The Self-Similar Nature of Tennis

Tennis can be thought about at a number of levels, but each level is of a similar complexity to the level above or below it.  I will look at 3 of these levels.

The Level Most People Talk About: Individual Skills

One’s technique when hitting the ball, one’s movement on the court, and one’s conditioning (among other personal factors) are quite complex.  Being able to consistently hit the ball with the desired spin, pace, and placement is a sign of a player who has acquired a certain skill level in tennis.  Each of these could be broken down into individual strokes as I have certainly seen many players who may have a stroke that is far more consistent and imposing than the rest of this player’s game.

So we could look at the self-similarity of how complex it is to hit a good backhand as compared to the complexity of having a good overall skill set.  Still, that is not the direction of this piece.  Often when a player wins or loses, she might say, “I had a hitch in my forehand.”  A player might say, “I didn’t move well.”  A player might say, “My timing was way off.”  All of these may explain a loss, but if one thinks his fortunes in a singles match are solely determined by his own poor play on a given day, that player is missing entire levels of what is taking place on the court or is intentionally self-delusional.

Decreasing Magnification: The Complexity of a Match

Arthur Ashe upset Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon 1975 in large part by attacking his opponent’s game rather than playing to his own strengths.  Ashe, typically an attacking player, chipped off-pace shots to Connors’ forehand.  Ashe changed his game because Connors was #1 in the world and dominating tennis at that time.  The complexity of what makes up a player’s strokes and movement to the ball is no greater than the complexity of what an astute opponent can throw into a match.

Each player in a match hopefully adapts her gameplan to what is observed about an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.  Deciding to throw in more drop shots due to an opponent looking tired is a wrinkle made possible, but not necessary, from one’s skillset in the previous level of magnification.  If tennis is looked at from the perspective of two combatants rather than the perspective of a player doing drills to add skills, the meta-skill of decision making on how to adapt one’s game to the situation emerges.

Tennis strategy and tactics are of a similar level of complexity to tennis stroke production and movement.  However, what if we ask questions about how one responds to gamesmanship? to nerves? to past history?  Consider Andre Agassi slowing Goran Ivanisevic down when returning during the 5th set of their 1992 Wimbledon final.  Then consider Boris Becker being told by Nick Bollettieri that Agassi may do this in their 1995 Wimbledon semifinal.  The feedback loop between opponents produces a lot of intricate dynamics.

Increasing Magnification: The Inner Game

The Inner Game of Tennis will be getting a full review here soon, but the notion that non-technical obstacles exist on the tennis court is worth exploring.  Ashe attacked a technical weakness in Connors’ game.  Any of us who played with our parents might remember feeling a bit differently about holding our first match points versus a beloved family member than we did about a typical match point.  “What happens if I beat my dad?  What does that mean?”  Those type of questions could flow through our minds without a beloved opponent intentionally inserting that into the complexity of the match.

Similarly, love of/or anxieties about a certain surface, stage of a tournament, or venue cannot be simply chalked up to one’s skill set or one’s opponent while still impacting play.   There are many factors that may make playing our best tennis easier or harder that seem quite tangential to tennis but are wrapped up in our personal lives.  I played better in junior tournaments that were out of town rather than in my hometown.  Maybe there were fewer distractions, maybe pressure seemed lower if loved ones (my family never put pressure on me regarding tennis) were further away, maybe the drive relaxed me … The point is that the dimensions of the court were the same and the surfaces were nearly identical to what I played and practiced on at home, but somehow being out of town cleared my mind enough to play better.

Some people use anger to play better.  I don’t. (1)  I tend to let an obviously bad call or the employment of sharp practice on the court lower my level of play.  How does a bad day at work factor into one’s tennis performance on a given day?  An opponent won’t know if you are having a bad day, but your inner dispositions impact your play for good or for ill. (2)  Simply put, what is going on below the surface is massively complex and tends to have nothing to do with stroke production or an opponent’s strategies and tactics.


Simoma Halep’s improved “mental toughness” is credited with her major success in 2018.  This improvement likely dwells internally while impacting how her game adapts to and attacks an opponent rather than being a technical fix in stroke mechanics.

More than 3 Levels

I tried to limit this to three levels as my guess is most players look at tennis primarily at the level of improving a given shot, getting into better shape, adding more spin etc.  Obviously, becoming better at adapting on the court, scouting the opposition when possible, and generally embracing the one-on-one competition of tennis is another lens we tend to use.  Finally, the lens of how tennis players tap into or manage their psyche is a reality.

Each of these three lenses reveals a sport that is complex.  The individual nature of singles is one reason why it is so complex for a participant.  In many other sports, a player can specialize in a smaller group of skills and actions.  The complexity in these sports tends to weigh on the coach or team rather than on a single person.  A person could go crazy looking at the complexity of tennis in every imaginable aspect, but I think asking these three questions will lead to better play:

  1. How am I executing my shots and moving?
  2. What can I do to attack my opponent’s weaknesses and avoid my opponent’s strengths?
  3. What makes me tick on the tennis court?     

1. I tend to get unnerved when someone hooks a call or intentionally bends the rules to his advantage.  I don’t encounter this nearly as much as an adult, but it still happens.  I recall at a junior tournament an opponent was brazenly foot faulting while net rushing behind his serve.  I said something to him at a changeover and he correctly retorted under the rules of that tournament at that time, “Unless an official is on-court, a foot fault cannot be called.”  It was the first round of the event.  I requested a line judge early in the 1st set, but there were many matches taking place.  The line judge did not arrive until late in the 3rd set.  I won the first set despite him obviously knowing he was cheating and gaining a competitive advantage from it.  Neither of us was a great player, but the extra steps he was getting into the court did not really beat me.  What won the day was my disgust at him knowingly cheating and not caring.  My level of play dropped as my anger grew.  I could have probably done one of two things.  I could have just sat down until the line judge arrived standing my ground to his obvious disregard for the rules or I could have said nothing and ground out a win.  Continuing to play after raising the point about him wildly foot faulting put me in a poor frame of mind.  Knowing that anger doesn’t make me play better has helped in the future, but it was a bitter lesson to learn in that situation and at that age.

2. Sometimes a bad day can actually lead to playing better tennis as the court feels like a refuge or a place to work out some negativity.  A good day can have varied impacts on one’s tennis as well.



One Comment Add yours

  1. wamsico says:

    I am thoroughly impressed with your level of understanding of the game of tennis. It is obvious that you are a very high level player and thinker to compose such an article with a depth of understanding that very few could comprehend and gain insight from. I found your video fascinating and mesmerizing as it does illustrate that tennis can be delved into deeper and deeper levels than what is obviously seen on first glance.

    I share with my students all the time, “hit them the ball that they hate and you will have a chance to win, if you give them the ball they love then you will get destroyed!” The best example of this recent occurrence was when Vinci upset Serena Williams when she was going for her same year Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open. Vinci is a top notch doubles player so she could conjure up all the angles, slice, approach, volleys and everything else that could disrupt Serena’s powerful shots. Clearly, Vinci is no match for Serena if they were to play from the baseline as Serena like to move them side to side and finish them off with her rockets. Personally, I believe that has to go down as one of the biggest upsets in tennis history as the scale of that match is equivalent to Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson when he had never loss a fight. No one expected it, probably not even Vinci. So everything you shared is paramount to winning and being successful in tennis. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, insights and knowledge. It is truly appreciated! Don

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