Losing On Purpose

Is it ever a good idea to lose a game on purpose?  According to Jack Kramer in his autobiography, “The Game”, it is one of the keystones of “percentage tennis.”

Saving Energy

Kramer writes that when he was young, his then coach Cliff Roche advised him to save his energy on some return games, in order to have it when you need it on your serve.  He writes,

The first set was a toughie.  I won 9-7.  Then I went up 5-2 in the next set.  Here was a perfect time for a kid to lose his head and go for the break. You’re so close to 6-2, two sets to love, you can taste it.  But for what purpose: you fail to break him; he’s 5-3, you’re tired, your hands are sweaty, he’s got a good chance to break you, and then he’s got a rest and dry hands before his serve.  Boom, like that: 5-5.”

“I let him have the game for 5-3 without a struggle. Then I looked up and saluted Roche, and he nodded back.  It was as if I were saying: ‘I lost that one for you.’ And my energy spared, I served out the set at 6-3 and then closed out the match at love.

Good Idea?

We all have probably done this – at least on a subconscious level – by not trying our hardest when the score was against us (young Australian Krygios has brought this to a new level!); but is it a good idea to do it on purpose?

What do you think?

P.S. Thanks to Willy Hoffmann for the loan of the book.

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10 thoughts on “Losing On Purpose

  1. An intriguing topic, George. Kramer, of course, played in the days when there were no tie-breakers, so the possible length of a given set was potentially infinite (same with tie-breakers, but rarely quite as epic). He also played when courts were quite faster and returns were weaker, so the chance of holding was usually greater. And finally, I know from having spoken with Jack many times that his advice on these occasions — such as an opponent serving at 2-5 — was that you put in a lot on the first two points, but if you lost them both, maybe you did something a little less invested in a long point, such as going for a big return or striking big in a rally. Finally, Jack Kramer had one of the best serves of all-time (backed up by great volleys, played on ultra-fast courts), so he was exceptionally confident he could let the opponent hold and likely always hold his own serve.

    Joel, yes, a little like big John Isner’s feeling confident about his holding serve! thanks, george

  2. Not sure of course, but it seemed like Pete Sampras did this a LOT. He would work hard the first few points of the return game. As long as the game was close he would try to win it, but when he got behind he didn’t seem to try nearly as hard. It seemed like once he won 1 return game he would just coast through the remainder of the set seemingly easily holding serve and winning most sets 6-3 or 6-4.

    The opposite extreme is Nadal, busting his butt on every point no matter the score. Sure he won some sets losing only a few games – so he played fewer total games – but he worked so much harder.

    I’m more of a “try hard on every point” kind of guy – but I don’t have a serve like Pete’s that I can rely on.

    Terry, as Joel writes above, having confidence in holding your own serve plays a big role. thanks, george

  3. Who am I to disagree with Jack Kramer? But since you asked for opinions mine would be that for the vast majority of SENIOR players it is not a good strategy to give less than 100% to win that 5-2 game. The server has pressure to stay in the match, why not make him earn that game? Why give him confidence? Also, as seniors, service games are not as much of an advantage to us as they would be with Jack Kramer. So my humble opinion is that you give the opponent nothing and make him work for every point and game. We have all been up 5-2 and ended up losing the set and the match.

    Jim, i think i am more in your (and Nadal’s camp). thanks, george

  4. Perfect!! Now I have an excuse for all of those ignominious defeats – “I lost on purpose.”

  5. The less flippant comment is that I agree with Joel Drucker. Jack Kramer had a huge serve with great volleys and, playing frequently on fast and low bouncing surfaces like grass (as an amateur) or converted wooden basketball courts or slippery temporary canvas court covers (as a professional), he had every reason to feel confident he could win almost all of his service games. So, why waste the effort trying to win a meaningless extra service break when you already have a break under your belt this set and you know to 99% certainty you will probably win the set because you can easily hold serve the following game?

    But for purposes of us geezers who typically read this blog, this is not an efficient or common sensical strategy:

    First, it is rare indeed that anybody playing senior tennis — even former top level players — can consistently hit aces or service winners that top 100 mph, let alone going even faster. Most of us have come to rely on better placement with slices and kicks as our mainstay serves, which gives a decent returner a much better chance of breaking our serves.

    Second, more often than not, we are not playing on slippery grass or indoor basketball courts that give even the best returners conniptions . Instead, the typical senior surface — almost universal these days — is slow Har Tru or, less frequently, old fashioned red clay. Even if we could all still serve like 20 year old 5.0’s, which we cannot, the percentages for even a top level senior player to hold service on that kind of surface when playing against an evenly matched opponent is probably more in the 70 – 80% range for any given service game, as compared to probably 95% for Jack Kramer in his heyday. And that percentage typically goes down as we keep getting older and move into even more senior age groups.

    Third, we are all playing with high tech racquets now, with much larger heads and hitting areas, lightweight carbon composite frames that allow us to generate a lot more power on service returns and otherwise, wider string patterns and much better strings that allow us to put much heavier topspin and/or biting slice on our serve returns and rally balls (for which the greater ease for hitting topspin also allows us to hit with much greater angles than in the past, without the need to come to the net and even volley at all), etc. These features all also create a situation where it is far more likely a service returner is going to break serve than was ever the case in the past.

    So, what is the best strategy to employ? I am not sure I really know myself, because if I did I probably would not be sharing it here but, instead, would be showing off my top 10 USTA and ITF world rankings in my age group. (Ahem.) All I can say is my own service game still needs a lot of work and it often remains a struggle for me to hold serve against the best players. In fact, it is not infrequently the case that I actually have much greater confidence that I can break my opponent’s serve than I feel I can hold my own serve, which is truly perverted. But I can say that, when I have played my best and surprised even myself by winning against a really good player, it has almost always been because I played EVERY point as hard as I could and took a Nadal like “take no prisoners” attitude.

    Marty, long, but good. thanks, george

  6. To paraphrase Brad Gilbert’s advice about the importance of getting your first serve in–look in the mirror. If you don’t see Pete Sampras looking back at you, you probably can’t afford to “throw” a return game. P.S. Good luck with your hip surgery!

    Joe, good advice and thanks! George

  7. George, Follow your blog with great interest even though I rarely contribute. Your interview with “Koz” at the Payne Park tournament was aired on his show in Sarasota “Tennis With the Koz”. You did a great job.

    Good luck on the hip. I know a bunch of guys in Sarasota who have hip replacements and they are doing great. You will too.

    Arnie, saw a guy yesterday that I thought was you! Thanks and both counts. George

  8. Deliberately chucking a game – never ! But the effort level depends very much on the context, in particular the scoreboard. In short, always try hard on the first 2 points & take it from there.
    Have a good summer George.

    Howard, I know that you always try… even after 2+ hours of drop shot/ lob tennis! Thanks. George

  9. Interesting question, for sure, but I am much more in the Nadal camp….”win EVERY, single, point” that you can. As a High School tennis Coach (Barron Collier HS), I tell the Boys to give it a 100% every single point, and that’s the attitude I usually (hopefully!!) take as well. Scoot

    Scoot, and do they listen to your advice? Thanks. George

  10. In the finals of a tournament I won the first set 6-0. I was ahead 5-0 in the second set,
    then he starts hitting great angle shoots, I did not chase them down to risk a sprained
    ankle. Then I served it out for a 6-1 win. Winning every point is good until it is not.
    Anthony Rasile

    Anthony, you prove Kramer’s point! Thanks. George

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