2005 National Grass Court Championships Preparation
August 26…2 1/2 weeks to go
Have played a few times since beginning my preparations a couple of weeks ago. My excitement in being on the court and exploring my game and psyche is through the roof. I am having a ball. I am eager for each day of practice on the court. I feel very different . It is as if I am outside of myself watching myself play. It is like watching a reality show and, as with every tournament that I prepare for, I never know how it will turn out. I know what my objectives are: to win the tournament, to play well, to act right, to be fair, to put forth full effort, to make no excuses and to have a great time while doing it. As long as I take care of those things then the show will turn out just fine.
Where my first practice pointed up some very specific task for me to work on, my more recent practices have been a battle between me and myself in my attempts to execute the tasks that I set out for myself.
Over the last five or six practice sets I have run the gamut from making sure I was getting every possible shot over the net and inside the lines (always a good idea, but sometimes far from my mind) to focusing on serve and serve return technique. I have successfully put time and psychic energy into serving to the forehand, closing in more aggressively, passing with my backhand and, generally developing serve return tactics. This has all followed my plan from last week and it feels good to be making progress.
However, during all of this I have realized that I have, in a big way, increased my expectations of myself to a level that feels hard to live up to. This is definitely a major distortion and a difficult place to play…a place where I think I should be able to get to every ball, make every shot and always make the right decision. It is a place where I think that I should be able to instantly correct any part of my game that is off. It kind of has been fun to watch this whole drama unfold while I am playing. I have reacted to this pressure in a couple of different ways. One day I walked on the court overexaggerating a “no worries” attitude. I was so care free that I was lethargic, overconfident and didn’t think I needed to put any effort into playing. I had no intensity and no sense of urgency. That certainly didn’t work well for me. A few days later I was totally impatient with myself. That didn’t work either.
Both of those experiences were important in helping me find the right balance of intensity. They also helped me to put my expectations into perspective. For me to be playing the way that makes me feel good involves being free of expectations. Expectations are based too much on the past. My best tennis is today’s tennis, when I do what I can do with what I have.
One day this week I played at West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. This was the site of the US Open (The Nationals) when I was growing up. To be playing on the grass there is always a thrill. These courts were played on by Laver, Newcombe, Roche, Ashe, Connors, Orantes and so many legends. How lucky am I to be able to play where they made history.
As I was driving away from West Side, reviewing my thoughts from when I was playing, I wondered if other players think about their games as much as I think about mine. My game and process of preparing and learning and competing is an ongoing drama that I get to watch. I am like my own cable channel. What is so incredibly interesting is that the more I have been watching this channel from a distance, the better my tennis has become. By observing myself as I go through the process, I seem to have less investment in how things turn out…and things often do turn out better when you can just let them go.
Four weeks to go and a lot of tennis to watch before I start play at Rockaway Hunting Club in Cedarhurst. It is at this site that I will be confronting another first time experience in competition. I have won the singles and doubles championships for the last two years. I will arrive as a strong favorite to repeat based on the last two years and my showing on grass at the World Championships in March. I will be trying to win this Championship for the third time in a row. I will be looking to continue my undefeated record on grass courts in the USA since 2000.
The loss that I took in 2000 may have been the catalyst for the streak I have been on. That year, in the semis of the 50s National Grass, I lost to then and frequent #1 Brian Cheney. Never having played him I saw him occupying a place in the rankings that I could only dream about. I felt good going into the match but was overwhelmed in the first set 6-0. I had played a good set and this master, Cheney, had taken me apart. I hung tough, won the second and fought into a tiebreaker in the third set. Suddenly I found myself serving with a 4-1 lead in the breaker. Warrior that he was, Cheney won 6 consecutive points to win the match. I was truly in awe of what he had done in those points. On that day, in the moments after finishing that match, I knew what it meant to not be ready to beat somebody. I understood what Sampras meant when, after winning the US Open as a 19 year old, he said that he was not ready to take the position that the win forced upon him. I also knew, with absolute certainty, that I was good enough to compete with the absolute best in my age group.
From that match on I have been on a wonderful ride of success…and it started at Rockaway, on their beautiful grass courts. I get excited just writing about it.
Of course, all of this nonsense about records and streaks and rankings doesn’t mean anything when it comes to the upcoming tournament. I don’t win because of what I did yesterday. If I win matches it is because of the work and preparation that I will be putting in over the next four weeks. In fact, it is better that I write about the past and get it out of my system. It is bad and ineffective thinking when it comes to competing. I know that it is normal that I should be thinking about it…but being good at competing involved getting myself to think abnormally…to forget about the past and just deal with right now.
Last week I got on the grass for day 1 of prepartion. Nothing that intense, just a first step. I didn’t expect to have any revelations. Just when you least expect it….
My mind was scanning like crazy and noticing attitudes that needed adjusting and shots that needed to be worked on. That one day, the first practice helped me begin to list what my work will be over the next four weeks:
1. Take no points for granted. During practice I got to set point and decided to end it with an ace to the forehand. Missed the serve…opponent hit a winner…instead of winning we stopped at 6-6. I was overconfident and figured I could do whatever I wanted. Wrong.
2. Work on my serving and improved serves to the forehand and serves at the body of my opponent. I am too dependent on serving to the backhand.
3. Work on service returns that will force my opponent’s to play their first shot into my forehand.
4. My backhand passing shot has been disappearing as I have been lobbing better. Good for the lob, bad for the pass. For the next two weeks, no lobs!
I love working on my game!
I have sat at my computer many times since returning from Australia with the World Championship trophy and the #1 ranking. Time and again I start to write and then just stop. I suppose that I have, until now, been struggling with confusion. Confusion about winning the biggest tournament. Confusion about how to wrap my brain around the concept of being, for the moment, the top ranked player in the World. When people have talked to me about it I have tried to minimize the experience while, at the same time, feeling totally wowed by it. While all of the this mindstuff has been going on I have been attempting to kickstart my motivation and to create new goals. I have been marginally successful in doing so. What should I be reaching for? What is out there? Do I want to keep working hard? I have noticed that my advice to my students has been heavily in the direction of setting goals and developing the steps to achieve them. I have been impatient with players who have been putting forth less than maximum effort to be the best that they can be. I was talking to myself.
Last month I played in London for the Avory Cup, a wonderful competition that has been played for many years between the USA and Great Britian. Played on the grass, it is a team match involving two players from each age group, men and women. It was clear that, when I arrived in London, I was going to have my first experience of playing an international match as the top ranked player in the World. Although I liked being in the spotlight, it was uncomfortable to be the favorite with nobody for me to be chasing. I wondered how Pete Sampras, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong and others who have been at the top dealt with the pressures and expectations. I wondered how I would deal with it. While there, I won all of my mathes but played a little tighter than usual, feeling huge pressure to play nearly perfect tennis. I felt that any subpar play was an indication that I didn’t deserve to be at the top. I kept a good face on but couldn’t shake the pressure I was putting on myself to be “perfect.”
A few weeks later I was given a good wake up call about this whole #1 thing. I played an Eastern tournament that I thought no National level players would be playing in. Didn’t get myself to practice too much until a week before. It was then that I found out that a great clay court player, one against whom I have a2-3 record, had entered. Fortunate to have a few days to get focused I was able to escape against him in the finals with a 7-6 in the third set victory. The message was clear. I needed to get clear on what I wanted and how I was going to get there or I was going to be dropping back into the pack that I was currently in front of. I realized that I wasn’t going to give away what I had earned. If somebody was going to work harder than me and take it away, good for them. If somebody was going to out focus me, I will take my hat off to them.
On Thursday of this week I began playing in the USTA National Parks Championships held in Stamford, CT. Played since the 1960s this event has a special grassroots quality. Over 500 players from 10 and under kids to 90 and over seniors, men, women, singles, doubles, mixed doubles, wheelchair singles and doubles…all competing for Championships in their divisions.
Seeded #1, I was still trying to get clear on how to deal with my high expectations of myself. Over the few days of the tournament I went from overplaying and trying to be a better player than I am, to try to live up to the expectations, to playing within myself in the finals, winning 6-1, 6-1, and playing my best match since the finals of the Worlds.
The lesson I learned is that I must always search for the place where I play within myself. This is what I had discovered over the last couple of years. There is a place where I do what I can do, with what I have, at the current time. The external rewards of winning the Worlds and acheiving the #1 ranking confused me. I lost sight of what playing within myself meant. Did it mean that I needed to be perfect on every shot, every point? It certainly felt like that to me over the last several months. I was lost in my over attention to the external view of Bob Litwin. I couldn’t find myself in this new perception of me. The truth is that when I play within myself, I am the best player that I can be. I am satisfied with doing what I can do. I stop trying to play better than I can play. My game is good. Playing above it makes me worse. My errors increase. My frustration goes up. I lose sight of the value of hitting the ball inside the lines.
I am lucky to be able to continue to find new challenges in this great game of tennis. I am happy that I continue to search for them. I know that if I stand still I am really going backwards. My tennis is about continuing to expand myself. Next up is the USTA National Grass Championships where I will get to challenge myself in another first time experience. I will be trying to win my third straight singles and doubles titles in this event.