Mind Games In Tennis

mserveBy Scoop Malinowski

Playing serious competitive tennis for two decades has brought great pleasure, excellent fitness, improved play and also an entertainment factor of experiencing so many mind games from opponents.

Mind games and gamesmanship make tennis more intriguing and fun to play. Because you have to know how to properly handle these attempts to rattle your psyche.

I remember playing an older top player in Sarasota at Bath & Racquet Club in a set up match. I was leading 3-love in the third when the opponent on the changeover feigned total exhaustion. I still remember the image of his body draped over a waist-high fence, as if he might quit the match. Guess what? The guy won four straight games! Down 3-4 in the third set on a very hot sunny day, I realized he was not nearly as tired as he pretended to be. I managed to change the momentum and won 6-4 in the third. But he had me totally flummoxed for those four games.

At another tournament, I was the defending champion for three years in a row in the 35s. So the tournament director was desperate to bring in a ringer to end my domination. This ringer was a big, strong guy and I noticed quickly he was playing the ‘tough guy’ routine. Then in the pre-match warm-up he actually tried to hit me TWICE with his practice overheads! And he gave a mean stare/smirk after. I sensed this coming and could only think of one quick reply. You have to have a reply of some sort to such an aggressive action. You can’t whine or cry about it, you have to fight fire with fire. So I spit toward his direction at the net, twice. And smiled back. Guess what? I won 62 60.

Intimidation definitely happens in tennis. I remember a father of a professional woman player who was still a teenager at the time told me about an African American veteran who tried to intimidate his daughter before their ITF Circuit match, walking by her and saying “I’m gonna kick your ass.” And this woman actually played at Wimbledon a few years earlier. I don’t remember who won but the victim of this trash talk never did make it into the top 200 though she did get a wildcard into US Open qualies a few years ago she lost 60 60 to China’s Ding Ding Yuan.

Mind games also come in clever verbal subtle attacks. Just recently I played a state champion age group player and I won in two very tough but straight sets. We bumped into each other a week later and he immediately tried to work his psyche out on me. “I just played a guy EXACTLY like you, runs everything down, gets everything back, and I lost the first set to him but then I won the next two love and love. But he plays exactly like you.” Translation: You beat me last week but I just beat you indirectly because I beat a guy who plays just like you. So next time we play, don’t be so confident because even though you beat me, I just found a way to beat a guy just like your style.

You have to have a comeback for every subtle put-down. So I told him this: “I have played a lot of guys who play like me and people think play like me. Like at the West Milford tournament final I played a guy in the final who people were saying was my carbon copy. And people were betting on me and on the opponent. But then we played the match and I won 60 60. Though it was a tough match, very tough long match with monotonous moonballs and looong probing rallies, I was able to win every game. Obviously these experts misread my game and could not tell we actually had noticeable differences in our styles.

Translation: You may think you can read my game to compare it to this guy you just beat but I can play different tactics and be unpredictable when necessary!

Another guy tried the bully approach in an open semifinal in Old Bridge NJ about fifteen years ago. We were deep in a third set when the opponent called out the score but he had it wrong. Again. This was the second or third time he called out a wrong score. Which I had to refute point by point. So I said, “How come every time you call the score wrong you always do it in your favor?” He erupted in a rage and charged at the net, yelling like a madman. You have to have a proper response. So I calmly stepped forward too and thought of what to say after he stopped yelling. “Hey, someone call the police, this guy is going to blow a gasket!” After a few more unmemorable words, things calmed down and I won the match in a third set tiebreaker. I still remember talking and laughing about it after with a Jamaican guy who was there watching. And that Jamaican guy turned out to be the father of Robin Anderson, who went on to star as a junior and UCLA standout. And over a decade later we talked and laughed again about it at US Open juniors when Anderson beat Laura Robson.

Even Roger Federer joked this year at the Australian after one of his second week wins, while chatting with Jim Courier on court, “…It’s all mind games…” Then Federer, went on to win the Australian Open title and the next two Masters Series titles beating Rafael Nadal all three times.

Yes, tennis is indeed a lot about physical action, tactics and fitness, but it’s also a lot of mind games too. Roger Federer even revealed this to us under a joking facade. Was Roger Federer mind gaming us too?!?

It’s not just about how a player serves and hits his or her groundstrokes under pressure. Tennis is also about mental and verbal and challenges and how we handle them.

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  • Chazz · May 16, 2017 at 11:27 am

    The one guy was calling you a pusher, Scoop. You’re not a pusher, are ya? :-)

    On a serious note, you are correct. The ability to improvise, change tactics and respond to what an opponent does is a big part of becoming a great player. I play (not quite as often as I’d like), but those few things are probably what I am admittedly lacking. I hate adjusting my game and it has cost me matches at times. Versatilty is huge.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 16, 2017 at 11:33 am

    Chazz; yes I am a pusher when it’s the right time to be :) – when the determination is made that the opponent hates slow loopy high balls. But I can also hit with good pace, hard enough to beat some standout college players and even a few who tried their hand at the pro circuit. Variety and unpredictability are invaluable assets for tennis!



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