Reckless caution

My opponent was serving huge. We play each other throughout the winter. We’re a pretty even match. Sometimes his serve will desert him, which scrambles his head and gives me a chance to purloin a few games while he’s wrestling with his demons. But not yesterday.

I was never able to take control of his service games. He was missing some first serves, but he brought the second just a big. The shelling put pressure on my own serve, which broke down at enough critical moments to hand him a 6-3, 6-3 victory. I took consolation from the belief that I’d simply come up against a riddle I couldn’t solve.

Until we started chatting after the match. “Why’d you stop serving and volleying?” my opponent said. “Up until about March, you were smothering me with that game. But then you stopped.”

This past winter, I made a deliberate effort to stay back and develop greater shot tolerance–the ability to trade groundstrokes from the back court until an opportunity presents itself. At 4.0, this kind of cautious game usually comes out on top. The barons of the backcourt can rally all day long, feeling no anxiety or desperation as the stroke count climbs. They know that, eventually, the other guy will break.

Unfortunately, that other guy is me. Despite months of practice, I don’t have faith that the long rallies will break my way. Maybe the cautious game doesn’t suit my on-court personality. At some point, as yet another neutral backhand floats back over the net, I crack. I try to rip a winner from three feet behind the baseline, forgetting that I’m not Juan Martin del Potro.

Serve-and-volley might be the answer. At the net, the ball’s immediacy gives you no time to ruminate, no time for a long rally to wring panic from your amygdala. But I can’t fool myself. Serve-and-volley is high-risk. You’re going to get passed. You’re going to stone some volleys into the net. To win, you have to seize victory. You’ve forsaken the possibility of waiting for your opponent to give it to you. You’re all in.

Those odds make me nervous. But I may not be emotionally capable of playing steady tennis from the backcourt. As the season unfolds, the cautious  game is looking increasingly risky.

–A. Clarke



4 responses to “Reckless caution

  1. Andy, Great piece. Enjoyed the examination of states of mind. Is introspection the gorilla on the court ? Archie Moore, the boxer, said he could dope-out his opponents within the bout. Instinct informed strategy. Of course, Floyd Patterson knocked Moore out before Moore could dope him out. Nothing works all the time.

  2. Over the last couple of months I’ve been taming down my kamikaze S&V game to become at better counter punching. My goal is to play an all-court game in singles where I mix in some S&V but I can beat my opponents from the baseline.

    Last year, I lost to a certain opponent 8-3 playing a lot of S&V and being very aggressive with the return game. Last week I played him again and lost 8-1, when I was trying to play more patient tennis. To be sure he’s improved his FH, but after the match I thought it about: my 1st serve was off, I didn’t attack his puffcake 2nd serve immediately, and my approach game is not accurate enough. So I’ve been working on the approach game so that I can still be patient but aggressively net rush. I’ve kind of resigned myself to having poor results for maybe a year as I try to develop an all court game because there *are* a lot of pieces to it.

    • Maybe I need to give it more time. My S&V game tends to be a little Kamikaze, too. But as I sit out there, and rally I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s nothing on my rally ball to hurt this guy and that if I want resolution, I’m going to have to be aggressive. But your approach–learning to live with disappointing results while you build a stronger foundation–makes a lot of sense.

  3. Pingback: Losing and learning « The Eastern Forehand

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