Instruction: How to Close out Matches

In tennis, nothing is more exhilarating than being on the verge of victory, and nothing is more excruciatingly tense and frustrating than not being able to close the deal. You’re so near and yet so far. Your mind is racing, while your legs get slower and your arms get heavier. There is no clock to save you, no team-mate to support you, and usually, no coach to advice you. What can you do to win? What should you do?

Getty Images

Squandering a two-sets-to-love lead and losing a heartbreaking 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 final of the 1984 French Open, to hated rival Ivan Lendl, torments John McEnroe to this day.   -  Getty Images

AP

Britain's Andy Murray survived immense pressure and overcame his nerves for a 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 triumph over Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final.   -  AP

“My nerves were getting the best of me. It happens to everybody. Anybody who says they don’t choke, they’re lying.”

— All-time great Pete Sampras, who squandered six match points before beating Gustavo Kuerten in the 2000 Miami final.

“I looked down at my left hand. For the first time, I could remember in the middle of a tennis match, it was shaking. Shaking pretty violently. I was in the midst of what would become the single game that would change everything in my life,” confided Andy Murray about being one point from becoming the first British men’s champion at Wimbledon in 77 years in his biography, Andy Murray: Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.

“I had gone to collect the balls to serve. It was the first deuce of what would be four at 5-4 in the third set of the Wimbledon final. I had had three match points already, three chances to win the Men’s Singles title, and Novak Djokovic, the world number one and a great champion, had so far resisted each time.”

Ultimately, Murray conquered both his nerves and his nemesis to make history at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships. In tennis, nothing is more exhilarating than being on the verge of victory, and nothing is more excruciatingly tense and frustrating than not being able to close the deal. You’re so near and yet so far. Your mind is racing, while your legs get slower and your arms get heavier. There is no clock to save you, no team-mate to support you, and usually, no coach to advice you.

What can you do to win? What should you do?

In 1998, precocious teenager Serena Williams said, “Venus had a little problem closing out matches, which she has mastered now. She’d win the first set, lose the second, and barely pull it out in the third. And I was able to learn how to close it out without struggling. I think the secret is keeping up your aggressive game and not letting your concentration go.”

Rising Japanese star Kei Nishikori found himself in this predicament in the 2014 Mutua Madrid Open semifinals and took a page from 22-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena’s winning playbook. Facing Spanish veteran and then-world No. 4 David Ferrer, one of the grittiest competitors on the ATP Tour, Nishikori led 7-6 (5), 5-7, 5-3 and served for the match. In a thrilling game that lasted 20 minutes and included ferocious rallies, including a 33-shot exchange, the 24-year-old Japanese kept attacking and finally prevailed on his 10th match point.

To learn more about the psychology and tactics to meet and beat these challenges, I consulted Dr. Allen Fox ( www.allenfoxtennis.net). After winning the NCAA title at UCLA where he earned a Ph.D. in psychology, Dr. Fox reached the 1965 Wimbledon quarterfinals, was a three-time member of the U.S. Davis Cup team, and then coached the Pepperdine tennis team to two NCAA finals. He’s also authored five acclaimed books about the mental side of competition, most notably Tennis: Winning the Mental Match and Think to Win: The Strategic Dimension to Tennis.

Dr. Fox analyses six memorable end-match scenarios and prescribes remedies for closing out matches.

The Mental Meltdown

John McEnroe won seven singles and 10 doubles Grand Slam titles in his storied, but tempestuous, career. Going into the 1984 French Open final, the brash New Yorker had won 42 straight matches and had beaten Ivan Lendl five straight times. But squandering a two-sets-to-love lead and losing a heartbreaking 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 final to hated rival Lendl torments him to this day. In his autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, McEnroe confided, “But he didn’t beat me. I beat myself. Lendl got his first major, and I took his title, Choker-in-chief, away from home…. It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: Sometimes it still keeps me up at nights.”

Question: Why did McEnroe self-destruct when he was on the verge of victory?

Answer: Because that’s when everybody self-destructs. If you want an axiom that pops into my mind in all of these situations, it is that people tend to choke when they are ahead — especially if they have some insecurity in the match. Here, McEnroe is a serve and volleyer playing Lendl on clay, a surface that favours Lendl. So McEnroe has a chance to win the one French title that he needs for his legacy. So he wants it maybe too much. That’s the combination that gets you: wanting the win very, very strongly and being somewhat insecure as to whether you’re going to get it. That’s the formula for choking when you’re ahead.

Players choke — essentially lose emotional control — in lots of ways. Some people just become paralysed and they can’t move their hands and they get really stiff. Other guys get angry like McEnroe. He blew his emotional cool [at 1-1 in the third set] when he ranted at the cameraman courtside, who distracted him. When your mind goes on you, it seizes on these extraneous issues that it shouldn’t seize on. You do this unconsciously. A small issue becomes very large in your mind, like the cameraman.

By the way, you wouldn’t know McEnroe was choking. You wouldn’t see it. He didn’t look like Jana Novotna looked when she choked in the 1993 Wimbledon final. She double-faulted and hit easy, high volleys far beyond the baseline. McEnroe just looked angry.

The remedy for McEnroe — and it’s going to be the same regardless of the choking situation — is to discipline yourself so that you do not have emotional reactions to anything, other than what you want to have. In other words, you don’t allow your emotions to be affected by the results of the last point or what’s going on around you, unless it’s going to help you. And as a general rule, emotional reactions are not going to do you any good. Instead, they are going to hurt you.

The Heavy Burden of Carrying a Nation’s Great Hopes

Going into the 2013 Wimbledon, Andy Murray had two things going for him. Despite being ranked No. 4 for most of the previous five years, he broke through by winning the London Olympics and the U.S. Open in 2012, and coach Ivan Lendl bolstered his confidence enormously. Still, as ESPN analyst McEnroe noted, “He was under more pressure and stress than anyone trying to win Wimbledon for the first time” to give Britain its first Wimbledon men’s champion since Fred Perry in 1936.

Question: How did Murray survive the immense pressure and overcome his nerves for a 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 triumph in the final?

Answer: I don’t know. That’s the real answer. Murray is a character that I don’t totally understand, so I don’t know how he does it. Most great players know how to control their emotions pretty much totally. Tennis is inherently an emotional game, and great players don’t allow the normal emotions to come out, or to even be felt at all. You can see that with Djokovic. As he’s gotten better, he’s gotten less emotional. He was a very emotional player back in the day. But he learned to control them because when you get emotional, you make mistakes.

Murray tends to react emotionally quite a bit. How he gets away with it I don’t know. I’m not sure what he’s saying to himself. Murray has to create emotions that help him. I’m not sure what’s happening inside when he’s bitching and crabbing about things. My guess is that somehow or another he is actually using these emotions. I’m not sure that he feels internally what it looks like he feels to others. When he looks disgusted, it may be the same as you or me just slapping yourself on the leg and saying, “Come on! Get going!”

Of course, Murray doesn’t bark at his box when [coach Ivan] Lendl is in it because Lendl doesn’t have to take it and would probably walk out if he got barked at.

The Record Chase That Ended in a Colossal Choke

The unforgettable Serena Williams-Roberta Vinci semifinal at the 2015 U.S. Open lowlighted one of the worst “chokes” of all time. Serena Williams was not only going for the first Grand Slam since the legendary Steffi Graf achieved this in 1988, but she was also trying to equal Graf’s Open Era record 22 major titles. The hype and pressure built up so much during the summer that Serena finally imploded and succumbed 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to Vinci, a 25-1 underdog.

 

Afterwards, Serena denied that the pressure of going for a rare Grand Slam accounted for her poor play. “No; I told you guys I don’t feel pressure,” she insisted. “I never felt pressure. I never felt that pressure to win here.”

Question: What happened to the normally steel-nerved Serena who previously boasted a 26-3 record in semifinals and a 22-4 record in finals at Grand Slam events?

Answer: First, I disagree with the assertion that Serena has steel nerves. Her nerves are her Achilles heel. And that’s the only reason she loses. It happens when she gets nervous. When she’s not nervous, nobody really has a chance against her. That’s because she serves better than anyone in women’s tennis history. She runs as fast as any woman can run. And she hits as hard as any woman can hit. Serena does everything better than everybody. Most of the players she comes up against can either run well or they can hit well. But they can’t do both like she can. And none of them can serve like she does.

What happens to her, though, is that she’s quite a choker. She’s won so many matches coming from behind. That’s because when you’re coming from behind, you’re not choking anymore. Most people choke when they are ahead. Typically, Serena will win the first set, and then she’ll start thinking about the victory and what it means and all that, and then she chokes to lose the second set and maybe even falls behind in the third set.

But what Serena is very good at, her real talent, is to not get discouraged after she chokes. She can choke and still be quite dangerous. That’s because when she’s behind, in general, she’s not choking anymore. She’s a fighter, so she’s very hard to put away. When Serena gets behind, you actually have to beat her, and she’s so much better than everybody, that if she’s not choking, the other girl has very little chance.

What I would prescribe for Serena is to have a much less emotional reaction to the outcome of points. She should focus harder, short term, on what she’s going to do in the next 20 seconds — as opposed to whether she’s going to win the match or not. When Serena gets nervous, she should slow down and relax. Tactically, she should put a little more topspin on the ball and use her legs more and start running balls down. She doesn’t have to go for a big shot on the first shot when she’s very nervous. When she tries to do that, she misses.

In that Vinci match, Serena let the situation, and the importance of it in her mind, get the best of her. Normally, against someone the calibre of Vinci, she wouldn’t be worried. She’d blow her out because Vinci can’t do anything unless Serena is choking. Unfortunately for Serena, this was an extraordinarily important match and tournament in her mind, though she wouldn’t admit it. And the pressures of the situation got to her.

The Importance of Facing the Truth

Before Serena’s super choke, the most infamous female choke was suffered by Jana Novotna. In the 1993 Wimbledon final, she led Steffi Graf 6-7, 6-1, 4-1, 40-30, up two service breaks and just five points away from the prestigious championship and her first Grand Slam singles title. But Novotna, a notorious choker, once again couldn’t stand prosperity. Succumbing to nerves, she double-faulted, badly missed a routine volley, and netted an overhead. Within 15 minutes, the physically strong but mentally fragile Czech would lose the last five games to snatch defeat from the jaws of near-certain victory. During the awards ceremony, a devastated Novotna burst into tears and cried on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder.

Novotna watched the tape of that match many times and denied she choked. She insisted, “I felt that I just went for it and it just didn’t go my way. So I really don’t have any bad feelings about it or any guilt.”

 

Question: What went so wrong so fast for the athletic and aggressive Novotna?

Answer: What went wrong was that she realised that she was going to be the Wimbledon champion in about another three minutes. And she did what many people do when they start looking ahead and thinking about the win against a dangerous opponent. It makes them nervous. There’s no question that Novotna choked bigtime.

Another aspect to it is that she lied to herself. And that’s generally a mistake. After the match is over, you can lie all you want as she did in her quote. But when you are on the court, you must not lie to yourself. You must not say, “I’m not choking,” when you are choking. Instead, you have to deal with it.

Novotna kept using exactly the same game plan and strategy that she used up until the 4-1 game in the third set. She was playing on grass against Graf, who had a bad backhand passing shot because she sliced it. So Novotna’s normal serve-and-volley game behind her big flat first serve was an ideal one for beating Graf on this surface, and up until this point, she was doing quite a good job of it.

But at 4-1 up in the third set, she suddenly started to think. The Championship cup was so close she could almost taste the champagne she would soon be drinking out of it. Now she began missing almost every first serve and double-faulting several times a game. Nonetheless, she doggedly kept hitting her first serve flat and hard and just as doggedly, kept missing it, leading to her numerous double-faults. When she did manage to get her second serve in the court, she appeared off-balance and semi-paralysed, hitting high, easy volleys flat and hard, which often carried them deep by yards, not feet. So, it was very obvious that she was choking and choking badly.

The remedy for Novotna would have been to say to herself, “Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to blow her out, as I have been doing. I’m going to have to attack her weakness and hit shots that I’m more comfortable with.” For example, if I had been her, I would have started spinning in the first serve to Graf’s backhand, her weak side. And then I would have gotten in to the net, relaxed my hands a bit, and made sure not to overplay my volley. Just volley it deep to the backhand and dare Graf to pass me, which Graf probably couldn’t have done. Of course, it would have been better if Novotna could have continued to play her normal game and just blown Graf out. But she couldn’t do that. So, targeting Graf’s weaknesses would have been a better option than just missing.

Instead, Novotna kept playing as if she weren’t choking. But she was. The lesson here is that if you attempt to be highly aggressive when you’re choking — even though this may your best strategy when you are not choking — you’re just going to miss. It’s better to just play the ball a bit safer and make the shot rather than miss immediately.

Crazy Shot Selection

Roger Federer had captured four of the previous six Grand Slam events and 21 straight matches entering the 2005 Australian Open. He was a solid favourite to defeat the heavy-hitting but sometimes inconsistent Marat Safin in the semifinals. On match point at 6-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, Federer foolishly tried an extremely low-percentage, back-to-the-net, between-the-legs trick shot — when he should have lofted a high defensive lob. He missed it badly. After escaping defeat, the determined Safin upset The Mighty Fed 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (8), 9-7 on his seventh match point and then easily beat Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Asked why he tried such a risky shot on match point, Federer strangely replied, “Well, the point was already lost, so I tried it.”

Question: How do you explain a great champion losing the plot with a foolish shot?

Answer: In hindsight — which is a lot more accurate than foresight — that was certainly poor shot selection on Federer’s part. Obviously, hitting the ball in the court is better than missing it.

But this case doesn’t strike me as a choke. It was early in Federer’s career, so he wasn’t choking yet. He started to choke more later as he got older. But at this time he probably felt he could make the shot. Of course, Federer is a genius and geniuses routinely make difficult and low-percentage shots on big points all the time. So who are we to second-guess a “genius” shot selection?

I don’t think that was a choke situation. I think that was a talent situation. And Federer was going with his talent. I think he felt he was still going to win the match in any case. But Safin was a dangerous player, and Federer could have misjudged some of that danger in choosing a low-percentage shot.

In any case, this happened before Federer started to do much choking. And since Federer is quite good about admitting it when he chokes and didn’t say so in this incident, I assume he didn’t choke. He just made a misjudgment.

 

In this particular situation, even though Federer didn’t think clearly, there is not much to prescribe. If he had to do it over again, he might have run around that shot to hit a forehand or backhand where he was actually able to look where he was hitting it.

History Repeats Itself in a Strange Way

In the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals, Djokovic courageously staved off two match points with two winners — a swinging forehand volley and a rocket forehand — to upset five-time U.S. Open champion Federer 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. A year later, Djokovic found himself in an identical situation. Down 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth set of his U.S. Open semifinal against Federer, Djokovic staved off the first of two match points by belting a spectacular forehand winner just inside the sideline off Federer’s first serve. Then the Serb, who shrewdly appealed for the crowd’s support by waving his arms, reeled off 17 of the last 21 points to prevail 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.

Question: What psychological factors affected both players in their 2011 rematch, and how did these factors play out?

Answer: On the first match point, Federer served wide to Djokovic’s forehand, but he didn’t serve wide enough. He was a little cautious and took a little off of the serve to make sure he got it in. Unfortunately for him, the serve went right into Djokovic’s strike zone and he knocked it off. On the second match point, Federer served into Djokovic’s body forcing Djokovic to float a return that landed near the service line. This was Federer’s perfect go-to shot — a forehand winner outright or an approach and winner volley. But his shot clipped the top of the net and became a set-up for Djokovic. That was a choke.

To begin with, the psychological advantage was entirely Djokovic’s in this situation. Why? Because both of them could remember what happened the year before. Then Djokovic had come back to win from match point down, so, of course, he knew he could do it again. And Federer also knew Djokovic could do it again. At some level, I’m sure he was afraid that history would repeat itself.

This history made Federer more likely to get nervous and made Djokovic more likely to be brave — which he was. Djokovic wasn’t nervous because it is usually the case that players behind in the score tend not to be nervous. When players are behind, the risk is that they’ll become discouraged. But if they don’t get discouraged, they can swing away and become quite dangerous, as Serena does.

So Djokovic was dangerous, and Federer was nervous. Then Federer collapsed after that. That’s because he realised that he had choked, and it was doubly painful and discouraging because of what had happened the previous year. Federer had a chance to close out the match, but he had blown it.

Now Djokovic had escaped, and Federer was faced with the prospect of having to win games starting out even, and this looked to him like a tough assignment because he couldn’t do it when he just had one point to win. And once Djokovic was running loose and feeling brave while Federer was a little down, Djokovic just rolled over him.

What Federer might have done is to realise that history has no effect on the present situation unless you let it. He could well have motivated himself to continue his high level of play by thinking that he had reached match point twice already, so he could certainly reach another one. And this time his nerves would probably be better. The competitor’s obligation is to direct his thoughts towards the positive and away from the negative. This is because one’s game tends to follow one’s emotions, and one’s emotions tend to follow one’s thoughts.

More Tips and Tricks to Close out Matches

These historic matches illustrate how top pros react — for better or worse — when they try to close out high-stakes, high-pressure matches. Amateur players face similar challenges in tournament, league, and club matches every day.

Here are some additional tips from Dr. Fox so you can experience the ecstasy of victory rather than the agony of defeat when you’re closing out close matches.

Emotional control — The most important tip is, do not react emotionally to the outcome of a point. Whether you hit a great shot or miss an easy one or whether your opponent does, just let it pass over your head. Borg was the best in tennis history at doing this, but almost all the great ones are good at it. Federer generally does it, as does Sharapova. After Sharapova plays a bad point, or sometimes even a good one, she walks away from the baseline, faces the fence, and looks at her racquet strings and slows down. This is emotional control in action.

It’s natural to have your emotions control your logic system. It’s difficult to have your logic system control your emotional system. The average person can’t do it very well. Unfortunately, you can’t directly control your emotional system the way you can control your logic system. So you have to do it indirectly as best you can, though it’s never completely controllable.

When you get very nervous — When your hands shake and your breath becomes laboured, you can try simple techniques. Smile, even laugh if you can. Smiling and laughing cause physiological effects that are positive and calming. Make a conscious effort to enjoy the competitive process and the crucial situations. When you feel the pressure tightening you up, slow down. Take your time, and deliberately work to relax.

Breathing control helps. Briefly close your eyes, and take one or two very deep breaths. Hold it for a second or two, and then totally relax as you allow the air to be expelled. As you do, focus on the feelings of serenity you are able to conjure up throughout your body. Picture the stress draining down your arms and out. Now stride erectly back into position taking deep, relaxing breaths.

Fist-pumping and shouting “C’mon!” — Another alternative is to use an adrenaline response. It can often shake you out of a state of nervous paralysis. Pump your fist, slap yourself on the leg, shake your shoulders, bounce around, make yourself feel excited — not nervously excited, but courageously excited — and exhort yourself to “Come on!” or “Get going!” Make yourself feel like a boxer going into the ring to knock out your opponent. You’re the Champ! Get after it. It’s exciting. This is the situation you are playing for. Enjoy the excitement.

The importance of rituals — The objective of a ritual is to keep your mind focused on what you’re going to do in the next 25 seconds. It helps stop you from thinking about the outcome, which is inherently uncontrollable, and its uncontrollability is potentially stressful. Your ritual, by focusing your attention and thoughts on simple practical and controllable activities, also helps control errant emotions.

Whether you hop up and down several times before serving, as some of the women pros do, or bounce the ball multiple times before serving, as many of the men pros do, anything that you do repeatedly tends to give you some sense of small control.

What makes people nervous is the fact that they want to win, but there is doubt in their mind as to whether they’re going to be able to do it — because they can’t actually control it. When you hit a serve return, you can’t be sure whether you’re going to hit a great one or you’re going to hit it into the fence. So your ritual, for the few seconds between points, gives you at least some small feeling of control.

Visual control — Looking at the ground or your racquet strings provides a bit of emotional control, partly through thought or attention control. Thought control here means you’re trying to avoid thinking about whether you’re going to win or lose the match, or who you’re playing, or what the score is. You’re just trying to get yourself in a good emotional state so you can react properly 25 seconds from now.

Avoid looking around. It will make you think too much. You want your thoughts focused only on things that can help you function when the next point begins. That means relaxed breathing, making yourself feel good, focusing on the little keys that help you execute as the next point starts, thinking about what you’re going to do, and a few details on how you’re going to do it. The more your mind is narrowly focused on what you are about to do in the next few seconds and the less it worries about outcome, the less choking you will do.

Don’t Procrastinate — People try to escape the stress of finishing sets and matches. High stress is unpleasant, and the natural human impulse is to escape it whenever possible. Stress grows when we are ahead and nearing the finish of a set or match. This is the time to be most wary of counterproductive emotional escape responses, such as acting overconfident or relaxing too much, that let your opponent make a comeback.

I have heard the same story on countless occasions from consulting clients. “I got up 4-1, became overconfident, relaxed, and lost the set.” The hidden fact is that these players subconsciously want to avoid the growing stress of finishing. They have what appears to be a substantial lead, so they delude themselves into feeling they can safely put off this bit of nasty work. They want to delay — unconsciously, of course — the increasing mental effort required to win the set, and they end up getting beaten. It feels like overconfidence, but it’s really just the procrastination of a dirty job.

The cure starts, as usual, by understanding reality — that the problem is procrastination rather than overconfidence. Once the problem is clearly identified and acknowledged as a weakness, players can cure it by making a special effort to concentrate harder and keep up their intensity when they are ahead — to absorb the stress and keep driving forward until the set or match is actually over.

Summary — If you are ahead but not truly confident of winning, you must exert extra emotional discipline to resist procrastinating on the final push. Stay highly motivated, and pursue your game plan with the faith that your game and plan are ultimately sufficient for victory.

And remember: everyone chokes from time to time, and there is no disgrace in it. It just means you have a strong desire to win, and that’s not a bad thing. If you choke but don’t let it break you down mentally, you can still win.

So try to enjoy the process of competing. Focus on your game plan. Maintain discipline and drive. And remain hopeful and positive regardless of circumstances. If you can do that, you will close out and win more than your fair share of close matches.