Yes, it is true that a fine line separates reckless abandon from prudent aggression, but fine lines are universal in sports.
Every athlete has to learn how to push him/herself far enough while staying centered and focused, being supremely energized but in a contained and harnessed way.
Every sport contains hugely athletic performers with considerable natural ability. Honing skills, polishing reflexes, improving responses to pressure — these are the things which create separation between the elite champions and the second- or third-tier performers.
In tennis, one of the central tension points — one of the foremost “fine lines” in the sport — is the battle between playing “percentage tennis” and “going for it.”
To an extent, one could say this is a false dichotomy. One must know when to be patient and when to go for broke. That much is true. Not every shot can be a howitzer, and not every shot can be a conservative two-hand crosscourt backhand in the middle third of the court. Tennis, it can be said, is based on knowing the difference between the timid play and the wise play. Players don’t have “styles” so much as they learn how to handle each match, each opponent, each situation.
The argument makes sense.
Yet… I find the argument (as reasonable as it is) limited.
Yet, while players OUGHT to think about tennis as a sport which calls upon so many different dimensions of skill and responsiveness, that isn’t the sport we actually see today — not entirely.
Too many players play a limited kind of game. Too many players ARE limited stylistically and in their shot selection. Too many players define the sport and what they can achieve in relatively narrow terms.
Too many players have only a Plan A, only one fundamental way of winning. It shouldn’t be the case, but it IS.
Therefore, this larger dichotomy between passive tennis and aggressive tennis — as much as it might seem like a false choice — remains relevant in the current landscape. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t be a distinction, but this isn’t an ideal world.
Players who are young and learning how to develop a more complete game should obviously try to build more shots, more tools, more paths to victory. Yet, that is a long-term project, not a quick fix. In the meantime, this balance of caution versus aggression becomes one of the most central juggling acts they must perform.
Within this context, then, a basic truth emerges: Be willing to accept imperfection. Be willing to accept mistakes. Be willing to accept losing plenty of points. Know that failure is part of the process. Don’t allow that failure to create timidity under pressure.
This larger lesson emerges in multiple ways. One way is the need to rush the net, and more precisely, being willing to get passed many times. Players must learn to accept that they will get passed a lot, and lose many points. No matter — keep charging, keep attacking (in reasonable contexts, of course). It will pay off.
Another basic way of embracing imperfection is the one Dayana Yastremska demonstrated in her big win over Sofia Kenin on Wednesday at Wimbledon: littering the stat sheet.
In this battle of formidable young players who figure to have several (if not more) moments of major-tournament glory in the 2020s, Yastremska not only played the big points better (saving two break points at 1-1 in the third). She did something more specific: She played the big points fearlessly.
Yastremska hit 46 winners and made 46 unforced errors. The numbers aren’t dazzling, but they do tell a story: Yastremska wasn’t consistent in execution but WAS consistent in playing a particular way.
I wouldn’t think that Yastremska, at age 19, has many different playing styles to call upon. Against the 20-year-old Kenin, who has already made a name for herself on tour with a resilient identity and a penchant for fighting through rough patches in matches, Yastremska knew she would have to stare down many difficult scoreboard situations on Wednesday.
She constantly looked those situations squarely in the eyes and met them with big shots.
Sure, Yastremska missed quite a lot of shots in this contest, but she made the ones that counted, refusing to step off the gas pedal and trusting that her aggressive way would carry the day.
It might seem unwise or limited, and yes, players do need to find Plan Bs and Plan Cs as they evolve, but let’s give 19-year-old players time to engage in that fuller, longer process.
On Wednesday, Dayana Yastremska had to trust her ballstriking ability under pressure. She did… and she was able to carry it off against a quality opponent.
Yastremska embraced imperfection and reaped the rewards.