Consistency, The Holy Grail of Tennis

By Jane Voigt

May 20, 2014 -- Five-year-old kids slap at tennis balls willy nilly. They love it. They smile and jump, and will suddenly turn their pint-size racquets into swords as they push the limits of their tennis teachers. 

It’s not a big deal. That’s what kids do. They should have fun, when introduced to tennis.

The same is far from the truth for world-class tennis pros -- the ones traveling the world for the ATP and WTA Tours. If they slap at a tennis ball they mean it. Every point is serious business for them.

And the aim of their serious court business is consistency -- the Holy Grail of tennis. 

Rafael Nadal has been the most consistent player on red clay over the last 10 years, and has been aptly named The King of Clay. He has won in Roland Garros eight times, an unprecedented accomplishment we will probably never witness again. His record in Paris stands at 59-1. On his beloved surface the win-loss stat stuns the mind: 275-12. Beginning Sunday, May 25, he will strive for his 9th title.

Nadal was born and raised on this slippery surface. The sliding and timing on the ball is as natural to him as hard courts are to Serena Williams, who will defend her singles' French Open title in a few short days, too.

"Spectacular performances are preceded by spectacular preparation," wrote Frank Giampaola, author of The Tennis Parents' Bible.


But having been raised on a particular surface does not automatically mean a player will master consistency to then achieve greatness, which are measured by titles.

And nothing could be truer for a tennis player such as Nadal. 

Nadal, along with Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Steffi Graf, and Martina Navratilova were blessed with natural athletic abilities. But they also had to manage all aspects of their tennis career. And all those elements affected their consistency to perform well over time.

The list is endless of things that affect players. Many items have nothing directly to do with a tennis court, striking the ball, or a match. Here are a few: travel schedules, hotel arrangements, tournament selections, sponsorship requirements, court practice, gym time, relationships with family and coaches, management companies and their priorities and requirements, injuries, timing on the ball, serves, swing speeds, angle of the racquet face, types of tennis balls at this or that tournament, surfaces, time zone changes, match recovery, sleep, vacation, social media, press conferences, fans, more practice/less practice, strings, tension of strings, racquet choices, food, drink, alcohol, hair cuts, rain delays, and superstitions. 

So it's pretty clear that if someone could orchestra all the variables to then play perfect matches, we would be happy fans because we would not see 'bad matches.' 

But, that's impossible. Consistency and perfection can be sought, but will forever remain unattainable. Thus the great players set their sights on it, knowing they will encounter pitfalls and rainbows and keep moving in the direction of the Holy Grail. 

The pursuit of this asset in the modern game has become a science. If done well, it helps separate the very best from a virtually nonexistent realm of mediocre, by points.

Andrea Petkovic, Family Circle Cup, April 5, 2014. The German defeated Eugenie Bouchard in the semifinals, 16 63 75. The press asked 'Petko' what was going on in her head, during set one. "I wasn't feeling the ball badly. I was a little off in my movement. I just lacked that 5% that made the huge difference."

Five percent! She trains to minimize that sliver-of-a-difference in movement. 

Coaches, trainers, tennis psychologists, and management teams have banned together behind their star players in order to hone the muscles, minds, and motivation that competes for titles, money, prestige, and glory. These teams are fully aware they cannot completely cover the bases. However they must believe that their attempts will bring rewards.  

But what happens on bad days, when the premier player is down a couple sets and games and the reality of winning diminishes? 

Nadal's one loss at Roland Garros came in 2009 to Robin Soderling. The Swede went on to lose in the final to Roger Federer, his only singles title from this Major. On his way to victory Federer was a set from elimination in the fourth round against veteran Tommy Haas. Many fans will remember the cross-court inside-out forehand Federer struck in the third set. It seemed to loosen up the Swiss genius enough to swing momentum in his favor. He went on to win in five sets. In the semifinals, Federer found himself in the same position against Juan Martin del Potro. Yet he managed to win the last two sets overwhelmingly: 6-1, 6-4. 

Every player in the top 100 has what it takes to win a match. As Novak Djokovic said, "Tennis is a mental game. Everyone is fit, everyone hits great forehands and backhands." 

Federer holds the record for consecutive semifinal appearances at major tournaments -- 23. It came to a halt in 2011 at his favorite site, Wimbledon, against Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the quarterfinals. Federer was a set away from his 24th semifinal, when Tsonga fired from all sides and drove the train home for an historic upset. 

Belinda Bencic, a 17-year-old top-ten tennis hopeful from Switzerland, has made a stir this spring on the WTA Tour. Although too young to play a full schedule, she proved tenacious at Family Circle Cup and Madrid. 

Asked what had improved most in her game, Bencic told the press, "I think everything has improved a little bit. Just more consistency and more that my focus is always there. I can hold it through the match."

At seventeen, Bencic has her priorities in order.

On the men's side, and considering major tournaments only, Federer holds records across the board. He turned pro in 1999.

Titles - 17 (the most of all active, inactive players)
Finals - 24
Semifinals - 34
Quarterfinals - 36 (Jimmy Connors, 41)
Match wins - 265
Consecutive appearances at a Major - 57 (Fabrice Santoro leads with 70)

No active woman compares with Federer's records. However, Serena Williams comes close. She, too, holds 17 Major titles from 21 finals. She has also contended 24 semifinal matches. It's much more likely she will win her 18th Major in Paris rather than Roger, too. 

"Roger always shows up at the majors. He is consistent and has been a force for 10 years. You can count on Federer being there every season and every major. You can't count on Rafa. Rafa has injuries. Roger is the most important player, in the way he plays, too. He inspires kids to play in a similar fashion so they don't get hurt as much, and that it's not as physical, not as much as Rafa and Novak. It'd hard to say that Rafa has accomplished more than Roger just because of the sheer numbers of 13 [majors won by Nadal] and 17 [majors won by Federer," Mats Wilander said, in an interview with Down The Tee on May 18, 2014.


Club players who watch their favorites in awe can improve their consistency. It's about perseverance, and having fun.

Here are a few practical tips for improving consistency: 

  1. Play practices matches. 
  2. Use a ball machine; it's a wall and won't fail you.
  3. Play matches around your neighborhood or as part of organized leagues.
  4. Hit the gym, or work out at home, targeting abdominal muscles, shoulders, and back muscles. 
  5. Get a notebook and keep notes on your progress, insights, and goals. If you've given up on pen and paper, use your electronic smart device. 
  6. Play up. Pete Sampras lost multiple matches as a junior because he played in higher age groups. Maria Sharapova, too -- "I've been playing against older and stronger competition my whole life. It has made me a better tennis player and able to play against this kind of level despite their strength and experience." 
  7. Hit with someone you know you can beat. Nothing wrong with a confirmation of what you've learned from the big guys.

According to a 2010 USTA study, pro tennis players' annual costs are $143,000. Many lower ranked players, who cannot afford to travel to bigger tournaments, have turned to crowd-funding on the Irish website, Pledge Sports. Click on the link below to read the entire post from Bloomberg.

The Economics of Consistency
All players are not considered equal on the big tennis stages. Players ranked outside the top 75 cannot afford an entourage that manages things that can make a mind stray in a match. Some cannot afford a full-time coach. Going through shoes every couple days presents problems, too. So the road to a more consistent record is tougher. Many do not make it. These issues have been addressed by all four slams. Increases in prize money for players who win only one or two rounds has eased some of the economic burdens. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013