Why would a tennis player always play better on the second or third set?


New User
We are both adult, older players. I am 48, she is 40.
I am a mid/upper level 4.5, She is a high level 4.0 or lower 4.5.
She always seems to do a lot better on the third set.
And it's not just with me, she usually plays better on the third set with everyone she plays with.
Today for example, I won 6-1, 6-3, then last set today she was beating me 5-2.
I am a counter puncher, she is aggressive, good forehand, but not so fast.
On the third set she stops making errors and makes me run, hitting good shots and winners.
Why is that? What should she do to play the first set like she plays the third?
She is on my team so I am trying to help her, so need some advice.
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Could be a bunch of things:
- If she is making less errors later in a match perhaps it's because she starts tight, but then is more relaxed by the third set. Especially if she is losing and so feels freer to swing out since she has nothing to lose.
- Or perhaps the aggressive shots she is hitting pay off more later in the match when the opponent is tired. Maybe those shots are not winners early on when the opponent has fresh legs, making her have to hit extra shots.
- Maybe she starts off wanting to impose her preferred aggressive style of play on her opponent, and is too stubborn to change this when it isn't working until late in the match.
Impossible to say though without seeing her play.


Hall of Fame
Or it is possible that she is fitter than her opponent .... the opponent starts getting fatigued in 2nd and 3rd set and starts making more errors

I tend to play better late in the 1st set and better still the 2nd ... combination of a lot of things:
I start tight
I learn what opponent likes/doesn't like and I make adjustments
I am fitter than most and that makes a bigger difference later in the match


The ball gets old and doesn’t fly out as easily late in a match - so, she doesn’t make as many errors. I know many aggressive flat hitters/servers who are harder to deal with when the balls get old. With new balls, they are error machines with low first serve % relatively speaking.

I have different strategies for how I play against opponents with old balls vs new balls. For instance, I might avoid serving to a FH early if it is a weapon, but will serve to it more with old balls as they can rarely hit it like a weapon past me with old balls. The BH slice return that was a nice midcourt put away with new balls becomes a drop shot with old balls and needs to be avoided. Using the court space up/down vertically becomes more of a weapon with old balls while moving the opponent laterally becomes less effective. It is easier to lob well and pass well with old balls. Many examples of how the condition of the ball changes the point patterns.


Hall of Fame
I know for me I just have a hard time taking the match seriously from the start. It’s almost like getting a week to turn in homework, I’m doing it the night before it’s due. In tennis I’m turning it on halfway through the second set.


Hall of Fame
I can think of many reasons:

- She takes a while to get warmed up
- Her competitive drive kicks in more slowly
- Her stamina is better and that is more obvious as the match progresses
- It takes her a while to get "locked in"
Pretty much all of those. Im a slow starter as well. 1st set Im just kind of feeling out the opponent and trying to figure out how much effort Im going to have to put in. By the end of that set Ive finally gotten loosened up and dialed in my shots. If i lost that 1st set than my competitive nature is going to kick in and Im going to come at you much harder. By the 3rd set I usually have more energy than people at my level and age.

something else that just occurred to me is that Im an average server but am really good at returning and breaking serve. So you assume my service games remain about the same throughout the match but the more I see my opponents serve, the better I get at timing my returns and noticing their serve patterns.
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New User
Fitness for me. I do triathlons and many rec players are good for one set and then out of energy by the second. On my team of 12, only one other guy actively runs on off days to keep up with fitness. The others just show up and hit balls and that’s their fitness

Anyways My goal first set is to hit crosscourt rallies for as long as possible. If I’m in a good rhythm I run them side to side baseline for as long as possible to get them tired.

Run them out of energy and then finish strong late first set and clean up second set. If we playing three sets, it’s an easy win by then.

I think if you had to ask a rec player to just run one mile, they would gas out by .5 mile and be walking by the end.

Fitness is a game changer for rec tennis. Now if you playing college where everyone is level and equal- then that’s a different story
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Hall of Fame
I would say that as a general rule most rec players start slow (for the reasons outlined above), peak in the second set, and drop off in the third as fatigue sets in.

If a player comes out crushing everything in the first set I usually figure I am in for a long day (unless they're a butterball/geriatric who I can expect to flame out quickly).

If you're fit, focused and warmed up then you can finish a lot of matches in the first 20 minutes - plenty of players who can be 0-5 down before their brain has left the carpark


need to warmup and when its hot u don't want too for long, but it takes awhile to get blood pumping.

If you notice, fed, novak, nadal lose the first set quite a bit


Hall of Fame
I can think of many reasons:

- She takes a while to get warmed up
- Her competitive drive kicks in more slowly
- Her stamina is better and that is more obvious as the match progresses
- It takes her a while to get "locked in"
#1, 3, 4 are exactly what me and my mixed doubles partner have.

The number of matches where we've dropped the first set, be it getting stomped or in a close tiebreak, to then come back and comfortably win then next two has been numerous.

We're both just very slow to start and both take a while to get used to how our opponents hit, the timings etc. (probably because we're lazy with our footwork :whistle:).

I believe the first few balls of the warmup she always complains that she feels like she's forgotten how to play tennis (no matter how much/little she's played recently).