Tennis’s Toughest Mental Challenge: Winning When You’re Ahead

Learn how to improve your tennis mental game to keep your lead in a match by playing like you are behind and other mind game tips for tennis.

Jeff Greenwald

Jeff is a sport psychologist, best-selling author and two-time ITF world champion. He was ranked by the ITF as number 1 in the world in men’s 35′s and number 1 in the U.S in singles and doubles.

So there I am, up a set and ahead 4-1 in the second against the #1 player for UCLA in their stadium court. My coach and team are on the edge of their seats. Eight more points and glory will be mine. Headlines. The NCAAs, first time ever for a UC Santa Barbara player. Fame. It would be a great win! Just two more games, I think.

I lost that match.

Fast-forward thirteen years. I am in Austria, at the ITF men’s 35 world championships. Players from over 20 countries are there. I’m in the finals. If I win this match I become #1 in the world and #1 in the U.S. I’m up one set to love. One more set and glory will be mine. Headlines. Fame. I go to the line to serve…this time I win the set, the match, and the title.

I had closed out my lead.

The Game’s Toughest Challenge

Arguably, it’s the game’s toughest challenge. Players know it. Coaches agonize over it. As for me, meeting this challenge has been a breeze. All it took was years of frustration, study, introspection and, finally, the realization that, for all players, it’s…well…mostly in our heads.

Players who have a tough time closing out matches are often dealing with excess arousal and anxiety. They are focusing on the results, the winning, the distractions. The human mind is achievement-oriented. We like progress. We like winning. Winning is a great thing, but in this situation, when our minds jump to the finish line, to our triumphant handshake at the net, we get out of the moment.

We deviate from executing our strategy and get overly attached to the score. This attachment makes us play a little tighter while our competitor on the other side of the net, obviously more relaxed and with nothing to lose, starts going for it, maybe winning a game or two. And then, of course, we think the momentum has shifted – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So players need to resolve, when ahead, to stay present, focus on their breathing, play one point at a time — in short, do exactly what they have been doing up to that time. Some players rush, try to win points too soon. Or they play to protect something they don’t even own yet. We have to deal with that inner critic immediately, that voice. The voice says, “Just one more game and you’ve got it.” We need to respond confidently, “No, it’s never over until it’s over. Keep working.”

Coming from Behind to Win a Match

The irony is that, very often, players who are down a few games in a set, come from behind to win. Why does this happen? Because being behind frees them up to let go. Being behind gives them permission to go for their shots and not worry about missing. They are saying to themselves: “Okay, I have nothing to lose here. I’m behind, so here it goes.” And suddenly they are back in the match.

If this come-from-behind mentality describes you, then this is the mindset you need to bring on-court with you as much as you can, in practice and match play. This frame of mind is then translated into a feeling that you can train. It is a feeling of looseness and a willingness to go for it, especially under pressure. But it begins first as a decision. In competition, I take a lot of deep breaths to stay connected to my body. I stay focused on my strategy and always try to trust that my body will hit the ball the right way and to the right places with a feeling of decisiveness.

Think you can’t control or manage the increased level of anxiety and physical tension that develop in serious match play? I understand the doubt. But this anxiety, this tension, can be harnessed and used to your advantage. You can transfer this energy into your strokes. Use it to feed your strokes in a positive way.

Instead of focusing on the tension, focus briefly on shot selection like serving out wide to set up a backhand cross-court volley. Pick a target when you are serving and pound the ball there, like Djokovic. Visualize where you will hit your return and hit it there with confidence. The key is to stay focused on what’s “relevant” (strategy and pre-shot routines), use the shots that you trust and feel good about, and stay away from the “result trap”. Instead, stay right there, “in the moment.”

Staying “In the Moment”

“In the moment” — today’s catch phrase, it seems. What does it mean? On the court, it means keeping your attention either on the ball, strategy or on your breathing. You are not worried about what your competitor is doing, or who is watching and what they think of how you’re playing. You are not thinking about your ranking, or the risks of losing, or of all the other baggage that so many players bring onto the court. Instead, you breathe and act as though you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Again, you do that in practice too, in warm-ups, so that it comes naturally, becomes a part of you. Top players have this groove. They transfer the racket to their opposite hand. They towel off. They control the court, the pace, when the next ball is put in play. They know the state of mind and body they need to play their best tennis, and they find the balance between letting it happen and making it happen. We can all learn this from them.

Keep Your Mental Focus Positive

Finally, a few words about negativity. Too often, we get caught up in it. We choose the wrong shot, and know it an instant later. We make an unforced error. We tear ourselves down, call ourselves names, bounce the racket on the court, and even look to the heavens for understanding and support. We need to break this habit, for a habit is all it is.

The deep breathing between points helps.

Taking some extra time helps.

Jumping around a bit can help arouse your motivation, your spirit of competition, your resolve.

Go to the mountaintop – literally. Look at the bigger picture all around you, with a wide-angle lens – nature all around you, the sheer wonder of a manicured court, the sun shining, the joy of competition, the privilege of competing. Tennis is a game. It’s fun, and physically satisfying. Show some gratitude for it all, and act that way.

Smile a lot, whether you win a point or lose it.

Get rid of negative body language.

Walk tall, head up, all the time.

You are delighted to be out there, delighted with tough competitive play, glad to be running and hitting and…alive.

And always, always, remember that having the lead is over-rated. Forget the score. Repeat the phrase: “long way to go yet.” Because, always, that is true. And don’t believe, ever, that you have lost momentum. Momentum shifts only if you believe that it does and accept it. Believe in yourself. That’s how to close out a lead and win the match.


July 7, 2015