Sept 9-18 Ramping Up
After my last play on the grass, in Philadelphia against the French, I was unhappy. Although I won three out of four matches, I was not happy with my playing state. I reacted poorly to the perceived pressure that I felt to win all of my matches for the team. Having played only eight singles matches in the last 36 months had an impact on my sense of self as a player. Despite good wins in May, I still had doubts, as winning matches, alone, does not necessarily create confidence. Confidence, for me, is knowing what I can do. Going into matches after all this time off, I know what I used to be able to do. Now that is a bit of a mystery. Not knowing what I could expect of myself is a counter confident state. This uncertainty is unsettling and when I had some difficulty early in my first match in Philly, I reacted poorly, internally berating myself, questioning whether I should even be playing.
I can kid myself by telling myself that I can count on myself finding a way to win, but winning does not trump playing and reacting less than my best. Over the next two weeks of practice I need to find my way if I am to be effective at the National Grass. This is my surface. It is where I have had my greatest successes. I want to be playing at a level that satisfies me, win or lose. Winning, alone, will not be enough, just as it was not enough against the French. My mission is to ignite the highest end of my talent and skill.
My first day practicing on the grass was Sept. 9th. Despite it being a beautiful afternoon, I felt my impatience with my game surfacing early. I was missing a lot of serves. The harder I tried, the more my serves were going into the net. My practice partner commented that it is tough serving on the grass where it is hard to push off. To me that is a story that is just not true. After all, I have served great on the grass for many years, even though the grass is tough. No, it isnt that it is tough. It is that I was making it tough. In that moment I realized what had been going on in the Philly matches. I was trying to hard. I was playing at my edge. I was not playing within myself. That phrase, to play within myself, resonated in a big way. I had learned to find that place when I was at my best. I would find it again. It was a long hard lesson to discover that way of playing before but now, having learned it once, it would be easier to get to a second time.
The challenge with finding the place of playing within myself always had to do with believing that when I played at a place a little bit below my edge that I was good enough. Not feeling good enough is an old feeling from my past. Certainly I feeling I will need to delete if I am to play to my level.
Day two’s practice was more of the same. I was struggling to find my game. My movement was stilted. I felt ambivalent about playing. I was still trying to hard. I am still not sure what it going on. In some ways I feel as if I am playing this tournament, the last I will play in the 60s division, as a swan song. In some dark recess of my mind is a bad story hatching about getting older. This is another piece that will interfere with my performance. I am thankful for being able to find these thoughts. I am always willing to pull out the flashlight and search around the attic of my brain. Counterproductive thoughts have a huge impact on play and by finding them I can rewrite them into much more productive thoughts. This may be one of the most important mental toughness skills.
I also was aware that, physically, I was standing around after hitting shots. Hitting and watching and waiting. This is not going to work. I need to get myself to attack with my movement. Additionally I could feel that I was overthinking my serve. This is common on the grass where it feels like you should do a lot with it to gain the advantage early in the point.
I had one game where I just let it go. I served freely. This was a big positive. It was the first time in two days that I felt that I was moving in the right directions.
Day 3 was a big improvement. I was happy on the court. This has a lot to do with how I felt physically. For the last couple of days my hip was bothering me and I was feeling worried that this could be the beginning of a problem. When I feel physical limitations I go deep within myself. I get quiet and withdrawn. This is a story that I need to change or it will take me down a path that will not give me what I want…to play at the high end of my talent and skill. It is a negative place and I will not go there now that I am aware of it. So today felt like a huge improvement. I was moving well, serving with purpose and attacking with my movement.
Day 4 was my best day and I am now feeling like Bob on the court. I am happy, grateful to be experiencing the job of the grass courts. I am lucky to be playing and preparing for this event. I feel an eagerness to compete. I love to compete. I love it, in some ways, more than winning.
I remember now why I love to play. There are many reasons and a week ago my only reason was to win. That can put a serious damper on the experience. So why do I play? I love the challenges that competition throws at me: to be a good winner and a good loser, to play with integrity by having to call my opponents shots honestly, to sometimes feel exhausted and having to find a way to keep going, to have to solve problems in real time, to be on the verge of defeat, my heels on the edge of a cliff and, yet, to find it within myself to fight to the very end…and sometimes to turn the tide, to stretch my limits, to have to be aware, to be in an experience that requires me to focus at my deepest level, to accept whatever is going on while still moving forward and to play free of judgment of myself. Competition asks me to rise above just about everything and to just play at the game. These are just some of the reasons I go out there to put it on the line.
I took off a few days from playing because I need to maintain a balance between being tennis sharp and being physically ready. Too much play and my body can break down. Not enough play and I lose some of the tennis edge.
Back to practice tomorrow. First match Saturday at 1PM. Feeling psyched to get out there.
Wednesday was huge in my preparation. The grass courts on which I planned to practice were closed because of rain the night before. My first awareness that I was in a better place mentally was that I had no regrets about having to practice on the clay. If edgy I would have been in a state of wanting or resistance to the change in my practice. It was a spectacular fall day when I got to the court and that was another good sign. I was seeing the beauty in the day, smelling the roses. My mental had begun to shift from worried to happy.
While warming up with Dan it was really noticeable to me how focused I was. Each shot was one that I was welcoming the opportunity to play with. I was so focused that it provided amazing clarity to where I could see that I thought about “do something with this ball” led to an error. It was exciting. In my most focused times the image I have is of a white screen with an occasional black spot, those spots representing thought, not zone. This is what I was experiencing. It felt new again. When playing with Dan there is a feeling that I need to pay attention to each shot he hits because he hits a high quality ball over and over again. I am glad for this need to be there as for the last few months or longer, I have been mentally complacent when playing, letting my past experience get me through points and games. I can be good that way but not my best. And regardless of my level, there is no joy in not being present while I am playing.
Game wise I was pleased that I had shifted from my last few days of being reactive and immobile to playing up on the baseline, taking the ball very early, anticipating where shots might go, acting on my anticipation and running…just running, as I truly love the movement of this game.
I got a massage last night as I am being conscious of getting my body to be really right for competition. As is often the case, I drift into my right brain during massage and images crop up. I had an image of holding my arm up in victory after the finals. I hadn’t had an image of tennis success of this nature for several years. It felt positive. Very positive. It isn’t overconfidence. It isn’t overfocus on results. It is just a belief of what can be. When I got home I told Jo Ann of the image. She said to leave it out of the journal because many of the players read this journal. I told her it doesn’t matter if they know what I am thinking as there is nothing they can do to take advantage of my state. It always comes back to me, hitting my shots, playing the game, being in the joy of competition.
First Match at the Nationals
Opening round was yesterday and I had a bye. One of the advantages of being seeded is that I can get to the site and get some practice. It is helpful to be familiar with the surroundings and the conditions before the competition starts. This is often more of a challenge when the tournament is held locally. There is a tendency for me to live my normal life, with regular daily routines, and just fitting the matches in. When a tournament is out of town everything revolves around the matches. Bottom line is that I was glad to get in a hit on the beautiful grass courts of West Side Tennis Club. The place is so filled with history as all of the greats played the US Open there until the late 1970s when the tournament moved to Flushing Meadow. Pictures of Budge, Gonzalez, Tilden, Laver, Trabert, Ashe, Connors, McEnroe fill the walls. The locker room is unchanged from those days and you can feel the presence of these champions.
I hit with Jimmy Malhame, one of my regular practice partners and possible opponent in the tournament if we both advance a few rounds. Regardless of being potential opponents, we help each other. It is a special part of the game that friends and doubles partners are opponents. I felt good on the court, moving a bit better than the days leading up to today. I am still working on finding the balance on my serve. The balance between hitting big (but missing more) and spinning conservatively (but dealing with tougher returns.) I know the options and the match I play will help determine which way to go. A few other takeaways that I will bring to my matches: stay low on the grass, keep hitting up to get decent net clearance, anticipate and act on it. The biggest piece, though, is to treat every point with total respect. To take nothing for granted, no matter how hard or easy it is going.
Today the biggest challenge was the weather. It was very windy and the game was different on each side of the court. My opponent was nervous playing me as he was playing my past successes. He had mentioned it before we started. That gives me a pretty good lead before the first ball is hit unless I let it lead me to complacency. After all, my opponent had won a match yesterday and could, obviously, play well.
I did great. I treated each point with total respect. I took my time before each point. I was meticulous with my pre-serving and returning rituals. I didn’t change from that mode despite winning sixteen of the first seventeen points. In total I lost seven points and only two were on my own errors. 6-0, 6-0. I couldn’t have asked for a better performance from myself in my opening round. Tomorrow is likely to be a tougher person on the other side of the net, but that is less relevant than the player I bring to my side of the net. As long as I focus, stay positive, maintain mental and emotional discipline, I will be a tough opponent.
One point at a time. Staying in the present. Playing on my own side of the court. Compete for each ball that comes over the net. That should keep me busy. Tomorrows match is at noon.
It will be followed by some sadness as many of us will be attending a memorial ceremony for our dear friend and tennis legend Ron Rebhuhn. I look forward to saying a few words about what he meant to me and all that I learned from him. It is a reminder about how lucky I am to be able to just go out and play tennis, regardless of wins and losses.
I felt great walking on the court. My belief in my game and what I can expect of myself is increasing each day. When I was playing more frequently I pretty much knew what I could expect of my game. I had a consistency to my craft that I could count on. Being away from the game for a stretch has made each day of competition more of a mystery. Which Bob would be showing up today?
My pre match warmup felt really good. I was moving well, making good contact and I was both excited and a little nervous. A nice balance.
The match was a great example of focus and how easy it is to go out of focus. I won the first set 6-0, playing error free throughout. I don’t think I missed a shot besides one or two service returns. I lost only three points during the first set as I was completely on my returns and first groundstrokes as well as serving a high percentage of quality serves with pretty easy volleys to execute. Not once did I take my foot off the accelerator. I took my time between points, relaxed my shoulders prior to each point, took a deep breath and reminded myself that if my opponent were going to win the point he would have to feel some pain. I was, mentally, giving nothing away. My focus was locked in.
Getting ready to serve the first game of the second set I had one of those quiet insidious little thoughts that are like a pinball in the brain. “Hey, looks like I am going to win this match 60 60, just like yesterday….nice way to send a message to the rest of the field.” Lost my serve, made four return errors in the second game and, just like that, I was in some trouble. After a few more games I was down 1-3 and thinking of a third set. Thankfully, the Bob that knows what to do competitively surfaced. That Bob voice said “play each point as if the fate of the Universe depends on your focus.!”
I turned it around and managed to win the next five games to advance to the quarters with a 6-0, 6-3 win.
I am really starting to feel it. My confidence is growing. My belief that had been so shaky one week ago was shifting to a new place. I am eager and ready for tomorrows match with a confidence in myself and in my game towards which I have been working for the last year. And, best of all, I am having fun on the court. Tomorrow I will play with joy.
September 24 Quarterfinals
The buzz increases as we get to the final 8 players. The matchups are usually tougher and the stakes get higher. We were scheduled for first match on and that means no warmup on the grass as the courts are closed until 10AM. This creates a bit of a challenge because warmup up on the clay, which is the only option, is very different. Knowing that would be the case, I visualized being on the grass and got myself to feel, in my mind’s eye, the low soft bounce. I was definitely ready to go.
I played a seed from Alabama. He was the first player I met in this tournament who was able to consistently return my funky lefty spin serves. It was good for me as I was forced to focus deeper and longer than in other matches. I got off to a great start, holding and breaking serve and leaving him in the dust, winning the first set 6-2. Then, just as yesterday, I had a small thought about how easy the match felt. This insidious little thought had enough power to lead me to a bad game and I dropped my serve. This time, though, I refocused right away and broke back. The second set had close games throughout but I managed to win them all from that game on. Second set 6-1. I played very solidly.
I need to stay more dialed in mentally and catch these rogue thoughts. My job is not to replace them because that is not what works. What works, though, is to be the distant observer of the thoughts. To be the watcher…the part of me that just sees what is in a non judgmental detached way. To simply see the thought and to tell myself that they are just a single small thought that a small part of my brain is creating. The thought never really takes over when I have that perspective. The chance for more counterproductive thoughts increases as the opponent’s get tougher and the points become harder to come by. I already have a thought that I am dealing with in this way… “hey, it’s your last tournament in the 60‘s age group and the semis is a great result…” Now that is a thought that I will let go of before I hit the court tomorrow. Guaranteed.
Tomorrow in the semis I play my good buddy and practice partner Jimmy Malhame. We have been working out together over the last two weeks and he has been handling me without too much problem. That, though, was a week ago and today I am a different player. We are both excited to be playing each other and it will be, I am sure, a fun match. Two fierce competitors doing what we always do….trying to impose our will against the other.
September 25 Semi Finals
I woke up earlier than usual this morning and, as is often the case before a perceived big match, I awaken to thoughts of the match. I spent time with my eyes closed visualizing the upcoming scenario in the way I wanted it to play out. I never really picture the results. I just picture me and how I will play, how I will act, how I will carry myself, how I will deal with adverse situations. I pictured myself happy and relaxed in the way I am when I go out to practice. No pressure about winning or losing. I pictured myself with great posture between the points. I saw, in my mind, serving loosely, effortless effort, going up and out, just as I serve when demonstrating a serve. I pictured Jimmy’s funky lefty spin serve and how I would be standing way over to get a forehand, or at least to get him to have to try really hard to find my backhand. I pictured cross court and down the line returns. I visualized myself focused at the beginning of each and every point.
And then I opened my eyes and welcomed the opportunity. A chance to advance to the finals of a National Championship again. This is something that I was not sure would happen after my surgeries. I knew I could play well, but putting it together for a whole week…I just wasn’t sure.
As I had seen it, I was totally chilled when I arrived at the Club. I felt no nervousness. I was playing my buddy. It would be a war. It would be fun. The outcome would be whatever it would be. My mission as a player includes accepting the outcome with dignity and class.
I was overly-casual in the warmup and missing quite a few shots but I was not concerned. I would play well or I wouldn’t.
I came out of the gate quickly and played close to error free tennis throughout the first set, getting the lead with a break and when Jimmy served at 1-4, we had a long game, maybe four or five break points. I kept missing, in that game when I had very makeable opportunities. I managed though to keep my head in it. I never let down. I never let him breath as I competed for each point, almost fearing to give a point away. I managed to break and serve out the first set. 6-1. The second set was more of the same as I kept my focus throughout, racing out to a 4-0 lead and had chances for 5-1 as he went down love 40 on his serve. That was my first mental wiggle. Again a random thought “wow, 6-1, 6-0, this will be an amazing result.” Just like that he came back and won the game and I had a tough service hold to get to 5-1. He played a tough game, never showing any quit and it was 5-2. I needed to do it right then because he was dangerous at that point. The last game was tough as I went down 15-30. But I worked on my posture. I welcomed the adversity. I focused. I served it out to win the set 6-2.
I had played just as I had seen it. I never saw the result in my visualization and only saw the result for a moment while playing. One of my greatest wins ever. A return to the finals. This feels amazing and exciting.
Kudos to the tournament committee for honoring the request to not play matches on Yom Kippur. I had told them early on that, if I got to the finals and it would be on the holiday, I would default. It wasn’t a threat, just notification. I didn’t push it and they scheduled around the holiday. What a treat. It was eight years ago that I defaulted the finals of the World Championships when the ITF refused to adjust to the holiday. I am so grateful to Bob and Dina Ingersole for their decision.
Finals will be Thursday at noon against the top seed, Tom Smith. We have played three times and I am 2-1, although he beat me most recently in 2007. He is strong and younger than me. I am playing in joy so I figure I have the advantage.
Happy Holiday to all who celebrate and to those who share the special day with us. !
Thursday The Finals
It was a great ride to the finals. Hard to call the finals great though. I got trounced by Tom Smith. I lost 6-2, 6-0. And it wasn’t that close. Things were going fine through the first four games as I held serve easily and making a little progress on his serve games. I had finally found what felt like a good serving rhythm. I was going 3⁄4 speed and hitting my spots. Then in the fifth game I hit a double fault and, right after that, I cranked up my serve to 100%, responding as if I was in trouble. I cranked up my serve and could not seem to find the box. My percentage started to drop suddenly and I was hitting all second serves, feeling pressure, and he started to take control. I was on my heels in that game, he held easily and, three, games later it was 6-2 for him.
I was ok, mentally and emotionally, and was thinking “no big deal, it is just one set.” I was feeling confident that I could turn it around but it was not to be. I continued to serve poorly and he played better and better. At love 4 in the second set I was thinking that a comeback would be fun and exciting. Nope. I played a long game, serving, but was inconsistent and he won it, then served it out for the match.
As I review the match a few things stand out. Firstly, I was irritated with Tom for a few little things that were insignificant. He didn’t do anything wrong but I still, internally, was thinking that he was bothering me. So this meant that I was in judgment of him. Any time I am in judgment, I am agitated and negative and that is a formula for less than optimum performance. Secondly, I realize only now that I was flat, emotionally, leading up to the match and during it. My competitive spirit was quiet. The flame was hardly an ember. I was overly chilled. This is something of which I need to stay aware. Because I think that being relaxed is a plus, I sometimes may overdo it. I think that was the case today. Maybe I was satisfied with how I had done in the tournament in getting to the finals and an unnoticed thought was “I have done enough.” That is an important lesson for me to learn and I promise myself that I will search for that thought and let it go in my next tournament if it should come up.
I was pleased with how I behaved, how I maintained good posture throughout, that I kept finding a smile in the midst of lost points and games and, most of all, I was a good loser. This is a key part of my mission as a player….”to accept the outcome with dignity and class and to be a good winner/good loser.” It was not that difficult. I have practice having no excuses and have gotten good at it. For this I am glad. These matches, especially those that don’t go well as the ones in which the lessons can be found. Winning is nice and I gain confidence. Losing is ok because I gain knowledge for the future.
Thanks to all of you for following along, for your emails of support and good luck and for being a wonderful audience for my writing. The book is coming soon and you will know about it before the rest of the World. Thanks to Joel, Dan, Adam and Jeff for the warmups. Thanks to Jimmy Malhame, who is a warrior and great practice partner and friend. I learn from you and admire your courage. Thanks to Jo Ann for helping me see the game with a newness that, after 30 years of competition, can slip away. I never want to lose that feeling of shoshin. You bring that to me every single day.
Oh, and making it to the finals, getting a silver ball in a National is not too shabby. I will take it and run. It feels good to be back in the game, playing the way I was before the darkness. I love to be back in the light.
On The National Championships
With a little more time to reflect there are a few more takeaways that become clear from talking with people after the match.
I was pleased that I recovered well right after the match. I am not referring to my physical but my spirit. Right as Tom shook my hand, I was self annoyed at my lack of good play and my poor execution. He made a comment to me that I took as condescending when it was really a humble remark. He said “I got you on a really poor serving day.” When feeling annoyed it is easy to misconstrue meaning. I was packing up my gear on the court, quiet, not happy and eager to get to the locker room to lick my wounds. I remembered, though, my mission piece about being a good loser. In a moment I walked over to Tom and was able to shift to being genuinely congratulatory, relaxed, friendly and appreciative of the experience of playing in the finals against someone who played awesome on that day.
The memory of these few easily forgotten moments led me to search for an email that I sent to a successful portfolio manager who was questioning how to find meaning in his work when he had made enough money for many lifetimes.
I want very much to help you find more excitement and joy in what you are doing. I see how difficult it is for people in the industry to be happy unless they are making money. It makes the challenge for all of you that much greater than for someone who does work that is autoletic filled with intrinsic enjoyment. That being said, anything that we do for a long period of time tends to lose luster.
I was thinking about what makes me love tennis competition after doing it for 35 years in the hopes that it will help to get us in the right direction with your questions.
At the beginning, for me, it was all about winning and losing. Who I was, if I was a success or failure, had to do with results only. I won a lot, in fact, most of the time and it just wasn’t enough. The winning didn’t seem to mean that much and I didn’t feel as good as I thought I would. Winning was too easy b/c I was just better than a lot of the opponents or I got someone on a bad day. So winning didn’t feel that good most of the time. Add to that, losing felt awful no matter how it happened. The whole thing just started to get old and I stopped enjoying playing. The problem was that I was good at it and tennis was my job and what I did every day. Competing was part of the job that I had to do.
So I started to search for what I could pull out of the experience to make it special. I made lists of what I did love about doing the work and competing. Each match had something in it that made it a positive experience. I love developing the craft. New ways to hit the ball. New places on the court. Developing a sense of purpose for each and every shot. I love trying to
work it out while someone was trying to keep me from doing it. I love the engagement. How long I need to pay attention to really get the job done. I love the stress and pressure of each point being a win/lose experience. I love attempting to impose my will on my opponent as he tries to do the same to me. I love when it is close and I have to deal with pressure. I love, when I lose, having to be a good loser. I love having to make no excuses. I love being faced with failure and giving full effort at pushing it away for as long as possible, and sometimes, I am lucky enough to be able to win from the precipice. I love when I am pushed to my limit, when it feels like I just can’t squeeze out one more drop of focus or effort or energy. I don’t love working out. I don’t like taking the time. I don’t enjoy the experience…but I love the effort that I need to put in to get myself to do it. I love to have a reason to eat well even though I would rather eat badly. I love the texture of the experience. Most of all I love that I constantly need to do the work of making my time on the court meaningful and special. It is not up to the job/ game to do that. Waiting for only good results to get myself to feel good is a certain way to be unhappy much of the time. Kennedy said “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what can you do for your country.” I say, ask not what tennis brings to me—ask what I bring to my tennis. I fail at some or all of these things on some days and I am disappointed but just decide that I will do better the next time. I want to look in the mirror at the end of the day and say, “you did good.”
The joy of working on the details every day has kept me engaged, focused, interested, happy and young. The fact that I am better today than I was 10 and 20 years ago is a huge payoff. The fact that I will be better tomorrow is what makes me jump out of bed each day.
So every match I play is one in which I can win in so many different ways and this is why I continue on this competitive journey.