Why We Lose To Better Players

Sure, sometimes we are facing an opponent who has far superior tennis skills and the match is a forgone conclusion; but more often, we are close in skills to our opponent … and close in score. So, why does the slightly superior player usually win?

Thinking back to my recent loss to #5 seed Joe Adams last week at Longboat Key, in my opinion, it is a combination of what YOU do and what THEY do. Here are some examples:

You didn’t have a match strategy – Both you and your opponents have strengths and weaknesses (big forehand, great drop shot, strong legs, etc.). The objective is to play your strength against his weakness. If you don’t, you don’t have any advantage. He does.

You go for too much on critical points – In my first set, with Adams serving at 4-3, 15-40, I had a second serve return on my forehand … I went BIG for a cross court winner and hit the top of the tape (and went on to lose the game). I should have played with Controlled Aggression and hit a forcing shot. And when Joe Bachman’s underdog opponent was up a break in the first set, he just “gifted” the set to Bachman with a series of unforced errors, going for too much.

You do too little on big points – This is just the opposite. Rather than going for too much on your serve, your return, your groundstroke, or your volley, you just don’t do enough with it. Your opponent makes a nice shot to win the point; but if you replay it in your mind, you will probably find that you gave him the opportunity with your weak shot.

They don’t miss shots on big points – Think how YOU feel when playing a lesser opponent… YOU have confidence and you usually make the shots on the big points. Well, in this case, THEY have the confidence that they will make the shot … and they do.

They recognize patterns – All through the match, they are categorizing what you are doing in certain situations. And then, when the big points late in the match come up, they either take advantage of your pattern or change their pattern … or both. My opponent was serving 4-3 in the second set and i had SIX break points while receiving in the ad court. He got SIX first serves in … two were hard winners down the middle (he had not done that all match); and four were deep to my backhand and he came in behind each of them to hit a winning or offensive volley (which he had not been doing all match).

You CAN beat the slightly better player. But to do that, you have to minimize your mental and physical mistakes and do what they do.

What have you found happens on the big points in your matches?

7 thoughts on “Why We Lose To Better Players

  1. Good work. Now, I’d like to apply your wisdom to my quarter-final loss to Fred Farzanegan, a former national and world singles champion, and ask you to complete it with a game plan!

    I started out winning the first 3 games, with the help of some luck and some good play. I couldn’t believe I was ahead. He went on to win the next 6 games and the 1st set, 6-3 and the 2nd set 6-2.

    Here’s what happened: In the 1st set, I was up 40-love at 3-3 and at 30-40, Fred hit a ball that was sinking down over my left shoulder as I ran to the baseline. I called it out (later, friends told me it was out by 2-3 inches). As I reached center sideline for the change of sides, I doubted my call – I had not seen it land clearly. So, I told this to Fred and suggested that it was his point since I was in doubt. Then, I invited him to look at the ball with me, but he said, “But what am I looking for?” A mark – I did see one about 2 inches out,but wasn’t sure. So, he got the point and eventually the game (after I had two more game points).

    But, this may have made a difference in the score, but i doubt it would have had any impact on the outcome. Because, I didn’t have a plan that I committed to to beat him.. What was happening is that he has (i) a superior drop shot that he can hit on either a short or long ball (the latter with somewhat less accuracy but still very dangerous); and (ii) he has short strokes with pace that didn’t give me time to set up properly, with the result that I often hit short. It did occur to me that (i) I try slowing the pace down with occasional high balls to his forehand or backhand (he makes somewhat more errors from his forehand side, Joe Bachman told me). And it also occurred to me that I should come up to net on decent forcing balls and make him hit the passing shot. Finally – only now – I think I needed to do more with his serve – not simply hit it deep to his backhand, but go for a little more – controlled aggression. Maybe, like Drilling on the return of a 2nd serve in doubles, for example, hit hard, sliced shots to his backhand and charge the net.

    So, based on my comments, could you formulate a simple flexible reasonable strategy that I can believe would allow me a chance to beat him? Without a strategy, he is going to beat me – he hits his shots more aggressively and takes my shots away.

    Nick – Sounds to me like you have analyzed the match and already have a game plan you should try next time! george

  2. Aren’t you really saying to beat the slightly better player you have to play slightly better?

    Marty – Not only correct; but the most succinct post you have ever done! george

  3. Don’t forget BELIEF. Believe in yourself when hitting a critical point rather than thinking (subconsciously) that the opponent is better than you and that he/she should win the point.

  4. A great topic, George. In some ways, it can boil down to two words: will or skill?

    Jack Kramer once told me that when you’re slightly better than someone you don’t just beat them 10 percent more often. You beat them 85 percent more often. That’s because of tennis’ interactive qualities — in some ways like two people of different speeds running, but in other ways far more interactive.
    – so that’s the great King Jack, looking at it from the winner’s vantage

    But of course it’s not always so cut-and-dry among us civilians. Matchups, playing styles, technique and, most of all, the willingness to properly and safely deploy one’s tools make the difference.

    Pattern recognition and the willingness to engage accordingly is to me the most telling factor. Face it, when a set is in the crunch stages — anything past 3-3 — the issue is in balance and each player’s resume or history is fairly meaningless. At this stage the match is on the table. Who will grab it? And usually at just about every level — from pros to let’s say, 3.5-4.0 — it’s about taking proper offense. Emphasis on proper. Who will serve-volley? Who will take that mild mid-court ball and come forward? Who will play the volley properly? Execute the overhead? Perhaps come in on a second serve return? Serve in the right spot on the big point? On and on and on. I know when I’m playing someone I haven’t beaten that often, my personal upside is to find a way to play offense and at least force them to come up with a good shot. For surely I’m not going to at this stage outsteady someone who can hit harder or deeper or with more variety or consistency than me.
    – Court position is a much better thing to ponder than trying to amp up pace in critical stages.
    – But alas, many recreational players think raising one’s game is more about ball speed than court positioning.

    Another factor in these tight losses comes in the post-match analysis. So often I’ve heard someone lose 6-4, 6-4 and say “Only a break in each set.” What the heck does that mean truly? All that is self-consoling language, designed to blind one to what really happened.
    – What really happened dude was that when the set was in the balance, someone else grabbed what was on the table.

    It’s also important to ponder if indeed that other person truly is better. One tight loss is hardly conclusive. Two and that’s more indicative, that a victory by dint makes the other dude better. Three straight and maybe as the loser it’s time to think even deeper about altering patterns and also enhancing skills. It really helped me a lot versus one guy, for example, when I worked on adding more topspin to my forehand — not more pace, just more height.

    So yes, while of course the macro topics of belief and confidence are vital, it’s a lot more tangible to build tactical awareness and certain skills (i.e., a better overhead).

    Joel – GREAT input! and, “a better overhead” is exactly what i am working on. thanks. george

  5. George – Great analysis – maybe your best piece.
    Sometimes fitness, and more often confidence-determination-belief play a major role. But you’ve translated these into specific ways to implement and make it happen.

    Dag – Thanks. At least i may know WHY i lose! george

  6. Let me throw another perspective out there….

    Playing against better players is enjoyable !!
    When you are enjoying yourself, you are less focused on the result and more immersed in the “enjoyable experience.” Winning takes a back seat.

    The flip side of this is that you can play incredible when your happy and enjoying every point and that’s why all of us HAVE beaten better players at times.
    I think it’s helpful to try and get in a really good zone/ frame of mind against better players, and NOT worry so much about a skill/game plan issue, especially if you lost 2 or 3 times to that opponent already. Just my 2 yen. 🙂


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