winning two out three sets.

When they understood that they should instead focus on winning a single point at a time, their view of their chances against their toughest opponents changed.

Before you say, Of course players gave themselves a higher chance when asked about winning that one point against a difficult opponent versus winning the match. Trying to win a match is a different ordeal compared to winning that one point, I’d like to point out that I’m aware of that—and I agree!

My point isn’t to make the false comparison that if a player has a 50% chance of winning a single point, then they automatically have a 50% chance of winning the entire match. Not at all. I’m only trying to illustrate that adopting this one point at a time mentality can be helpful when it comes to playing matches—especially against highly touted opponents.

This mindset can also be useful against players we perceive as easy opponents whom we should beat. If you’ve played enough tennis, you’ve probably found yourself on the wrong end of a match that you had no business in losing. Playing tennis one point at a time can help us to stay in the present and avoid the wandering mind which can lead to a poor performance—and a loss against a lesser-skilled player.

I know that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to tennis players, and while one athlete might thrive with this outlook, another might dislike the constant pressure it provides. But the structure of a tennis match is also somewhat accommodating towards this one point at a time approach; after all, we’re offered 15–25 seconds after each point, 90 seconds after two games, and 120 seconds after a set. These times, especially the 15–25 seconds after each point, can be used as an opportunity to reset and prepare for the many individual contests to come.

The one point at a time mentality ties into how tennis is designed; our sport is not continuous, but rather comprised of a series of interlinking points. A 100m sprint can be won and lost in the first few strides. In contrast, tennis matches can be won and lost from almost any position on the scoreboard.

That’s why I think it’s important for every tennis player—from elite to club to casual—to keep this philosophy of one point at a time in their mental toolkit.

If you’re still not on board, you can think about it through the lens of this popular saying, too:

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

So when it comes to the mental challenge of defeating an opponent you perceive to be far better than yourself—or even just playing a tennis match in general—it often helps to play tennis one point at a time.◉

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