You have probably seen it on TV. You might even have felt it yourself. During an important match, you reach a crucial stage ― a tiebreak perhaps.
Maybe you are serving for the match. Suddenly, you feel anxious, tight, and are unable to make shots that you could normally hit in your sleep. It feels like the match is slipping away. You are beginning to feel pressure.
How The Pro Players Play Under Pressure
There’s a lot to learn from the pros when it comes to playing under pressure. It’s not a coincidence that the best players in the world also are best at handling pressure.
Some of the best players in the world to handle pressure includes:
- Novak Djokovic
- Rafael Nadal
- Stefanos Tsitsipas
- Matteo Berrettini
Here’s why they are so successful in the most important moments:
To play under pressure, you must stay in the present moment and not think about the outcome of future points or sets. If you do lose points, forget them quickly and view upcoming points as new opportunities.
The more you play tennis, the more confident you will feel and the less you will doubt yourself in tense situations. If you do fail occasionally due to pressure, you can learn important lessons.
Pressure is an odd phenomenon that exists in every sport ― nowhere more so than in the individual and punishing game of tennis. Even the top performers feel gripped by the invisible force of pressure from time to time.
Yet they achieved their high rankings by handling their emotions at crucial moments. If you wish to go far in tennis, you cannot fear pressure and must instead learn how to deal with it.
What Is Pressure in Tennis?
Unlike an injury or a tough opponent, the concept of pressure is not a tangible thing. Rather, it is a mix of emotions that occurs only in your head that can make you feel tight, anxious, or even scared during matches.
You can feel the weight of pressure during key stages in matches, especially in the latter stages of a tournament. During those moments, you understand the significance of the upcoming point, game, or set and the consequences of winning or losing.
This can cause you to lose your composure which can affect your ability to play. Hence, you may start missing easy shots.
Pressure can also be long-lasting. As a rising player, you know that performing well in a tournament could seriously improve your ranking and earn you a lot of prize money.
You could also feel the need to make your coaches, family, friends, and country proud. Therefore, pressure is not necessarily confined to a single moment or match but can stay with you throughout a tournament.
Despite all of this, it is worth remembering that pressure exists in your brain and will only affect you if you allow it to. Also, if you do experience pressure, it is a sign that you have done well to put yourself on the verge of victory or success.
When Do Players Feel Pressure the Most?
The feeling of being under pressure can intensify the deeper you go in a tournament. As you get closer to a title, the consequences of winning or losing are magnified. There are some obvious times in matches when you may experience this:
- During a tiebreak
- During break points
- When serving for a set, match, or title
- When serving to stay in a match
Everyone from absolute beginners to seasoned veterans will feel some pressure eventually. The question is, how can you handle, minimize, and eventually overcome it?
Maintain a Good Perspective
When you feel pressure before starting an important point or set, the feeling appears because you are focussing on the result of winning or losing. By doing this, you move your attention away from playing well to something completely imaginary.
To have the best chance of winning the next point, you need to concentrate fully on the task at hand. Stay in the present moment and focus all of your energy and concentration on doing your best right now ― you cannot alter the future, only your current level of play.
Once a point is lost, nothing can be done to change the outcome. The best thing to do is forget it and focus on the next point.
If you are not mentally disciplined, the lingering disappointment of missing a shot can impact your game long after it happens. Instead of dwelling on a missed opportunity, you should view each new point as a chance to rectify your errors.
Bear in mind that, while winning a certain point or set can improve your chances of winning, most of the time, losing it does not mean the end of the match. Until you shake hands with your opponent, victory is not impossible. Always aim to regroup and plan a new path towards triumph.
Although some tennis contests can feel like make or break opportunities, there can always be more. As long as you are dedicated, persistent, and work very hard, you can earn more chances. The result of a tennis match is never “life or death”.
Develop Good Habits & Routines
Pressure is mental, but the game of tennis is physical. Try to separate your feelings from the mechanics of the game. No matter what emotions are bothering you, you should try to execute every shot with perfect technique.
The swings should come so naturally to you that you perform them on “autopilot”, regardless of your temporary mood.
You need to follow an established routine between points and during changeovers so that you remain calm. This can entail a series of clear steps. For example, after a point, you might take several controlled, deep breaths and dry yourself in a certain way.
During changeovers, you might repeat positive words of encouragement to yourself. No matter how well or badly you are playing, familiar routines will help you to concentrate fully on the next point.
Some tennis strategies are riskier than others. If you are feeling momentarily under pressure, you can opt to play shots that are safe yet effective.
That way, even if you feel tense, you can still keep the ball in play and perhaps draw a mistake from your opponent. Examples of low-risk shots include cross-court forehands and heavy topspin shots (moonballs).
Depending on whom you are playing, you should have a game plan, plus a few backup strategies. Whenever you feel under pressure, refer back to your game plan to decide how to construct the next point rather than worrying about its outcome.
Improve Confidence in Your Game
If you spend enough hours on the practice court, you will develop a greater sense of self-respect for your abilities as a player.
In pressure moments, there will be fewer doubts in your mind about your shotmaking, so will be less likely to feel tight and make unforced errors. Furthermore, with more practice, you are less likely to put yourself in stressful, high-pressure situations during a match.
Succumbing to pressure and failing on a few occasions is not a bad thing, especially for young players because it can be a valuable learning experience. If it does happen, the pressure will not feel unfamiliar next time round so you will have a better chance of dealing with it.
Success in Tennis Doesn’t Happen Overnight
Unless you defeat a top-ranked player or manage to claim a high-level ATP/WTA title, a single match or tournament will not define your career.
At the highest professional level, tennis is a long-term game and for the most part, your success as a player comes from many months and years of sustained effort. Not one good or bad result.
By keeping the bigger picture of your career in mind, you will not feel so much pressure to perform in every match. Ironically, this can make you more relaxed and loose which will allow you to hit balls more freely. When relaxed, you will preserve more energy and play better overall.
On paper, pressure is abstract and shouldn’t play a role in professional sport. In reality, tennis players are human beings who know the importance of certain moments and cannot help but feel a little pressure.
Pressure is not a bad thing, but what separates the elite from the rest in critical moments is the capability to fight through it.