Winning UglyThe amount of insight that can be gleaned from Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly might be surprising since it is a “how-to-win” guide to tennis. The book emphasizes things that one can do to improve their play outside of improving their technique (for that Brad suggests taking lessons with a coach.) I’ve selected the top 3 parallels to our sport that I am implementing in my own fencing to discuss here:

Playing Smart

This somewhat obvious advice is the title of an entire section in Winning Ugly, but it’s not just a positive mantra. The book discusses elements that you should focus on to actively pursue smarter play.

  1. Scout appropriately. Record the weaknesses as well as the strengths of your opponents. Try to recognize any patterns they might follow. Most importantly, identify your opponent’s unforced errors. These are primarily technical mistakes, or an error that is seemingly made without pressure from the opponent. Those are the kind of situations you want to make happen in your bouts to pick up some easy points.
  2. Have a game plan. No matter who your opponent is, this plan should be rooted in the acceptance that there is almost always a way to win. Your plan should consist of two specific goals. What you want to make happen and what you want to prevent from happening. Once you have identified these two things, you will know how to fence once you are on strip.
  3. Bad calls happen. It is a fact of every sport that employs referees. Brad’s advice? Never argue over close calls. Choose your battles wisely. If you might have been late, or holding, or the opponent just might have started first, it is not worth yelling at the ref. Try more subtle approaches that aim to get the next touch, not the one that just happened. Asking the referee questions about the call tends to help.

Psychological Tactics & Gamesmanship

Opponents employing psychological tactics and gamesmanship are attempting to skirt the edges of the rules to levy an advantage over you. While the book discusses ways to utilize these tactics yourself, I have chosen to focus on 2 things you can do if someone is attempting to get the edge on you.

1.    Beating slow play tactics. This style of gamesmanship attempts to pull you back into the game at a pace you will not be comfortable in. For particularly slow play (the opponent who walks back to the end of the strip and takes off their mask after every single touch), try a little “icing” of your own. When your opponent finally comes back the en guard line, walk away and fix something of your own. The moment you realize that you are waiting for your opponent and just wishing they would hurry up and get the next point started, you are not actually ready to fence. Take a moment to focus instead.

2.    Put out the spark and not the fire. Anger can be a meticulously crafted weapon in sports. Opponents can do small, subtle things that they know are getting under your skin. Worse, spectators or coaches, or anything in the tournament environment might be throwing you off your game. Recognize these elements when they happen! If there is anything that can be done to eliminate these factors it needs to happen early. Once you are steaming mad, it might already be too late to undo the damage to your bout.

Advantage Points

Neither fencer in a bout treats all points equally. The point fenced at 14-14 is much more tentative than the one at 0-0. In Winning Ugly, Brad discusses the less obvious points in a match that should warrant particular attention.

1.    Setup points. While the equivalent match points (14 for DE’s and 4 for pools) already garner attention from both competitors, the setup points (13 and 3, respectively) typically do not. Recognizing a setup point as a critical moment of the bout will give you the edge over opponents who might only fence their best once their back is against the wall.

2.    Dictate points. This is especially true in sabre, but the first points following the 1-minute break offer a unique opportunity in the bout. If you are behind, if offers you a chance to break into your comeback with a new resolve that can shake your opponent out of their cruise control to victory. If you are ahead, if offers a chance to stretch out your lead and make your opponent doubt whether a comeback is even possible. The psychological effect of these few touches can be devastating.

3.    Closing out a match. 4-0 is an interesting place for both fencers. The fencer who is down is likely to pull out all stops so ‘at the least’ they are not closed out. The fencer who is up is typically faced with the anxiety of whether or not they can finish the bout 5-0 that weakens their play. Recognize this point in the bout (no matter what side of the score you are on) and what it means for your game.

Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis is a concentrated read of solid advice for any sport. It contains many other sections of things you can actively do that will improve your game and help you see more victories out on the strip.

Have you read this book?  What was the most salient point you took from it to apply to your fencing?  How does this book compare to Epee 2.0 to you (if you’ve read both)?

Getting Winning Ugly: Most local libraries have this book available.  You can also purchase it from Amazon, and if you use one of the links in this article then Fencing.Net gets a small commission.  On Amazon you can find the paperback version for about $10.



  • Andy, January 19, 2011 @ 2:17 am

    Wow, insightful………

  • Michaelhall63, January 27, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

    Excellent book. His ideas easily translate from tennis into fencing strategy and tactics.

  • Bridesmaiddressesuk, February 4, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    Wow! I’ve always love how to learn to play tennis. This is so helpful. Might as well try this weekend. Thanks!

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