How Not To Choke on the Tennis Court

There’s not a tennis player on the planet – including the current crop of all-time greats like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal – who hasn’t “choked” away a match. So don’t feel too bad that you double-faulted on match point last weekend and proceeded to blow a 5-2 final-set lead against your archrival and neighborhood nemesis. We’ve all been there.

Heck, even 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer blew his recent U.S. Open semifinal against Djokovic despite serving at 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth set.

Remember, you can’t always avoid the fickle fate bestowed upon you by the unforgiving tennis gods, who can leave you sobbing uncontrollably into your tennis towel. But, there are several steps you can take to drastically limit those times – to help keep you away from the dreaded CHOKE.

Tennis, we all know, is as much a mental game as it is a physical contest. Your thought process on the court goes a long way toward determining whether you win or lose.

Think positive thoughts on the court. Avoid approaching an important point in a match with trembling and negative “don’t” thoughts aimed at yourself. Such as: “Don’t double-fault this point away, you choke”; or “Don’t net this backhand, whatever you do”; or (our personal favorite) the pleading “Please God, if you just allow me to not blow this point, I’ll never sin again.”

For example, try not to approach a key service game with the thought that if you lose the game, life as you know it is over. Why not, instead, just think about making sure you keep your head up on your serve and your eyes focused on the point of contact?

Indeed, on key points focus on the fundamentals. Tell yourself to keep your feet moving, to stay low to the ground and, most important, to see the ball hit your strings. Tell yourself to take your time, to take deep breaths in between points (remember also to breathe during points) and to RELAX.

Also, it’s very important during matches to avoid letting your eyes and your mind wander.

On changeovers, for instance, try not to scour the stands to see if, say, Aunt Millie decided to attend your match. Instead, keep you eyes on the court. It’s never a bad idea to use the time during changeovers to reiterate key reminders – such basics as remembering to maintain your footwork. Before a match, write on a piece of paper three or four essential fundamentals to follow. Use the changeovers to read – and then heed — that advice.

Maintain your mental focus. No doubt, Samantha Stosur owes her recent U.S. Open victory to uncanny shot making. But her concentration also played a pivotal role in the win, as she was able to keep her focus amid all the lunacy that went down between her opponent, Serena Williams, and the umpire.

It was evident at the just-completed U.S. Open that the talented Caroline Wozniacki plays more aggressive (and better) tennis when she is behind in a match. Some players are more relaxed and much less fearful when down. In his booklet, “Tips for Better Tennis,” Roy Barth, the director of tennis at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, offers this advice for players who are trying to close out a match while leading, say, 5-2 or 5-3: REVERSE THE SCORE. Trick your mind into thinking that you are down 5-2 instead of ahead by that score.

There’s plenty of other tips that Barth dispenses in his “Better Tennis” book to help steer you away from choking:

*Don’t dwell on a mistake. That only helps compound the problem. Have a short-term memory on the court. Try not to let an awfully played point or game lead directly to, say, three consecutive lost points or games.

*It’s a cliché, but it’s good advice to take it one point at a time. Forget the past, but don’t think about the future either. (While serving at 5-3 in the final set, for instance, it’s best not to begin envisioning the trophy presentation.) Stay in the moment, in the present.

*Focus on your own game, and don’t worry so much about your opponent.

Realize, however, that we’re all human, so nerves come into play. And that’s not always a bad thing. Most people probably play better tennis when they’re a bit nervous before a match, somewhat on edge. You never want to feel complacent prior to a match, adopting a couldn’t-care-less attitude.

So, tennis players of all ages and ability, keep the faith. That attitude alone will improve your game.For more information on Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s tennis program, go to