I was recently consulting with a player—we’ll call him Fred—who told me he played a match where he was up a set and 4–1, got overconfident, relaxed and lost. This wasn’t the first time it had happened to Fred, and he wanted to know what to do about it. “Fred,” I replied, “you weren’t overconfident at all. You were just putting off the stressful and dirty job of finishing.”
In general, as sets or matches near their conclusions, stress grows. One-all and two-all games are not terribly stressful. But as you reach four-all or five-all, or if you are serving for the set or the match, the pressure intensifies. Winning the last few points against a determined opponent can be tense and difficult. And there is a vast chasm between getting close to winning and actually winning.
To win, players must somehow cross this chasm. All players instinctively sense that it exists, though they may not consciously focus on it during the match. This is where a looming task, mixed with some level of insecurity, can make finishing the job more difficult.
In Fred’s case, he felt like he had a comfortable lead. But he was playing a strong opponent, and he would soon have to face and overcome the high-pressure games standing between him and victory. Fred was not mentally ready to face up to it. So he allowed the score to give him an excuse for procrastination. He deluded himself to avoid doing the dirty work.
Instead of hoping a match will continue on its established trajectory, we have to make it go in that direction. The first part of this process is to clearly identify the dynamic of the situation—our instinctive tendency to shy away from disagreeable tasks. Fred’s subconscious procrastination was perfectly normal.
On the other hand, losing is unpleasant. So when you are ahead, force yourself forward. You must be prepared for the normal tendency to relax when you are leading, and be deliberately determined to counter it. Never be satisfied with a lead, no matter how great it is. Keep working to open a wider gap between you and your opponent.
It is no disgrace to lose because you became overconfident. On the other hand, it is perceived as weak to have your opponent down, try your hardest to win, and choke away your lead before losing. In either situation, you didn’t get the job done.
Being a bit of a choker myself, I didn’t look forward to serving out a match with only a one-break lead. I always wanted a bit of extra leeway in case I got nervous at the finish line. With a extra “insurance” break, you will have an additional chance if you falter on the first one. Go get it.
Whether you’re leading by a lot—or not—keep your intensity up every chance you get. If you do, the probabilities of a victory will be in your favor.