Avoid insanity on the court

Albert Einstein once said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This can apply to many aspects of life, including tennis. If you or your child are looking to have long-term success in tennis, or even being successful in a match, it's important to avoid this kind of insanity. Solutions need to be found, changes need to be made. No one wants to be a one-dimensional player, unwilling or unable to change the course of a match or adapt their game to accommodate an aging body, for example. But it turns out that avoiding insanity on the court starts from a young age. Without the right start, when a player finds themselves in a rut, they may be too far gone to be cured!

talent can get you to the top but talent alone is not enough to keep you there

Roger Federer said “I was very talented but I was not Tiger Woods, or Martina Hingis or Rafa (Nadal), who at the age of 10 years you knew would become number one.” Still, Roger Federer has enjoyed a very long and successful career (not over yet), winning 17 grand slam titles, making him more successful than many players who appeared to have more talent from a young age. Martina Hingis won her first junior grand slam at the age of just 12. She then went on to become the youngest ever winner of a grand slam at the pro level when, at the age of 16, she won the Australian Open. She crowned this achievement by also becoming the youngest player to be ranked number one. On the men's side, Lleyton Hewitt became the youngest ever number one, at the age of 20, and Rafael Nadal was the first teenager player to win a Grand Slam (Roland Garros) since Pete Sampras (US Open) in 1990. Although these young stars had great careers, in the end their results fell short of the very high expectations a lot of people had for them.

These players’ careers show that talent can get you to the top but talent alone is not enough to keep you there for the long haul. So what went wrong? All of these young stars had a similar style of game: very consistent from the baseline with an ability to turn defence into offence (counterpunchers). But in a word, they were one-dimensional, strong when their game was on, but very vulnerable when it wasn’t or when opponents managed to overcome their style of play. This style of play may be a very effective way of winning as a junior, but playing this way as a pro can be physically grinding, is more likely to result in injury, and may even contribute to early retirement. Also, top pros are more likely than juniors to be able to find solutions to overcome this style of play. So although these young stars had great careers, in the end their results fell short of the very high expectations people had for them.

As players age and the game changes, players need to be able to adapt. Players expecting longevity in the game need to be able to play shorter points and have a good mix of aggressive and consistent play. Hingis, for example, was never able to develop a stronger serve, which was one of her weaknesses, or add more power to her game overall. Nadal is still trying to improve the depth of his shots and play closer to the baseline, but with the extreme grips he has on his groundstrokes that’s difficult to implement. So if it’s quite obvious what needed to be done to improve these players’ competitiveness, then why were these talented players unable to do it?

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Hingis and Nadal both kept the same coaches throughout their careers, mother and uncle respectively. In contrast, Federer and Serena have searched for more experienced coaches to help them add new dimensions to their games. Serena has maintained her ferocious power but added more topspin to her groundstrokes which has given her more control. She has also kept working on her serve which often gives her very handy free points. Federer, with a very complete game, has made changes more on the tactical level. In the past, he had a reputation for beating his opponents at their own game and was against serving into the body. Lately he has been focussing more on using the strengths of his own game, has started serving into the body, and has been approaching the net more often. The changes these players have made have been possible for two reasons: first, is the good advice received from experienced coaches who are knowledgeable of what the best course of action is for these players in today’s game; second, particularly in Federer’s case, is having developed strong technique from a young age.

That leads us to the importance of good coaching to develop a strong base. Regardless of whether you are a pro player, a recreational player, a beginner, young or old, you should always search for a good coach. A good coach is one that understands the technical and tactical challenges of the player at their level and, in the case of beginners, is able to prepare them to excel at higher levels in the future. Even a legendary player like Federer, who in recent years experimented with not having a coach, realized he needed an expert’s advice, in his case to help him adapt to changes in the game and his physical capacity. This helped revive his career which really looked to be over.

For a young player, it’s especially important to develop a solid technical base that will allow them to more easily make changes and improvements to their game throughout their career. Hitting countless balls in practice will not get you very far if there is little or no attention to technique, in fact it will hinder your progress in the future. Hingis said that her mother used to make her hit 100 serves everyday and at least 90 had to be in. This kind of exercise will help improve consistency, but if there was no regard to quality then it’s no wonder that she never developed more power. And if Hingis’ mother thought that somehow this kind of practice would improve quality then she should have realized quite early on that she was mistaken, and if she persisted with it even after the point that it became ineffective in improving Hingis’ serve, well then Einstein would have considered her “insane.”

So make sure that you or your children receive proper training from a certified coach that will allow your games to develop for years to come. And when it comes to competition, don’t put match results ahead of development, especially early on. Good results early on are not a reliable indicator of future success, just ask all of the previous winners of the junior title at Roland Garros - Stan Wawrinka was the first player ever to win both the junior and pro slams in Paris! There’s plenty of time to focus on results once you’ve become the best player that you can be.

Coach Renato’s Tip:
Avoid insanity in you matches. Tennis is a sport with no time limit, so if your initial tactic is not working try to change it. Try to figure out what is holding you back from going ahead in the match and make some adjustments, there is always the possibility of recovering, even from the worst positions possible. Don’t allow yourself to get too much inside your own head, understand that your opponent also has doubts about themselves. Perhaps try to make them move more, try to play more consistently, go to the net sometimes, or maybe try to bring your opponent to the net. In tennis it is natural for momentum to swing between players. Look for what you need to do to grab the momentum and when you have it hold onto it for as long you can. If you need some help, consult with a certified coach. Above all, enjoy the sport and have fun with it.

Renato Amaral is a Senior Pro at Bahrain Tennis Academy and is an LTA certified professional. Email him at

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