No matter how much effort you put in on the practice court, if you can’t deal with pre-match nerves, you might never fulfil your potential. Nerves can strike at any moment – during the warm-up or when serving for the match – and anxiety can affect players of all ages and abilities. It affects different people in different ways, but whether you feel nauseous, get ‘jelly-legs’ or have trouble breathing – the outcome on court is the same. Your heart starts pounding, your muscles start to tense and you have trouble concentrating on the task.
Pardon the pun, but try to relax – there are ways to deal with anxiety. During training, set exercises to get used to playing under pressure. Your serve is often the first stroke to buckle, so set drills that help you get used to executing under duress. Andy Murray uses an empty tin of balls as a target, or use cones to create zones. Set yourself a target of hitting five or 10 in a row and, if you miss, you start again.
“I think at the beginning of the tournament is when you have the most nerves,” American No.2 Sloane Stephens said recently. “Once you get going, you think [my opponent] has done well, you’re both playing well, so it’s good we are this deep in the tournament. But I think at the beginning of the tournament, first round, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, please don’t lose first round.’ You’re worried about a lot.”
On the day of a big match, don’t worry if you wake up with butterflies in your stomach. It’s adrenaline, which is released by the adrenal glands to prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’. Once you’re on court, this adrenaline will be put to good use.
Arrive at the club with plenty of time to prepare mentally and physically. If you’re running late that will only add to the stress. Make sure you warm up properly and focus on your stretching to take your mind off the match.
Finally, take time to visualise, or mentally rehearse for the match. Close your eyes, take deep breaths and imagine yourself playing well. This should help reduce any feeling of nerves. If anxiety strikes midway through a match, try to maintain your concentration. Focus on every shot, block out your surroundings and try to treat each point like a practice rally. Try to relax, and play like you’ve got nothing to lose – it’s amazing how much you will loosen up.