The Close

How to close out a game or even more significantly how to capture match point is huge and usually very challenging for the player serving. That’s not only because your opponent is trying to prevent your being able to score. It turns out that is when the receiver really is playing like it’s the final point of a match because it really is. The pressure on the server when looking to close out a game, which is often mostly self imposed, can grow depending on the tightness of the score and also it can escalate exponentially when it has taken several attempts to win that key game point.

As an aside, that brings me to refereed matches when sometimes refs even say the totally unnecessary, “Point serves… “(the receiver’s score)”. That’s obviously unneeded pressure being placed on the receiver. My advice is, as a ref in a event or as the server in a “friendly” game, just call the points for the two sides with your score first and then “Serves…” and the receiver’s score second. Don’t editorialize or say what’s obvious and already well understood.

Tournament refs seem to say it sometimes in hopes the game will just end and they won’t have to ref that game or match any more, and they may even say the more bizarre match point serves…. You won’t see it called incorrectly in high stakes, high level matches at tourneys too often, and if it is the ref might get a very quizzical look from the player being served as they turn to stare them down.

Now back to your server’s perspective on closing out a game. It’s about what should be going through your mind and what mindset works best to finish off a game. First, as server you’re totally in charge. Take your time. You either scored a point to get yourself to game point or you took the serve back by winning the last rally as the receiver. So, first, let that last rally go. Redirect your thoughts to only the task at hand. First, right away begin to proceed through your routine pre-serve ritual. Simply shake it out and get your rhythm while bouncing the ball, bumping it up against a wall or just loosen up your legs and shoulder.

Mentally battle through picking out your winning serve decision and we’ll discuss that shortly how to pick your serve and why. Then, once you decide, see *that* serve in your mind’s eye right before you let yourself do it. That’s pretty much the sequence for all serves, but there’s more at this key point in a match. The key difference is that this is something extra special. You need to come up with something really special to be electric by starting the rally with something truly exceptional. If you’ve a big score lead or there’s a big disparity in playing levels between you and your opposition, you could start the new rally by imposing your will upon the receiver with a serve intending to force a defensive reply where your receiver will be less than likely to take the initiative and, as some examples: they’ll be less likely to leap up for a high lob after its bounce rather than retreat and hope to hit a half decent ceiling; or they’ll intercept a drive Z right after its bounce; or they’ll take the nick lob as it falls off the sidewall. Those types of return tactics would be tried by someone with great skill and great verve, too.

Therefore, to force a weak return from even an extraordinary opponent it takes: (1) a serve they haven’t seen before in this match; (2) a serve that throws them a major curve; or (3) a serve that imposes upon them an unassailable challenge, i.e., an ace. The as yet unveiled tactical serve could be selected from among: a crackout just past the short line on the wall you face and you are near to; or a jam off the sidewall deep into the receiver’s backhand hitting zone; or a high nick sent deeper than usual and very softly into a backhand corner looking for the two wall corner crackout creating a high Z kinda bounce.

A curve serve could include: a little faster off speed lob; or that off speed or a drive serve aimed to be a little wider so it bounces, catches the sidewall at about 37′ and angles back to die right up against the back wall; or a drive Z with more sidespin causing it to bounce, pop off the sidewall and also diagonally zip back toward the back wall when your routine Z’s have been hit deep by angling tightly into the front corner making the ball bounce and then come straight out off the sidewall.

The last category is for your ace serve. There you have either a beeline driven ball into a back corner or you could go for another crackout variety usually from a cross-court delivery aiming to catch the sidewall back further from the short line. Both those ace deliveries had better be hit very low where when the serve is short that definitely beats leaving the serve up off the back wall or in any way angling out into the middle to be available to be crunched there where the receiver is usually initially standing.

Now take note I haven’t really discussed yet what could happen should the receiver get your served ball in play off your tried ace, your serve curve or your surprise delivery. Really you’ve an inkling what they’ll return based on past results from the serve you select. You have some concept of what you’ll do when they do what you expect them to do, BUT, even more so than your predicting or dictating your return before you see their serve, DO NOT PREPROGRAM your next shot after your serve. Do make it a major point of emphasis to let the peanut gallery spectate while you remain fully immersed in the moment through your efforts to bounce the box (i.e., get out past the short line), get into coverage commensurate with the effectiveness of your delivery and watch them like a hawk by immediately swiveling your head ball side, as you turn to look over your trail shoulder.

Cutting off passes with improvised, “owned” vs invented shots, like a well worn crunching, compressing 3-wall kill-shot is highly encouraged. Hitting a ceiling is much less so suggested because they get to shoot ceilings like you definitely will as server. Treat setups with great respect by making the easy ones look hard. Move your feet and produce composed feetwork to position yourself how you like to shoot and execute your stroke like clockwork. Do get on top of the bounce and be very assertive.

This is the TIME for first strike racquetball. Don’t move until you finish your #3 shot stroke and generally don’t hit your shot at yourself unless you plan to roll it to your feet. Even the slightest bit of a tail on the ball curving it away from you with imparted sidespin will avoid creating a situation where you take away an offensive op for the opponent and thus give them a tournament called penalty point or a recreational begrudgingly replayed rally and rep for you as a hinder player should you not fairly make the penalty hinder call on your lonesome.

Go for winners, like balls deposited in the front court whenever it’s reasonably doable based on your experience with (this type of) ball and executing short in the court shots. Play passes as keep away placements, while you avoid hitting <through them>. Hit wide of them or even completely around them. This is time to pull out a wide angle pass, especially when their positioning is too far forward or way too close to you leaning on your possible DTL. Shelve ceilings completely unless your back is up against the back wall. Be zealous, energetic, and tactically mean. Hit out vs push or flick or puff the ball around.

Play with basic enthusiasm which is infectious for you and off putting for the receiver. They’re the one who is walking on egg shells when your attack mode serve or shot placements are causing them to have to defend vs a situation when you might hit weakly and then they could go on the offensive themselves. Extra spin, changing angles, quick assertive feetwork to position yourself to shoot and tempo-based, bounce timed prep make you the alpha player and keep you leading the rally vs being too conservative or too much waiting for errors or mental mistakes from the receiver.

Also, time your stroke until you can just about reach out and snatch the ball right out of midair before you wind up to rip. Getting ready before you’ve read or timed the ball you chance being caught ready for one stroke, say a backhand, when you need to whack the ball against the back wall with your forehand. Also, running around doing an imitation of the Statue of Liberty robs you of efficient feetwork movement and the key ability to stroke with a smooth tempo that’s all your own. Getting ready too early is rhythm robbing, movement restricting and just simply premature. It’s not that you want early racquet prep. It’s that you want ON TIME RACQUET PREP.

Getting ready or just raising your arm and moving around is robotic and it’s before you’ve allowed yourself to ball track, bounce and spin read and be spatially aware to get you ready to cream that ball where you need to shoot your best shot to dominate vs just participating in the rally.

How do you get there? Now I’m not talking here about getting to game point. I’m referring to getting into position to win by how you’re drilling your repertoire of serves to test the receiver’s defense and also to play forcefully by having that go-to level you can call upon when it’s winning time. Being especially exploitive when you get even a half chance and having the tools to find ways to, for instance, shoot from chest high or play the ceiling you read is sliced with a quick dash forward and a short hop after the bounce or having the feetwork to turn your back to the opponent and trap them with your positioning.

Be certain to watch the opponent carefully and predictively to get any idea where they could be shooting their return and also watch them to know where they are when you’re shooting. That first kind of watching is the basis for anticipation and assertive defense turned vaunted offense. You can see where they are, how their feet point, what height is their contact, what their backswing size is and even what their expression portrays, either pressure or effort. Also, knowing their motion tells you when you can move as they fire their arm forward at the last second to make contact. The second kind of watching means you’re using your peripheral vision to keep them in the corner of your eye as you arrange your stroking base when you’re shooting. Don’t be in dive mode. Let them play getter. You’re now hitter. Move your feet taking that one more step to position yourself to shoot. If you do find yourself about to extend yourself out to spring across at floor level with a reaching body extension, take a swing and go for a winner when you can.

This is your chance to end the rally vs play backboard. That, again, is the receiver’s role. You’re mindset is to be instigator, initiator, lead sled dog. Also, only serve when when you’re good and ready. Tactically, as soon as the ref (or you) call the score, check out the receiver’s readiness. If they’re spun about looking at the back wall of clearly raising their frame, know that strategically you’ll still be definitely checking them again before you put the ball in play. So that’s no problem. Always still go through your pre-serve process.

Bounce, relax, plan, get psyched, and be all about letting yourself perform. Even when they’re signaling unready, you were going to check um once more as you were about to initiate your motion to verify that they’re playing you straight up by positioning in the middle and not off to one side or standing bizarrely up close to you by the dashed line. If they’re out of position, again, consider the option to play keep away. If they’re off to one side, consider a “pass” into the other back corner unless the stroke they’re protecting is so abysmal it’s worth hammering. If they’re too far up. Hit a WAP serve around them. Note that that the receiving player, when starting up near the dashed, usually will retreat as you’re going into your motion. Drill and have a quicker motion to catch them when they’re backing up. Being up there is a dodo play.

By the way, when the receiver is not signaling unreadiness, the whole 10 seconds is yours and you can use the whole thing and place greater pressure on them as they contemplate their predicament when they’re about to receive a serve at game point or even match point. That freezing them out can cause them to make a gaffe returning even a serve they usually easily handle.

It would behoove you to drill all of your serves and your closeout *closer* deliveries in particular ensuring you’ve got some really diabolical options to end a tight game or shape a serve that just about looks like the others, but has a nasty wrinkle or two. You’ve got to have a hip pocket nasty ending to close out the truly exciting, big match. The most important thing is serve accuracy and belief in what you’re about to do. After the serve is in play and returned then it’s all about playing with overbearing aggression and attacking as if there’s a shot clock on your shotmaking. End the rally when you can and run them ragged when you can’t.