2003 USTA National 55 Grass Championships


Over the last two weeks I have been preparing to play in my first 55 and over
tournament, the National 55 Grass. It is being played at Rockaway Hunting
Club in Cedarhurst, Long Island. Rockaway is the oldest club in the country and
steeped in tradition. Of course, all white clothes, best behavior and no cell
phones allowed on the premises. This tournament offers me several new
challenges. Coming into the age group as one of the top players in the 50s makes me a
bit of a marked man. I have been seeded #1 so everybody is eager to get a shot
at me. Being seeded #1 in a National is a wonderful acknowledgement of the
past year but it is unrelated to how a player is doing in the present. Being
seeded #1 in a tournament is particularly enjoyable during the couple of days
before the first ball is hit. Lots of external gratification and talk about how
great it looks like I am playing. Of course, being seeded #1 does very little to
help win a match. It still comes down to playing good solid tennis day in and
day out. Another challenge will be playing a big event while staying at home.
I need to treat this event as if I am away, where I can focus on those things
that help me play good tennis. Practicing, eating right, stretching, hot tubs
and just, generally, being self absorbed. Carol has already given me the ok.
In fact she insisted that I cancel a couple of lessons that I had scheduled
for today. Even though my first match is tomorrow she reminded me that I need to
be in that match frame of mind starting on the first day of the tournament.
Her support always makes my commitment easier.

After playing on the clay in Europe my confidence was a little down. I was
feeling that I had lost a little of my swagger that contributed to me having
such a wonderful 2002 on the courts. My perspective was distorted for the losses
that I took in Europe were against the very top clay court players in the
world. I, nevertheless, am tough on myself and felt that I could have been putting
a better level of play out on the courts.

Fortunately I got to play on the grass in Boston two weeks ago. I was asked
to play for the United States against Great Britain in competition for the
Avory Cup. The organizers of this biannual cup select two players from each age
group from the open (under 30) to the 65 and over. Being selected is an honor. I
got to play and win two singles and two doubles matches and helped the USA
kick the British butts. It was a bit of payback for me after our loss to them in
Europe three weeks ago. Interestingly, the other 55 and over player on the
team is my doubles partner here at the 55 Grass. He is somebody who years ago,
before I had ever won a National match, had been kind enough to hit with me
when he was the #1 40 and over player in the USA. The best players are secure
enough in their games to let go of the pecking order and welcome other players
into the game. They don’t look down at lesser players. Now, so many years later,
we are playing doubles together.

I practiced today and played more than satisfactorily. I am serving big and
smart. Watching Roddick over the last few days has reminded me to continually
be aggressive when serving. I am returning as well as I have in several months.
On the grass my movement is a huge asset and I am feeling quick. All of this
has my confidence moving up. I play singles tomorrow morning and can’t wait to
get out there. Doubles in the afternoon will help complete what I am
confident will be a good opening day.

First Matches

Today I finally got out there to start playing. I was aware of feeling very
relaxed for a National. I usually have a more nervous edgy feeling on day 1. I
am feeling confident in my game. This is a welcome change that has occurred
over the last few days. I know that I am “on the ball” and into every shot.
Tournaments require this attention to every single shot. Everything becomes
magnified in importance. A shot missed that could have been made can turn into a
lost game. A loose game can turn into a set that you can’t recover quite turn
around. It feels great to be able to tune in to each moment during the match.
This is what staying in the present feels like. Tennis competition provides me
with this experience.

I played a near perfect match in singles, winning 60 61, losing very few
points. I made very few careless errors. I played relaxed and easy, yet with a
mental intensity that allowed me to hit every ball cleanly.

In doubles, Chas Hoeveler and I won 62 62 against a solid team. This is our
third match together and we definitely complement each other. He is a fierce
competitor with high expectations of himself. I feed on this.

It is a gift to be able to play in these tournaments. I am challenged by them
every day. Today I was challenged to play focused and hard against a player
that I knew that I would beat under almost any circumstances. I had to be alert
to overconfidence and complacency. I needed to be sure to give my opponent
the respect that he deserved. This is the spirit of competition. Today I
succeeded in each of these ways at the same time as winning the game. It feels good
to be able to succeed in all of the goals of competition.

Round of 16

Today was one of those special days where everything felt just right. I was
calm, unhurried and unconcerned about anything. It didn’t matter if we started
on time, what court I was playing on, who was watching or what was going on
around me. I was in a comfortable bubble. I felt like I was watching myself. I
noticed how relaxed I was feeling and behaving.

This feeling stayed with me through both my singles and doubles matches. I
was totally confident in my ability to hit just about any shot. I served and hit
returns without any fear of missing and the results were remarkable. My
opponent was a fine player but there was very little that he was able to do that
impacted on my confidence. I had two shaky moments. Leading 6-2, 1-1 I missed a
couple of makeable shots, he made a couple of passes anti dropped my serve.
Staying calm and confident I broke him at love making two winner service
returns. At 6-2, 5-3, serving for the match, I was down game point twice. I came up
with a winner volley and an ace to escape. So even when there was trouble, I
did fine. Tennis should always feel the way it felt in this match.
Unfortunately it doesn’t but this can still be a beacon to always aim for.

Doubles was more of the same. I played against two long time friends who were
better than me when I first started to play tournaments. Today I was the best
on the court. Again I felt that I could hit any shot. I even made some
backhand service return winners.

Tomorrow, in the quarters of the singles and the semis of the doubles, I will
just continue to focus on my game…making returns, being aggressive on my
serve, running for every ball, making good contact. I will continue to wrap
myself up in a relaxed state. I must do these things just for the sake of doing
them, with no particular gaining idea. At the same time, I am also aware that
all of this, if I can do it, will keep me focused and will lead me to feelings
of confidence.

Quarterfinals

Woke up today again feeling calm and clear. I knew right away that I was
going to be able to stay relaxed. I knew exactly what my goals for the day were
and I wasn’t going to let thinking about winning or losing ruin my plans. My
goals were to stay relaxed, have fun, make a lot of returns, serve aggressively
and put lots and lots of balls in the court. My opponent in the singles was an
Eastern player, one with whom I have had many memorable matches. We have
played no less that 15 finals but have never played in a National. The stakes were
higher. I made a strong conscious effort to delete him from my thoughts.
Thinking abut the implications of beating him or losing to him would have kicked
up my anxiety and reduced my focus in a way that my play would have been
shaky. Today that was not to be. Today it was just a beautiful day on the grass at
Rockaway. I started out great and then got even better, winning 63 61. In all
of our matches together this was the most lopsided. By focusing on my goals
and blocking any thoughts about my opponent I was able to, as Brad Gilbert
tells Roddick, “take care of business..”

The doubles was more of the same as Charlie and I beat the 2nd seeded and
multi National Championships team 63 63. I played with confidence as I continue
to increase my belief that I belong at the top. This has been a long hard
journey for me as I have often felt like a temporary visitor to the upper echelons
of senior tennis. My results are not what convince me. What has increased my
belief that I am a top senior player has been my more recent ability to control
my state effectively when playing in big moments with great players. Feels
good.

Another special part of today was when my Mom’s sister and Dad’s brother,
both in their 80s showed up to watch. On this day of memories it was nice to
feel that my folks were here watching.

Tomorrow the semis of the singles against my doubles parther and the finals
of the doubles.

Singles semis and Doubles finals

Followed all of the same rituals that I have been doing all week to maintain
my relaxed focused state, walked on the court to play the singles semis and
felt ready for more of the same confident play. Got immediately knocked out of
the calm accepting frame of mind when I went down 0-40 in first game when
serving. My opponent, Charlie Hoeveler, a winner of 33 National Sr. Championships,
played a tactically brilliant first game, hitting softly and short. For the
first time in the week I dropped my serve. It shook my confidence a bit and,
instead of coming back strongly for the next game, I missed a bunch of returns
and found myself down 0-2. Played another shaky serve game but held as Charlie
made a couple of great gets and got a let cord rollover winner. The pattern was
that he was doing to me what I had been doing to others: getting every ball
back, running down my volleys and outguessing me when I had an open court
chance. My old enemy, frustration, started to kick in, I got edgy and started to
talk to myself negatively. This didn’t help and I had a couple of more shaky
serve games and no impact on his serve. Serving at 3-5 I fought off thoughts of
losing the set, played a positive game and, on the changeover break decided
that I needed to play aggressively in the next game as he served for the first
set. I decided that playing cautiously and fearfully would only give it away. I
broke him in a very competitive game to get to 5-5. From that point on it was
my match. I didn’t lose another game, winning 10 in a row and getting a 75 60
win. It was the moment of deciding to play aggressively with no fear of losing
that was the turning point. It was a wonderful win for me in terms of result
as well as in taking a big risk in a huge moment.

The doubles match was fierce with Charlie and I playing the top seeded team.
We started quickly and went up 3-0. When I served at 3-1 I future tripped and
thought of winning the match easily. Instead I dropped serve and we were in
for a battle. Everybody held serve until 6-6. Both teams had chances in the
breaker. I made a set saving service return winner at 7-6 and a set winning return
and forehand drive at 9-8. I served out the match at 5-4 of the second set.
Winners of the National Grass doubles with Charlie Hoeveler in our first
tournament together. Remember Charlie was the one who, twenty years ago, was willing
to practice with me when I was a virtual unknown. During the post match
photos I found out that our opponents have won 48 National doubles titles and that
Charlie, by winning today, won a National title for his 15th consecutive year.
As for me, it was my 6th. Levels of the game continue to amaze me.

Looks like the singles final may be washed out for today and postponed to
Sunday. If the courts are not playable for Sunday, we will be moved indoors. So
much for the grass if that happens.

Double Gold

On a slippery grass court this morning I defeated 3rd seed Peter Bronson of
Scottsdale, Arizona 75 64 to win the Nationals. My best tennis tournament ever
ended with me winning two Championships. I am stunned. Will attempt a final
summary journal entry after I come out of the clouds.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE NATIONALS

Winning the singles and doubles championships at one tournament is something
that I had never even considered. I continue on this incredible journey often
feeling like an observer more than a participant. I watch myself achieving
remarkable results while at the same time feeling that I am doing very little to
make these results happen. More and more I get a sense that these successes
have everything to do with getting out of my own way. As I progress through the
different years, seasons, tournaments, matches, sets, games, points and shots
I learn more and more how to trust my game and and to let my instinct just
play. This tournament was a new level of taking it easy, being relaxed and
letting go of the tension of control. I experienced new levels of being unafraid to
fail that allowed me to go for shots that, in the past, would have had too
much risk. I felt no risk this week. It was a special feeling. I know that I am
still visiting this place and that the tennis gods will want me to learn more
before I can call this place home.

In the finals I never had a doubt. I knew that my game was solid. I knew that
I was unworried. I knew that the match was mine to win or lose. I was
confident and sure. I was intense and relaxed. The feeling of self satisfaction when
completing this run was extraordinary. I can’t wait to play again.

Thanks to all for sharing this tournament experience with me. It helps me
stay on track to know that you are all there following along. Whoever said that
tennis is a lonely sport doesn’t know about my posse.

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