Wednesday, 18 April 2012

No Quarter Given

At some point in one's playing experience, no... I should say, often enough in one's competitive life we come up against an opponent who, everyone around the court, expects to win, the opponent expects to win, and maybe within ourselves, we expect it too.

When we are playing this kind of match, there are basically two scenarios, one is that the opponent is far enough ahead of us in level of play that the outcome really is a foregone conclusion, the opponent doesn't really have to sweat, and will still win comfortably. 

The second scenario is when the opponent should by all rights win, but they will have to work for it. It's not a cakewalk, they will have to run and sweat. But if the opponent plays to their potential, then a win is very very good bet. 

And this is where we step in today, considering our mental tenacity, when we're expected to lose.

So let's go look in on a match that Billy had last week. Billy was at the club, he had finished one hour of cardio exercise in the fitness centre, and had been on the court alone, practicing strokes for about 20 minutes when Wilson came in.

Now Wilson is the new top gun in town, having recently arrived. And except for the very best two or three players in the club, Wilson has been pretty much tearing through the rest of the players the local area has to offer. Nobody has been able to cope effectively with his speed around the court, his youthful fitness, and his power game, hitting low drives from all over the court, straight and crosscourt.

As it turns out Wilson was meeting up with another player named Marshall, but since Marshall wasn't expected to arrive for awhile, Wilson and Billy started to knock the ball around together.

Up to now, Billy and Wilson haven't been on the same court together. Billy has seen Wilson play, and watched Wilson win against a number of mates, and he's seen Wilson lose to the Club's top player. So Billy while not having played Wilson, does have some ideas. Specifically, Billy wanted to keep the rallies from becoming a fest of power drives, low drives, and more kill drives.

In the first game, it can be said, that Billy having had a significantly longer warmup, was the more accurate, and that told the difference, as he took the first game. But Wilson wasn't really far off the mark, the score was close. And Wilson was, near the end of the game, showing why he was the expected winner.

In the second game, Wilson really stepped up, was more accurate, and was pretty much dominating the rallies, Billy was pretty much reactive the whole time. The only thing that helped Billy get into the rallies was his return of serve. He was pretty steady in getting the ball straight and deep, which at least got the rally started well. 

Once the rally got started though, Wilson's low driving game was pushing Billy all over, side to side, and towards the back a lot. The speed was pretty much overwhelming Billy at this point, and his trajectory was pretty much the same as Wilson's, staying below the service line. 

Billy's accuracy down the sides was still pretty good, and thus he was staying in the rallies for awhile, but except for Wilson's occasional errors, Billy was hard pressed to actually get ahead in the rallies and put any pressure on Wilson. So the second game went to Wilson, and it was pretty clear that Wilson had the edge.

Over the interval, Billy recognized that he had fallen in to the trap of playing along in Wilson's driving game, and that he had not done much to take the ball out of Wilson's comfort zone. So going into the third game Billy set his mind to working the ball higher, keeping the rallies moving around, and not allowing the ball to stay low.

This shift in Billy's approach, one could say, took Wilson by surprise, and allowed Billy to get a decent lead in the scoreline. Early in the game Billy was keeping the ball higher, this resulted in Wilson's error rate going up, as he tried to hit winners or high pressure drives from a higher contact point. Additionally, with hitting power drives from a higher contact point meant that his shots actually became a bit more playable for Billy, slightly less pressuring. 

Wilson did adjust and started getting the better of the rallies, but the initial lead that Billy had built up, was just enough to sneak home in extra points.

The fourth game started out much like the second, Wilson creating decent pressure with drive serves, Billy getting into the rallies with good length service returns. But Wilson gradually built up a lead, as Billy couldn't keep the ball up in the rallies, allowing Wilson to keep the ball low and fast.  

And this is where the learning takes place. At this moment, down 2-7 in the fourth game, starting to feel the tiredness, the muscles are getting sore, the shots losing their accuracy, and the opponent becoming more confident, more assured, this is when a player has to decide: 'Am I going to give this away, or am I going to Give No Quarter, and make the opponent win this game the hard way?'

Billy chose at that moment, that he was not going to let the game just 'slip away'. Billy reminded himself of his strategy for countering Wilson's power game. Which was to keep the ball up, taking every one of Wilson's power drives and hitting it up on the front wall. 

In the end, the game still went to Wilson, 11-9. But he had sweated, he had run, and his muscles were probably burning a bit with the effort. But most importantly, Wilson had felt Billy's resolve. He encountered Billy's mental strength. Billy sticking with his game, keeping the ball up, kept Wilson out of his comfort zone, had elicited weak shots that he was able to put away, and really had won the second half of that fourth game.

Going into the fifth game, Billy's legs were really feeling it now. The hour of cardio in the fitness centre, and the first four games had taken their toll. Wilson once again got a lead, 6-2. And once again, Billy had to make a choice, let the match slip away, or not. Giving way, would have been fair enough, Wilson seemed to be moving well, he was focused, and Billy's legs were feeling sore whichever way they moved, and that meant getting to the ball every so slightly late, and thus Billy's shots didn't have the accuracy or lift that he needed.

But rather than let it slip away, Billy committed to leaving everything on the court, if he loses, he loses, but he'll know that he gave his all, on the night. Billy focused on his shots. He didn't think about running, didn't think about how to hit the ball higher, he just thought about where he wanted the ball to go. 

Billy did well, running, chasing, keeping the ball in play, keeping it up, attacking when the weak shot presented, Billy had the momentum, he got back to 8-9. But then, an errant shot, gave Wilson the easy kill, and now it was 8-10. And once again Billy had a choice, tired and sore, it's no disgrace now to lose. He's shown the mettle from which his competitive fire is forged. It would be easy to accept that now the game belongs to Wilson. 

But Billy, having come this far, twice already having made the conscious decision to make every shot force Wilson one more further. Yes, an error off Billy's racket will give the game away, but Billy practices regularly, he trusts his shots. So he's going to make sure that Wilson wins the game with good play, nothing less. With each serve, and serve return, Billy reminds himself of his objectives, what does he want to do with the serve, and what he wants to do in the rally.

The fifth game went to extra points, and in the end Billy went to the showers with another win in the books. 

The take away here:

Often things are not equal between opponents, but when one player decides that no quarter will be given, that can often make up the difference, and then some.

Focus on the one or two things that you can do, to counter the opponent's shots that pressure you. Many times, just dulling the opponent's attack, is enough to disrupt their game, so that they begin to doubt themselves. When you have your opponent questioning their own game, you've created an advantage for yourself. Now the difference between you and the opponent, is likely negligible, and the match now winnable. 

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