What is the difference between junior high performance tennis and D1/Professional Men’s and Women’s tennis? What do the best players in college and most players on tour do that most juniors do not?
There is more to it than physical development and power/consistency in the rally. There is more to it than the mental/emotional maturing needed to compete at the highest level. There is a wide variety of technique that players are able to be successful with. Beyond these physical/emotional/technical aspects of development there is a key tactical element which is a critical area for those who aspire to play D1/Pro tennis.
As the director of a High Performance (“HP”) program I have developed players from very young children to US national level players for 10+ years. Throughout my time working with HP players I have been studying the tour, watching pro matches/practices, reading articles/interviews, joining HP courses/webinars, etc. Recently, I have had the privilege to coach players as they transition from national level juniors to top college and lower professional level players. This is an article on the mental and tactical requirements to transition from the junior level to the College/Pro level.
This transition is one that many talented players never make. It is a transition that requires vision, bravery, and commitment to growth. It takes years to develop the game for men’s and women’s high performance tennis. It is something you need to work on for a long time. Ideally you are always developing towards this vision, but at least by 13 or 14 years old you need to dedicate a good portion of your training to a complete and aggressive A game.
You can find success at the junior level without power/aggression using a high level of consistency, mental strength, and physical toughness. In order to get to the next level, you will need to develop your A game, particularly, your weapons to be used for serve/return +1/2. Below is a breakdown of the priorities for training your A game and for Men’s and Women’s tennis. If you have, and are working on, your A game mentality, be patient and keep coming with it. It takes time, but in the long term it will separate you from many good players and help you reach your ultimate potential. For those of you who do not yet have an A game mentality, you need to do what Medvedev did in the Australian Open final he played against Sinner 2024:
“I managed to raise this level and become a different person with a different mentality.”
– Daniil Medvedev
If one player can out rally the other player 60/70+% then all they have to do to win is extend the points into long rallies, mix your shots with variety, and patiently wait for the error, especially on pressure points. It is very easy to do this and get to the L1 level in junior tennis with enough talent and/or practice. Many players are able to achieve this without good technique, coaching, tactics. In a tournament match you can out rally your opponent 3+/5 points, stay relaxed, play patiently, probe them by mixing in a variety of shots, and beat them with a stingy mentality. If you’re not yet finding much success in this way, work hard on your movement, consistency, variety, and mental game, and you will get there.
You are now playing someone that you do not have a clear advantage of in the rally and your opponent can be more consistent at times and/or they can finish rallies by forcing errors and hitting winners. How are you going to win? This is what you experience when playing against the best junior/college players and all of the pros. This is when serve/return +1/2 and the short points become a lot more important. In this situation you can either continue trying to extend points, out rally, probe with variety, and believe you will keep it close and win by making it a physical and mental battle. This is your B game. Or, you can play your A game. Play aggressive in the first 2 shots and make it a game of aggression/strategy rather than who’s better in the rally. Many juniors do not have this A game so really have no chance when playing someone who is more consistent in the rally. As the age/level goes up, so does the percentage of points that are in the 0 – 4 shot range. On tour it is over 50% nearly every match and usually in the 60-70% range. So always work on your A game, particularly on serve, otherwise your development will be limited and your level will plateau prematurely.
Everyone’s rally level is in constant flux. Work to stabilize yours and get good at adjusting in match play between tactics A and B. Also, controlling the gradient between them as they are not two options but two sides of your full spectrum of options. Most top juniors are good at their B game. Few are close to having their A game as a viable option because they don’t practice it enough. Ultimately the key is to be aware of how you and your opponent’s rally level is fluctuating due to fatigue, weather, tightness, etc. With that awareness you must decide point by point to play A game or B game. Once a commitment is made, you need to control the aggression within that tactic to manage errors and apply as much pressure as possible.
“What made me decide it was my physical condition, I knew that I’m not going to be able to play long rallies because Jannik can, he can stay there,” Medvedev said. “But I knew that today I’m not in this shape so I needed to make the points as short as possible. I knew there was still going to be long points but I needed to make the points as short as possible. Take his time away, and it was working well. To be honest, I think it was working well – until the end.”
– Daniil Medvedev
- “A game”: is simply playing aggressive on the first two shots and always looking to take control of the point, first strike tennis. Looking to force errors right away before the opponent can do the same or get neutral in a rally. This does not mean the remainder of the point continues with aggression once in the rally. Depending on the state of the point, it may be best to continue playing aggressive and look to win in the 5-9 shot rally length. Often times it’s best to play your B game and look to win long rallies once your A game fails to earn an advantage or error/winner.
- Serve: At the highest level there are two primary aggressive serve patterns. One is to serve wide, hit +1 wide to the other side. If the rally continues then attack angle on +2 if +1 was down the line. The second is to serve Body or T and attack angle on +1. At the highest level, hitting +1/2 balls inside the side lines to start points doesn’t work often on serve. If you are doing this, you are essentially playing your B game to start the service point. Generally, players at the highest level are too good to consistently give them neutral starts in points if you want/need to hold serve most of the time. Against the top players, and against a player who can out rally you, a server will usually lose points if they can’t execute one of these two primary patterns. Once these primary patterns are established, secondary patterns of wide/behind and serve/volley can be effective.
- Return: On return you need to neutralize and defend those two primary serve patterns well. You can do this with great depth/pace/width on return. Also, great counter punching outside the sidelines and in the corners on return +1 can neutralize the servers A game. You should practice these two skills a lot, returning and counter punching, because if you can do these things consistently well then your return games will come down to who is better in the rally. You can then adjust and control aggression to manage your return games.
- 1st Serve %: High percentage of aggressive first serves is the key to taking advantage on serve/return. It is very difficult to execute aggressive +1/2’s if the serve/return didn’t produce an advantage. On serve, this means getting consistent with your wide serves and producing good pace/depth/spin on your Body/T serves. Doing these two things well with your serve will produce a lot of neutral or weak returns to hit off the court with your +1. On return, you need to use position and quality of returning to force the server to go for bigger serves with less margin. This will lower their 1st serve % and increase their +1 errors.
Examples of Winning Tactics
- When A game has got you in a winning position, be brave and continue playing A game in pressure points. Try to prevent your opponent from building confidence and consistency by keeping the pressure on.
- When A game is not working go to B game with deeper court position and more margin. Even if B game is working, once you get into winning position with the score line, gradually get A game working and confident. Don’t depend on the B game continuing to win. Try to win with A game. If A game still isn’t putting you in a winning position then continue believing in B game on pressure points.
- If your B game isn’t working. Don’t hesitate to play A game even if you’re missing. Often getting A game going is the only chance when the opponent has a superior B game.
Examples of Losing Tactics
- When playing A game and winning to start playing B game because of nerves when you are on the verge of victory in hopes that the opponent will give you the match with unforced errors.
Adjustment: When the nerves come (and they will), be brave, trust your game, and win or lose, continue playing your A game on pressure points.
- When playing B game and winning a close match starting to play A game due to nerves and an impatient desire to get out of the match.
Adjustment: Continue pressuring with patience and discipline if B game is working. Deal with the nerves by focusing on your routines and committing to put in the work. Make your opponent work hard for points, and grind it out.
- Playing B game in a winning position and never try to get A game working allowing opponent time and opportunity to build confidence and rally level.
Adjustment: When in winning position start attempting to get A game going when up in the game, 30-0, 40-15, etc. Even if you are not winning points with A game it will help to prevent your opponent from finding rhythm. Continue to play stingy with B game on the first point or two of each game and all pressure points.
- To ever “just get the ball in” on serve or otherwise.
Adjustment: Work on building awareness and using routines between points to evaluate tactics. Even if you’re winning easily, or if you’re a player who likes to simply get in the zone and be consistent, at least play with the purpose of using high percentage patterns and/or margin. This will allow you to have a high 1st serve %, get loose, and improve the level of your rally ball. Keep intention and always try to improve your level.
Nobody can play their A game on every point. The pros often talk about how they are trying really hard to stay aggressive all the time. They say this because it is hard to do so. With the pressure the opponents apply, we are often forced to play our B game. But, the best players are constantly reinforcing and intending to play their A game, even when they are forced to play, and winning with, their B game.
If you are currently, or envision yourself, transitioning from the juniors to D1/Pro tennis, then you need to work a lot on developing your A game. Get to work.
-Live article originally published on 11/31/2024.
Author: Bryan Richter, head coach at Pure Pace Tennis Academy