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Respected tennis writer Joel Drucker answers your questions about the thrills and spills of the recreational player. Got a hole in your game or a question for Joel? Drop him an email at and you may find yourself in a future column.
Q) I have a lot of trouble with my mental game. During matches I will tend to lose to people that are way below my skill level. I have tried many suggestions that other coaches have given me but I have yet to find anything that works. I don't want to give up because I love to play and I finally found a sport that I am pretty good at. Is there a way to help me stay mentally focused on my game?

A) I commend you for admitting you have a problem in this area. Many players occupy a world of denial, and you have the courage and desire to improve. But let's probe further, and pardon me for offering a little tough love. If someone beats you, they are not below your skill level. They are better than you. I understand what you're getting at, as you probably believe you're better because you can hit the ball harder, or your strokes look prettier, or you've had some noble losses or even wins versus far better players, or others say you should beat these folks. But that is all an illusion, based on those dangerous devils of perception and expectation - but not the reality of what happens on the court. To win matches you need to strip yourself of delusions, get into the mud-pit of competition and acknowledge that the person on the other net is doing some things to the ball that make you miss. Quit judging their form, recognize their effectiveness and work hard to problem-solve your way through the match. I recommend you read the book, If I'm The Better Player, Why Can't I Win? It was written by Allen Fox, a top ten American in the '60s who earned a doctorate in psychology from UCLA. One of Fox's wonderful concepts is what he calls "the dirty business of winning." In other words, because sport is combative, it's also inherently anti-elegant. Competitors surely recognize this in sports such as football and boxing. Alas, tennis is seductive. We see those white lines, pretty clubs and stylish players and think if we just hit nice shots we'll win. But no: It's interactive, two people trying to mess each other up. That's even true for Roger Federer, and perhaps even more so for those of us less-skilled. 

Q) I am a 5.0 to 5.5 level player who has always returned with a backhand grip (I use a one handed backhand); however; I have had problems returning serves wide to my forehand. I don't seem to get my forehand grip (strong eastern) by the time I am hitting. Is it easier to start with a forehand and move to a backhand grip?

A) Yes, it's easier to start with a forehand grip and move to the backhand. The major reason for this - particularly for one-handers - is that the non-racket hand can be used to swiftly make the turn to the backhand grip. It's much harder to do this in the opposite direction. Also, in a pinch you can chip or block a backhand service return with a forehand grip (John McEnroe even does this sometimes during a rally). In contrast, hitting a forehand with a backhand grip is tricky. One key pointer: pay attention to which grip your opponent uses when receiving. If indeed they're waiting with more of a backhand grip, you might be able to get away with serving into the forehand. Then there are players who wait in the middle, using a Continental grip that makes it fairly easy to go in either direction - or, for that matter, not move the grip at all, as the Continental is useful for both forehands and backhands (McEnroe, Rod Laver). Though I worry that if you wait to return with the Continental you won't be able to generate effective leverage on the forehand side, tennis very much is a game of personal tastes and preferences, so experiment and see what works best for you - constantly, versus different serves, opponents and playing styles.

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Oakland-based Joel Drucker is one of the world's leading tennis writers. Author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, Drucker's work has appeared in a wide range of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN, CBS and The Tennis Channel. For The Tennis Channel he's worked as an on-air analyst and is co-producer of the program, Center Court with Chris Myers. An avid recreational player, Drucker's lefthanded 4.5 game attempts to combine the tactical array of Brad Gilbert with the variety of John McEnroe, a style he fondly refers to as "Spinning Ugly."

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