Sarasota Herald Tribune – Sep 17, 2005 – John Simpson – Your palms sweat and your mind races. Your body aches, and your stomach’s tied in knots, just when you need to play your best.
The only solace is that your opponent feels the same way.
The tie-breaker in tennis heightens a player’s every move, stroke and strategy. Athleticism and shot-making get the glory in such pressure situations, but the difference between winning and losing is more often mental and emotional.
This is true for both club players and future pros.
Jesse Levine, a top-ranked junior at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, traveled to Michigan in August for the United States Tennis Association National Championships. In one day, he lost two matches on third-set tie-breakers.
It’s not the way he wanted to leave Kalamazoo.
“You have to forget about it,” said Levine, 17. “Obviously, it’s in your head, but once that’s done, there’s nothing you can do about it.
“You have to have a strategy going into the match, but in a tie-break, you’ve just got to bear down even more. You can’t have any mental lapses.”
Paula Gallant, 58, plays recreational tennis at the Punta Gorda Club. She’s learned to ignore the gamesmanship that goes along with tie-breakers.
“A lot of times I’ve found my opponent will try to play head games with me,” Gallant said. “I’ve gotten sucked into that so many times, and I just won’t allow it any longer because I get upset or I doubt myself.”
Art Ehlers, 72, plays senior tennis at the Plantation Golf & Country Club in Venice. Years of competitive experience in basketball and baseball, too, help him remain calm during the tennis version of extra innings.
“I’ve been in a lot of pressure situations,” Ehlers says. “Many of the guys I play with really, really get tense and tight. I may not win, but it’s not because I feel the pressure.”
For John Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, the mental side of tennis isn’t a question. It’s a given.
“Players will admit if you talk to them that the mental game is anywhere from 70 percent to 95 percent or 99 percent in a close match,” he said, “and most matches are close because most players are pretty much the same physically.”
The mental difference between players shows up in the pressure of a tie-breaker.
Momentum is never so important. Perception is never so erratic. The lines of the court are cold observers of any errors or weaknesses.
With tension strung as tight as a racket, what can you do?
Ehlers has a favorite piece of advice for both softball teammates and tennis partners.
“I tell them to play like you don’t care,” he said. “There’s an old baseball pitcher who’s now an executive with the Baltimore Orioles, Mike Flanagan, who pitched for the Orioles for years and years. He tells his pitchers, ‘Guys, I want you to try easier.’
“So you want to keep up your level of intensity, but somehow or another, you want to play like you don’t care.”
Hitting that fine line.
It’s the ultimate challenge in any sport, when the game is on the line. Where is the fine line between raising your game and trying so hard that you choke?
“Athletes have been trying for generations to figure out how to beat that one,” Ehlers said.
But Murray finds that there is help for those who seek it.
“We look at several sources of information,” he said, “when we come up with these ideas of what’s the best mental state to have when you’re performing at something.”
Take a single point in a tie-breaker. It can be reduced to where it’s simpler than it looks.
“Only 15 percent of tennis is actually being in the middle of the rally,” Murray said. “The rest of the time, the 85 percent, is getting ready for the point. Everything is management of thoughts, feelings, actions and sensations.
“It’s all those things, calming yourself down, psyching yourself up. You’d be amazed how much these players get into the management of that.”
Superstition and savvy
Ehlers used to be superstitious in all sports.
In tennis, he would always bounce a ball twice before serving. In softball, he swung two bats in the on-deck circle, and always put his glove in the same spot in the dugout.
“What I’ve found, over a period of time, those things become distractions,” he said. “In the last five years, I’ve gotten over that, and I don’t give superstition a thought. I would do it and lose a point, and I’d start thinking, ‘Gee, did I bounce the ball twice?’
“Sometimes it would help me. Sometimes it would hurt me. Obviously it didn’t help or hurt me, but it did distract me.”
Ehlers, like so many veteran athletes, wishes he knew then what he knows now.
“When I was younger and obviously a better athlete than I am today, when I was trying to work my way up to the major leagues in baseball, I wish I had the courage and understanding of games and situations and the mind-set that I do today,” he said. “If I had that body of knowledge, which you only build up by aging and playing over the years, I would have been a better player.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.