My friend Frank died on the tennis court of a heart attack. I played with him for 24 years, sometimes 60 times a year or more, and we never had a cross word. He was a great partner, a perfect sport (too generous on line calls), and one of the funniest people I ever knew, with a dry, sarcastic wit.

Frank knew how to pick his partner up after a bad mistake or a loss of confidence. One of my favorite sayings of his was usually given in response to a missed “sitter” (volley or overhead). If I started to whine about missing an easy “putaway” volley, Frank would cut me off and simply say, “No such thing.”

And he was right. The putaway shots, volleys and overheads, are the most complex shots, requiring that one deals with a lot of variables, often without a lot of time to think about it. We often feel the pressure to “put it away” because our opponents are in a vulnerable position, and if we don’t finish the point here, they can neutralize the rally, and steal the point. We also don’t want to let our partner down by failing to “finish them off.”

But there is no defense for a ball you hit into the net, which often happens on putaways. Those misses are heartbreakers and momentum changers. Try to avoid them above all. When approaching a putaway, try to get into position to hit the ball firmly into the area you think it will be best to keep the advantage. Don’t worry about where the opponents are, or you may take your eye off the ball. Get up to the ball, and make a nice firm, safe shot, not going for too much.

But really concentrate! If you get close to the ball and find something is not right, abandon ship! Suppose their lob had more topspin than you realize, and you are about to contact it lower than the ideal spot. Or there was wind, or sun, or your feet betrayed you….or you have the wrong grip….what then? Just be consistent. Push the ball back if you have to…massage it deep down the middle….put a little spin on the overhead, like a second serve….drop it back. Anything to keep the point alive……Often the soft ball in this case will work because the opponents were not anticipating it. They were expecting the smash or a firm volley, and are back deep in a defensive position. Even if they get to the ball, they still have to come up with something good. If they neutralize the point, be patient, and restart the point. If they hit a winner, tip your hat to them and begin the next point.

Another thoughtful tennis friend who won a lot, and died too young, said that he thought the most important thing to think about when hitting an overhead was “Consistency”. Not “power”, not “footwork”, not “placement”…….All those things are important, but if you hustle, and concentrate on completing the shot, in the long run, the odds will be with you.

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