Borg on "Percentage Tennis"
From Bjorn Borg autobiography, My Life and Game (1980, with Eugene L. Scott, Simon & Schuster, NY).
On thinking about strategies (p.154):
What are the most important points in a match? For once, convention is correct on the subject - 15-30, 30-15, break point, and the first point of every game. But I've never hesitated beforehand to consider how I was going to win these points. I have played so many practice matches and so many tournaments that my game is instinctive. It happens that when I'm even or ahead and have a long point to play - break point, set point or ad against me - my instinct is always to play safe. If I'm behind, I take a chance and go for it. If I'm going to lose, I don't care - I'll hit away.
I don't have four different ways to play - I just own one game - top spin and patience from the back court. Because the plan is simple, it is easier to concentrate, there are no distractions, no problems.
I don't have to rely a particular strategy other than keeping the ball deep and high over the net to cut down errors; nor do I use any rally sequence if an opponent has a weakness. My selecting shots to probe his weakness is at random. In this way I can play by instinct and not get bogged down by having to think where I'm going to place the ball each time.
The process of deliberating how and where to hit the ball is incredibly tiring, and because I have the ability to turn on the "automatic pilot" and not fret over each shot, spectators think I'm so "cool under pressure." Doctors say my low pulse rate is healthy too; it means that my heart can send blood through my system with less pumping than my opponent's heart may have to do to accomplish the same function.
On Percentage Tennis (p. 157-159):
My conservative game forces rivals to take chances. If they do, the percentages work for me. If an opponent like Roscoe Tanner serves twenty-five aces against me in a match, he'll probably win, but he can't do this every often. My game forces him to play low-percentage tennis.
Percentage tennis means different things to different players. Jack Kramer's percentage tennis represents the traditional thinking that used to make sense. "Never serve to your opponent's forehand on a big point," and "Always underspin your approach (so it says low forcing him to hit up) to your opponent's backhand" - these were Kramer mainstays. And for his era they worked. In the old days, no one except Don Budge had a backhand weapon, one that was more dangerous than the forehand. Today, there are a dozen players, including Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Cliff Drysdale, John McEnroe and myself, who like nothing better than an opponent who hits to our backhand on a big point.
My definition of percentage tennis is different. It's not so much a matter of whether I hit to my opponent's forehand or to his backhand, because I think I can run down any attack and counterpunch effectively, no matter where the ball is hit. My synonym for percentage tennis is patience. I want to hit one more ball in court than my rival. I want him to think I'm much more patient so he'll make a mistake either in execution (racquet error) or in picking a low-percentage ripper for the lines. This philosophy works for beginners too. If a novice (or an intermediate player, for that matter) plays my way, he will aim most of his shots crosscourt, where there is more room for mistakes. If you aim a ball down the line and miss by an inch, you'll lose the point. But if you always think cross-court you can miss by two yards or more and still have the ball land safely in court.
Even I practice these beginner patterns when I'm having difficulty adjusting to strange conditions or to a particular opponent. I keep the ball in the center of the court, waiting until I have grooved my strokes.
Kramer was the first proponent of the Big Game, in which he followed both his first serve and his second serve to net on any fast surface and rushed in to volley even on his opponent's serve. Jack's percentages were set forth in terms of all-out attack. Frankly, this appears to be a contradiction to me. I'm not saying he wasn't successful. He was. And he certainly was a great player. But he didn't play percentage tennis the way I think of it - in terms of safety and caution. A net rusher is not playing it safe. He is daring you to pass him. Kramer won because he was bold and had the skills to back it up. He didn't play percentage tennis.
My percentages have more to do with my mind than with my strokes. I try to make my challenger believe he can't outsteady me. My cold attitude on court helps. I never applaud or acknowledge an opponent's good shot. I just go about my business, the next point. This, in a sense, is saying, "I don't care how spectacular one shot is, you'll have to hit two thousand exactly like it to beat me."
Remember that at the top levels of the game, weaknesses and strengths are only relative. In a sense, there are no weaknesses only comparative strengths. But this is not entirely true. There are fifty players who can volley better than I or Vilas. But we both have found that if our ground strokes are good enough, we literally don't need a volley to win. We can't be as reluctant to come up to net as Harold Solomon, but we both understand that we volley for surprise and to add a sudden dimension to our game when our opponents least expect it.
Re: Borg on "Percentage Tennis"
Nice read. Thanks.
Tennis of the 1970's and 80's. Consistency is the key.
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