“Everything—the whole world—is going very statistical,” says tennis coach Alistair Higham
, national manager of Great Britain’s college tennis team. “The game is moving forward in so many ways, but fundamentally, the journey of the match stays the same. Despite what many juniors think, matches don’t progress from good, to very good, to game over. They go through phases. There will be periods where it’s going well for your player, and they will also go through bad patches. We need to maximize the good patches and minimize the bad ones.”
In his book Momentum: The Hidden Force in Tennis
, Higham, who has coached tennis for 30 years, the last 20 at the national and international level, describes the concept of momentum and analyzes where it comes from, and why it goes away. “I work with tactics and psychology,” he says. “Your performance fluctuates. If performance is made up of mental, technical, tactical, and physical factors, what changes in a match? Technique probably does not change. Physically, you may get tired. Mostly, what changes are the mental and tactical elements.”
"If performance is made up of mental, technical, tactical, and physical factors, what changes in a match?"
Momentum hinges on turning points: crucial moments in a match that shift the balance of power. For example, Jeremy Bates, a top British player, once faced match points at 5-1 in the third set. But he hit two topspin lobs for winners and eventually won the match, “which is still talked about 15 years later,” says Higham.
Many things can become turning points: double faults, bad line calls, broken strings, lucky shots, net cords, outstanding play, or altered tactics, for example. “Missed opportunities can be turning points,” Higham says. “If they happen on an important point, like a break point at 5-4, that could be match-changing. You could even be thinking about it deep into the next set.”
But whether these are actual turning points depends on how one, or both, of the competitors react. Missing an easy overhead on match point could reverse the momentum, but if the player who missed it immediately regroups and wins the next point, he or she doesn’t lose ground.
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“You start over at the beginning of each set, and that creates a big opportunity for a turning point,” Higham explains. “The focus of my work is helping coaches and players really understand the journey and the demands of a competitive tennis match.” Higham now works with sports psychologist Ana Soares
, who is writing a doctoral dissertation on turning points at Loughborough University
in England. Her first study was published this year in the ITF Sports Science Review.
“There’s always a choice: play safe, or go for it?” Higham explains. “On a simple level, we teach them how to decide. Take Andy Murray—which is better, his backhand or his ability to work it out? He is always problem-solving—asking, for example, where does this guy hit passing shots? He is always calculating. There’s a lot of cat-and-mouse in Andy’s play.”
“There’s always a choice: play safe, or go for it?”
As national manager of Great Britain’s college tennis team, Higham has had some impressive results. At the 2015 World University Games, which, after the Olympics, is the world’s largest multi-sport event, his squad won a gold medal in men’s doubles, and a silver in mixed. In 2017, his team again won two medals. this time silver in the men's and bronze in the mixed.
One problem he faces is selecting team members, given that many U.K. college athletes play in the United States. “We’re faced with selecting British players playing in the U.S. as well as Brits playing in Great Britain. How can you tell who’s better if they don’t play each other? As of now, we can only use ATP And WTA rankings. With the growth of UTR Universal Tennis Ratings>, we get a more accurate and much easier way to make a comparison. A worldwide rating system has to be a great thing.”
UTR itself has lots of momentum. Join the worldwide trend by joining for free here.