Winning ugly: How to grind out the victory

Published by Michael Filosi

David Ferrer is perhaps the most successful grinder in tennis. Photo: Getty Images
When you’re stuck in a gruelling contest against an evenly matched opponent, there are strategies you can implement to help secure victory.

Sometimes when you take to the court, everything you touch turns to gold. Winners flow freely off either side of your body, you feel good within yourself, and your game exudes confidence. But for many players, being ‘in the zone’ is the exception rather than the rule.

Occasionally you may feel that your game is in a bit of a rut. Maybe your practice sessions haven’t been quite as sharp as previously, maybe you’re feeling a bit lethargic, or maybe you’re looking for a decisive edge to help you work towards a win against a difficult or evenly matched opponent.

Securing victory in difficult circumstances can be highly satisfying, and is as much a mental task as a physical one.

Make your opponent earn every point
If you’re not feeling on top of your game, occasionally you may have to ‘play ugly’ to secure victory. This means that a victory comes mainly from hard work rather than hitting scorching winners. To do so, you need to lift your effort level to chase down every ball, make your opponent hit extra shots and get the ball back at all costs when returning serve. This strategy aims to frustrate your opponent wherever possible with tenacious play, persistence and hard work.

This advice is always important, but it is particularly crucial when you’re in a tight contest or not quite playing at your best. Each point takes on extra value in a close match, so it is vital that you don’t gift your opponent any easy points and that you make your opponent work extra hard as much as possible.

Play the percentages
If you’re on top of your game and cruising to an easy win, attempting a difficult or flashy shot every now and then shouldn’t affect the outcome of your match too often. If, however, you can’t quite get ahead of your opponent or your game is a little off the boil, it is probably not the time to start swinging for the lines every chance you get.

If you’re in a contest against an evenly matched opponent and needing to grind out a win, it becomes all the more important to play smart tennis and do the simple things well. Try and make high percentage plays and be prepared to craft a point and play a few extra shots in order to secure an easy put- away rather than go for the difficult winner early in the point. If you’re down on form, it’s generally a good idea to play to your strengths and keep to what you know, rather than attempt a high risk strategy or shot that you are not accustomed to playing.

Avoiding unnecessary risks with your shots will go a long way to improving your play and increase your chances of securing a victory in difficult circumstances.

Know your opponent
When you’re not playing at your best, you may not be able to blaze winners off your own racquet at will, but that is not to say that you cannot still win easy points and take the wind out of your opponent’s sails with aggressive play when the circumstances suit. Developing knowledge of how your opponent plays allows you to assess what you can capitalise on in your opponent’s game to keep them under pressure.

For instance, you might not be able to score easy winners in general play, but you may be able to use your opponent’s weak second serve as an opportunity to attack their weaknesses and shift the momentum of the match into your favour.

If locked in a tight contest, it can be helpful to try and take your opponent out of their comfort zone. If you are playing against a strong baseline slugger, try and draw them closer to the net and into unfamiliar territory, which can force an error on their part. If your opponent has a weak backhand, try and pepper the ball to this side of the court to frustrate them by playing in such a way as to increase the chance of your opponent making an error. It might not be pretty, but a win is a win no matter how you secure it in a close match.

Keep your emotions in check against an evenly matched opponent and you are not playing your best, try to develop the mental discipline to not lose your cool and let on that you are not in your best form. If you miss an easy shot, or hit the ball just out, try not to let your emotions get the better of you, as this will give your opponent a mental edge if they sense that you are frustrated or not playing as well as you might normally.

In a tight contest, any advantage your opponent can get will improve their confidence, so try not to show your opponent when you are down on confidence or form. Equally, don’t celebrate your opponent’s errors either – this is unsporting, but can also serve to motivate your opponent to lift their game and play better.

Focus on one point at a time
Rather than rue the fact that you’re lacking your best touch or that you can’t seem to get the edge on your opponent, try and focus on playing the best tennis you can each and every point. Try and put to one side any thoughts of the end result of the match and instead focus all of your energies on the point at hand. Equally, try not to dwell on missed chances or points lost in the past as this can prevent you from playing your best tennis. Move on and re-focus on the next chance you have to gain the ascendency in a match by winning the current point.

This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.

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