Just like Alexander Zverev and his missed smash in Madrid, tennis players have often distinguish themselves by missing shots which seem unmissable at first glance. How do you explain this psychological fragility in these moments which are supposed to be in their advantage ?
Feeling confident and superior against his opponent, Alexander Zverev is leading the rally. An attack on the left, an attack on the right, and here is Fernando Verdasco completely overtaken, and forced to defend with a powerless lob. Present at the net, the German only needs to conclude the point. However, against all odds, his smash is completely missed and stays in his racquet.
If Zverev prefers to smile, this missed shot comes less than a month after another miss shot in Miami against Nick Kyrgios. Again, being in a great position to finish the point, the young 20 year-old completely missed his volley.
Frustrating, especially when you’re ranked at the 17th spot of the ATP ranking. Hence the question : how do you justify these not-so-rare wasted shots when they look to be the easiest ones at first glance ?
« If you turn away from the present, you’ll miss your shot »
The first lead, which is not so obvious, is to ask yourself if there truly are easy shots intrinsically speaking. Because in the end, it’s pretty easy to have a laugh while sitting on your couch watching a player ridiculing himself after missing a shot which seems evident for everyone. « Objectively, there are shots which are technically easier than others. We can’t deny that, recalls Pier Gauthier, Gaël Monfils, Sébastien Grosjean and Michaël Llodra’s ex-coach. In fact, the most important thing, is the state of mind with which you approach the shot. Let’s take Federer : if he manages to produce amazing shots as often as he produces easy shots, it’s because he’s constantly focused on his match. On his actions. When Federer is fully focused in a tie-break, all the shots are the same for him. » Frances Tiafoe, the biggest hope of American tennis right now, is therefore not Roger Federer yet, and must learn a lot to forget about his missed shot at the 2015 Charlottesville Challenger tournament. His first mission : work on his concentration.
The loss of concentration remains the first risk. Because even before you’re producing the shot which looks easy, the temptation of seeing yourself already winning the point is huge. « As this shot looks simple, it’s already been produced successfully in your mind. You tell yourself ‘Fine, I did the hardest part, the point is over’. You then get away from the present, projecting yourself in the future, and you actually forget to produce the correct shot, says Pier Gauthier, ex-professional player (French number 18). Which is a huge mistake : at this level, if you turn away from the present, you’ll miss some easy shots. »
« Trying it 300 times and succeeding 300 times »
But if Federer has very few bad surprises when the situation arrises, it’s also thanks to his strong psychological state, and his constant relaxation. Tension can, on the contrary, turn an easy shot into a complicated one. It’s on this point that Pier Gauthier, who’s now a mental coach, tries to work. « Some players develop mental blocks because they forbid themselves from missing, says the founder of Celions Coaching. They tell themselves : ‘Because this is an easy shot, I’m not allowed to miss it’. This situation turns out to be very paralyzing. When you put yourself in this state of mind, these shots suddenly become much harder to produce. It’s a bit like during a match point, when, unconsciously, you tell yourself that you’re not allowed to miss. And it’s that mental aspect which forms the great difference between the great champions and the others, knowing that between the world number 100 and the world number 50, the technical quality is pretty much the same. »
Therefore, how do you get rid of this mental block ? How do you work on this mental flaw, and succeed in banalizing the point, and staying relaxed while focused at the same time ? How do you turn an apparent easy shot into a true easy shot ? Repeating the gestures and overtraining can’t be a real solution, as it is impossible to recreate the context of a high-pressuring match in front of thousands of spectators. « The player can train for hundreds and hundreds of hours, it won’t make a difference, confirms Pier Gauthier. I’ll say it again : It’s not a technical problem when you miss a shot one meter away from the net. That shot, the player will try it 300 times in training, and succeed 300 times. » The key resides in psychological evolution. Knowing yourself, accepting your mistakes and understanding that succeeding in scoring an easy shot is not more important than scoring a passing shot on the line. Zverev is learning not to remain focused on these small mistakes. Smiling afterwards is already starting to get over them.