Tennis is considered one of the few sports that can be played for a lifetime. If you begin playing tennis at a younger age, then you probably went through the “hit the ball as hard as possible” phase. Trust me, I went through/am in that phase, so I know what goes through your mind. “If I learn how to hit the ball hard all the time, eventually I will make that shot 9 times out of 10, so I would rather suffer the unforced errors now, and be just like Federer in a couple of years.” I feel like this kind of mentality exists, because well… hitting the ball hard is fun! When I initially watched professional tennis, I saw how hard my favorite players hit the ball, and I wanted to be just like them. After quickly learning that I am a mere mortal in the tennis world, I began to watch professional tennis differently. One of the main things I noticed in the higher-ranked players was their level of patience. Another word for this is “ball tolerance”, which means to understand what and when to hit a certain shot.
When I first thought about patience in the sport of tennis, I looked at the attitude of the player rather than the actual game style. After a lot of thought, I have changed my mindset and thought of patience as more of a game-style trait. Patience in tennis is more about knowing when to go for the bigger shots, and when to wait for your opponent to give you an opening. I have just recently noticed the extreme importance of this trait and thought to myself that many coaches do not focus on patience in a player’s game.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Naomi Osaka all come to mind when I think of professional players that exhibit patience and ball tolerance. These players are all considered aggressive but at the right time. We have all seen Federer hit that picture peRFect one-handed backhand winner up the line, but we rarely see him go for it in an average point. He waits for an opportunity: such as when his opponent closes in on the net, or he pulls his opponent to the other side of the court. Nadal does the same thing with his killer topspin forehand, showing his patience by holding back the flat shot until he is presented with an opportunity for a winner.
Denis Shapovalov (one of my favorite players) is a prime example of a player with little patience in points. He goes for the big winner ball more times than not which makes him hit a higher amount of unforced errors than someone like Nadal. This seems to be a pretty consistent problem with the “Next Gen” players, which is the sheer number of unforced errors they hit (I do it too!).
So how can we begin to incorporate better ball tolerance into our own game? For starters, even though it may seem obvious, just be more conscious of the position of our opponent. For example, if you and your opponent are both in the middle of the baseline that is not the time to go for an up the line winner. Try and move them around a little bit, create some open space that gradually turns into a gaping hole allowing a big winner! Another thing to keep in mind is to not get overly excited especially when we get that high ball on the baseline. Many times when we get floaters that come our way the only thing that goes into our head is “oh this is gonna be one for the highlight reel!” *BOOM* and… it hits the fence. Learning to control shots like that and keep your adrenaline under control is a key part of developing your tennis game.
To work on ball tolerance and patience I typically will try and grab a hitting partner who wants to work on the same thing. For the first drill, one player is the one focusing on controlling their adrenaline and picking the right shot, while the other player holds a rally and then purposefully gives a floater. The key to this drill is for the rally player to mix up what kind of floater they hit, but this drill helps both players learn to build a rally and handle the “easy” balls with patience. Another drill I would highly recommend is similar but rather than a floater give the player a shorter ball they can approach on, learn to control the approach shot, and make it set you up for a volley put away rather than hitting it as hard as possible.
Building patience and ball tolerance takes time and will require hours of practice. Those practice hours will eventually start to translate into matches and trust me you will understand the root of each unforced error. Many times unforced errors happen due to going for too much at the wrong time, so learning how to control yourself will help bring those errors down.