5 lessons I learned from losing to a 65-year-old tennis veteran
I ended up dragging the net behind me, head bowed, shoulders slumped.
The green baseball cap covered my face.
I wish no one had seen me that day.
Fallen leaves from the trees barely brushed the outer line of the double corridor. I recognized my numerous skid marks piercing through those colorful leaves at number five heralding fall.
If I had received mileage allowance after this match, my pension application would have gone out that same day.
Did I play Richard Gasquet and Rafael Nadal at the same time?
No. It was worse.
After winning my first big title at the district championships, I had to play against Helmut at the club championships just a few days later.
He was 53 years older than me, wore his gray hair neatly in a side parting, sported large modern gray slim-rimmed glasses, and was fit for his age.
He had pulled his socks almost to his knees. His collared white shirt, unlike mine, was neatly tucked into his pants. He wore a red and black striped vest over it.
That was a hit back then.
I’ve known Helmut all my life. When I started swinging the racquet at the age of seven, he was one of the few club players who would stand on the court with me as a beginner to practice the forehand.
Again and again he came to my side, threw me a felt ball and corrected my backswing, grip and swing.
That’s probably why he also knew how to easily blow me off the field without even having to play a fast ball.
That day Helmut and I played the first round at the club championships. As a 12-year-old, hitting the forehand and backhand quite well, I played with the adults. Back then, Helmut was the icon in the club. Countless club championship titles shaped his display cabinets in the form of trophies. He’d seen just about everything a club player could experience on the tennis court.
Married men with a lot of cash in the bank, who mutated into crying children due to two devious forehands between the T and baseline – within three seconds.
Guys who completely overestimated themselves and their playing skills.
Great technicians who have won numerous titles just by putting their shots.
Moon Ball players , who also won numerous titles just by high balls to the opponent’s backhand.
He used all this experience, grinning contentedly again and again during our match, to get me out of the tournament without song or humour.
I now share with you the five lessons I took away from this crushing defeat. So that what happened to me doesn’t happen to you.
And so that you can learn a little bit more about our beloved sport.
1) A short slice should not be taken as an invitation to a winner
Helmut dealt with his slice like today’s youth deal with their lives:
He played a lot of backhand slice. From the defensive he kept chipping the forehand with a cut on the T-line.
What I couldn’t get between my two ears throughout the match:
I made an incredible number of mistakes on these short slice balls. When I say errors, I don’t mean directly errors in the network or in the off. I’m talking about tactical mistakes.
Want to play fast and straight with the forehand
Want to play long and placed
Stand still in the half field
These tactical mistakes opened up a comfortable situation for Helmut in the rally. He could send me right-left, throw in a stop or give me a long slice (again) in the backhand.
Mental Exercise : Take an aggressive stance when your opponent slices a lot. This doesn’t mean that you should run towards the ball screaming. An aggressive mental attitude towards the slow slice ball shows: You are hot for the ball. You do not underestimate the ball. You know you gotta get that ball. Quickly. A train of thought can be: “Ok, there’s the short slice. Take early steps, take small steps to the ball and get to the felt ball!”. Don’t hang around thinking that you can move slowly towards the ball because the ball is moving slowly in the air.
Helmut knew how to give me tasks that I could not solve. He didn’t have to shoot me off the field with hard punches.
Which leads us directly to the second lesson.
2) Anyone who can place the ball has a clear advantage
it looks nice
The hard-hitting forehand winner, played two centimeters over the net. Or the brute backhand longline.
But we club players are not Dominic Thiem or Stan Wawrinka. We make more mistakes than winners. And I learned from Helmut that it’s smarter to put the ball in a better place than to play a spectacular winner for the five spectators present.
Helmut did what many players fail to do:
He left his ego at home on the couch.
Like clockwork he placed his punches:
Serve long on my backhand
Stop against my running direction
Right, left, right – stop
Just writing makes me dizzy.
Similar to that time on the court. But that wasn’t enough. Due to the clever placement of his shots, he did not give me the chance to use my strengths in many phases of our match. Like the Bundesliga in 2020, my backhand longline (my parry shot) didn’t take place that day.
I was busy chasing the balls from Helmut.
He acted, I reacted.
3) Game intelligence beats destructiveness
The better player doesn’t always win in tennis.
You can play every single shot better than your opponent. That doesn’t mean that you also leave the court as a smiling winner, who can then receive the congratulations of the club members.
Why is that?
Because it’s not about bringing the bag with the most dangerous weapons. The dangerous weapons alone are not enough. It’s about bringing the bag with the right weapons to use dangerously.
That’s the key difference.
I was 53 years younger, faster, fitter and could hit forehand and backhand much harder than Helmut. I was able to get a lot more balls.
My serve was also quite good, despite my thin arms.
I had the bag with the dangerous weapons with me, but I couldn’t use any of these weapons. Mental training probably wouldn’t have helped either.
Helmut, on the other hand, had his slice and his eye for game situations. These two were the right weapons that he could then use dangerously on the court.
Little anecdote:Dragan used to play in our club. Dragan played first in our first men’s team in the association league. Dragan didn’t look like an athlete. He looked like a pensioner who had just come out of the pub after a morning pint. Beer belly, thick legs, unintentionally low center of gravity. He still won almost every single, although his opponents were athletically and playfully better. How did Dragan manage to leave the field as the winner most of the time? He played backhand slice, forehand straight, both two millimeters over the net and sent every opponent right-left. Thanks to his experience and anticipation, he saw where the opponent would play. He didn’t have to move much. He downplayed his game like a robot. His competition was powerless against his idiosyncratic style of play.
4) The weakness in the opponent’s game is at least as decisive as one’s own great strength
If you have brute basic strokes like Dominic Thiem, then you can keep your match plan simple. You can do anything to bring your strengths to the court.
His father Wolfgang explained this to me in this article here .
I’m assuming you’re not Dominic Thiem. Therefore, you should find out two elements within the first three service games:
What unique weakness does your opponent have? (example: backhand)
Which of your strengths can you use to constantly play on this weakness? (Example: Your forehand topspin )
In mental coaching talks, I experience again and again that many players are extremely busy with themselves during a match.
And that’s perfectly normal.
In addition to looking at your own game, the self-doubt and the numerous demons in your own head, a drop of attention should also be devoted to the opponent.
Because, and I have experienced this again and again:
One way to kill one of your own demons is often on the opponent’s side.
Opponent’s weaknesses can make you feel better. You don’t put him on a pedestal too much then. You get more ideas for your tactics in singles .
So my lesson from my match against Helmut was:
Don’t just stubbornly play your own game, but serve the opponent’s weaknesses with your own strengths.
5) A slice serve is more effective than a hard mid serve
Do you know that?
You serve the first serve badass. You then gently push your second service five centimeters behind the net.
If your first comes, that’s great. It is a good feeling. Nevertheless, from the middle of the first set your opponent hardly has any problems returning your projectile.
I learned from Helmut that a slice serve has numerous benefits:
Higher odds on first serve
The opponent finds it difficult to adjust to the serve
More options on the second serve
Higher self-confidence thanks to better odds
And, what I have to admit honestly:
It was difficult for me to return Helmut’s skillfully placed slice serve. Sometimes he put it long on my backhand, sometimes briefly to the outside when he served on the deuce side.
In tight situations he played his slice in the middle, so the ball turned right onto my body. I then had to move sideways on the return, which wasn’t easy for me.
Although I could serve harder, I didn’t get nearly as many service games as Helmut.
The uplifting conclusion
Never stop learning from other players.
Are you so stuck in your thinking that you think you can only learn something from professionals ?
Off to the ball wall with you.
You can learn something from every player. Even from those who play weaker you can learn how not to do it.
You can analyze the tactical mistakes of inexperienced players and remember what to avoid in the match.
You will be able to learn a lot about game intelligence from experienced warhorses from your club. Look at a senior doubles. You will see lots of feints, meanness and moves that you can adapt for your own game.
You can learn the high art of discipline in rallies from moon ball players.
I end this article with a quote from the grandiose psychologist Carl Gustav Jung :
“Everything that we dislike about others can lead us to better self-knowledge”.