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How to Play Against (and Hopefully Beat!) Better Tennis Players – Tennis Quick Tips Podcast 168

By Kselz @TennisFixation

Let's get really real in this episode. Let's talk about what you can really do when you face a better player on the tennis court. Because it's inevitable that that will happen if you are playing tennis with a variety of players on a regular basis. So, what are some tips, tactics, strategies, etc. to help us face, and maybe even overcome, the situation of playing against a better tennis player? You can listen to this episode by clicking on the media player in this post or by listening in with your favorite podcast app. You can also subscribe in iTunes by clicking on this link:

How to Play Against (and Hopefully Beat!) Better Tennis Players – Tennis Quick Tips Podcast 168


I received an email quite a while ago from Tennis Quick Tips listener Laureen and it really stuck with me. She asked about an Episode 153 of Tennis Quick Tips which was called What To Do When You're the Weak Link on the Tennis Court. In that episode, I tried to answer the question of another listener, Cheryl, who had emailed me, wondering how to deal with her partner who had insinuated that she needed to step up her game because she was the weak player out on court. I talked about three different scenarios where one partner might indicate to the other that he or she was the weak link and how you might deal with that often uncomfortable and awkward situation. I'll put a link to that episode in the show notes for this episode so you can easily find it if you'd like to listen in.

Anyway, after listener Laureen listened to Episode 153, she sent me an email asking for me to further address the problem. Here's what Laureen had to say in her email:

Though I agree with most of your recommendations in that episode, what I really want to know is what you can do as a player when you really are the weakest player on the court. There are times when one person on the court is indeed a less skilled player than the others. Perhaps they're subbing in for a more experienced player, maybe they're playing "up" or simply having a bad day. Whatever the reason, if I'm playing poorly on a particular day then what are some strategies I can rely upon to hold up my end of the team? Moreover, if I'm that person's partner, what can I do as the "picked upon person's partner" to help compensate? Thanks in advance, Laureen

So Laureen raises a great issue - what can you actually do when you're the weaker player on court facing a better tennis player or team? How do you play against, and hopefully have a chance at beating, a better player?

Tennis is a Zero Sum Game

The reality of tennis is that it is a zero sum game - meaning one person or team wins and the other person or team loses. There are no ties in tennis. Everyone can't be a winner. Every single match has one winner and one loser. We know this.

We also know that every tennis player has different skills, different strengths and weaknesses. And when you put two players up against each other for a singles match, or you have two teams playing each other in a doubles match, before the match even starts, one person or team is going to be stronger than the other. Maybe statistically speaking. Maybe rankings-wise. Maybe based on past history. One person or team is perceived to be worse than the other. Just slightly worse, perhaps, but worse none the less.

But the good news is that it is not always the better person or team who wins in tennis! You probably have seen that in your own matches. I know I have. I've come up against players that are much stronger than me and somehow managed to win. I've also played many players who I fully expected to win against for any number of reason and then, sometimes embarrassingly, have suffered a loss. In fact, that just happened to me last week. But let's not get off track and start talking about that match.

And that's part of what makes tennis so fun! The "better" player doesn't always win! Every time you play, every match you play, there is always a chance it can go your way.

So let's talk about how to play against better tennis players and what you can do to hopefully win more points off of them and increase your chances of winning.

1. Don't overthink it.

First - do NOT overthink it. So you're about to play a better, stronger player. How do you know they're better and stronger? You've obviously gotten some information somewhere. So you're already thinking about it. Already thinking, "I can't beat this better player!" But don't let it get to you! Don't start thinking about this better, stronger player to the point where you psych yourself out of the match before you even step on court.

2. Play to your strengths.

Play to your strengths. You should be doing this in every match you play but especially when you are coming up against a stronger player. So what does this mean? It means you have to actually take some time to think about your game. Off the court, before you get out there. Spend some time analyzing how it is that you play. What do you do well? What do you like to do? What are your best shots? How can you set yourself up to have an opportunity to hit those shots?

Too many of us just show up on the tennis court and just start playing. We never spend time off court thinking about how we play. So do that. You can do it on your own, by thinking about matches you've already played. Or you can do it by talking to others, maybe to your tennis coach or to team mates. Just make sure you are aware of your own game and what it is you are good at.

Then, when you're in a match, try to play so that you get an opportunity to do the things you do well often. For example, if you like to volley, set yourself up to get into the net and volley. If you're a great lobber, make sure you are using your lob. Don't just react to what your opponent is doing. Have a plan of action that puts your on-court strengths to work.

3. Find their weakness and take advantage.

Next, find your opponent's weakness. Just as you would with any other opponent, look for that stronger player's weakness. Look, most of you are just like me, playing club level tennis, and most of you won't come up against players who have absolutely no weaknesses.

Maybe your opponent avoids their backhand so you get it to their backhand. Maybe their serve is super weak so you pound them with your return. Maybe they just don't move well so you move the ball around, hitting side to side and short and deep. Maybe they're tired and want to end points quickly so you just keep getting the ball back.

And things could change during your match so you have to keep probing. They may start out one way but then as the match wears on, start breaking down. So you have to always be looking for that chink in their armor and take advantage of it any way you can.

4. Mix it up with your tennis shots.

So Tip No. 2 was to play to your strengths. But that doesn't mean you keep hitting the same shots over and over. If you love hitting your slice backhand volley, that's great but that might not be the shot you get to hit over and over throughout your tennis match.

You're probably going to have to mix it up on your shots and keep your opponent guessing. So try hitting soft and slow AND hard and fast. Hit lobs AND drop shots. Hit your serve all over the box, not just to the same predictable serve over and over. I personally find it extremely irritating when my opponents not only mix it up, but do things on the court that really make no sense or are completely unexpected. Be that player - the one that keeps your opponent from getting into their groove.

5. Mix it up with your strategy.

When you're playing a better player, you can start with your usual Plan A. strategy-wise. But if that's not working, you may need to put Plan B into action. Which means that you have to have a Plan B. I did a whole podcast on this in Episode 90 which is called What is Your Plan B for Your Next Tennis Match? and I'll include a link to that in the show notes for this episode.

The gist of that episode is that you need to be constantly evaluating what is happening in your match and when your usual strategy isn't working, which it very well may not be against a better player, you've got to be mentally tough and ready to change. You have to be willing to say: "My game that I like to play isn't working, or the game that my partner and I like to play isn't working, and we need to change something quickly."

I know it's a hard thing if you are someone who likes to play a certain way, if you like to be aggressive and come into the net, or if you're someone who likes to stay back and play moon balls and lobs, it can be hard to go against what your natural tendency is or to just go against the way that you like to play.

But you have to be ready to do that. You've always got to be ready to change things up and put Plan B into effect. You can't just go out on court and not think about what is happening out there. You've got to be aware of what's happening and, if you're not winning points, be ready with a backup plan, even if it means playing a style of tennis that you really don't like to play, or putting into effect a formation that isn't necessarily the strongest formation, or whatever change it is that you need to try.

And if THAT doesn't work, be ready to try Plan C. Have several plans ready to go!

6. Stay calm.

Stay calm. This is true in any match but is especially important in those matches against better players. And this relates back to the very first tip which was not to overthink it. The way I like to think of it is this - if I'm playing a truly better player or team, what have I got to lose? I can only go out on court and give it my best. By remaining calm, I can avoid mentally undermining myself.

So how does one do this? It's easy to just say "stay calm" without giving any specifics, isn't it? Like, how do I do this? How do I stay calm in high-stress tennis situations? I'll just tell you that this is a big can of worms to open. It is definitely a topic for a whole podcast episode or even a whole series of episodes so I'll try and address that soon! But the bottom line is, you will always play better tennis if you can take a deep breath, relax and keep some perspective about what you're doing. You're playing a game that's supposed to be fun after all. So stay calm and cool and keep putting those other tips into practice.

What If You Don't Beat The Better Player?

Now - let's get really, really real. Those six tips are all useful, they're legitimate, and they will definitely help you have a fighting chance against a better player. Heck, they'll help you play better tennis against ANY player.

But here's the reality and you may not like this. when you're the weaker player or team on the court, when you're playing someone who is just a flat-out better player, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to beat that player. I am sorry to say this but I do not have the magic formula or any super secret tips that are going to help you consistently beat better players. If you put the six tips I gave to work, I believe you may win points off a better player, you may win games off a better player, and you might even win a match off a better player. But unfortunately, that isn't going to happen every time or even a lot of times.

Now, I know that many of you are not happy to hear that. I know you listen to this podcast because you want to play better tennis and you want to beat better players! And, if you put those six tips to work, it might happen. I know this because it has happened for me. I myself played a doubles match a few months ago where my partner and I had to use all of those tips just to get through the match. We worked very hard to beat a team that we knew were consistently winning their line in our league. And that was a huge win for us - incredibly satisfying. But it took A LOT. Not just a lot of hitting great shots but a lot of communicating, strategizing and just hard thinking to try and overcome what we were facing. It took a willingness to put aside out usual game plan and try some things that were very different from what we were normally comfortable doing. And, frankly, I think it also took some luck. And that one match, that's the only time I can remember beating a team that I absolutely knew to be a better team in doubles. And I certainly have never beat a better player than me in singles.

So if you think that after listening to this podcast, you are going to be consistently beating players who are better than you, I am sorry to tell you that you most likely are not.

But . . . that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.!That doesn't mean you should throw in the towel on tennis because you'll never beat anyone who is better than you. As famous French tennis player Rene Lacoste once said about fellow French player and former No. 1 Henri Cochet:

Henri Cochet can beat everybody when his shots are working. and be beaten by everybody when they are not.

So it can happen! Rene Lacoste and I both believe you can and will beat better players! And you've got to be ready and up for those matches. Not dreading them but anticipating them and looking forward to them!

That's it for this week's Tennis Quick Tip. I hope you'll get out on court and put this stuff into play. And then let me know how it goes. You can leave your comment by going to the show notes for this episode which you can find at

Thanks so much for listening and, as always, Happy Tennis!


Check out these episodes of Tennis Quick Tips for more helpful information:


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How to Play Against (and Hopefully Beat!) Better Tennis Players – Tennis Quick Tips Podcast 168

© Kim Selzman 2019 All Rights Reserved

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