How to Practice Tennis to Win ( Part 1 ) – The French & Aqeel Khan Way
Have you ever visited clubs or tennis academies across the world and seen some practice matches? The players look like a million dollars. Hundreds of balls flying across the court in jet speed with massive shape, players sliding left and right like Gael Monfils on fire, mental strength akin to Rafael Nadal.
Is this a prodigy before your eyes?
Next weekend’s junior tournament reveals the same player in a completely different avatar. Nervous, angry, ball-striking skills all over the court and sub-optimal performance.
Why does this happen?
Players are constantly reminded to “hit good quality balls” in practice. Defocus on winning or losing. And they play without any fear. Once the real match starts, match-winning thoughts take over, ego comes in the way, and players mentally lose their way.
It's well known that the French produce the most versatile players on the tour. If you go to clubs across France, you will see a distinct focus on competition at all levels. Players are encouraged to analyze what the opponent is doing and constantly figure out ways to win the matches. Of course, they are also taught good mechanics and quality ball-striking, but the context is all within the application of strokes to win the match. The players from early childhood play a lot of matches both official and unofficial and become gamers rather than hitters. And you can look at the game styles of French players and no two-player plays alike. Monfils, Gasquet, and Simon all have different styles.
Many players have not heard of Aqeel Khan outside of Pakistan. He has been no 1 singles player in the men’s category on and off for over 2 decades. He plays Davis Cup for Pakistan and had also won ITF futures earlier in his career. He had a mid-300s ATP ranking but stopped pursuing a pro career because of lack of financial support. At 41 years of age, he still holds a 12.33 UTR. By all accounts, Aqeel is an accomplished player.
I met Aqeel in November 2021 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Aqeel takes mimicking practice match to real match philosophy to a whole different level. He told me that he is always treating practice matches like real matches. He is always trying to win them and figuring out what is working and what is not within these practice matches. And if he plays his peers in practice who he runs into frequently at matches, he doubles down on the focus to win those matches as he does not want his opponents to believe that they can beat him. Aqeel does drills to improve and work on things as well.
Where do you fall in the spectrum? Are you more of a practice player, or a match player?
Could you benefit from putting more emphasis on your practice matches? Or do you need to relax and have fun while casually working on things in practice matches? Identifying what works for you mentally and physically can help you successfully continue your tennis journey.
In another segment, we will share how former ATP number 21 views practice matches using a slightly different focus. We wish you all the best.