Playing the Score

Have you ever hit a loose return wide, only to realize that it was game point? Or netted a would-have-been-so-amazing drop-volley to give your opponent set point?

Many players go through a developmental phase of struggling with score awareness. Two issues cause problems during this phase–understanding the significance of the score and choosing the right shot.

I’ve certainly had my share of bone-headed moments. I can completely space out when it comes to score awareness–not just what the actual score is, but how that point ought to be played. But it’s happening less often these days, partly due to simple experience but mostly due to the advice of Trisha Judge, one of the coaches for my team.

One day during practice, probably after one of us had flubbed a shot, Trisha began talking about playing the score. What she said sounded so obvious I couldn’t believe I’d never thought about it before.

Trisha gave the example of serving at 0-15. It doesn’t feel like a big deal–but it is. What happens on the next point determines whether you go down in a big hole or pull even. You need to take that score seriously.

Each game is filled with these quietly crucial moments. You know you don’t want to be down 30-40, so how do you avoid getting there? Rather than relaxing when you’ve pulled even at 30-30, you have to recognize that score as the hidden tipping point it is.

Of course, every point is important, and you can’t play the entire match with alarms going off in your head. But with practice, Trisha says, you’ll begin to develop a calm awareness of the relative weight of each score.

Being aware of the score is only half the battle. The other half is knowing what to do at each of these junctures.

“At critical moments in a match, you want to play high percentage tennis,” Trisha says. “Stick with your cross-court shots. You want to force your opponent to make the error.”

Trisha emphasizes that playing high-percentage tennis doesn’t mean pushing the ball. Aim for big targets over the lowest part of the net, but hit a solid shot.

As for the screaming down-the-line winners and cute drop-shots? Save them for when you’re up 40-15.

How’s your score awareness? What about matches when you’re getting crushed–do you go for broke then? (Also, what’s the deal with the score in the photo? I’m not sure how I’m supposed to play THAT score.)

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