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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 therovingplayer@thetennischannel.com and you may find yourself in a future column.
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Q) Dear Roving Player:
A guy I play singles with is always late. We schedule matches for 4:00 and sometimes he's 20 minutes late, and while occasionally he calls to say he's coming late, I'm tired of always waiting for him. What should I do?
-Punctual Pete


A) Dear Pete: 

It's bad enough when people are late for business meetings, but in matters of leisure, tennis opponents who are consistently late are unbelievably hostile: They believe their time is more valuable than yours. Moreover, from a tennis standpoint, a latecomer is already building an excuse should he or she lose the match: "Wow, look at me, so busy, late, how could I expect to play well?" Or, even worse, "Not bad considering I was late." 

A tennis mate of I'll call Don posed a tough problem: He was always late, but then again, he was frequently available on a last-minute basis. One Saturday afternoon I confirmed with him a Sunday morning doubles match he'd called me to play a week earlier. Don announced that the time had changed, that he wasn't playing and that he'd substituted Hal, a fair enough player but someone with an extremely negative attitude - a total moper prone to whining as early as the second game. Since I wanted to play, I went along with this, but I did tell Don, "Look, I like playing with you. If you want to play with me, play with me. But no substitutions of people or time." Don has become more punctual, but still, knowing how flaky he is, I rarely consider him when making long-term plans. The other sober truth is that he's not as good a player as some of the other people I play with. 

Another note on time: Having been raised to play on crowded public courts where time is of the essence and people show up to play in tennis clothes 99 percent of the time, let me add this notion: A 4:00 date to play means that 4:00 is when you walk on the court. Surely this must be the case in places where court time is booked and paid for. But at clubs such as mine, where courts are not booked, I see too many instances of players thinking that 4:00 means walking into the club in street clothes at 4:05, checking voice-mail, leisurely changing into tennis garb and then strolling on to the court at 4:12. I'd like to say this is unacceptable, but instead, all one can do is manage it and perhaps book matches with that in mind; so, propose a 3:45 start time, well aware of what will occur. 

As far as your friend goes, you have a simple choice: Is it worth it to keep playing with him? Or might there be other, more punctual people worth playing with? 


Q) Dear Roving Player:
Recently I've lost a number of tie-breaks. It seems like my game falls apart whenever the score reaches 6-6. How can I become better at this stage of the match?
-Fit To Be Tied


A) Dear Fit:

The temptation is to think of the tie-break as high drama, an unusual, ultra-significant part of the match where trumpets blare and you must summon greatness. But I contend the opposite. By the time it's 6-6 you will have played at least 48 points - a massive amount of time for you to have hopefully gathered tons of data. So if you've been paying attention, the tie-break should be a good chance to apply what you've learned over the last 30 minutes. For example, where does your opponent tend to serve in each court? Where does his second serve usually bounce? What kind of shots does he hit on service returns? Which side is more likely to break down under attack? How does he handle lobs? Answers to these and many other questions should arm you with enough to carefully navigate your way through a tie-break. And I mean carefully. As Aussie great John Newcombe advises, "Don't think about the need to win seven points. Just think about it in small goals. Work very hard to win both your service points, and then set the goal of winning one on your opponent's serve. Little goals add up to the big picture.

There are many ways to practice for tie-breaks. An obvious approach is to play them. But that's only partially valuable, as there's no time spent gathering data the way you do in a set. Still, playing five or six at a time in a practice session is at least a good way to acclimate yourself to the rapid flow - and also help you determine which shots you most like to play (and least like to play) under pressure. I know, for example, that I stand a better chance of winning a big point if I'm at the net than if I'm in the backcourt. 

Another way to practice for tie-breaks is to pay attention more to the tactical situation during your matches regardless of the score. Instead of obsessing about your stroking technique, think more about which shots bother your opponent and which work well for you. Even if your set never reaches 6-6, by thinking this way you'll be building your database of information. I'm staggered how infrequently recreational players do this. But those that do stand to gain big dividends at crunch-time. We play for fun, but let's agree that we have more fun when we win. 

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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."