The Time Is Now

You've seen Sharapova do this a thousand times.  She turns her back to the court and fiddles with her strings.  Then, she abruptly turns and starts walking to the baseline, making a little skip as she goes.  Every damn point.  If her strings are loose, can't she go to her bag, where ten new ones wait, and get another?  No, her strings are fine.  It's her head that she's tuning, getting ready for the next point.  The ritual is her own, but she's not alone as a pro in using one between points, precisely that interval of time when all players stand a good chance of losing their concentration and hurting their play.

I'm not sure if it's true, but I once heard that, on average, out of every hour in a tennis match, forty-five minutes is spent not playing.  The points go quickly, then we're picking up balls, getting back to the baseline, or worse, changing ends of the court on the odd-numbered games.  In those intervals, our minds can go to Mars and back, and the jaunts that we take range from the banal:  "God, Eduardo's sounds great for lunch today," to the suicidal:  "Man, I can't believe I double-faulted on game point!" an error that occurred a half-hour ago in the previous set.   Every leap into the future or descent into the past is a loss of concentration that sets you up for a loss.

Create a ritual that occupies the down time between points, and you can focus your concentration.  First, get rid of the previous point, good or bad.  Turning your back on the court can be a great way to do this.  Then, control your breath.  You may be panting from a long point or not breathing because of a disappointing one.  Take deep breaths through your nose, exhale through your mouth.  When you feel relaxed, you're ready to think about the only thing you can plan:  the first stroke of the point.  Remind yourself of the score.  If you're up, it may be right to plan an aggressive stroke; if you're down, maybe plan a more conservative one.  Once you've made your decision, imagine it:  a flat serve, right to the T, for example.  Then hit the ball.  If you get good at this, you can fill up every second of the down time and stay right in the present, where you need to be to win.

c Keith Shein