Psychology: Art of the Start

Starting off a tennis match on the right foot can sometimes be a bit tricky, right? “Art of the Start” highlights the common issue of most players starting matches slowly.

It’s like trying to get a party started – you want to hit the ground running, but sometimes it takes a few songs to really get into the groove. That’s exactly how Rafael Nadal, with his unmatched energy and focus, gears up for his matches. He pumps up with a dynamic warm-up routine on court, making sure his heart is racing and ready to dive into the action from the get-go.

Now, thinking about my own experiences, I was always a bit of a detective during the warm-up and the early games, scoping out my opponent’s moves and play. Watching how they handle high balls, low balls; their movements up and down, side to side on the court; their service rhythm; and how keenly they watched the ball on various shots – it was all part of my strategy to be ready for if/when the match got tight.

But hey, getting off to a slow start? It’s more common than you’d think and can come down to a whole mix of things, including how we warm up to those jitters we feel when stepping onto the court. Let’s talk through some friendly tips on how to deal with slow starts:

1. Warm-Up Wisely
– Why It Matters: Jumping into a match without warming up is like trying to sprint without stretching – you might not get off to the best start. Your body needs a heads-up that it’s showtime, which helps with your reaction speed, agility, and getting those strokes just right.
– Friendly Fix: Let’s make your warm-up fun and effective. Think of it as your prematch party – some dynamic stretches, agility drills, and maybe a quick jog like Nadal to get that heart cheering for you.

2. Mind Over Matter
– What’s Up: Feeling butterflies before a match is totally normal, but they can throw off your game plan. Some athletes have been known to throw up just prior to competition because they have so much adrenaline. You might find yourself playing it too safe or slipping up in ways you wouldn’t normally do.
– Cool Calm Collected: Embrace some zen vibes and use some 4-7-8 breathing to calm your mind down. Find a routine that says, “I’ve got this” rather than “Don’t screw up” before you even step on court. In my case, I tried to spend a little time in the locker room on my own. Other players use music.

3. Tactical Talk
– The Deal: Even if you’ve faced this opponent before, starting without a plan can leave you reacting instead of proactively playing your game.
– Strategic Steps: Map out a basic game plan that plays to your particular strengths. Remember, it’s okay to tweak things as you go, but having a strategy from the start gives you a clear path to get the dance going.

4. Be Like Water
–  Challenge: Every match brings its own set of challenges, be it the wind, the sun, or an opponent who’s full of surprises. Just ask Sinner playing Medvedev in the AO final: Sinner looks up and Medvedev is up at the baseline, and then OMG he’s come into volley! The worried look on Cahill’s face was priceless–they had not anticipated the change in tactics. But Medvedev got tired and Sinner adapted.
– Go With the Flow: Get comfy playing in all sorts of conditions and against a variety of playing styles. Use your warm-up and those initial exchanges to pick up on any tidbits that might help you adapt your strategy on the fly.

Getting better at starting matches isn’t just about hitting balls; it’s about preparing your body, calming your mind, strategizing, and being ready to adapt.

And remember, tennis isn’t just a game of skills – it’s a dance of the mind and body. So, make every point count, right from the very first one!