Winning the Tiebreak

Next week begins our fall/winter league. Last year, my team ended up in sixth place out of ten teams. Not bad, but not so great, either.

Point-wise, there was a sizable spread between the first and last place teams. But having played those teams twice each, I noticed something interesting. Aside from a couple of big hitters, the skills of the first place team weren’t all that much different from those of the last place team. Everyone had game, but at the end of the season, one team had earned the right to play in a higher division this year, while the other team was going down.

I wondered what accounted for the wide gulf in results between these two comparable teams? At least some part of it–probably a large part of it–had to be mental.

I decided to spend a little time looking at my own team’s statistics. Out of 72 matches last season, my team played 25 super tiebreaks. (A super tiebreak replaces the third set in this league.) If you find yourself in a super tiebreak, your opponents aren’t blowing you off the court. You’ve already won a set. You obviously have the skills to win the match. Whether or not you do is mostly mental.

Those 25 super tiebreak matches could have gone either way–they were winnable matches. We won 9 of them and lost 16. If we flipped those numbers–if we had won 16 and lost 9–we’d have finished the season in second place, only a single point behind the winner.

This is a no-brainer. We need to win more tiebreaks this year. But how do we do it? For some ideas, I turned to Winning Ugly, Brad Gilbert’s classic book on the mental aspect of tennis.

Here’s what Gilbert advises:

  • Take your time. The tiebreak is a compressed set, where the consequences of unforced errors are magnified. Pay attention to your tempo to avoid mistakes that arise from rushing.
  • Mentally separate the tiebreak from the set you just played. Take a moment to hit your mental re-set button. Think about your game plan before you begin.
  • At the beginning of the tiebreak, focus on playing clean, steady tennis. Don’t try to force winners.
  • Try to win the first two points of the tiebreak. If you can secure that early mini-break, your opponent may feel pressure to go for bigger shots–and may start donating points.
  • Stick with whatever was successful in getting you to the tiebreak. Now isn’t the time to try new strategies or shots you don’t own.
  • When you have a nice lead, don’t get tentative, hoping your opponent just hands you the match. Continue to play to win.
  • Pay extra attention to what Gilbert calls the “set-up point.” This is the point before a deciding point. In a regular game, a set-up point could be 30-15. In a super tiebreak, the set-up point is 8-5, say, or 8-2. If you win the set-up point, you’ll be on the brink of winning the match. Don’t let your guard down on a set-up point. Play clean, focused, and controlled tennis.

I’ll add two thoughts to Gilbert’s superb advice. One, if you held a significant lead in the match and the opponents turned things around to force the tiebreak, I think you better try a different strategy. Don’t keep losing the same way.

And two, practice tiebreaks. It’s hard to recreate the pressure of a league match when you’re just playing with friends, so consider putting something at stake. Maybe the loser buys the winner a can of tennis balls or has to do ten pushups.

(I won the tiebreak in my social match today, so I’m feeling cavalier about imposing push-ups on the loser. Next time I lose, I’m sure I’ll be singing a different tune…)

Do you get tight in tiebreaks? Do you have any tricks for winning them?

4 thoughts on “Winning the Tiebreak

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  1. This is a very helpful article. Super tie breaks are always something we are afraid of as the match can go either way easily.

  2. It’s fascinating how our minds can get in the way — in many pursuits. I love Gilbert’s advice for how to handle it and your improvements to that advice. Taking your time and the mental separation seem key. I find that I feel some pressure to keep things moving, to make the pace match the mental intensity — and then I just push myself to do things like serve when I’m not really ready or hit a toss that isn’t as good. It is definitely mental!

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