2004 USTA National Hardcourt Championships Nov. 8-14


October 22, 2004
I don’t know if you all have recovered from my last journal or the baseball playoffs but here we I go again:
Preparation for the National 55 Hardcourt Championships Nov. 8-14

I will begin this preparation by closing the door on the most exciting three weeks of tennis that I have ever played. My experiences in September, playing the National Grass, the Cup matches and the World Championships were memorable. I was so into every single match that I had no idea, while I was going through it, how many matches I actually played. As someone who thinks things like “I have won X matches in a row,” it was remarkable that it wasn’t until two days after I finished playing that I realized that I had won 20 matches out of 20 in 17 days. I had no idea. If I had, the task might have been too great for me. Instead, it was a day to day, stay in the moment experience. Each day I knew I just had to get out there and play a good match. Something else that was interesting was that I felt better, physically, after the 20 matches than I felt when starting the run. I am convinced that this helps explain my good play. Typically I break down as the number of matches I play increases. This has a lot to do with how much tension I am experiencing…how tight my muscles actually are while I am competing. This time, though, I was completely relaxed about playing. I was unconcerned about the winning and losing. In fact, all I really wanted was to hit the shots where I wanted and to play good tennis. I did. Because I was so relaxed, playing ended up being more like stretching. The result was that I got healthier and healthier. At the end of the Worlds I could have played another week. Funny, that was one of the early mental obstacles I was faced with when I first decided to play these events.

If you have been following along then you know that the ITF penalized me for not playing the finals of the Worlds without a medical excuse. They reviewed my protest and gave me the ranking points that I earned and, as of 10/15, I am ranked #2 in the World by the ITF. I felt a lot of wins. The matches. The choosing Yom Kippur over the finals. Winning the protest. All in all, a remarkable month for me.

Now to the present. I have been back in the gym, knowing that this work contributed to my recent success. I have just started to play some practice matches on the hard courts, mostly with strong junior players. I also had an important playing session with frequent practice partner, Kirk Moritz. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t winning every point from him, not to mention every game. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had distorted how I was viewing my recent play. I was assuming that opponents would just fall to my feet and that, even if they didn’t, I would be able to win any point whenever I felt like it. This feeling of overconfidence is not only missing the important competitive quality of humility, it is also totally counterproductive. I probably was grandiose and condescending, although I probably hid that by saying nice shot, even when I didn’t mean it. I stopped that immediately and started to see my game as it is right now. One frequent mistake that I make when overconfident is that I go for too big a shot too often or too early because, of course, I don’t think I can miss. I miss a lot in this state.Noticing this pattern reminds me how tough I play when I run everything down and put the ball in play…to give my opponent, no matter how tough I think they are, another ball to hit.

So my first playing goals, in preparing for the Nationals, are to play more patiently and, when I choose to go for a bigger shot, to go just big enough.

I am eager to get on the court this afternoon to get to work on this.

November 7, 2004 On My Way to Palm Springs
I am on the plane on my way to the National Hardcourt Championships. This is the first outdoor hardcourt tournament that I have played in 12 years. Typically, I shut down my tennis competition after the September grass court tournaments but this year is different. My recent playing experiences have been more enjoyable than any I can remember in the last 20 years so I just want to get out there and do it again. There is more. I am 40 points away from ending the year as the #1 ranked player in the World. This tournament offers me the opportunity to make a run at the ranking. I have not checked to see how many points I can win in Palm Springs because I don’t want to focus on getting to a particular round. I want to go out and play good tennis in every match that I play and, at the end of the tournament, see how I made out. To approach it any other way will distract me from my daily match tasks. It is hard for me to do this because I really want to know, but I won’t give in to the temptation.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been training hard. I have continued to work in the gym, building my strength and my cardio. I have worked extra hard on my legs, for the hardcourts can take their toll. I have practiced exclusively on indoor hardcourts over the last month, against players younger, stronger and faster than any I will see this week. Each practice session has put another piece in place for me. I played Elvis, the former Jamaican Davis Cup player. The first time we played, I was fierce and stayed with him through two sets and, even though I lost both sets, I could see how running every ball down, playing my shots to areas of the court where he couldn’t hurt me and competing for each point would make me tough against players in my age group. The second time we played he wanted to show me that I had no business playing him close. He beat me 6-0, 6-3. It was a perfect workout for me to continue to play hard and to compete for each point. I never let down, even though the points were going against me. I practiced with Phil, one of my regular practice partners and, again, even though I lost in score, I was playing tough throughout the whole session. I got in touch with a few important things. First, I noticed how, when playing against a player who gets to everything, I tend to overplay my shots, hitting too hard or too close to the lines. It isn’t that I don’t know this, but being aware of it again is helpful. It reminds me that I must continue to remind myself of those things I have learned in the past and to take nothing for granted. The second thing that I noticed is that I am doing a much better job of correcting bad shot selections. I immediately tell myself what to do next time to get a better result. I have been working on this for years and for me to be doing it more automatically is a great feeling of progress. I have enough things to remember when playing so it is helpful when some of them require less conscious effort.

I also had a great practice session with Adrian Cirici, who is one of the top 35ers in the East. While playing with him I became more and more aware of how I am seeing shots that my opponent hits earlier and earlier. I feel that I really know where the ball is going like never before. In conjunction with this I feel more and more aware of what my best shot selection is off any ball that comes to me. Knowing where the ball will be hit and knowing where I am going to hit it makes life on the court much easier. It sounds so obvious. The game continues to get simpler as I play it more. While playing Adrian I also noticed that the trust that I feel in executing my shots has increased. I am sure that this is all a result of the confidence I continued to develop over the last couple of years.

I feel ready. I am eager to take on the challenge of being a target for all of the other players. Brian Cheney, my recent Perry Cup teammate is seeded #1. I am #2. The number 3, 4 and 5 seeds are players that I defeated this summer on the grass. They all have a bulls eye painted on my back, eager to get my on the hardcourts. Bring them on.

One other thing to report. On Thursday of this week I got up and had no strength in my playing arm. I had terrible pain in my shoulder, could not get my arm over my head and, when I got on the court to teach, I couldn’t follow through on my forehand without pain. It felt like a rotator cuff injury from ten years ago. To say the least, I was upset. No tournament and the potential of a painful winter of teaching. The day before I had pulled something in my neck but it had just been momentary and it didn’t concern me. I was obviously wrong. Well, I wasn’t going to wait. I gave a few lessons, hitting backhands only and then got on the phone to my “medical team.” I was lucky to get an appointment with Dr. Ken Montgomery, the orthopedist for the US Open and a fellow Sport Science Committee member. I know that he has seen worse in more important situations, like Sampras the day before the Open one year. He thought, based on my description and my symptoms that I had pinched a nerve in my neck. He suggested bombarding it with every modality I could, so off I went, with a fresh supply of anti-inflammatories, to see Terry Eagle, chiropractor extraordinairre. She worked on me for about an hour, adjusting and doing deep tissue massage. Then, off to George Papadopoulis, a physical therapist who had a lot to do with my feeling great before the World Championships, for heat, ice, electric stim and ultra sound. Home for more icing and a call to Gerda, the healer. Gerda had cured my former rotator cup injury without ever touching me. Believe it or not she worked on me over the phone and told me not to worry, I would be fine in a day or two.

Friday morning I was pretty sore but definitely feeling a bit better. Friday afternoon and I could hit forehands pain free. By Saturday morning…it was like it never happened. Another lesson for me. Act on an injury immediately and bombard it with everything that has ever worked. Whew!

This afternoon and tomorrow will be practice with my first match against a local California player on Tuesday morning.

November 8
First match Tuesday morning 9AM. Today great practice in an absolutely extraordinary setting. In the dessert in Palm Springs, with a mountain range in the distance and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden stadium (17000 seats, the second largest tennis venue in the World) overlooking the courts, the sky clear and blue, no humidity and 85 degrees. What could be better for a tennis player? Again, hooking up with all the guys who play the senior circuit with me, I am reminded that much of this experience is about the relationships that I have developed over the years. Our lives may be different but our passion is the same…to compete, to be the best that we can be and to continue to grow.

I had dinner tonight with six other players at a restaurant owned by an old friend from Long Island who has moved here. As I introduced him to the players, what has become routine for me, totally blew him away. There were over 150 National Championships amongst the seven of us. The #2, 4, 6 and 10 ranked players in the World, as well as the two players who just won the World Championships in doubles were sitting having a meal together. When I look around and see these players and realize that I belong there, I am humbled.

November 9
Got to the courts by 8AM for my 9:00 match. I knew that my opponent was not going to be very tough. My first round opponent had dropped out so the tournament committee filled the spot with a 65 year old club member. Regardless, I stuck with my new pre match routine of doing 15 minutes of dynamic stretches. Firstly, you never really know about an opponent…he could have been a 65 year old former tour player. Second, it is important that I develop the habits that help me be effective even if I don’t really need them for some matches. It is only by doing them over and over again that they become part of who I am.

When I checked in, I was informed that my opponent had called at 7:30 to say he could not play. A default. I would have liked to play to just get my head into more of a match place, in spite of the match being relatively routine. I hooked up with another player and played a strong practice set. It was enough for me because I, right now, don’t need to play a lot to get my game right. I just need short, intense workouts. I heard that Connors and Agassi both like short practices and have decided that, if it worked for them, it might work for me. The Head Pro from Indian Wells club had a few of his top juniors watching and asked one how he thought he would do against a highly ranked 55er. He said that he could never lose to someone 55. So I match was made. The kid is going to LSU next year on a full scholarship. I have practiced with enough juniors in the last year to know that, if I could get my teeth into a couple of points early on, he would probably get really annoyed, especially with his friends watching. After I beat him 6-1, he stormed off the court saying that he should quit tennis. I could see in him my own past, when I had zero humility. He and I had a little chat later on and I suggested that he find respect for his opponents before he got to LSU or he would likely not play very much. It was a fun time for me.

Next match tomorrow at 10:30. Same routine. Same respect for my opponent. Game face. Compete for every point as if the fate of the Universe depends on my effort and focus.

November 10
Played on the stadium court this morning, which I love to do. It helps me concentrate because all of the players, at this point, know that I am a mental training coach and into this whole “focus” thing. I used to feel pressure when players would watch me, feeling like I had to play well to impress them. Now, I just play my game as well as I can on that day and attempt to satisfy myself while trying to win the match.

I won against a good player from Texas 6-1, 6-2. I worked hard at taking out his legs by moving him side to side. I had excellent control today and this strategy worked well for, even if he won a point, he would have very little in his legs for the next two or three points. I have to stay alert to my tendency to overdo this which contributes to me not ending the point when the opportunity is there. I have heard how Agassi will sometimes get into trying to punish his opponent by wearing him down and by trying to emulate him I stop going for shots. Today that was ok. Going forward in the draw, that will not work as well. Tomorrow I will make sure to take the point when it is there for me.

Tonight I had dinner with tomorrow’s opponent. He lives in Rancho Mirage, which is near the tennis center. If my old high school basketball coach were around, he would say to me “don’t fraternize with your opponent before the game.” Sorry, Dutch. I will have to see how it impacts on the match.

Right now I am feeling like I am the best player in the age group and until somebody does something about it, I will stay right here. I like it at the top. I like to be the favorite. I will fight like crazy to stay here.

November 11
Another spectacular day in the dessert and the heat is rising in the tournament. The final 16 players competing for 8 spots in the quarterfinals. I might have written earlier that this is probably the deepest tournament in the 22 years that I have been playing senior events with sixteen of the top twenty ranked players in the country in the draw. As eager as I usually am to play, I was even more pumped today for Carol arrived last night. I always feel more comfortable playing because I can feel her support throughout my matches. I must admit that my dinner last night with my opponent was on my mind when we started and I dropped the first six points of the match. That is not great for someone who considers himself a quick starter. I managed to shut the door on my appreciation for being his guest and, after dropping the first two games, I ran eleven straight and completed the match with a 6-2, 6-1 win. I was the first one into the quarters. Being finished quickly offered me the opportunity to watch my potential opponents. Whoever would win the match to play me has strong motivation to play against me. I beat both of them about 12 years ago in matches that were considered major upsets. In fact, one of the guys, when I told him after beating him that he was the best win I ever had, he told me it was the worst loss he had ever had. It turns out that he won and I will see him tomorrow at 10:30. It won’t be an issue for me. I am feeling confident in my game. I am moving well, keeping the ball deep, being patient and playing very consistently. I cannot control the outcome but I sure can control how I am playing and that is what I intend to do tomorrow. I am still into the idea of taking out somebody’s legs early in the match by moving them endlessly. Today I did a better job of ending the point when the opportunity arose. Tomorrow will be another challenge to continue to play well.

One of the other players mentioned to me that I was in the midst of a serious winning streak. Frankly, I had forgotten about the streak. As far as I am concerned I simply want to continue having one match winning streaks every day. One match at a time is all that I can handle. If I think too much ahead I will lose the present and my focus will be gone. So even though it was brought to my attention I am releasing it from my thoughts in order to deal with the task at hand.

Quarterfinals
When I arrived, last Sunday, I did a 20 minute presentation for the members and, it turned out, quite a few of the players. My topic was “The Top 12 Strategies for Getting Focused.” Although I do talks frequently, I had never done one at a tournament where my fellow players were present. This turned out to be very helpful because the members and players who attended have had their eyes on me all week, and I knew it. The result has been that my mental management, all week, has been very good. Today, in particular, this was really important. My opponent is known for bantering in between points…I mean friendly stuff, like “hey, I bet you didn’t expect that shot!” or “too bad, you had me.” The strategies of staying on my own side of the court, act on the outside the way you want to feel on the inside, and be more disciplined in the way you think about your errors helped me win the match 6-2, 6-2. I stayed focused throughout and played every single point as if the whole match depended on that point. Playing each point, one at a time, really does make playing the game easier. It is as if the past has been incinerated and the future doesn’t yet exist. I only need to take care of what is right in front of me.

Tomorrow the semifinals. I will be playing 6’7” Larry Turville, the current point leader in the race for #1 for this year. He is very tough, very steady and can cover the court with just a couple of steps. I am going to make it a long match if that is what it will take. I will use my legs to make his life difficult on the court. I will play high percentage tennis and minimize my errors. I am so into it. Point by point. I can’t wait to get out there and compete some more.

Semifinals
Well I asked for more competition and I got it. Four hours worth of fierce battle. I came up a little short losing 4-6, 6-1, 7-6. It couldn’t have been much closer. Each point was a war with frequent 15-20 shot rallies. Turville and I were both doing what we each do best. My backhand into his forehand and then one of us getting impatient or sensing an opening and going up the line. Really good stuff. The third set, alone, was almost two hours.

I am disappointed that I didn’t win the match. I cannot deny that, even though I am working on seeing the final outcome as just that, the outcome, related to the playing experience only by what happens at the very end. I have grown very accustomed to winning over the last few months having won my last 25 matches. I have never had a streak that long and it conditioned me to believe that I will win whenever I go out there. This is the first lesson that I relearned in this match…just because you win one day, it doesn’t mean that you will win the next.

My second lesson that I relearned has to do with match points saved and lost. In the third set I held four separate match points against Turville on his serve. This is my first time at losing a match after having multiple match points. I have won several matches when I have been down match points. The lesson…it goes both ways. You don’t win matches when down match point without losing some also. And another thing, just as tough as I have been in winning from behind, my opponent is fully capable of the same thing. We are all warriors on the court and Turville fought off these match points more than I gave it away. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have my chance. He was serving at 15-40, 5-6 in the third. Two match points for me. He missed a first serve and I knew he was going to serve to my forehand so I started to step around to hit a forehand return…but half way through the move I doubted it, didn’t get all the way around and his serve just jammed me. Missed return. That was all he needed. He came up with a big serve on the next point and escaped.

I was pleased that I played aggressively when I was ahead in the big moments. That is not easy to do and I had to push myself to play to win. In retrospect, I guess I haven’t been in too many really big moment situations this year so I might have been a little out of practice at them. That is good and bad. Good that I have played well enough to avoid big points. Bad in that I can’t prepare for them through experience. Well, I now have gotten some experience for my next tough matches. I will be eager to see how I will fare the next time.

I had an interesting experience while serving at 3-5 in the tiebreaker. I missed my first serve and, just as I was about to toss, I thought “oh, well, it was a great match.” Incredible. I had been fighting like my life depended on every point and now, when the finish line was in sight, I was about to toss it in. Fortunately, I caught the thought and the toss and stepped off the line. I regathered myself, decided where I was going to serve and managed to win the point.

A thought about the players. These competitors are amongst the finest men that I know. They compete hard. They are incredibly humble. They are fair to an extreme. They are good winners. They are great losers. They are supportive. They participate in the ongoing journey of growth through competition. Being around them makes me want to be a better person. I am lucky to call them my friends.

Life is good when I get to experience myself in difficult situations. I am happy that I started journaling four years ago and have continued to do it. I forces me to see who I am as I continue down paths that I am traveling, often for the first time. I appreciate all of you who read these entries. Knowing that you are out there helps me stay committed to writing each day. I feel obligated and that puts my often tired butt in the chair in front of this computer.

One final word…I just got a call from my opponent for third place. We are supposed to play tomorrow. He is bailing out. It saves me tonight’s work of getting up for an important match right after a tough loss. Tonight I can have a beer.

Two Days After the Tournament
I watched the finals between Turville, who had beaten me in the semis, and Brian Cheney, who has been at the top of the age group for years. Cheney was the #1 seed and a player who certainly knows how to win. Turville was exhausted from our semifinal match and had little in the tank as the match started. Cheney dominated, winning the first set 6-0. Incredibly, though, as he had done against me, Turville started to find his game and won the second set. He just stopped missing shots. In the third set, as in my match, Cheney went up a service break. Turville broke back, held and then broke Cheney to win the match. An extraordinary effort from Turville. It reinforced for me that even the very best, like Cheney, can lose a match that it appears he should have won. Turville had an amazing year, winning two Nationals. His only loss this year was to me in the finals of the National Grass.

As is always the case after I lose a match, it creeps in and out of my consciousness for a couple of days. It isn’t despair or anything like that…it is more just a mental review of how certain moments in the match played out and what I can do in the future to make those moments better if they weren’t what I wanted. I thought about how, when I play somebody against whom feel confidently, I play my game without concern about what they will do with my shot. I come to the net when I want without fear of their passing shots. I am not even particularly concerned if they win the point. I just continue playing to win. When playing Turville on Saturday, I now recall that I was not playing with that free and easy feeling. I didn’t approach the net whenever I wanted because I was worried about his shots. I didn’t hit quite the way I would against a lesser player because I was concerned about losing the point. I know that I am not as good a player when concerned about results and that I need to play free of those concerns. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware that this was going on for me while I was in the midst of playing. At this point in my career, I would have thought that I would be aware of this whenever it is going on for me. I guess not. So the biggest gift that I have gotten from this loss is that I will now, in matches that are “big matches” to me, I will remember to constantly ask myself, “are you too concerned about results? are you playing to not lose?” I will only move forward in the match when I have corrected my mindset. I don’t expect it to be easy and I may not succeed at it each time but I will certainly make it one of my new jobs on the court. Awareness while playing is a huge weapon. The more aware I am of the truth of what I am thinking and feeling the greater the chance that I will play to the high end of my talent and skill.

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