When we think of the best players in recent history, and possibly of all time for that matter we always think of Roger, Rafa, Novak and Serena. In recent times, Australia’s own Ash Barty comes to mind when we think about great players. When having a closer look at each of these champions, many attributes come to mind but one that is somewhat underestimated is their choice of shot. They always seem to come up with the right shot at the right time under pressure. I do not believe this is a coincidence and it makes me wonder if it is the case with many players on the respective tours and if this ‘sameness’ is the thing that is stopping them from taking their game to the next level.
When you dissect the match statistics of some so-called ‘dirt ballers’, guys and girls who make a living plying their trade on the clay courts around the world for the majority of the year, you see some unbelievably long rallies and supreme fitness in order to be able to stay out on the court for hour upon hour, chasing down every ball and competing like their lives (and livelihoods) depend on it, which are all amazing attributes and we would love to instil them into our juniors.
Whilst you see few errors, there are also not many winners, which turns the contest into a match of attrition rather than the number of winners you will witness by the top echelon of players. These players are undoubtedly excellent tennis players but is this ‘don’t miss’, 'wear the other guy down' mentality hindering their climb up the rankings? In terms of a player who was like this but has shown the ability and willingness to change, Casper Ruud comes to mind. A few years ago, he was seen as a ‘clay court specialist’ but has added parts to his game, has improved on all surfaces and is now ranked inside the top 10.
Then there is the flip side of the coin where you have players who are unbelievable shot makers, players who can draw the crowds and everybody loves to watch. We are in awe of the winners from parts of the court where we sit back and say, “how did she do that" and then it seems barely minutes later we are asking “why did she do that!?" These players are fun to watch, clearly have an abundance of talent and can beat anyone ‘on their day’ but the question is can they have 7 good days over a two-week period to win the ultimate, which of course is one of the four major trophies on offer each year. While many of us would give our right arm to have the type of career they had, would they have won that elusive grand slam or reached the lofty heights of becoming world number 1 if they had been able to implement a plan B, C and D when plan A was not working? The alternative line of thinking is that they achieved what they did by being true to themselves and understanding their own strengths and can be proud of outstanding careers.
The same questions can be asked of players who can be labelled ‘too emotional’ either by being too demonstrative on the court and letting their emotions take control to a point where it is detrimental to their game or being so overwhelmed by the occasion and what may potentially lay ahead that they cannot play to the best of their ability. The opposing argument with some players is that they are not emotional enough and by keeping their emotions bottled up inside they too, cannot play their best tennis. Is it again a case of the player and their support team knowing them so well that they understand what works best for them or is that an area that is potentially holding them back from achieving their goals?
Is the reason a player is situated where they are in the rankings because of their game style or despite it? Has a player been an outstanding junior, quickly risen through the ranks and then stalled at a certain ranking? Is this because they have gotten absolutely everything out of themselves, and they have nothing more to give and the ranking is a fair reflection? Or have they persisted in playing a certain way their whole career in the belief that this style has got them to where they are, and it is only a matter of time before their ranking continues to improve only to find that they have been in the same spot for some time and wondering how they can take the next step. This can be the case for players inside the top 20, top 100, futures level, ITF or juniors searching for higher honours. With margins being so small in tennis, a little tweak, or the ability to adapt a game plan can make a massive difference to not only a match but a career.
When you look at Rafa, Novak, Roger, and Serena, you see players who can defend as if their lives depend on it but when given the opportunity they come up with the winner. The shot selection of these greats has seen them close out games and matches, get themselves out of trouble and be able to control the momentum of the match. Can this shot ‘effectiveness’ be taught or is it something the true champions are born with? When is the right time to dig in from the baseline, serve and volley, kick a first serve in, hit a slice backhand, or pull the trigger on the winner down the line? Have these players simply been coached better from an early age, or have they been given the tools, and then used their natural skills and ability to problem-solve and invariably make the correct choice? Our own Ash Barty would often refer to going to the toolbox and selecting the appropriate tools she would require when dismantling an opponent. Ash was a prime example of being able to problem solve and adapt while many of her contemporaries did not appear to have a plan B.
For these champions of our game, being open to change and always looking to improve has undoubtedly led to a greater ability to execute under pressure and has helped them stay at the top of the game for many, many years. For those players who may have stagnated, having the courage to embrace change can make a world of difference but it is often easier said than done.