by: Pete Sampras, Playing editor with Alexander McNab
Goals, guidance, fitness and improving strokes are the key to continuing success
THIS MIGHT SOUND WEIRD, BUT IT'S GOOD TO LOSE A tennis match. Losing can help you make winning a habit. You learn what you did wrong. From there, you can figure out what you need to work on - your shots, your strategy, your mental approach, your fitness or a combination of some or all of those elements.
As a junior, sure, I loved winning more than losing, but if I lost it wasn't the end of the world. That changed after I became a professional athlete. It took a couple of tough losses for me to learn that I really hate to lose. In the wake of those losses, I've become a much more consistent winner.
The first such loss was to Goran Ivanisevic in the 1992 Wimbledon semi-finals. I was getting close to the title, but I needed to prove to myself that I could win the big one. Then I lost the 1992 US Open final to Stefan Edberg. I was really upset. That match ate away at my gut for months, until I won my first Wimbledon in 1993.
I hated the feeling of losing those matches. And I don't know that I would have said that five years ago. But I can say it now. It took losses like those to find in myself the drive to win.
Once you get over the hump, winning breeds winning. You get in the habit of believing in yourself. One thing that separates the top players from guys ranked, say, in the 50s, is that there comes a crucial time in most matches, say at 3-all or 4-all, when the top player will raise his level just enough to win.
A lot of it is reputation. I've won a ton of matches on reputation alone. When you are perceived as a winner, your opponent gets tight. Plus, you have the experience of winning more matches; you know what to do in the crunch. For example, if it's break point, maybe I'll run around my backhand and smack a forehand because I know my opponent won't want to double fault and he'll take something off his serve. You develop the attitude, "I'm favored to win, and I'm going to win, no matter what it takes." Expect to win, and you'll win more often.
To be a Habitual Winner
You need goals. For me, reaching No.1 was important, but it was almost secondary. My long-term goal, ever since I was a junior, has been to win the major championships, especially Wimbledon. When you look back at the greatest players of all time, you look at the number of Grand Slam titles they won. That's how I get motivated and stay motivated. For you, a goal may be winning the club championship. Take a long-term approach. Set some interim goals for yourself, but never lose sight of your ultimate objective. Working to reach it will help you be a better winner.
You also need motivation within a match. What works for me can work for you. When I'm losing, I always tell myself, "I'm not going to give this give the satisfaction of beating me." That's what I think, and I'll do whatever it takes to win. Even if I win ugly, it's fine, because I've achieved my goal.
Get Good Advice
HAVING GOOD, SUPPORTIVE PEOPLE, friends, family, coach, trainer - around you is essential to making winning a habit. Your coach or teaching pro is key. You need someone who has an eye for seeing what you're doing when you cannot see it.
When I first started working with Tim Gullikson, he made it clear he wasn't going to make any drastic changes in my strokes, but he did pick up on several minor things in my game that needed work. For instance, I had a problem playing against lefties. Tim and I were just getting going when he watched me play Guy Forget and Henri Leconte in the Davis Cup. He noticed that I stood to receive serve like I was playing a righty. Before the 1994 Wimbledon final against Goran Ivanisevic, Tim reminded me of that and told me to stand further back and more to my left to take away Goran's best serve, the wide slice to my backhand. It worked, and my record since then against lefties has really improved. Tim also noticed that when it comes to a pressure situation, my toss may not get out into the court far enough, so that's something I'm always working on. A sharp eye for details like those is where a coach can make a winning difference.
A good coach is not only someone who knows your game, but also someone you communicate well with and some you respect and like. Paul Annacone has been a friend since I joined the tour at age 17, and when Tim became ill, we all decided Paul should help out for a while because he meets all of those qualifications. The results of Paul's advice speak for themselves.
BEFORE I STARTED WORKING WITH TIM, I used to flake off a lot and not practice that hard. I still get bored after a couple of hours. So Tim said, "Let's bust butt for an hour and a half, then hit the golf course. But in those 90 minutes, practice like you're playing a match." I never had that attitude before, and it's tough to do. But it works. Make it short and sweet. An hour of working hard is better than working for three hours but just going through the motions.
Here's my practice routine when I'm preparing for a tournament:
In the morning I'll work on some specific technical stuff. For example, the accuracy of my serve is a direct result of focused practice. I set up pyramids of tennis balls as targets: down the middle, into the body (a serve I'm trying to us more) and in the wide corners. There's a little luck involved, but if you practice enough, eventually you'll begin hitting the targets.
Then in the afternoon, I'll play sets with someone. That's when you should do things that you're not comfortable doing in a match, because that's how you're going to get better. In those sets, for example, I'll serve and volley more on my second serve. While I like to win even in practice, I won't back off trying something different just for the sake of winning those sets. The goal is to add something new to my game that will help me win matches that matter.
Get in Shape
Do Tennis-specific training - mine often has included medicine ball tosses for serve and ground stroke strength.
TALENT ALONE IS NOT GOING to get you to the top. It helps, but you also need hard work. One key to winning is staying healthy, which has been a problem for me at times. You've got to be in good overall shape, but you need tennis-specific fitness too. What happened at the 1994 US Open is an example. After injuring my ankle at the Davis Cup match in Holland right after winning Wimbledon that summer, I didn't play for five weeks. I rode the exercise bike, so I was in good aerobic shape. But I wasn't in good tennis shape. At the Open, my body hit a wall; I wasn't prepared to go more than three sets. I could have done the Tour de France better than I could play five sets.
In my years as a pro, I've done everything: lifting, biking, medicine-ball throws both overhead for the serve and from the right and left sides for trunk work for ground strokes, tennis-specific back-and-forth footwork drills with cones. You have to find what works best for you. You also might need help. To this day, I feel I need someone to get me going, to push me when I don't feel like working out. My current program of manual strength training, with Todd Snyder providing the resistance, is a little less rigorous when I'm not in a tournament, but more ambitious during an event. It's kept me injury free and kept me winning.
Source: Tennis World, MAY 1996