Mental Skill to Win Close Matches is More Important Than Ever


For me, this has been the most enjoyable first 2 rounds of a Grand Slam I’ve ever seen. The matches have been incredibly competitive.

There is one thing that’s clear as we begin 2024...The gap between the best and worst in professional tennis is closer than ever and so winning close matches has never been a more important skill than it is right now. This means hanging in when faced with adversity, taking opportunities when you have them, and recovering from missed opportunities as needed. 

There is simply much more competition. Players are regularly playing into their late 30’s. Suddenly teenagers are relevant at the highest level again. There are more countries than ever producing top 100 players. 


Consider this... 


There have been a record 8 men’s matches go 7-6 in the 5th set.


In yesterday’s 16 men matches, unbelievably, only 1 was won in straight sets. On the women’s side 10 of 16 matches went 3 sets, 7 of 16 matches were won by the lower ranked player, and the 3rd and 5th seeds were beaten, with the 1st seed having to come back from 4-1 (double break) down in the 3rd. This results pattern would have been unheard of just a few years ago.   

Because there are going to be more close matches, where more matches will be decided by a few crucial points, the following skills become more vital: 


Hanging in When Faced With Adversity/Taking Opportunities When They Present


Due to the closeness of matches there have been so many crucial moments where the eventual winners have held on when in trouble/ and the eventual losers have not seized the moment. 


Let’s consider some of the 8 men’s matches that have gone 7-6 in the 5th... 


Galan defeated Kubler: Kubler makes a backhand unforced error when Galan is serving at 2-4, 15-40 in the 5th set 


Rublev defeated Seyboth Wild: Seyboth Wild makes a backhand unforced error when leading 6-4 in the 5th set tie break 


Kokkinakis defeated Ofner: Ofner makes a backhand unforced error when leading 7-6 in the 5th set tiebreak 


Grenier defeated Muller: Muller makes a backhand unforced error when serving at 5-4 40-15 in the 5th set 


Struff defeated Hijikata: Struff forces a Hijikata error when serving at 1-3 advantage Hijikata in the 5th set. Struff hits a winner when Hijikata is serving at 4-3, 40-30. 


Zverev defeated Klein: Klein makes a backhand unforced error when he has a break point at 4-4 in the 4th set, when leading 2 sets to 1. 


Ruud defeated Purcell: Ruud plays 4 straight great points when serving at 2-2, 0 -30 in the 5th set. 


Kecmanovic defeated Struff: Kecmanovic hits a forehand winner when serving at 5-5, 15-40 in the 5th set. 


In 6 of these 8 matches, if the other player won these points, they would have almost certainly won the match. It’s possible that the result of all 8 matches turned on these single points. 

  1. Recovering From Missed Opportunities

More close matches also means that more often players will lose leads and have to continue to compete. This is one of the most challenging things to do in tennis. When players lose leads, or fail to finish matches they have the chance to win, they often get caught up in the difficult mental experience that naturally ensue (often self-judgment). 


Rarely have I have ever seen a braver response to these circumstances than Blinkova’s mind blowing win against Rybakina. 


Blinkova first took hold of the match when she broke Rybakina to lead a set and 2-1, only to go on to lose the second set 6-4. At this point I fully expected Rybakina to run away with the 3rd set. 


But that didn’t happen. Instead Blinkova gets to a 2-4, 30-40 lead on Rybakina’s serve, just one point from a 5-2 lead, only to make a forehand unforced error and lose the game. 


Serving at 4-3, 40-30 and the chance to go up 5-3, Blinkova this time makes a backhand unforced error and goes in to lose the game. Her lead is now gone and with Rybakina serving at 4-4, 40-30 Blinkova has every right to fold. Instead she breaks Rybakina for a 5-4 lead. 

Blinkova goes on to lose serve in about 1 minute and she’s lost the chance to serve out the match. 


But Blinkova breaks Rybakina again and has another chance to serve it out. She has 2 match points.... but loses them and the game – it’s now 6-6 and we’re in for a match tiebreak. 


Which turns out to be the longest tie-break in women’s Grand Slam history. An absolute roller coaster! 


In a very long story short. Despite losing another 8 of her own match points, Blinkova plays some of the gutsiest tennis I’ve ever seen (with a little help from Rybakina) to save 5 match points, before finally winning the breaker 22-20. 


Of the match she said: “I tried to stay aggressive in those moments but my hands were shaking...and my legs too. This day I will remember for the rest of my life. The best day of my life so far!” 


3 Tips for Winning More Close Matches: 


Here’s 3 tips for winning more close matches: 


1.) Crucial Points 


In my last article I spoke of the importance of deciding on a plan before stressful points (The Decision is Already Made Strategy). You don’t want to be making decisions during stressful points. Decide on a simple plan and commit to it. 


2.) Finishing Close Matches 


When trying to finish close matches, fear is the norm. To respond well to it, notice and practice accepting the difficult sensations that come with this. A great way to do this is briefly observe the sensations in your body for a couple of seconds with curiosity and name them in words e.g., “there’s nerves.” This helps in 4 ways that you can see in detail in other articles.  


3.) Responding Well to Messing Up 


What costs most players dearly after choking is the tendency to get caught up in self-judgement when opportunities are missed and fold. The choke is rarely fatal as the nature of tennis is that even if you lose the lead the other player still has to try to deal with the nerves of finishing the job when they get in the lead. If you choke, remember, this is the time your opponent is most vulnerable to playing their worst. So it is the time you want to fight your hardest. And this is exactly what Blinkova was able to do incredibly well. 


Let’s hope the rest of the tournament is as good as the start has been :-)




Anthony and Pat


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