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Winning Ugly. Written by Brad Gilbert and Steve Jamison. Summary by Emily Michell.

Updated: Dec 10, 2021


Brad Gilbert wins by being a thinking tennis player, he is the best at the mental side of tennis. His strokes aren’t always pretty but the mental side leads him to victory.

McEnroe: A Master Loses Ugly

When there are two players of equal ability, the one who’s aware of and takes advantage of the opportunities, dynamics, and openings before, during and after the match will win. Some players are brain-dead, they play with no thought or plan. Smart players know how to prepare correctly for a match.

Chapter 1 - Mental Preparation: The Pre-Match Advantage

Smart players review information about their opponent before the match as it influences early mental preparation. The warm-up should not begin when you arrive on court, it should start throughout the day and when walking to the court. After the match, smart players will review everything that happened during the match; what went well, what can be done differently, what did the opponent do. Mental preparation before the match will create a mental compass; knowing where you want to go and how to get there. It is important to know what the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses are and how to use them to your advantage. For example, if you know that they start making mistakes when their emotions get the best of them, try to make them frustrated by staying in every point, being patient and not making things happen too quickly. Gilbert was able to beat Boris Becker because he’d prepared himself for the game and the temperament of Becker. Part of his game plan was knowing what he wanted to make happen and what he wanted to prevent from happening. Having a strong understanding of your opponent’s tactics can help when trying to make a comeback. The mental compass can be a reliable reference point to get back on the winning course.

Chapter 2 – Tools of the Trade: How Equipment Can Help You Win

Serious tennis players make sure that they show up to the match with every possible equipment that they may need. Dehydration affects playing the game, so drink water before you need it. Serious players bring 8 or 9 rackets, with different string tensions. Tennis players pack their bag for every possible occasion. For example, they may bring band aids or another pair of shoes if they get blisters because not having something may be the difference between winning and losing. Packing your bag with equipment can help your brain know it is time to start thinking about tennis.

Chapter 3 – Stretching for Success

Serious players spend at least 3 minutes warming up their muscles, before a match. They do dynamic (moving) movements and then static (stretching) movements. The dynamic movements are circle the square, kick your butt and the high stepper. The static movements are the stork, bow to the emperor and the groin stretch.

Chapter 4 – The Microwave Warm – up: Defrost Your Strokes Quick

Each stage of the match should be recognized as having some potential for helping you achieve victory. When warming up your groundstrokes, try hit them deep and pay attention to what you’re doing. Don’t ignore your weak shots, the warmup is the no penalty opportunity to work on it. The smash warms up the serve, so make sure you practice it. During the warmup, focus on what your opponent is doing but don’t be too impressed with what you see in the warmup.

Chapter 5 – Four “Nervebusters”: Overcoming Pre-Match Nervousness

Bad footwork hurts your timing, your balance, your power, and your consistency. When you need help with getting through nerves, use the four Nerve Busters: Breath like you’ve got asthma, have happy feet, read the label, and sing a song.

Chapter 6: Start Smart: Grabbing the Early Lead

How to get the best possible start is to never serve first, start your match like Ivan Lendl, play the first two games correctly, and utilize the first pit stop. At the start of the match, your opponent hasn’t warmed up their serve, so receiving will give the opportunity to break them first.

Chapter 7: The Key to Victory

Study your opponent and come up with a game plan, using their strengths and weaknesses. Take notes during and after the match as writing down why you won or lost can make a difference in future matches.

Chapter 8: Destroying Your Opponent’s Game Plan

Some tennis players are most comfortable on the base line and will just keep getting the ball back (Retrievers). The way to beat them is patience, bring them to the net and slower is harder. When versing someone with speed, don’t let them run. When your opponent is attacking your backhand, be conservative and don’t hit a shot that your incapable of achieving. When your opponent hits the ball softly, don’t smack it. Power is less important than placement.

Chapter 9: The Seven Hidden Ad Points

The seven ad points are: the set-up point, the set-up game, the dictate games, stretching a lead, stopping the match from slipping away, tiebreaker tactics and closing out a match. When the match is slipping away, make changes strategically, mentally, and physically.

Chapter 10: The Players Pit Stop: Stroke Repair

When a stroke is failing, check your preparation. If you keep missing your serve, change the gear, stop worrying about service winners and more about starting the point.

Chapter 11: Learning from the Legends

Practice taking the ball 10 percent earlier for more damaging groundstrokes and move your racket and feet simultaneously. (Andre Agassi) Know where your own “personal pitcher’s mound” is and get to it. (Ivan Lendl) Believe in yourself, think positive thoughts about your game and your ability to win. (Boris Becker) Search for your opponent’s weaknesses and put pressure on them. (John McEnroe) Have a plan, stay with it, don’t get nervous if it doesn’t work and develop a style of play that best fits your strokes. (Stefan Edberg) Never give up, search for your opponent’s weaknesses, and turn your opponents serve to your advantage. (Jimmy Connors) Give the match everything you’ve got and don’t get put mentally or physically (Jim Courier)

Chapter 12: The Masters of Range: Connors and McEnroe

Ways to control your anger is to; put out the spark but not the fire, channel your anger, don’t beat yourself up, and have a safety valve. The way to beat McEnroe is heady stuff.

Chapter 13: Lendl’s Lethal Weapon

When your opponent is trying to slow down the play, be patient. Don’t let a turtle break down your concentration and your game.

Chapter 14: Agassi: Breaking the Speed Limit

Agassi moves faster between points than some players do during points. Know your speed limit because if you start playing faster than normal, you can get mentally sloppy and physically careless. If your opponent is injured, save your sympathy until the end of the match.

Chapter 15: How to Handle Hooking

Don’t argue with your opponent about line calls, as you might be wrong, and it can affect your concentration.

Chapter 16: A Million – Dollar Match: War with Wheaton

Its dangerous to get comfortable with a lead, so stay with your usual tactics. Just because someone has ‘ugly’ strokes, doesn’t mean they can’t make it on tour. Some tennis players have outbursts and yell at the umpire but don’t let it get to you.

Chapter 17: Tournament Tough All the Time

This book mostly discusses mental alertness, so recognise, analyse, and capitalise. The mental management can also have an impact on the outcome of the match but you have to take advantage of the opportunities. Make sure you are mentally and physically prepared for the match, so having pre-match preparation, tools of the trade, stretching for success and getting the early lead. Most of the time there is a way to win, you just have to find it. This may be by using the key to victory, destroy your opponents game plan, the “hidden” ad points, the players pit stop and learn from the legends. Mind games, psyching and gamesmanship is important because the most common errors that tennis players make are not thinking about what they're doing and doing it too fast. Have a plan and don’t rush.

Chapter 18: The Road to Number One

Winning ugly became one of the best-selling tennis books of the 1990’s. Andre Agassi even asked Brad Gilbert to be his coach and twelve months later he became world number one. Andre Agassi realised that believing in yourself can make a big difference as it increases your mental focus and confidence.

Chapter 19: Andre Agassi on “Winning Ugly”

Brad Gilbert can put his opponents under a microscope and see clearly where their flaws are and where they are strong, which can make a big difference when you are coming up with a game plan. The winning formula is for you to have different strategies for different tennis players. You also need to have a clear strategy of what you want to do and then work hard to force it on your opponent. Winning ugly has shown Agassi that there is usually a way to win, and it may just be staying positive and believing in yourself.

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