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The Leading Edge

This article appeared in the December/January issue of Tennis Magazine.
It has been reprinted without permission.

Playing with a lead has its moments - some of them ugly. Let me show you the do's and don'ts. By Martina Navratilova

Wimbledon, 1996: Todd Martin races to a 5-1 fifth-set lead over MaliVai Washington in the semifinals, then inexplicably crumbles, losing 10-8.

Wimbledon, 1993: Jana Novotna is up 4-1 in the third set of the final against Steffi Graf and is a point from 5-1, then double faults and barely wins another point before falling 6-4.

Leads. Can't win with 'em. Can't win without 'em. Some players focus with a lead, while others fold under the pressure. And make no mistake, i is pressure. It's just as easy to blow a lead as it is to finish off a match. It's called the burden of winning, and if you want to conquer it, you must learn to play with a lead. Here's how.

Quick Tip
Too many players practice without
a purpose. They just hit balls.
They don't even play practice sets.
And that's bad. The only way you're
ever going to get comfortable with
match situations, like playing
with a lead, is to simulate those
conditions as closely as possible.
When I practiced, I always kept
score. If you're not ready to play
sets, then play to 11 or 21, but
always set a goal so that you keep
your concentration level high.


Hopefully, when you step on court to play a match, you have a game plan. If you've taken the lead, then some of the game plan must be owrking. And the sooner you can figure out which part, the better.

In other words, you must be able to step outside of you game and analyze it while you're playing. If you're executing your shots, then by all means, stick with what works. But if you're winning because of something your opponent isn't doing rather than something you are doing, you might have to make a few adjustments.

Just because you have a lead doesn't mean you're playing well. Your opponent could just be nervous or a slow starter. For instance, you might be missing most of your first serves and winning because your opponent is making errors off your second serve. That means it could be only a matter of time before the other players starts punishing your serve - and making a comeback.


In some sports, protecting a lead can be a smart tactic. For example, a football team up 20 points with five minutes left in the game can milk the clock with conservative running plays. In tennis, however, protecting a lead is a disaster waiting to happen. That's because there's no clock to save you. You can be winning 6-3, 5-2 but be up only one break of serve. Get conservative here and you'll find yourself at 5-5 and in a real dogfight.

The bottom line is that you can't protect a lead by playing it safe. You must keep doing what got you in this position in the first place. If it's been keeping the ball in play, then by all means, do that. But most of the time the player who is winning is the one who has been forcing the action and must keep going for shots. This is especially true when you're up agtainst a good player or someone ranked higher than you. It happens all the time in the pros. A lower-ranked player leading someone with a higher ranking will get nervous, abandon a winning game plan, and resort to hoping the opponent keeps missing. You can't give skilled players that kind of opportunity. The match won't end until you win the last point. So be brave and keep hitting out.

Quick Tip
Re-create specific match situations.
When I practiced with Billie Jean
King, I would be serving, cruising
along, and out of nowhere she'd say,
"It's 3-2, 30-30, Centre Court,
Wimbledon." Suddenly I'm there -
and I double fault. But the next
time she did it, I got the first
serve in. Put yourself in that
position enough times in practice
and it'll carry over to matches.
Remember: Practice doesn't make
perfect. Perfect practice makes


You're playing golf and your ball is sitting in fron tof a water hazard. You'll say to yourself, "Don't hit the ball in the water." Then you choose a club, take it back, and put your next shot into the drink.

This is an example of a players adopting a "don't miss" mentality. Instead of trying to hit a good shot, the players is hoping not to miss. It's a negative mind-set and a defeatist attitude. It's playing not to lose , which clearly isn't a formula for winning.

You can keep this "don't miss" mentality from destroying your game by saying what you want to do and not what you don't want to see happen. If you're faced with an important first serve, don't just think about getting it in. Think about what you have to do to get it in. Concentarte on the important things: tossing the ball in the right spot, keeping your head up, and swinging out. Pull back even the slightest bit and your serves will land short and your opponent will smell blood.


When you have a lead, it's easy to get complacent and start thinking ahead. You believe you've buried your opponent, so you can occupy your mind with other thoughts. Big mistake.

Just look at what happened to Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals of the 2000 U.S. Open against Russia's Elena Dementieva. She was serving at 6-2, 5-2 and must have thought to herself, This match is over; I'm in the final. Davenport relaxed a little and started thinking about the future and her opponent took full advantage. After being down a total of four match points, Dementieva looked around and realized she was still alive. With her second life, she played lights out, and Davenport got tight and ended up blowing a seemingly insurmountalbe lead.

Yes, Lindsay escaped with the victory in the second-set tie-breaker, but it didn't have to be that difficult. So don't get caught thinking that winning a game will win you the match. That's the future. Say to yourself, "I need to win this game. How do I do it?" Now you're thinking about the process, which will keep you focusing on each point and not the match as a whole.
Check List
1. Analyze why you're winning.
Are you playing well - or is
your opponent playing poorly?
2. Don't try to protect your
lead by playing it safe. Go
for you shots.
3. Beware of negative "don't
miss" mentality. Remain
4. Keep your mind rooted in
the present.
5. Stay relaxed and be
creative with a lead. Try
new shots that you need to


I loved to play with a lead. I was a good front-runner. But some players will get up a set or a couple of breaks and they'll relax. Problem is, it's not always easy to regain your intensity if the score gets close. Worse, you're inviting your opponent to make a match of it.

For me, the way to remain focused was to get creative. I knew that when I was way ahead, I could experiment and try somethings I'd never try at 4-4. But I could attempt them at 4-0. If they didn't work, it was just 4-1. So it's a smart time to play with shots you're not totally comfortable with. You might try a topspin lob or a drop volley. I'm a serve-and-volleyer, but with a big lead, I might play a few points from the baseline. Hopefully, you ocan execute these shots or tactics successfully and add them to your arsenal. Then, when you're in a tight match, you'll feel comfortable hitting them.