Second to the Aussies
We came up just a little short today against the strong, top seeded Aussies. It has been a great run and we feel no shame in being runners up to such a fine team. We had an auspicious beginning when Cheney dropped the first set 6-1 to Max Bates. Bates had beaten Brian in Perth in last year’s Cup matches on the grass. I didn’t think that Max would be able to repeat that kind of effort on the hard courts, Brian’s best surface. Superior competitor that Brian is, after going down 0-2 in the second set, he ran six games to take the second. In the meantime, I was waiting and waiting. It was about 90 degrees and I was going for a run, doing dynamic exercises, eating every hour, stretching and sitting. The third set was a see saw battle that took another hour and Bates pulled it out with a service break at 5-6 to win it 6-1, 2-6, 7-5.
The pressure fell on me to come up with a win against Andrew Rae. I felt relaxed. I can’t honestly say I felt confident. I knew that I could compete with Andrew but, going into the day, thought that Brian would win and the pressure would be on Andrew. This is the way it is in Cup matches. A one match to none lead helps one of the players play without any major pressure of elimination. We were both playing cautiously at the beginning of the match while fighting a fierce wind. In fact, through the first 10 games neither of us won a game playing into the wind. At 5-5 Andrew managed to hold his serve on the bad side and I now had to do the same. I made the classic mistake of thinking ahead a bit and letting myself know that a tiebreak was on the horizon. In a flash I was down love 40, triple set point. I fought back to 30-40 with a couple of good serves but couldn’t convert the next point and lost the set. In the second Andrew made me work extra hard for each point, moving me side to side. I couldn’t do much more than neutralize and was unable to push myself to get up to the net, even though what I was doing wasn’t working. He went up a service break early and I started to lose my legs. Tommy Connell was sitting on the court with me and encouraging me to get to the net but I was stubborn and stayed with a losing strategy. I kept believing that I was going to turn things around playing my style because that is what I have managed to do in the past. I was wrong. Andrew closed me out 6-2 in the second set and that was it. The Aussies had won it again. I sat on the side of the court with Andrew, who is a good friend, and we talked of the difficult conditions. Brian came out and reminded us “no whining.” We all played hard. We gave our best. None of us ever quit. We drove our bodies to the extreme. I am proud of how I represented the USA in this extraordinary event.
When an event is over my body just starts to give out. I feel exhausted. I feel like I need a break from tennis. I want to just and chill out and that is what I will do for the next day before returning home. Of course, at the medal ceremony my friends from Spain, France and England reminded me that we will be at it again in June in Monte Carlo when we compete again, this time on the red clay. And we all talked of working hard all year to make the Cup team for 2007 when the matches will be in Antalya, Turkey. So after a couple of days of rest and a long flight home I will be back out there, tweaking my game, working on making adjustments when things aren’t working and, of course, getting back in the gym. This was just one event of many more that I hope to play. It was the most important until it ended and now it is in the past. A wonderful memory. An outstanding trip. Quality time with some of the finest men that I know. We all learn from each other and will use what we learned to try to defeat them in the future.
Thanks to all of you for following along. Thank you for the wishes for speedy recovery from my injury and, I am sure, that is a big reason that I was able to get out there and play. Your kind wishes for success were meaningful and I shared them with the team every day. Stay tuned for the Columbus Cup coming up in June.
Into the Finals
Today was the day that the pressure kicked in for the remaining teams. Coming all of this distance and not getting a chance to play in the finals is not a very good feeling, especially once we advance to the semis. Nobody wants to go home with the dirty gold, which is what the 3rd place medal is called. Even the very best players here feel the weight of these matches.
Brian Cheney, who has played on at least 15 Cup teams over the years almost fell victim to nerves at #2. Instead of playing Jairo Velasco, the regular #2 from Spain, he played an alternate. Jairo had pulled a groin muscle earlier in the week and decided that he would do better to wait for the doubles, if the match was even a 1-1 after the singles. Brian was a huge favorite and after he won the first set easily I went to warm up for my match. When I came back after 15 minutes, Brian was down in the second set. He lost the set and then won a tight 3rd set, thank goodness. In the meantime I was a bit fouled up with my preparation. I didn’t know if and when to eat, how much to stretch and so forth. I managed to get all of my preparation in and started my match against rival and World #1, Jorge Camina. He was awesome today. I played a very solid first set, with points lasting 10-20 shots over and over again as we both stayed on the baseline and tried to outlast each other. He found the way to draw me in and then would pass or lob. He made one error in the set and beat me 6-2. I couldn’t get down. I started the second set down 0-2 and was sucking wind after every point. It was 90 degrees and I was doing a lot of work to just stay in the points. I adjusted my tactics somewhat and started to attack more. The danger in this is that I was increasing my error count by taking more risk. It definitely paid off more that just grinding out points but it was not quite enough to take down Camina. I lost the second set 7-5. I played well. Not my best but that is the way it is sometimes and I tip my hat to Jorge.
Our chance to make it to the finals was going to coming down to the doubles. I know that I wanted to play for the clinching point but it was up to Cheney, who is are team captain. He came on the court as I was packing up my racket bag and said, “how much time do you need to get ready for the doubles?” I had just completed a tough two hour grind and I felt depleted but knew that I had to get out there again for the team. After a quick shower and a little food, Brian and I started our match against Camina and Velasco. They had beaten our US team in the deciding match two years ago in Philly in the finals while Brian and I were on the sideline. We were determined and confident. It was incredibly windy when we started and I served the first game. We made four terrible errors in a row struggling with the conditions and were, in a flash, behind. We hung tough and managed to take a 5-3 lead. I had the opportunity to serve out the set and played a strong game to close it out 6-3. The second set was more of the same. Brian and I were clicking like clockwork but so were the Spaniards. We broke Velasco’s serve at 4-4 and, once again, I was up to serve. In all of the years I have played I have never been in a team match where we were facing elimination. Obviously I have never had to serve it out. I remembered other matches where I hoped my opponents would play badly or my partner would step up in the big moments. This was one of my biggest moments. I served our the match with the loss of one point and we were through to the finals. Teammates Bouquin and Connell were all over us with excitement.
Tomorrow we play the top seeded Aussies who defeated the French today. I will play Andrew Rae. He is a legend who just moved up to our age group. He has won eight World Championships. In 2002 I lost to him badly in the finals of the Worlds. This time will be different. I know that I can compete with him and that will be my mantra. Compete for every point. Go USA!
Into the Semis
Beautiful blue skies today as we arrive at a new site, Durban North Club, to play our match against Norway. They would be our toughest opponents of the first three days. Regardless, we were all feeling very relaxed and had a good warmup. Each day our team gets to use the court for a 30 minute warmup, followed by our opponents using the same court for their warmup. It is a little strange to cool down before playing but that is the way it is. I use the time to do additional dynamic flexibility stuff, skipping, jumping jacks, triple heaters, mountain climbs, gate swings, etc.
Brian started us off at #2 and took a little while to find his rhythm but managed to get a win, 6-2, 6-2. I was psyched to get out and clinch today’s match with a singles win at #1. I felt very good, was moving laterally really well considering how I felt three days ago. My opponent was a lefty so I knew that I would be challenged to move to my right early and often as he would be hitting short cross court slices. When I scouted him yesterday I noticed that he likes the drop shot as well. This would be a good test for my physical state. I played confidently, relaxed and happy. I could tell early on that all I needed to do was to keep him out there for long rallies and he would melt. My fitness was much better than his, thanks to all of the work that I did over the last few months. I won the first set 6-2. He had a tough serve and a big forehand but I was up to the task. When the second set started I decided that I would make no errors for the set. This is a lack of focus and, even though I made no errors through the first three games, this lack of respect for my opponent cost me the fourth game when I was serving. I reeled my brain back in and decided to compete hard for every single point. By getting more focused I stopped concerning myself with the outcome of each point and just did what it took to play my best. End of story, I won the second set 6-1. It was a good clean match. Bouquin and Connell had a bit of a tough doubles match but pulled it out so the USA ended up sweeping all of our matches for the first three rounds without the loss of a set.
As expected, the semifinals will be USA vs. Spain and Australia vs. France. The games truly begin tomorrow. Cheney will be up against Jairo Velasco, who he has played several times and they are very evenly matched. The last time we played Spain was in Philly in 2004 in the finals. Brian lost a close one to Velasco that day. On the same day I upset the current #1 in the World, Jorge Camina, my opponent for tomorrow. All four players know it will be a battle and you can be sure, we are all ready. Camina is crafty and experienced. He has been talking about payback for our last match all week. I am fast and fit and mentally tough. I will fight for every single point as if the fate of the Universe depends on my effort. Nothing more. Nothing less.
If we split the singles, Cheney will play doubles with me or Connell, depending on how tough my singles match turns out to be. Whatever is best for the team. Cheney is our most experienced and most successful player in Cup matches. I have won many big matches. Connell is playing Cup matches for the first time. Whatever we decide will be fine with me. Of course I will want to be on the court but will do whatever it takes to help the team win.
Tonight there will be huge banquet for all of participants of all of the age groups. We will party and enjoy each other’s company and then, tomorrow, compete for spots in the finals. All of the USA teams have advanced to the medal round and I am proud of all of the younger players who have worked and played hard.
Another USA Victory
As soon as the alarm went off this morning I knew that things had taken a positive turn for me. All of the various treatments from yesterday had paid off and my strained muscle felt a bit better. I felt more bruised than anything else. I was definitely looser and had very little pain. I announced at breakfast that I felt ready and eager to play. Regardless, I knew that skipping one more day would be a good idea, so I suggested that Cheney move up to #1 and Connell to #2 and, depending on a little warmup, if I didn’t have any “niggles,” I would play the doubles with Bouquin. My warmup felt fine, no niggles. I felt really excited that I had managed to turn this thing around in 48 hours.
Connell did great in his first ever singles match for the team, winning against the Swiss player in straight sets. In International team competition a teammate can sit on the court and coach the player during changeovers, which I did with him. Regardless of the fact that he is a top flight player, the pressure of playing for the team can be overwhelming so I kept reminding him to stay focused and to maintain intensity throughout, which he did. I am proud of his effort and happy that he scored our first team point of the day. Cheney was money in the bank playing #1 and clinched our victory for today. The doubles was no pressure except for our desire to win even though we didn’t need the win to continue our quest for the Cup.
When I walked on the court for the match I was incredibly excited and happy. Yesterday I had my doubts about playing at all for the remainder of the week. I was acting like Rafael Nadal on the court, constantly moving my feet. My energy was over the top. The first ball that was hit to me pulled me out very wide to my left and I ripped a forehand winner service return and I could feel the huge smile on my face. I knew that many of the other players were watching to see if I was back in form and, from that moment on, I played some of my best doubles. There were one of two instances that I didn’t run hard for a ball because it just wasn’t necessary. For me that is difficult to do because I tend to run for everything, even balls that are out. It was nice to know that I could override my instinct and do the smart thing while feeling so pumped. Bouquin played great and, even though we had never played together as a doubles team, we won 6-0, 6-2. After we finished I hit for another 20 minutes of singles, felt pretty good moving side to side and, now, feel certain that I will get out there tomorrow against Norway and be back in the #1 spot.
We celebrated our victory today with a team swim in the glorious Indian Ocean. All of the American teams have been winning and it appears that barring any upsets tomorrow all ten teams (Men and Women 35, 40, 45, 50 and 55) will advance to the semifinals in their respective tournaments.
I am relieved, happy, excited and can’t wait to get out there tomorrow, doing what I love: competing and playing for the USA.
Went to sleep last night positive that I would feel fine in the morning and ready to play against the Swiss. I woke up and, much to my dismay, I felt worse than when I went to sleep. At breakfast I announced to the team that I would be sitting out of today’s match, putting Cheney at #1 and moving Tommy Connell, a first time cup player into the opening match at #2. I wish that I could say that it was a tough decision but I knew that playing today would set me back and maybe take me out for more days. My plan was to test it out a little when we arrived at the courts just to see what kind of progress I would need to make over the next day or two. By the time we arrived it was raining. By 10AM the matches were canceled for the day and I was relieved.
One of the members of the host club made arrangements for me to see a physiotherapist in Umhlanga, a suburb of Durban, took me there, waited for me and then brought me back to the hotel. The people here are so accommodating, not too different than those that we encountered last year in Perth. The therapist was very good, checked me out, did some deep tissue massage, ultra sound and showed me a few stretches. When I asked her how bad she thought my pull was she told me it was a “2.” I thought that was great until she told me that was on a 1-3 scale. I definitely felt some improvement when she was done and when I asked whether or not I would be able to play tomorrow she said, “you will know when you get up. If you get out to hit and it niggles, you shouldn’t play.” Not knowing what niggles means, I will just have to trust my sense of what I should do. Again, I must remember that I need to be at my best for Friday and Saturday….that the team can win tomorrow and even Thursday without me. It is frustrating to think of how hard I have trained and then to be, at least, temporarily on the shelf. I will continue to visualize the fibers in my muscle reconnecting and blood flowing through them with good healing. I am stretching every hour and fighting to get back to 100%. Thanks for all of your recommendations and support.
Match 1 vs Turkey
Great opening day for the team, possibly tough day for me. Up early for 7AM breakfast, with an 8AM bus to the courts. Today we played at Prospect Park Tennis Club. We arrive at the courts and get to play for about thirty minutes, from 8:30-9, after which the Turkish team gets to hit from 9-9:30 while we hang out and wait. Our #2 singles player, Brian Cheney, plays the opening match and wins easily. While he is playing I watch and wait. It was very chilly, damp and windy. Playing #1 I am on the second match on and start off playing great. My opponent is struggling to stay in points with me and I am playing like a defending World Champion should play. Then, at 2-0, 40 love, I rush to the net to put away a volley and feel a muscle pull in my groin. I miss the volley and in the next point try to run to my right for a ball and have to pull up lame. I can’t believe it. I finish the game to go up 3-0 and sit down on the changeover. Pop a couple of Advil and get a wrap for my leg and manage to hide what is going on from my opponent as I win 6-0. He starts to get a clue to make me move side to side and, before I know it I am in a battle. He is serving at 1-2 in the second set and we have a very long game in which he is winning points that are long rallies and I am winning the short points. I know that I need to go for winners early, which is not my style. (Well, it is my style when I am playing badly.) I pull that game out and close out the set 6-2 for the clinching win for our team. That, of course, felt great. I had given the team what it needed to stay in the running for the Cup. I sat with ice on during the doubles match that was won by Bouquin and Connell and took a few more Advil.
After lunch I decided to test it out and we played some doubles. I felt, on a ten scale, about a seven. Then I played a practice set of singles and felt about the same. Now I am faced with a decision about tomorrow. We are scheduled to play against Switzerland. Federer doesn’t play for them thankfully. They aren’t that tough and the team can win with me sitting out, I am sure. Typically I play better tennis progressively when I play more matches and I need more matches to get ready if we face the Spanish guys on Friday. Cheney, who is the captain of our team, asked me what I was planning. I told him that I will have to see in the morning. Frankly, I am hoping that it rains so that I can take the day off and give the pull time to heal. If the weather is ok I will be faced with a decision. Get my body better and be stronger for the end of the week or get my game better and be a better play for the end of the week. I must remember that this is not about my private agenda. It is about doing what is best for the team. Right now, I just don’t know. I do know that my inner thigh is freezing as I sit here with ice on it. I am figuring that I will feel fine in the morning and that the pull is not serious. If I wake up and I am less that 90% I will pass on playing, get to a physiotherapist and keep my fingers crossed for Wednesdays match against Norway.
You never know what life is going to throw at you. I trained so hard for months, am feeling fitter than I have ever felt and am so excited to play and here I lie with a freaky little muscle pull. I am feeling positive for there is no other way for me to approach this. Chances are I will be writing about another successful day tomorrow but right now, this is a bit of a bummer. Stay tuned.
April 16…Opening Ceremonies
Yesterday was my first full day in Durban and, incredibly, I felt normal after a good night’s sleep. I met up with my teammates in the morning and we headed out to Westbridge Park, the site of the competition, to practice. It is a large site with a stadium court and about 30 perimeter courts. The South Africans have done a great job getting it ready by resurfacing all of the courts, putting new coats of paint all around and planting new flowers. They are being wonderful hosts to around 600 international players. When we arrived at the park it was like old home week for me. Friends that I have made over the last six years of playing cup matches were all around. Aussies, Brits, the Irish team, the French, Croatians, Canadians, Turks, and, of course our arch rivals, the Spanish, among many others were all there. How amazing that these relationships grow each year. We compete hard against one another and then hang out and share the experiences of the last year…tennis matches, weddings, injuries, new jobs, vacations, births of grandchildren, and on and on. We continue to grow up together while we continue to act like kids on the tennis circuit.
Considering the high level of my teammates’ play, I was pleased with how I played on my first day out. As I had hoped, I got great input from them in what style of play on which I should be focusing. They all said for me to play my regular game and not to think too much about it. In a sense they reminded me that my game, as it is, is good enough. Well that puts to rest my concerns about how to play. Being on the court and playing points with them showed me that I am playing just fine.
More of the same today with an even better practice session. I am moving well, making good contact with the ball. taking full swings and thinking clearly while playing. The draw was made today and we are seeded #3 behind Australia and Spain. We play our first three matches against Turkey, Switzerland and Norway. If, after three days, we have the best win loss record in our group we will, likely, advance to play Spain. Their #1 player is currently ranked #1 in the World, having wrestled the ranking from me in October. The team can’t get ahead of ourselves but we are confident that we will see those guys on Friday.
Opening ceremonies were held this evening with all of the players being welcomed by the South African delegation. We all wore our team warmups and gathered around each of our country’s flags. What an incredible feeling of pride to be representing the USA. I am so fortunate to have been given this opportunity. Tomorrow we kick things off against Turkey. Cheney will play #2 singles in the opening match. I will follow him at #1 singles, with Bouquin and Connell playing the doubles. As long as we win at least two of the three matches we win the head to head matchup. I feel rested, relaxed, eager and confident. I have been getting ready for this day since mid January and am happy it is finally here.
April 13 Over the Atlantic
I tend to get a little more nervous as I get closer to playing a match for the USA. When I am playing a tournament for myself there is much less pressure. This week, every match that I play will contribute to the team’s final placement in the World Team Championships. My wins and losses are team wins and losses.
There are a couple of tricky challenges in store for me as I head to South Africa. I need to step off the plane, get a good night’s sleep and be on the court practicing Saturday morning, not an easy task with a six hour time change. While traveling I will visualize myself on the court feeling awake, alert, energized and focused. I need to, immediately, get comfortable playing on outdoor fast hard courts in spite of getting only three days outdoors this week. I can’t say that I feel great yet but, that being said, I am totally optimistic that as soon as I feel the vibe of the team event, with all of the international players wearing their colors, I will forget my concerns and be totally into the ball. No doubt in my mind. My final and biggest challenge is to, by Monday’s opening matches, get clear on what style game I am going to be playing. When playing on the grass there is no question about what I am going to do. Serve and volley. Chip returns and pass or lob. On clay I know that I am going to stay back, run down lots of balls, keep my shots deep and look for a short ball to attack. The hard courts, though, present more options. Serve and volley, grind it out from the baseline, sneak in behind forcing shots, play aggressively early in the point, attack, defend. I have been experimenting and, for the most part, I have decided on grinding it out until I get a short ball and then, bam, put the pressure on and move to the net. I can’t totally decide yet because the speed of the court has a big impact on what I will be able to execute. On Saturday and Sunday I will play and then get feedback and advice from my teammates, Brian Cheney of Arizona, Tommy Connell of Texas and Joe Bouquin of Florida.
A few final thoughts on my three months of preparation. As much as I loved the workouts at the Professional Training Center, it wasn’t until I finished my last session last Friday that I realized how much effort it was taking. I was so relieved, for the moment, that I was finished
with it. It was a huge time commitment and, physically, my body paid for the work every day. I will continue to do it when I return, regardless, as I feel it has made every muscle in my body healthier. Playing wise I may have played too many people that were too strong for me. I have always believed that playing people stronger than me makes me stronger. I still believe that. It is also important that I play against opponents that are the same and weaker than me, to test out what I am working on and to build confidence. This time around I won very few practice sets. This may be why I feel a little more uncertain that I have in the past. Only time will tell. Of course, I want to thank Adrian, Elvis, Daniel, Janacek, the Jebsens, Zach Weiss, Kristin, Joel, Malinow and Kyle for fighting for every point against me. Each of you pushed me and made me stronger.
The flight has been a challenge. A 17 hour flight to Durban through Dakar and Johannesburg was preceded by a two hour delay at JFK. I have been trying to get on South African time from the moment I boarded the plane, sleeping right away even though it was only 7 PM New York time. I have, ritualistically, been doing stretches in my seat at least every 30 minutes and going for walks every 90 minutes to avoid the inevitable stiffness of a long, long cramped ride.
As I am writing we are flying over Pretoria in the south central part of the continent. Once again I am reminded of how lucky I am to have chosen tennis competition as my hobby. Through it I continue to expand my capacity both as a player and a person. It leads to me places where I might never have gone.
April 2 Two Weeks to Opening Ceremonies
The other day somebody asked me if I was ready to go. Not yet. I am coming into the home stretch of preparing and things are about to get more intense. I spent part of last weekend watching Federer, first playing Blake and then playing Lubicic. He provided me with all of the visuals that I need to start visualizing how I am going to play on the outdoor fast hard courts of Durban. His movement to the ball, his confidence in staying in the point while playing within himself, , his preparation and positioning, his upper body stillness while moving and hitting and his shot selections are perfect instructional tapes. We have a large mirror on the wall adjacent to the television and I often watch Federer playing in the mirror…he plays as a lefty…and I see how I would like to play. These images become what I see in my mind while I am meditating every morning. The more clearly I see what I want the more I play in that way.
I have continued to train with Tom at the fitness center and am happy with the way I have improved in the physical challenges that he throws at me. I am running faster, jumping higher, skipping farther, moving more explosively, doing more squats and lifting more weight. Will that translate into better tennis? I don?t know. Last week I had my doubts in that I was overhitting against whomever I was playing. I was making lots of errors. I was convinced that I was actually too strong or that my quicker movement through the stroke was making me miss. Turns out my misses were mostly mental errors. and I am confident that my new level of fitness will help me. I am certain that I will have much more energy late in matches…and I am sure that I am a better all around athlete than I have ever been.
I have been practicing on court quite a bit over the last two weeks and had been concerned about the increase in my error count on basic point development shots. I was confused, thinking it was the training or that my rackets were strung too loosely. It started to dawn on me that, in my excitement to play at my absolute best in my effort to help the team win the Cup, I was overly aroused. I wanted to hit every ball too big and too close to the lines. The seed of this awareness came completely to my consciousness as a result of two players that I engaged with this week. One, Daniel Montes de Oca, is a 42 year old player, originally from Uruguay , who is, arguably the finest 40 and over player in the USA. We have known each other for some time but had never played until last week when I got him to practice with me. He is known for his consistency. As he was easily handling me in the first set I could see how he counted on my tendency to overhit and try to make too good a shot. Even if I made a great one, he would run it down and make me play another, often an error. When we began the second set I decided that I would do to him what he was doing to me. I extended the rallies significantly by hitting the ball just a little easier and, lo and behold, opportunities to attack started to pop up. Just like that I was in the match against him. I held my own pretty well, which felt pretty good. What felt great, though, was that I rediscovered the basic concept of keep the ball inside the lines.
The second interaction that clearly got me back on track was with TJ Pura, an 11 year old player who is one of the best in his age group in the East. I went to watch him play a match. I saw TJ, in his best moments, playing within himself. This is a tough playing concept but one that I have made every effort to make a part of my game over the last few years. I saw TJ, with a big lead, start to take unnecessary chances and to play shots that were out of his comfort zone. Overconfidence has a way of making that happen. When he reeled his game in and played less on the edge, everything started to flow for him. It was the perfect reminder for me. To not play within myself is to try to be a better player than I am. I must remember that I am at my best when I do the things I am capable of doing. My best is good enough. If it isn’t, then so be it, I have met my match.
Thanks to Daniel and TJ for this week’s lesson. By the way, my practice session today was awesome. Very few errors. The opportunities that I was forcing before were given to me by my opponent who was frustrated by my lack of errors. Another wonderful piece has now fallen into place. A few more and I will be ready to take on Spain, France, Australia, Germany, England and more.