Levels of competition

I’ve recently made tennis into a consistent hobby. I had played a decent amount many years ago and have been a fan of the sport for a long time. After falling out of a solid workout routine through the chaos of COVID, I thought tennis could be a fun way to get back in shape. I think one of the interesting things about tennis is how the sport changes as you improve.


Consistency


When starting out in tennis, improvement is all about consistency. Once you understand the necessary steps in performing a stroke, it’s all about regularly carrying out those steps. That consistency helps you develop an intuitive feel for the stroke. When you find success, you look to replicate that success by performing strokes as similarly as possible when you’re in similar situations. Your goal is simply to keep your shots within the court. Just keeping the ball in the court is an accomplishment so you’re not thinking much about ball placement.

The importance of consistency becomes quite a bit different at high levels of tennis. Of course it’s still very important to have consistent strokes – they should be extremely reliable. But interestingly, in another sense, consistency becomes a detriment at high levels of play.

At the pro level, consistency is also predictability; and predictability can be exploited. For example, if you served at the same spot and at the same speed every time, even if your serve was fast and powerful, a pro opponent would know exactly where to stand and how to handle the shot every time. So in this sense, pros are not consistent with their serves; they try to mix up various factors including speed, spin, and placement. This carries over to many other aspects of tennis; pros introduce inconsistency to their game to keep their opponents guessing.


Environment


Another interesting aspect of tennis that changes at different levels of the game is the “environment”. What I mean by this is the context within and the mindset that people are playing with. At a low level, your opponent’s primary objective is keeping the ball in the court. Any ball that is placed well or is coming at a high speed was probably more of a happy accident rather than skill. Most shots that land within the court will be fairly predictable and without much pace.

The dynamic changes quite a bit at high levels of tennis. In pro tennis matches, most balls are hit with some impressive combination of power, placement, and/or spin (which affects the bounce of the ball in ways that can be hard to handle as the returner). If you hit a predictable, low-pace shot it would generally be easily put away and you would lose the point. Hitting the ball within the court is necessary, but not nearly sufficient.

Unique dynamics come into play because of this environment. For example, because of the heavy pace that pros put on the ball, players will generally need to stand far back in the court to allow themselves enough time to reliably return shots. This opens the door for the potentially lethal drop shot. This is a shot that sinks quickly landing near the net and bouncing low. In an environment where players are standing far back, this shot forces a rush to the net and often, if the shot is well-timed and placed, will result in a won point. This environment also opens the door for the rare “so bad it’s good” shot. An example would be the underhand serve. It’s a very low powered serve and if a pro knew it was coming could crush it – but pros are expecting high-powered, well placed serves. So there have been times where an unexpected underhand serve has granted pro players free points.


Levels


The objectives and play from the lowest levels to the highest levels of tennis almost make it into a different game. Of course the official rules remain the same but the moment-to-moment objectives of the players are entirely different and at a high level the game becomes much more strategic.

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