1 Hour of Tennis Frustration: Advantage Gswede

After watching an exciting French Open final and being in the midst of Wimbledon, it’s a great moment to share my 2008 tennis battle with a Family Member (FM we’ll call him) as it provides three important lessons for any competition:

1) Knowing your opponent
2) NOT letting them play their game
3) Most importantly, WINNING

Last summer, FM challenged me to a hour of tennis. I was happy to oblige despite having played twice in the past 10 years. My game has frequently been good especially with opponents slightly above or at my talent level. I knew FM was a good athlete and performed well in many sports activities. Having golfed with him I saw his fundamental swing so I figured he would be the same in tennis, utilizing a solid and rhythmic forehand; just the type of opponent I prefer!

I was quite confident I could beat him so I did something I normally don’t do; I gave him a tip about my tennis game. I told him “I will be unlike anyone you have ever played in tennis”. He should have taken those words to heart.

The competition was on clay courts and it wasn’t long before I had him out of his rhythm. I frustrated him and took him out of the game he was used to playing. He later said, “I never played someone like you”. I didn’t allow him to hit one solid forehand during the match - a strategy I have perfected with players on my level.

I was comfortably ahead in games 5-3 and should have easily closed him out. Being extremely competitive, he impressively came back by winning three straight games – now up on me 6-5. I came back to claim victory 8-6 due to my consistent strategy and his numerous unforced errors. While I cannot reveal my frustration technique, I can say that had we played on a faster surface, the match wouldn’t have been as close.

FM is actually a better tennis player than me and has played many more times. He never developed what I like to call “an edge” (something unique to irritate an opponent) in tennis, instead focusing on the proper technique and a strong forehand. I have only played tennis against an opponent thirty times in my life (an average of once a year from when I began) so one could think that I would be easy to beat. One of the secrets to my success is that I took an abundance of tennis lessons in my teenage years before competing. Knowing that I wouldn’t play a lot of tennis as an adult due to a variety of other interests, I developed a game suited to winning instead of consistently improving. It has served me well.

I don’t condone this type of development (focusing on winning instead of improvement) but with secondary sports or pleasure sports, you might consider it if you want to win. My basketball years were spent solely on improvement so that I would reach my goal of obtaining a 4 year college scholarship. All other sports I have played (or will play) were developed with the single goal of giving me the best chance to win.

I stopped improving in tennis years ago yet because I took lessons early, can get to most balls, can effectively return shots and irriate by my style of play ; I can be competitive with most players. If one is a good athlete, tennis should come naturally. Imagine trying to play basketball, football, baseball or soccer thirty times in your life and trying to compete! Look at the Williams sisters in women’s tennis; they don’t even put all their efforts into tennis and still excel at a high level. Why? Athleticism.

My tennis strategy also allows me to occasionally compete with players who are very good. In 2007, I competed against a guy who had played consistently for 20 years and should have dominated someone like me. Instead I got off to a fast start winning the first few games as I knew my only hope was to get to him early. He easily adjusted (as expected) and went on to beat me. I was happy to compete and gain a bit of early success.

I have utilized my tennis strategy time and time again against players at my level and have NOT ONCE lost a match; in some cases completely thrashing opponents. My good friend living in DC knows this scenario well as we had an epic 1989 battle in Boston, a competition that I barely won. He was my toughest match and a worthy opponent although my unique style took him out of his normal element which gave me the slim victory.

If you want to compete in any sport, let’s expand the aforementioned (there are many more) 3 lessons:

1) Know as much about your opponent as possible. This could be the difference between winning and losing.

2) Develop a unique style or Master a small advantage that will frustrate and/or take your opponents out of their normal rhythm. The more discomfort you can provide for your opponent, the better your dividends will be for success. The focus should be on improving but you can improve and still develop an “edge”.

3) Have a Desire to Win – I like the quote, “If you aren’t the lead dog, the view is always the same”. I don’t know many people who like 2nd place.

FM may want to exact his revenge this summer and I will of course comply. There will be a good deal of pressure on me as he knows my game now and is in a good position to beat me. Will FM prevail? He might although Gswede will have another “trick up his sleeve” for round 2!

I often think of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" when competing in a sports battle. Below are two quotes followed by my comments:

“Every battle is won before it is ever fought”.
-- Sun Tzu
(For sports, this has everything to do with preparation, research and knowing your opponent thoroughly)

"All warfare is based on deception. If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight and if not: split and re-evaluate".
--Sun Tzu
(There is a bit of trickery in my tennis game and I try to avoid the very good tennis players but my competitive instinct often prevails. What has worked well for me is getting my opponent frustrated or angry and then pouring on high doses of irritation; once there, the end of the battle is a foregone conclusion.)

Remember, nothing takes the place of improving your skills in a particular sport with hard work and discipline. If you want to be the best, there is only one path to take. In addition, knowing your opponent thoroughly or as best as you can is vitally important as you can expose his/her weaknesses..........along with developing an edge. I’m not traditional in any of the sports I compete in currently and my years playing basketball were no exception. My edge in hoops was in my a) understanding the game better than most of my competition, b) maximizing my strengths (shooting-endless hours of practice on my jump shot) and c) playing a smart game in order to limit my weaknesses (height and quickness).

Some of the master irritators not surprisingly achieved spectacular results. The tennis great John McEnroe was a first class jerk on the court, typically yelling and screaming which frustrated his opponents. The Los Angeles Lakers basketball Coach Phil Jackson is very savvy in irking players and/or coaches by his sly comments to the media. Muhammad Ali often intimidated opponents by talking endlessly about how great he was – Sonny Liston found out first hand as Ali essentially won the fight before the match began. Tiger Woods is all business on the golf course and rarely acknowledges his opponent which gives him an edge. In addition, he always wears a red shirt on the final day (Sunday) of any tournament which is psychologically damaging to those trying to beat him. Michael Jordan could be your best friend off the court and your mortal enemy on the court.

Sports is all about RESULTS – would have, could have, should have won’t cut it.

Find that edge, develop that unique style or become a master of frustration for your opponent and you will most likely get better results.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

Gswede's family - Not a bad start to a Swedish summer!


Anonymous said...

To your point about Venus and Serena:

(Serena Williams fought back from the brink of a shock defeat to set up another Wimbledon final with her sister Venus after victory over Elena Dementieva in the longest women's semi-final in history)

With only half their heart in tennis, they still dominate. What other professional sport would that be possible in? None.

Anonymous said...

Tennis is one of those games like gold that you have to play and play and play to get decent… and you need to start early. Hoops is actually easier because you can rely purely on height and athletic ability to crush 99% of the population…

The Williams sisters are unbelievable… so smart and well spoken as well – that dad did something right.