2004 ITF World Championships Sept. 19-25

Journal Entry Sept. 20 Round 2 World Championships
Hundreds of players arrived for the World Championships yesterday. There are players from ages 55-90 from 35 countries. There is a buzz the first day of the World Championships that is unlike any other tournament. Many of us see friends we have made over the years. I get to mix with legendary players such as 92 year old Gardner Mulloy, who won four Wimbledon doubles titles. Dodo Cheney, 88 years old, arrives tomorrow to compete in the Women’s 80s. She has won over 300 National Championships, more than twice the number of the next best and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer in the same ceremony as Steffi Graf and Stefan Edberg. We all share the passion for tennis and competition.

I received a bye in the first round so I took it easy on Monday getting a well earned rest. Today I had my first match against a Kiwi (New Zealander) and won 6-2, 6-2. I am sure being seeded #1 contributed to the ease of the match. I don’t think my opponent thought he had a chance. The reality was that anything could have happened. I was flat on the court. My physical and mental energy were low. The highs of the last two weeks made it hard to fire up again. I was fortunate to escape with a win. Spent time this afternoon with a physical therapist who treated my fatigued and sore muscles. Part of me wants to go home and rest. That isn’t going to happen so I am working myself up for tomorrow’s 3rd round encounter with an American opponent. I am remembering my goal of wanting to win the World Championships and working on getting pumped up to that end. I am sure that my ambivalence is coming through. This may also be a reaction to being seeded #1 and the expectations that come with it. I am sure that by tomorrow morning I will be ready to rumble.

Journal Entry Sept. 21 World Championships 3rd Round
Got to the Club a little earlier today to give myself time for a good off court warmup. I have been doing new pre-match exercises that emphasize dynamic stretching. Instead of stretching just one muscle, I do movements that fire and stretch a bunch of muscles at one time. When I finish doing them I feel much more physically ready and my cardio is cooking too. We only get a five minute warmup once we get on the court, so it is important to hit the court running. I felt more energized when I started to hit and played the first five games with great intensity. I won the first set 6-1 and was leading 0-3 in the second when my opponent started to play better. At the same time, my intensity dropped off. I won the second set 6-3 but was unhappy that I didn’t maintain my intensity. My serve was better than the last couple of matches because I was more conscientious about my rhythm. Overall it was an improvement over the last two days.

At the end of the day I was, again, feeling low energy. I started to think that I had used up a limited supply of energy, intensity and interest in playing. I also realized that that is ridiculous. If I got stranded in a snow storm and had to walk for a day I would be able to do it. I just need to locate the button to access my supply. I have been visualizing myself as I am when I am eager and excited to be on the court. I am going to will myself into a better place. I will not fail myself by making too little effort. I need to fight against feeling like I have done enough over the last couple of weeks. I am near the finish line and I need to sprint past it. This is a tough battle that I am going through right now. I will remember my goal of wanting to win the World Championships. The opportunity is here for me. The #1 seeding has been an albatross and I have used it improperly to put more pressure on myself to win. I have been playing tight and making excuses like “I am tired.” When I am playing my best I just go out to play good tennis and I can, then, accept whatever the result is. If I go on the court only to win, I play tight. Writing is this journal helps me discover what is going on and I am feeling lighter already. Tomorrow I play a Swedish player who recently won the European Championships. He has been mowing down players in the draw. Many players are talking him up. I have been worried about playing him all day. Now that I have decided to just “play good tennis” my worries are over. Bring him on!

Journal Entry Sept. 22 Round of 16
Once again I rediscover that the effort I have put into being aware of what is going on for me and taking control of my thoughts has been worthwhile. Yesterday, I was ready to give in…to make marginal effort….to be satisfied. Complacency was setting in. Writing last night was freeing. I had dinner with a friend and fellow player, Lloyd Emanuel, who pushed me to make my next match the beginning of the final phase, not the end of the last phase. Mike Zimmerman told me to use the #1 seeding to my advantage…to let my opponent know, in the first few games, why I was seeded #1.

I felt energized this morning. I couldn’t wait to get on the court. I had a positive warmup with Ken Dahl, the sixth seed, of Vancouver, BC. I felt my forehand for the first time in a few days. I could feel the flow in my serve. I could tell I was going to play well. Mats Lilja, of Sweden was going to feel my presence from the moment he stepped on the court with me. I was thrilled that we were the opening match in the Stadium. I wanted the spotlight. He was good at the start, holding serve for two games, but in both games I hit a few shots that I was sure gave him the message that he was in for a tough day. I held serve to 2 all and then I broke him…and broke him again…and again…and again. I broke him 6 times in a row and won the match 6-2, 6-2. I played a near perfect match. I returned great. I served consistently. No double faults. I smacked forehands whenever I had a swing at one. I lobbed effectively. What a feeling!

As often as it happens, I am always amazed at how my thoughts contribute to my beliefs and how my beliefs impact on my actions. I had doubts when I was leaving the hotel this morning. I unplugged my phone charger. I took a couple of books down to the car. I fought off asking how late I could check out. At the last moment, the late check out question stumbled out of my mouth. It wasn’t a lot but a small part of me thought I wouldn’t be able to make the changes I had written about. When I got to the courts, though, I was acting and feeling just the way I had envisioned. I had defeated that part of myself that was doubting.

This game of tennis and these competitions teach me over and over again. I feel like it is the first time every time I learn that I have control.

Tomorrow the quarterfinals against a close friend and former teammate, Neal Newman. In my very first National tournament I lost to Neal in the first round of the consolation tournament. Many years later we were opponents in a National Indoor final. We have both come a long way. He is one of my closest buddies in the National tournaments and I will need to disconnect from him completely to have my best chance of playing to my level.

Journal Entry Sept. 23 Quarterfinals
No prepacking the car today. I felt confident this morning. I won my match 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. My opponent is known for his excellent service returns, his extreme hard lefty slice serve and an uncanny ability to anticipate where shots will be hit. I returned particularly well today and broke his serve quite a few times. My challenge was to serve well with him applying a lot of pressure at all times. He blew a few by me in the first few games so I made a major tactical adjustment. I stopped serve and volley and stayed back. This had worked against him in the finals of the National Indoors a couple of years ago. It worked again today. It took away his strength and got me more solidly into the point. One tough moment. The courts are getting worn down near the baseline and this makes them slippery. At one set up and a 2-1 lead (needing only four games to advance to the semis)I took a fall after serving and fell on my racket. The butt of the racket jammed into the palm of my hand. Instantly, I thought I was injured. I quickly lost the next eight points and, promptly, lost the set 6-3. Losing five of the last six games is not a good way to go into the 3rd set. We had a ten minute break during which time I had a good firm talk with myself. Don’t blame it on your hand. If you can’t play, then just stop. If you can, just get on with it. Only one more set to get to the semis. I broke him a couple of times and won it. Tomorrow I play a legendary opponent, Armistead Neely 3rd, who I have lost to in the past a couple of times. I wasn’t the player then that I am now.

I have been keeping to myself that, if I advance to the finals, which are scheduled for Saturday, I will not play on Yom Kippur. To me, tomorrow is my final. As much as I want to win the Worlds, there is, for me, no question about what is more important. I let the ITF officials know, six months ago, about the potential conflict. They said that the finals date is in stone. I didn’t mention it again until today. They said that they would see what they could do to, possibly, schedule the finals for tomorrow afternoon (if I should get there), but that they couldn’t force my opponent to do it. They informed me that I would still receive points earned for the event but that I would be ineligible for prize money. Strange. Regardless, I am just going out tomorrow to play a good match against a great player in a huge moment in my playing career. Carol is on her way down on Amtrak tonight. Amy and Jody are coming down tomorrow morning. I am a lucky man.

Sept. 24 Semifinals
Today I beat Armistead Neely to advance to the finals of the World Championships. I hit an entirely new level of tennis today. Today I truly felt like the best 55 and over player in the World. Over the last three weeks I have had four career wins over players that I have never defeated. Each one of the four is legendary. I dropped only one set in three weeks. I won 18 matches in a row. Today I was nearly flawless. I served about 80% first serves and returned as well as I ever have. People watching the match said that I was toying with my opponent. I wasn’t. What really happened was that I was relaxed and eager to play good tennis. I played totally within myself, never overhitting a shot. I had Carol, Jody, Amy and, my good friend, Mike Lieberman there supporting me and that made the match extra special for me.

The match went perfectly. We both held serve through the first eight games. At 4-4, with Neely serving, I told myself that this was the first key moment in the match. I bore down and broke his serve with a running passing shot that he didn’t think I would get to. Serving 5-4, I hit a small bump and went down 15-40. I won four straight points to close out the set. I then broke him at love in the first game of the second set, held serve at love and then went up 0-40 on his next serve game. Even though he escaped that game I had made my mark on him by winning 15 consecutive points. The second set was just a matter of holding my serve, which I did successfully. I thought about my parents a lot during this time. I felt that they were there watching over me and helping me through. When I won the last point, I screamed out in joy, ran over to my family and celebrated.

I am so proud of myself for getting through so many tough matches. I am pleased that I was able to keep things in perspective, remembering that a tennis match is just that…nothing more, nothing less. It is just an opportunity for me to attempt to reach my potential. I am pleased that I expanded my capacity for competition over these last three weeks. I look forward to my next chance to grow more.
The ITF dropped the ball on arranging for the finals to be played this afternoon. They never spoke to the other finalist, Thomas Koch, of Brazil. He left the site and they couldn’t reach him. Once that happened I let them know that I was, officially, defaulting the finals. I will not play on Yom Kippur. I never had a doubt. I may have sacrificed being the World Champion this time around but I believe that I will have another chance in the future. If not, I have still reached the top of another mountain and I cherish the experience.

One more high point today. I met and spent time with Dodo Cheney, who this year was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She is 87 years young and has won 349 National Championships. Former four time Wimbledon doubles Champion, Gardner Molloy, 92, is second with about 125 National titles. These people are the real inspiration for the rest of us.

I may have some more reflections on the last few weeks over the next couple of days but if I don’t I want to make sure to thank everyone who supported me over the last few weeks. Those of you who have emailed me with wishes of good luck and congratulations, my Austria Cup teammates, Ray, Lloyd, Ron Kahn, Charlie Hoeveler, John, Mike Zim, Mike Lieberman, Kirk, my Irish connection (esp. Aidan), Jane, Jody, Amy and, of course, Carol, who has made my ongoing tennis journey an extraordinary shared experience.

Leave a comment