The Anatomy of a Momentum Swing

homer chokingWe have all had it happen to us one way or the other… the tennis match is decidedly in favor of one side and then Big MO switches sides and the other player/team somehow takes control and wins. What makes that happen?

Playing vs. Fred Drilling

In a doubles match this week, I was teamed with solid lefty Ed Yablonski vs. Fred Drilling and Jeff Boston. Early on, Ed and I could do no wrong – while both Fred and Jeff were missing shots.

As unbelievable as it sounds, we bageled them in the first set (6-0) and were up a break in the second set. They then turned the tide and won a close second set 6-4; and then we played a “half set” (starting at two games apiece), and they won that.

What Happened?

Here is what I THINK happened to us (and does to others in the same situation). When the match starts getting closer…

• The leading team’s server is just a little more cautious/conservative and has less pop and placement on their serve
• + the leading team’s net man becomes just a little more cautious/conservative and doesn’t poach or fake as much
• + the trailing team’s returners become a little more confident and aggressive on their returns of serve
• + the trailing team’s partner becomes a little more confident and aggressive on their movement and shots at the net
• The sum total: Big MO switches sides of the net

What To Do?

The obvious answer: the leading team needs to stay aggressive. Yes, it is easier said than done. But if you ever try to “protect the lead,” you all too frequently lose it.

As Billie Jean King writes in her autobiography (of the same title), “Pressure is a privilege,” meaning you worked hard to get where you are; so enjoy the moment.

Have you been there and done that??

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6 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Momentum Swing

  1. George, if you talk to, or read a lot of inspirational books by, self help, rags to riches gurus, there is always a common theme: Desperate times and deep poverty lead to increased creativity, risk taking, and inevitably success and wealth. Sloth and complacency have the opposite effect.

    There is a lot of evidence in the “real” world to back this up. How many of our greatest entrepreneurs/ inventors/ world leaders have come from humble beginnings and have lifted themselves up by their boot strings? Many. How many offspring of family dynasties have turned out to be mediocre nobodies and have not fulfilled the expectations of mom or dad who built the enterprise? Many.

    It is no different in sports, and the momentum change phenomenom that you refer to is probably just a microcosm of it. It does not just occur in tennis. It happens in other sports too. How many football games have been lost where one of the teams — often because they are the underdog and feel the desperation — play smart, tough, offensively minded football through the first three quarters, gaining a sizeable lead, only to have their coach get conservative in the fourth quarter and, eventually, the other team catches up and wins? It happens a number of times every season. The “prevent defense” has often been criticized by fans and sportswriters for exactly this reason.

    So, what to do about it on a tennis court? I have no magic bullet answer because, just like everybody else, I have fallen prey to this same issue and lost matches where I started out blowing away an opponent. But one thing that has, sometimes, worked for me is a trick that I learned when I took a drama class back in college. That is, to learn the art of imagining yourself in some situation that you are not really in. If you do it right, you may actually be able to trick your mind into believing what is not the case and you can use that to keep yourself psychologically in the game.

    So, if you are ahead 6-0, 4-2 and all you need is to win two more games, pretend in your mind that the score is really 0-6, 2-4 and you ABSOLUTELY need to win the next game to survive. Or you can do the same with game scores — if the actual score is 40-15 and you are serving, tell yourself it is really 15-40. Etc. No guarantees this will work, but it has sometimes helped me.

    Marty, i HATE when football teams go into the Prevent Defense; and you are right, it is the same on the tennis court. thanks. george

  2. Concur w Marty on tricking your brain…

    My partner and I try to do this on deciding (3rd set) tiebreakers for USTA matches

    1. If ahead, we flip the score in our conversations between each point and try to get more aggressive to ” catch up” to ourselves!

    2. We consciously talk positively about hitting out and do our best to think in terms of playing with best effort vs did we win or lose.

    3. We try to have a plan for each point.

    Kirk, good advice! thanks, george

    We don’t always win, but we almost always keep smiling and upbeat…and keep our partnership intact!

  3. George, this topic is, in my experience and way of thinking, one of the great lessons for life that sports has to teach.
    Now, before I expound a bit more on this great “life lesson” I can’t resist little political shot at the right wing element: notice that one of the primary words used to explain the change in MO is when the leading team/individual becomes CONSERVATIVE. Seems to me this and the idea in the economic realm of applying the strategy of austerity which appears to make matters worse.
    Probably one of the greatest reasons for my addiction to tennis is due to what happened in one of the very first tournaments I ever played back when I was a youngster of thirty-five years of age. It was my very first match in the tournament and I was playing a local high school player. In the first set I was pummeled and, in the words of Brad Gilbert, he “took me to the woodshed by the lop-sided score of either 6-0 or 6-1; can’t remember for sure but it was a real thumping. The second set he was up on me 4-1 and then 5-2 when I came roaring back to force a tie breaker. In those days we played a nine-pointer and once again that whippersnapper jumped out on me like 3-0 and 4-1 and once again I came back to win 5-4. In the third set it was my turn to lead him out to the proverbial woodshed and I won that set 6-1. Big MO had totally switched sides. However, I didn’t learn my lesson at that point. It wasn’t until it happened to me in reverse that I came to realize the importance of never, never, never giving up. And that is the lesson for life whether it is in regards to a business endeavor, a relationship or any of the myriad other personal goals one sets for oneself. As the one-time tennis coach of a high school girls tennis team and on those rare occasions when I have offered myself as a one-on-one tennis mentor/coach I always impart the Jimmy Valvano admonition “Never, never, never give up.” You just never know when Big MO will become YOUR ally in tennis (or any sport for that matter) or in life.
    The very concept of momentum switch is also one of my pet peeves with tennis announcers and it is one of my big disappointments with John McEnroe who I have often heard, early in a match he is color commenting on when one player is up a couple of breaks in the first set, “Well, this guy is toast and this match is pretty well over.” I just wonder how many viewers he causes to grab the remote and look for another channel to devote their tv watching to. I’m amazed that he doesn’t keep people glued by pointing out that they should stay tuned to the match since “you just never know when…” and you’ll be really disappointed if you tune in Sports Center later today only to learn that you missed one of the greatest come backs in the history of the sport. I only need to point to the Lendl-McEnroe match in the French Open I think it was back in the early 80’s. A tennis buddy of mine will never forgive me for convincing him we should go play since the match was pretty well over with McEnroe up two sets and a break in the third. After playing for about two hours we walked into the club only to learn that Lendl had made a fabulous come back and beaten McEnroe. He was a Lendl fan and I’m just lucky he wasn’t armed when we heard everyone talking about what THEY had just witnessed! Once again, lesson learned.
    So it just pays to remember, no matter where the momentum resides those four famous words had best be front and center in your mind: “This Too Shall Pass.” So whether you or your opponent is enjoying ownership of the momentum you’d best play every point as if it’s match point.
    There, I’ve been wanting to rant about those tv announcers for years. So thanks, George, for the opportunity. Now I’d best do something constructive with my life — like find a tennis opponent in my age group who will play me some singles.
    “Make it a BEAUTIFUL day, Y’all!!!”

    Bernie, and i will bring the “Never give up” down to the micro level… one of my joys on the court, is busting my butt to get “one more ball back” in play and have my opponent miss the open court and give me the satisfaction of my effort paying off! thanks, george

  4. I agree with you & Marty – that backing off a little to not make a mistake coupled with tougher play from the other side is definitely part of the MOment. But I also wonder if the fact that you were up against a SMART team contributed.

    I had a good year at Tennis Fantasies 2014 and was dominating my opponent 6-2, 5-1 when his coach, Mark Woodforde, pulled him aside and gave him a long talk, making me wait to serve out the match. I eventually won . . . the super tiebreaker after he won the 2nd set tiebreaker! So in this case, though part of it was I lost my service rhythm for a couple of games, it was a change in tactics that neutralized my offense and I failed to recognize it at first.

    Could it be your opponents made a subtle adjustment that gave them an advantage?

    I still agree it is really important to “keep the pedal to the metal” when you are closing in on the win!

    Geoff, half the time the Legends come on the court they only encourage their mate — and we all start wondering, “What did they tell them to do against us?” And that also contributes to our demise. thanks, george

  5. A lot of good comments. I don’t know exactly what we did, but you’re right about your team never making any errors the first set and us just making a bunch of unforced errors. I remember once telling Jeff that we didn’t need to overpower you guys, but we just needed to lob a bit more when we got the chance and not try to hit so many winners. We did settle down and not make as many errors after the first set. I didn’t remember being down the break in the second. I don’t pay as much attention to the score but just try to play each game, one at a time. Points can be played somewhat according to the score, i.e., don’t try crazy shots when you’re down game point.

    My favorite story was the first tournament that I played after moving from MI to CA, playing at Billie Jeans public park courts. In the quarters I was down 11 match points and in the semi’s I was down 13 match points. Lost in the finals to Bill Bond, Ralston’s doubles partner. So never giving up is a good thing:)!

    Yesterday, Paire had a set and one of a few game points at 4-2 in the 2nd against Nadal. He had hit some good drop shots and thought about hitting another but changed his mind a little late and hit a forehand slice down the middle of the court while he was coming to the net. He lost the point and the game. That shot probably made the difference between winning and losing the match. At 4 all he was up 40-0 and lost that game, but the one that he really needed to be aggressive on was the one at 4-2.

    Digressing, many matches I’ve had to change my outlook and say wait this one out and let my opponent make the mistakes. If he can continue to blast me off the court with winners, then he’s a better player that day. Hard to not ramble when we all have so much experience and tennis matches we can talk about:)!

    Fred, Paire was up 6-2 and TWO breaks in the second set vs Andy M… and lost it! thanks, george

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