Make us your homepage

One of the benefits of life as a Roving Player is the chance to watch and learn lessons first-hand from the world's very best tennis players and wisest coaches. As the US Open Series heats up, we thought it would be best to share some pointers with you from the players competing at events all over North America.

August 20 - New Haven: How to gear yourself up for high-stakes tennis

The pros competing this week in New Haven are seeking to raise their games just prior to the U.S. Open. It's a quest no different from what you're trying to accomplish if you're gearing up for anything ranging from a club tournament to a league match or any other competitive tennis situation where it's obvious that the stakes are higher than usual. 

Yet in large part, this notion of raising your game is paradoxical: If you're supposed to give your all every time you step on the court, how therefore do you raise your game?

You do it by following the advice Jimmy Connors once gave me: Pay attention. What I notice all too often among recreational players is a lackluster approach to how they do everything from approaching their time on-court to merely hitting to how they conduct themselves before, during and after practice matches. Look, I know first-hand that tennis' technical aspects is a lifelong, endless pursuit.

But while technique is an infinite study, other matters that can aid improvement prior to that big match can be improved instantly. For example, do you use new balls every time you play? Do you practice your volleys from an appropriate position near the T rather than just get on top of the net and poke easy ones? Do you make sure to take plenty of practice overheads and serves? Can you even feed a lob? If you ever try a crosscourt drill with a friend, are you shuffling back to the center rather than just standing in one place? 

Giving yourself the chance to answer these questions effectively will put you in the best position to raise your game. Then, to continue improving, I strongly recommend playing practice matches that do as much as possible to simulate the reality of cold, hard competition. What does that entail? For starters, think about how you're going to play this match. If it's someone you've played before, surely you can hatch a game plan that seeks to erode his or her weaknesses and maximize your strengths. 

Second, no talking with your opponent, whether in between points or on changeovers. There'll be time enough for socializing, but for now, take your match seriously.

Third, gauge what's happening during the match. If your plan was to come to net frequently, and your opponent keeps hitting great passing shots, that's different than if you're missing volleys. Learn, adjust and keep thinking. Raising your game isn't just about hitting balls. It's about problem-solving - the continuous process and evolution of each point, game, set and match. 

Once the match is over, regardless of outcome, spend just five minutes reflecting on what we worked, what didn't and what you can improve for next time. You might see, for example, that your inability to put away an overhead means it's wise some day to spend 15 minutes working on your smash rather than just playing another quasi-social doubles matches. 

My, you think, when did tennis become so demanding? Surely we all just play for fun, don't we? But I know there are lots of players who want to get better - to beat their regular opponents and get in there against better players. Improvement requires focus. In the short term that might mean you spend less time on the court but do the right things rather than bang away for hours on end. But I guarantee you that over the long haul you'll have more fun when you play for keeps than if you just whack one ball around after another and wonder why you're losing - or, for that matter, why you're winning.

Email JoelPost your thoughts on the message boards | Read archived columns

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."