I’m at the JOOLA North American Teams Tournament in Washington, and I had a revelation today.
I was playing a match against a higher rated player, the top on the opposing team. This is a “teams tournament” where you send out three players to play each of the opposing team’s three players, making nine individual match-ups. Your team wins by earning five wins out of the possible nine individual matches.
My teammates had already played this player so I got to see him in action before facing him myself. He had some amazing strokes. A powerful forehand loop. Textbook technique. Highlight reel stuff. He is clearly well-trained. I had already lost to his two lower-rated teammates and, seeing his amazing play so far, I assumed I’d lose again.
I’m thinking: Alright Arthur, just play your best, you’re going to lose, but just do your best anyways. Losing is a part of competing.
Surprisingly, the match started out in my favour. I already saw the serves he was using on my teammates, and I simply returned them rather defensively, returning his short, no-spin serves with a light touch back over the net. He’d often tap them back lightly, and this would go on for a few hits until he popped one a little high or a little deep, and I’d put a decent topspin on it, and might win the point a few hits later. Sometimes I’d get an outright smash opportunity. I was now winning 8-5. He hadn’t put out a single powerful attack that I had seen him give against my teammates.
Why isn’t he attacking? He must be giving me a few pity points. To avoid embarrassing me 11-2, he’s giving me a few points up front, then he’ll turn on the jets and destroy me.
A few points later, and I’ve won the first game. At this point I’m actually annoyed.
I’m thinking: You’re actually going to give me an entire game out of pity? Not cool, man. Just play your game and beat me.
I actually considered saying something to him about this but decided against it.
The match continued and was relatively close, and I ended up taking the match 3 games to 2. That’s when I realized, he was never giving me pity points. I just had the right strategy! That was my “aha” moment.
The right strategy is so powerful that you may really believe your opponent is giving you points for free!
This wasn’t the first time I thought I was receiving pity points. I thought back to a tournament I had played the previous year in Toronto. I played someone who had just dominated a much better player than myself, and assumed I’d face a similar fate. And throughout the match, as I was winning, I kept thinking that she was giving me free points. And then I won.
This just reinforces something I always knew deep down, that the match-up of individual strengths and weaknesses matters a lot more on the score sheet than someone’s overall rating. Nobody’s game is so well-rounded that they can handle all situations well. Some players have amazing forehand strokes but weak backhand strokes, and opponents can capitalize on that by playing to the backhand. Some players are great when they stand back and engage in looping battles but weaker with close-to-the-table play. Your decisions on what serves to use and what strategies to employ dictate the direction of the match.
This opponent great with mid-distance attacks. He can destroy deep balls. But in our match he rarely got to use those impressive power strokes. I returned his serves short, low, with little spin, and the point rarely went in the direction of his strengths.
The interesting thing is that his choice of serves enabled me to avoid his strength. He was serving short, low, and without that much spin. That let me return it short, low, and without much spin. Had he served long and with heavy spin, I would have had to return it long as well, and this would have started a series of those offensive rallies that he excels at.
This just highlights the importance of a good coach or playing partner that can identify these strengths and weaknesses during your tournament play. While you’re wrapped up in the stress of competitive play, they can observe your opponents and see how to best move the game towards your strengths.
With the right tactical choices, David can beat Goliath.