A New Tennis Season 2013
Each January I am faced with the same question. Am I willing to do what it takes to complete my tennis mission? My mission has not changed much over the years, although there have been some additions.
To be an extraordinary competitor who plays, in competition, at the high end of my skill and talent. To love the competition more than I love to win and to accept whatever the outcome with dignity and class. To compete in the moment, avoiding past and future tripping. To compete for each point. To compete with effortless effort. To be non judgmental of myself. To enjoy myself. To be enthusiastic. To be forgiving of myself for my inability to achieve perfection. To see the perceived pressure moments as the sweetest moments. To have every match be an experience where I grow as a player and a person.
As I see my mission on the page in front of me I feel the challenge within me come to life. My fire, which is often just smoldering, starts to heat up. I feel the excitement that comes with wanting to achieve my mission. The answer to the question, year after year, is yes. I want to do what it takes.
It is peculiar that, over the last few days, I have been telling myself a different story: I am going into the 65 and over division this year, I have been, more or less, out of the game for two years, playing only three tournaments since 2010. Maybe I have gotten to old for this. Maybe my body just can’t do what it had done in the past. I used to be able to play five, six, seven days in a row and feel better each day. Now I am needing more recovery time, sometimes not even being able to play two or three days in a row without seeing a loss in performance. Maybe this whole competition thing is getting old. Been there, done that.
And then I read my mission. And I can feel it. Tennis and competition is part of who I am. It is the vehicle through which I can challenge myself, face the joy of adversity and grow. Every time I compete I learn. I evolve. I am always a better person for it.
Next Saturday I leave for Sarasota to play a “Super Category II National Championship.” It will be my first major tournament in my new age group. I get to renew competitive relationships with those who I have played against for years. Cheney, Nash, Neely, Thomson, Dahm and others. I am the youngster coming into the age group. The youthful 60s are now left behind to fight amongst themselves for National Championships and National team positions.
I did play an Eastern 65s tournament over the last two weeks and won it. The level is not up to that of Nationals and I was able to win matches as my level is somewhat higher than my opponents. Despite that I was not happy with how I played. I was lacking in the focus that makes me tough. I knew I could win and that took me out of the point by point sense of urgency that is necessary for me to be playing at the highest end of my skill and talent. This manifests itself in me being lazy with my footwork and casual with focus on what is most important. For me, that is seeing the ball longer. Close to the racket. Not looking into the future, which is where the court and my opponent are lurking.
So I am creating a better story for the tournament. One that will give me more of what I want (my mission). It is a story of what I intend to be by the time the tournament starts. The story is about me playing with a sense of urgency, point by point, seeing the ball longer on each shot, keeping my feet moving so as to be in the best possible position to execute my shots.
I practiced twice today and started the journey to my new story. I had moments. Looking forward to practicing again on Wednesday when I can take more steps towards bringing my new story from the future to the present.
Love this game!
January 29 The Championships
Arrived in Florida late Saturday and got in a brief hit. I wanted to see how the change from 15 to 75 degrees would impact on my conditioning. I hit with Jo Ann, who runs me all over and I felt great. Not winded at all. It might be different when I am grinding out points but I have two more days to acclimate and am confident that I will feel fine. Actually I never really worry about this stuff because I always feel confidence deep within me. Some say I have false optimism and they may be right. Regardless, it works for me, so I will continue to believe in the good spin I put on everything. I always think I’ll find a parking spot, that my flight will be on time, there will be no traffic and that, even if I am losing, I will win. It doesn’t always play out, but I am much happier along the way and that makes me deal better if if the ball doesn’t bounce my way.
The first day of big events is always a day of reconnecting with people with whom I share the tennis competition passion and, often, amazing experiences. Yesterday I saw former teammates from past International Cup matches played in London, Monte Carlo, Amsterdam, Hanover and Turkey. We share fun memories of playing for the USA over the last 30 years. I practiced with Jim Parker, who is turning 70 this year. He is the most decorated male senior player in history, having won over 110 National Championships and at least 10 World Championships. He has mentored me over the years and it is always an honor to play with him. He sets the bar very high as an amazing human being who has achieved more than anyone in his field.
I start play tomorrow at 11:30 and can’t wait. I am clear on those parts of my game that require my deepest focus: seeing the ball, keeping my feet moving, getting lower on backhand approach shots, avoiding the temptation to overcook my forehands and slowing down my service motion. None of these are just words. They are very definite, definable actions for which I will hold myself accountable. If I do well It will be, in part, due to progressing, each day, on these technical and strategic focus points. Possibly bigger, though, will be my commitment to competing for each and every ball that comes to my side of the court. There is no ball that does not deserve my very best effort. To me, the score is incidental. Results happen when I am done following through on my job.
Tuesday, First Round Semi-focused
There is a wonderful book called “Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” The author writes about what it takes to have an autoletic experience, that being an experience of “flow.” It is an experience where “we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration and the result is a totally enjoyable experience. Once we have tasted it we will redouble our efforts to taste it again.”
I play tennis to experience flow as well as the feeling of self satisfaction when I win. The focus that is required for me to be in flow is deep and ongoing. Today, despite winning my first round 6-2 ,6-1, I didn’t find the focus that would have helped me move into flow. The result… a win, but not to the level of enjoyment that I aspire. Hey, I am not complaining. As my good buddy Kirk Moritz once told me, “there is no such thing as a bad win.”
I realized that when my skills are not being totally challenged, I am less likely to enter that amazing state where I am totally engaged. Today, I was a better player than my opponent and, I suppose, because after a couple of games, I knew I would win, I didn’t push myself to my limit. The result was that I played too many sloppy points due to semi focus. Maybe I am being too tough on myself but I want and expect more from myself. My mission remains to ignite the highest end of my talent and skills in competition. The level of challenge cannot be the determining factor of my success at achieving my mission. It is my job to find the focus and flow within me.
I am glad this happened today as it was a wake up call for tomorrow and all of the matches to come. I will work to find flow and focus regardless of the level of difficulty. Tomorrow I will channel my inner Nadal.
January 30 Fully Focused and Finding Flow
This will be short and sweet. Yesterday’s lesson was learned. I played the #9 seed today in one of the gustier days that Sarasota folks have had on a non hurricane day. I was told in advance that my, opponent was a tough, steady Floridian who could play in the wind.
I played one of the cleanest matches I have ever played in very challenging conditions. This challenge tuned my focus and moved me into the flow state that had escaped me yesterday. From the very first point I treated each ball with total respect. Each shot was given my fullest attention. I won 6-2, 6-0, never, for a moment, taking my foot off the accelerator. I didn’t miss one backhand in the entire match, made every overhead and volley and attacked over and over again with my forehand.
What a joyful experience it was to be so totally engaged. I have won many matches over the last 30 years of competing and there are very few that stand out in this way. So my semi-focus of yesterday was the gift and the message that I needed and I will add to my mission a new piece…”for each match that I play to be one of full engagement so that I may find the glorious state of flow.”
Tomorrow the quarterfinals.
January 31 Staying in the Focused State
Today’s quarterfinal match was another experience of being in the focused zone. Again, I was fully engaged with nearly every point. I played a steady player who kept a lot of balls in play and I left the court with a 6-0, 6-0 win. Because there are anywhere from 48 to about 100 points in a two set match, it is possible to get a sense of how many of these separate experiences are ones in which I am focused…in the present, with no lingering thoughts of the past points and no future tripping into the outcomes yet to come. Today, the past did not exist. The future intruded only for a moment at 5-0 in the second set, when my opponent was up 30-15 and I thought about how I might lose the game. I reeled my mind back and approached each point with the attention that it deserved. Of all the points and all the shots within those points, there were very few that were not focused experiences.
There is an indescribable peacefulness to this kind of experience and one worth finding the pathway that leads me to it. I have noticed the ease of entering it over the last year of tournaments. I have played only four tournaments in the last two years after coming out of a tough period of my life. It was during those difficult days that adversity forced me to stay in the present, for thoughts of the past were useless and thoughts of the future were gloomy. I found, to my amazement, that the present was all that was left when thoughts of past and future dissipated. I was amazed because I had always believed that I had to work on focusing to be present.
And now, thanks to that adverse period, while competing, instead of trying to focus I am just there, paying attention to what comes up…one more ball. Shot by shot I am simply paying attention. Results, as they always do, just occur after the present moment.
Tomorrow is another day. A tougher opponent. For me, an opportunity to find the experience of one hundred moments of focus.
February 1 Disappointing Default
I was scheduled to play Armistead Neely, one of the best in the World in the 65’s. Ten minutes before our scheduled match he called in to the tournament desk to say that he was injured and unable to play. So I received a default into the finals. This is not how I wanted it to happen. I was eager to play him as we have had several meaningful battles. When I first started to compete, I didn’t belong on the court with him and lost to him a few times. Not even close. Then, in 2005, in one of the most important matches of my career, I defeated him in the semifinals of the World Championships. This was huge for me, not only in beating him, but because I defaulted the finals the next day because it was Yom Kippur. I wanted to beat him so badly because I wanted to make the statement to the ITF that the holiday was more important than the possibility of winning the World Championships. Beating Armistead was what gave me the opportunity to take the stand that became the most important match of which I have taken part. As karma would have it, I won the World Championships one year later.
I wanted to play Armie for another reason. In 2009, with my hip beginning to break down, I played him at his home club in Atlanta. I had never beaten him on clay, his best surface. I was beating him soundly when my hip seized up and I was unable to run for the balance of the match. Despite leading 4-1, I lost ten of the next eleven games. It was big for me because I never quit, never wanted to stop and gave my all until the very last point. It was huge for me. I made no excuses and this is a part of my mission as a competitor. So I wanted to finish that match today. But it was not to be.
Tomorrow I play a great guy, Mike Dahm, the top seed in the tournament. I am rested and focused. Can’t wait to get out there. Looking to find the flow that has been a big part of the week.
Saturday, February 2nd Victory
Won the finals. 6-2, 6-2. Celebrating tonight. Will write finals entry tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Sunday, February 3 Serenity, Focus, Flow (and a win along the way)
Sit back and put your feet up. This may be a little longer than usual but I have a lot to report.
Bjorn Borg was always my favorite player. I could never put it into words until I saw Roger Federer play in the big moments. Both of these guys exhibited qualities to which I have aspired. A quiet confidence. Certainty. Belief. When interviewed they expressed, without bravado a truth…that they had just played some great tennis. It never, though, seemed to be about their shots. It was about their focus both when the pressure was on or not, the way they flowed effortlessly through the minefields of a match and the serenity with which they moved in their world. I think I hit those marks in this tournament. I had confidence in a new way. There was never a doubt about who I am as a player. It wasn’t about winning. It was about what Bob I could bring to the court. There was no difference between who I am and who was playing. No effort. No roles. No trying. Just myself. This is the type of serenity that I would see in my models, Borg and Federer.
A few weeks ago, as I started to prepare for this tournament, I asked many of my friends and clients to define, in their words, confidence. The breadth of answers was not as varied as I would have thought. Most had very similar responses: making great effort in preparation, expectation based on past successes, knowing that you can be successful, knowing your skills, the mental state that you can do something, facing something with no fear.
In some ways, all of these helpful answers got me to thinking about what it is for me. Certainly it is all of what was sent to me and, for me, more…or maybe less. It is knowing what I am capable of doing. So it is about practice, for sure. I think I got a glimpse of it this week in a slightly different way. The phrase that resonates is “confidence in my self.” My self is who I am internally. So knowing my “self” is knowing on a different level than knowing what I can do and expect. It is that comfort and serenity that I see in Borg/Federer. They go on the court and it is less about what they can do and more about bringing their inner “self” to the game. With that sense of knowing they are free of the baggage that comes with trying…the trying that often creates internal stress and tension that interferes with igniting one’s talent and skills. As was said of Gandhi..what he says, thinks, believes and does is who he is. No need for agenda or effort. Just being. Whew. That feels like a good place to be. Get your best and don’t even try.
So this week of good tennis started with a question about confidence. Part two was me writing my story of where I was with getting out and competing again…about wanting or not wanting to do the work. I had a story going about having done it enough times and being satisfied. But I didn’t buy into that story. I asked myself, “is that story working for you?” A resounding NO! So I started to carve out a new story. A story of yes. I do want to do the work to compete. I used my mission as the core of my new story. It was a story of growth, change and bringing new concepts of understanding through tennis. And this story is what I moved into. I am a better player today than I was eight years ago when I reached the #1 World ranking. When I think of that day I remember feeling disoriented. I had just been given this wonderful external validation for a good year of competing but I felt there was something missing. I knew that I was not the best Bob Litwin I could be. I am happy to be back on that pathway and hope the journey continues forever.
I have many thanks to give for helping me continue on my commitment to achieve my personal mission. My practice partners Malhame, Mcconnell, Snow, Rosen, Parr, Joel and Jay with whom I am forced to pay attention shot after shot. Dr. Brian Hainline for getting me off the elliptical which was killing my good hip. Winder Bill for his insights the day before the finals. George Zinc for his observations about how to bring the best Bob to the court. The young athletes with whom I work, Kelsey, Samantha, Brianna, Daniel, Jack, Max, Austin. You continue to inspire me with your hard work and dedication to be the best you can be. All of my hard working clients and everyone at JGA. Knowing that I am in your sights at all times keeps me on the pathway of walking my talk each and every day. The memory of Carol’s support in the early days and her courage to fight hard for every moment. And to Jo Ann, who has taken my hand and walks with me through every day, sharing in the joy of a life in the present.
PS Senior moment of the week: the chair umpire had me call the coin toss. I won it. Had decided before the match to receive if I had the choice. During his introductions he announced, “Mr. Litwin won the toss and chose to serve.” When I corrected him both he and Mike Dahm, my opponent, informed me that I chose to serve. Oops. I ended up serving into the sun and promptly lost the first game. Next time I will write my plans on my hand.
PPS I won the match, 6-2, 6-2 defeating top seed Mike Dahm. I won the tournament. Got a lot of ranking points. Played smart. Played tough. Focused on nearly every point and every shot. Pretty darn satisfying week.