Overcoming a tennis slump
Tennis is a funny game built on a foundation of repetitive motion. Improving your game involves hitting the same shot over and over. Thousands of backhands in practice or in matches. Hours on the court delivering serves to the same location. Mind-numbingly repetitive, programming the body to do this thing well on a pretty constant, even basis. But tennis is no algorithm, and you are no machine. Or maybe you are a machine, one prone to malfunction, error and bouts of self-pity. Practice as hard as you want, as long as you want, and the Great Felt Ball in the sky will still laugh at you. You will hit a tennis slump.
The Oxford English dictionary defines slump, in the sporting sense, as ” A period of substantial failure or decline.” I prefer to think of a slump as something viral, flu-like, that shows up every so often for no particularly good reason and disappears not through medication but dedication.
During a tennis slump you will shank shots that you normally strike with ease. You will miss first serves and hit pitifully weak second serves for fear of double faulting. You will double fault anyways, precisely because your serves were so timid and weak. You will overthink points and play dull, defensive tennis. You will question everything about your game. Eventually, you will consider hanging it all up, selling your racquets on eBay and taking up pickleball. But eventually, through pure will and court time, it will get better.
Pros, they’re just like us
The idea for this article came while watching the Federer/Nadal Miami Open final and thinking about our friend Novak Djokovic, who, as any casual tennis fan knows, is undergoing his own very acute and ongoing slump. One finds it nearly incomprehensible that someone so singularly talented, who practices for hours a day, can suffer such a significant dip in his game. Ignoring the noted zaniness of Novak’s diet, including the well-founded rumor that he experimented for a time last year with an all-liquid diet, I don’t think we can point to any real physical issues. With Novak, as with mortal players, the slump is mental.
Beating a tennis slump
Realizing that 90+ percent of the time the tennis slump is in your head, the best way to fight the slump is by overcoming the mental blocks. If you have a great deal of money and a willingness to suspend disbelief while cuddling teddy bears and dreaming about levitation you could hire Pepe Imaz, Novak’s spiritual guru. For the rest of us, changing our expectations and changing our routines can dig us a great deal of the way out of the slump.
When Federer and Nadal returned to the tour earlier this year, they didn’t arrive with the goal of immediately winning championships. Instead, they came with specific, more achievable goals in mind: serving well through an entire match, regaining their mental acuity, putting together a complete game again. Yes, I realize this analogy is flawed by the fact that both men went on almost immediately to compete for championships, but I assure you that was not their most pressing goal. Similarly, Juan Martin del Potro returned last year not with the expectation to win, but with the expectation to test out the resilience of his reconstructed wrist. These are largely injury recoveries, but the point is the same: When going through a slump, set the bar lower by aiming for specific performance-based objectives. Setting out to win a weekend USTA tournament is nightmare-inducing if you’ve spent the three previous weeks shanking serves into the back fence. Instead say something like “My goal this tournament is to stay in the long rallies” or “I will hit a high percentage of first serves in.” By taking away the pressure to win the match, you can play freely and avoid putting too much pressure on yourself.
Most of our tennis lives revolve around some sort of routine. Weekly round-robin events. Men’s or women’s nights. Seasonal USTA leagues. Tournaments. When you’re used to performing a certain way in these events, a tennis slump proves extra demoralizing. Not only are you playing awfully, you’re playing awfully in front of friends (or enemies … anyone else have on-court enemies?). This leads to embarrassment, which leads to increased pressure, which just fuels the slump cycle. So break the routine. Playing on a different day or different time with a different group of people injects variety into your play while taking you out of higher pressure situations. In some cases a slump is driven by boredom (Novak was almost certainly bored at the end of 2016), and a new venue certainly changes that. You could also change your practice style slightly, concentrating on a new shot or new angles. When facing a slump, the temptation is to double down on what you know best, drilling for hours on that flailing backhand or trying extra hard during a match. But this only serves to raise the pressure and will lead to frustration and smashed racquets when it doesn’t work. Changing routines — whether in match venue or practice style — inserts variety that keeps the game interesting and lowers the stakes. You’ll come out of a tennis slump sooner by having fun with the game than by staying frustrated with poor play.
Coming out of a tennis slump is hard and almost certainly frustrating, but by changing expectations and shifting routines, you can reduce the pressure and increase the variety in ways that will help you return to peak performance sooner than by doubling down on bad habits. Try these tactics before springing for a new racquet or picking up pickleball. And remember, if all else fails, heckle your enemies.