How to beat a better player

Published by Anthony Klarica

Angleique Kerber sprung the ultimate upset in the final of the Australian Open. Photo: Getty Images
Victory is not only possible but, in some cases, even likely when the odds most seem stacked against you. We talk to Anthony Klarica, consulting Sports Psychologist to Tennis Australia, for tips on how to beat a better player.

Victory was never out of the question when Bernard Tomic faced 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in the fourth round of Australian Open 2013 – not only was the young Aussie coming off his first career title in Sydney, but he’d earlier claimed an unlikely win over world No.1 Novak Djokovic at the Hopman Cup. On a big stage he clearly loved, Tomic was also showing some top form at Melbourne Park.

And yet all those achievements soon faded into insignificance on that memorable Saturday night, Tomic thoroughly outplayed as Federer broke serve in the opening game and never faltered in his 6-4 7-6(5) 6-1 win.

Tomic admitted later the battle might have been lost even before the first ball was struck, confidence quickly fading as he listened to the long list of Federer’s achievements being read to the crowd during the pre-match warm-up. “I started to think after they mentioned all these Grand Slams leading up, Wimbledon champion seven times, US Open champion … I was, ‘Oh crap, it’s Roger’. I try to block out who’s on the other side of the net but couldn’t quite do it after that announcement,” he said.

A consolation, perhaps, was the fact that Tomic is not the first player to unravel against a more experienced or highly decorated opponent. Intimidation is a major weapon for the likes of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and others as they find a way to win from any situation – or more pointedly, secure victories even when their standard is lower than normal.

As consulting Sports Psychologist to Tennis Australia, it’s a situation that Anthony Klarica has seen many times in his work with Australian players, including Jarmila Wolfe, Marinko Matosevic and many of the country’s most promising juniors. Klarica agrees that a meeting with a higher-ranked player is often as much a mental battle as a physical one – at the same time, he also points out the positive flipside.

“Some players actually find facing a higher-ranked player a bit easier mentally and that’s because of expectation,” Klarica points out. “Against a higher-ranked opponent you’re not expected to win and therefore if you lose it’s OK and if you win that’s a bonus.”

In short, it’s the player with the highest ranking or longest list of achievements that has the most to lose – and therefore the most pressure. As Klarica notes, “some players will find it mentally easier or considerably less challenging to face a higher seed – whereas if you’re playing a lower-ranked player and you lose, it can be quite deflating, or even demoralising.”

Wimbledon 2013 showed several examples of that exact scenario, with a string of big names – including Federer, Nadal and Maria Sharapova – exiting the tournament unexpectedly early to players ranked considerably lower than them.

That’s encouraging for social level players who can feel hopelessly mismatched against seemingly more-credentialled opponents. Just as the likes of Sergiy Stakhovsky, Steve Darcis, Michelle Larcher de Brito and others managed at the All England Club, there are ways of beating more credentialed opponents.

Here are some tips to help you beat a better player.

Be prepared … to a point
Big name players will often comment on the physical preparation that also helps their mental state. Klarica agrees a strong physical base naturally adds confidence but warns against placing too much reliance on it. “Because in the end, if something’s not quite right, or a player is cramping or doesn’t have the right drink or another element is less than ideal, confidence diminishes, which becomes ridiculous. There is a lot you can’t control once you’re out there and good players accept it and get on with the job.”

Know your own strengths
While you’ll naturally consider your opponent’s weapons, knowing your own strengths is the bigger priority. “Focus on your own strengths, because a higher ranked player will try to expose your weaknesses and the way you’ll beat the higher ranked player is by capitalising on your strengths,” says Klarica. “If you do that, and you identify their weaknesses, then all of a sudden it’s not higher ranked or lower ranked player. It’s your strengths against their vulnerability and that evens it out. You have to work your way around the situation.”

Don’t overthink it
Looking too far ahead, or overthinking the status of the player you’re facing, can limit your ability to maximise the opportunities presented. “You can only play what’s in front of you – and on the day your opponent may not be playing well. They may be sore, they may be fatigued, they may lack match practice – you just don’t know. Even though they’re a higher-ranked or better player, you don’t know until you step on the court,” says Klarica.

Keep an open mind
The most challenging matches can naturally be accompanied by a sense of intimidation, but that need not be the case. Klarica advises players to keeping a clear and open mind – even against the toughest opponents. “We try and get players, when they’re playing higher-ranked players, to have a very open and clear mind with regards to what might come at them. Because if you don’t, you can easily start too defensively and higher ranked players are not necessarily there just because they’re good with their game, they’re also good mentally.”

Forget “feeling your way”
The early stage of a match against a seemingly superior opponent is not a time to be tentative. “It’s very important if you play a higher-ranked player to be on the front foot early – not to necessarily feel your way into the match as you go,” says Klarica. “You really have to be ready from the start.”

Keep your cool
A lesson you can learn from the big game players who are often said to have an aura about them – think Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Serena and Sharapova – is to keep your cool. As Klarica points out: “The big name players stay cool when they miss what appears to be a basic shot, yet social players will get grumpy … what you can learn from those players is how they control their emotions and direct their energy towards a positive outcome.”

Maintaining the momentum
Beating a higher-ranked player is a massive milestone for a player of any level – but the challenge doesn’t end there. The next step is maintaining that level for your next match, which is where the fanfare often ends for professional players. After famously defeating Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon 2012, for example, Lukas Rosol suffered an ignominious third round loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber. He failed to qualify for the next Grand Slam of the US Open.

So how to avoid the comedown that can follow a big win? Social level players are unlikely to experience the intense attention that exists in the professional game – in which case, Klarica would advise players to carefully manage their social media activities – but they can easily trick themselves into believing that they can treat their matches differently.

“I think a lot of players ride the emotional wave and they forget to treat it like a normal match,” says Klarica. “That means that you look at what you could have done better as well as what you just did well. You get so many pats on the back that you lose the sharpness. You can lose a bit of that underdog fighting spirit because you think you’re going well.”

While that big-name win is undeniably encouraging, it’s worth remembering it as a hard-fought one. “Reviewing it in the same way as you’d just scraped through will keep you a bit more on edge for your next match,” says Klarica. “That’s really critical.”

And if you don’t win?
Confidence will naturally follow for the players who successfully implement Klarica’s advice to beat a better player. However all is far from lost even if your best efforts don’t reap that big-name win this time around – taking the time to consider the positives and negatives of your performance will ensure you still get the most from your match experience.

“Traditionally people will scrutinize and evaluate a loss much more than they do so a victory,” says Klarica. “Theoretically there should be an equal number of lessons in a win and a loss, but in reality people typically take more lessons from a loss.”

That certainly seemed true for Tomic, who learned a lot from that memorable Australian Open match with Federer – particularly after the prolific champion provided some post- match encouragement. “He said ‘keep going, you improved’. It’s a good thing, hearing that from somebody that’s giving some advice,” Tomic related. “You know you can become a better player when you get information off the world’s best. I’ve improved a lot. But to become someone like him, even in that area, I’ve got to improve more.”

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