Fearless Tennis: Focus on your game plan in tiebreakers

tiebreak scorecard

by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

If you’d like to learn more about Jeff’s new online course click here: http://www.norcal.usta.com/competitiveedge/focusunleashed/

You’ve just played a long first set. Perhaps you even know that, based on statistics, if you win this one, you have an 85 percent chance of winning the match. Your heart beats a bit faster. Let’s face it, if there is a time to play well, it’s now. Don’t let your mind run away on you just because it is a tiebreaker. Remember that your opponent is going through his own mental dance. Therefore, it’s important to stay composed and not overreact.

First, there is a reason you are in a tiebreaker. You’ve done quite a few things right, and you need to be clear on what they are from the beginning of the tiebreaker. You may need to remind yourself to work the point, hit your forehand to their backhand, or get in your first serves to avoid having to rely on your second serve. This is not a time to do anything drastically different. Approach the first point of the tiebreaker with confidence and determination and use the shots that got you there.

Because the tiebreaker decides the entire first set, the tendency is to either go for too much too soon or play tentatively, hoping your opponent misses. In Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis—Lessons from a Master, Brad Gilbert says, “Playing quickly and carelessly can immediately put you at a disadvantage from which you won’t recover.”

When you are composed, you will be better able to find a balance between consistency and going for your shots. To improve your chance of winning a tiebreaker, you need to narrow your focus considerably and remind yourself to play one point, even one shot, at a time. Isolating each point in this way will help you reduce your nervous tension and keep you focused on the task at hand—a skill that becomes even more critical in a tiebreaker when tension is typically running high. If your mind wanders to the result of the set, which is normal, you need to bring it back gently to the point at hand and refocus on your strategy—ideally, the next shot.

If you recall any of the celebrated matches of our time—the Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe Wimbledon final, the Agassi versus Sampras U.S. Open quarterfinal in 2001, the Blake versus Agassi U.S. Open quarterfinal in 2005—you will remember how composed these players looked in tiebreakers. They have learned to focus on the point at hand and seem to accept, even embrace, the noise, pressure, and enormity of the moment, regardless of the score.

The more you are able to isolate each point and be clear with your strategy, the more likely you will win the tiebreaker. It’s common for players to overreact and abandon what has been working simply because they become overly aware of the score. Show your opponent that you have patience and are willing to work the point. It is your job to rein in your mind when it starts to run away on you.

As you focus more on constructing points and using the shots that helped put you in the tiebreaker, you will begin to feel more comfortable and composed.