2004 USTA National 55 Grasscourt Championships

9/12 The End of the Nationals and the beginning of the Cup matches
Today was special. After the highs of yesterday’s semifinal wins I came into today with more work to do. I was now in a position to do something that I had never done before. Last year I won the singles and doubles at a National for the first time. Today I could complete a double double. Funny, I didn’t think about it all day until both matches were over. Incredible. I won both. In the morning, with good friends, family and Carol in attendance I beat one of the two or three best players I have ever beaten. I was calm as could be before the match. I was ready for any outcome. I wasn’t afraid of winning or losing. I just wanted to play a good match. I choked a little before the match started when he won the spin and chose to receive. Incredibly, I chose to serve on the side facing the sun, with the wind in my face. I was fortunate to serve well and win that first game at love. I knew, then, that I could play with him. We both held serve through the first eleven games and then, with 6’7” Turville serving to get into a tiebreaker, I broke serve to win the first set 7-5. It was the first headway that I had made on his serve. I broke him in the second game of the second set and, even though I had a couple of tough holds, I held on to my serve the rest of the way and won the set 6-3. I threw my arms up and ran to the side of the court and hugged Carol, Jane, Ron and everybody else who was there. I was so much more excited than I expected. I wasn’t aware of the amount of pressure that I put on myself to win this year in this way.

Forty minutes later Cheney and I played in the doubles finals against USA teammates Bronson and Bohannon. Cheney asked if I was ready. High from my win, I was also unrealistic. I told him I was ready in spite of no stretching, scarfing down one half of a chicken cutlet and giving myself very little time. I played ok for a few games and then started to fade. With me playing fair and Cheney doing the bulk of the work we dropped my serve at 5-4 on a double fault and lost a first set tiebreaker. I was feeling like I wanted to leave for Philly. I had done enough today. Of course, my automatic pilot wanted to win and I kept competing hard. We hung around the set and served at 5-6. During that game we fought off three match points. Into the tiebreaker, we fought off some more match points and won it 10-8. I was now exhausted. Ten minute break. I had some fruit, talk to some people on the side and said, “ I don’t have a choice. I have to play one more set. I might as well do whatever I can to win it. I am going to crank up my energy.” Sure enough, I was able to find it, started to play well, we broke serve early and held on. I served the last game to win the second gold ball of the day. I was glad that I got to play in such an exciting, close final.

I relearned so much in the last two days. I relearned that I have a lot of heart when playing, that I have the courage to go for it in big moments, that I love to be in the close moments in matches and that I want to hit the shot when the pressure is on in the biggest moments in the match. I relearned the value of doing everything possible to get relaxed before playing and before each point. Tennis life is easier when I am relaxed.

We are now in Philly. We start to compete for the Cup tomorrow with a match against Norway. Captain Cheney feels confident and is giving me the day off so that I will be well rested for the rest of the week. How cool. I feel like a professional athlete.

Because the doubles lasted 3 1/2 hours, we didn’t get to Philly in time for opening ceremonies. It is ok. The whole day was a ceremony.

Journal Entry Semis of Singles and Doubles
On 9/11 I woke up and felt blessed to be able to compete. Winning and losing aren’t that big a deal.

Great day at the office today. Beat #1 ranked player in the semis 6-2, 6-4. I went in concerned that I hadn’t had enough tough match situations to be playing such a good player that far in the tournament. Turned out all right in that I played a very clean match. I was really pleased with how mentally consistent I was. I was in great control of my level of relaxation, my attention to the points, my nervousness, my fears and my overall focus on what I was out there doing. I also maintained a very strong physical presence on the court. For the entire match my posture was strong and my walk was confident. The result was that I was in complete control of the first set with one small wrinkle: my opponent was serving at 1-5 and I thought about how Roddick let Johannson get a little confidence the other night by not breaking his serve at 1-5. I knew that I should shut the door on my opponent by taking it to him. I didn’t play tough. I couldn’t get myself to feel a sense of urgency. He won his serve and, even though, I served out the first set at 6-2, he was now in the match. We played close until I was able to raise my game, just a notch, to break him to take a 5-4 lead. I played a nervous game that included a broken string at deuce, changing to a new racket, hitting a double fault, and fighting off two break points, but it worked out in the end and I held for the match. I served great. I thought about how excellent my serve is when I demonstrate it in a lesson and used that image throughout the match. It was the best that I have served in a big match situation.

The doubles semis were anything but routine. Playing with Brian Cheney, my USA team captain and owner of about 70 National Championships, we played a team that has won 20 National Doubles titles. Brian and I pulled it out in over three hours by a score of 5-7,
6-4, 7-6. The level was high and the intensity was over the top. Every single point was crucial. It seemed that there was never a time in the match that either team had the lead. Each point was fiercely competed for. It was exciting for me to play with such great players and to really feel that I belong. I have come a long way with my game.

Tomorrow I play 6’7” Larry Turville. He has a huge serve that seems like it is coming out of a tall tree. His wingspan makes him tough to beat around the net. He has won many, many titles. He, like Cheney, is among the top 1% of the best senior players. Cannot wait to play him. My body feels good. My energy is fine. I am relaxed. I am into it.

Singles tomorrow at 10. Doubles at 2. Doubles finals will be against the other two member of the USA team. Right at the conclusion the four of us will hustle down to Philadelphia and try to arrive in time for the Opening Ceremonies of the Sr. Davis Cup matches. Monday the competition for the Team World Championships begins. Right now I am in good position to play #1 for our team. It will be up to our team captain and I hope that I get the chance.

Journal Entry 9-10
Beautiful day today. I felt relaxed on my way to the club. Got in a nice on an elliptical machine and then did some new dynamic stretches that I recently discovered. They make me feel loose and energized. My quarterfinal opponent was a lefty against whom I had played three other times, winning all of them. I went in confident but not overconfident. I knew that I needed to take one point at a time. He won the toss and chose to face the sun, which is very bad for lefties when we started the match. I chose to serve, so had the sun at my back. I lost the first game at love and then moved to the side looking into a blinding sun. Interesting. It made me focus even better and I won the next 10 points of the match. I served well, returned well and did everything consistently. Ended up with a 6-1, 6-2 victory.

Stopped and got another good stretch from the physical therapist because my body was still complaining about the three matches in two days on the hardcourts. Just chilling tonight in preparation for tomorrow’s semifinals in singles and doubles. My singles opponent beat me this year at the National Indoors and is leading the point race for #1. I look forward to playing him on the grass where I feel that I have a little more to throw at him. I want to serve a high percentage of first serves, be consistent on my first volleys and make a lot of service returns. The key on the grass is to make somebody win the point rather than taking too big a chance and giving the point away. Of course, when presented with the opportunity to end it, going for it is the right play. Maintaining the balance between patience and attacking is an ongoing challenge when playing.

Journal Entry end of day Sept. 9
Woke up to more rain and a call that the singles quarterfinals would be postponed to Friday in the hopes of getting us on the grass. Doubles quarterfinals were on and going to be played indoors on the hardcourts in the late afternoon. My body was not feeling so flexible after yesterday’s two matches on the hardcourts. I spent the morning trying to stretch out but didn’t make too much progress so I went to a great physical therapist who worked on me for a while. It definitely helped, as did the fact that I was feeling better overall. Winning those first two singles matches reduced some of the pressure that I have been feeling all week…the pressure of defending the title and of playing well to secure my position for next week on the team. I have also felt some pressure playing doubles, for the first time, with Brian Cheney who is one of the greatest senior players to have ever played.

I felt relaxed in our doubles, very confident that we had too much game for them. We won 6-1, 6-4. When we were leading 2-1 in the second set, I was serving and suggested that we try the “I” formation, where Cheney sets up directly over the center line. I thought it would be a good idea for us to practice it in case we needed it in another match. Sure enough we lost the next two points and had to battle to hold serve. We had changed our mentality from competing to practicing. I must remember that when I am experimenting in a match, the objective is still to compete for the point. Brian and I are a good team. He is very dependable and makes very few errors. I am quick and hit a lot of winners. We are learning what each other likes to do and say on the court. I let him know that I like to be complemented on good shots. He has been great about that. He told me that he likes to play at a certain rhythm and appreciates my reminders to get ready and pay attention. Getting on the same page with a partner is part of what makes doubles a great game. The synergy reduces individual pressure and really focuses on the team effort.

Tomorrow morning…the quarters of the singles. Can’t wait.

Journal Entry Sept. 8
The lack of flow continued with terrible rains today so getting around was tough. I was supposed to report to the tournament site at 10 but didn’t get there until 10:45. Needless to say, I wasn’t very relaxed. Took some time to stretch and breathe and definitely took control of my state. Then I was told that I would be playing two matches, both on indoor hardcourts at two different sites. It was to be a long day with the challenge of staying focused and calm. I was nervous about playing because both of my opponents were from California, were big serving hardcourt regulars, and were thrilled to play me off the grass where I would be a big favorite to win. First match my opponent was nervous at the start and I ran out a quick 6-1 first set. In the second he found his serve rhythm and held serve a few times to make it a close set that I won 6-3. I never felt the outcome was in doubt. My concern was playing on hard courts without training on them. I didn’t want to get hurt, which is easy to do on the hardcourts without proper training. Got through it with no problems. I then needed to kill three hours before my next match. Once again drove around in the rain for much too long, not by choice. Got to the second club for my match with plenty of time to stretch and prepare. My opponent was a top 10 ranked player with good experience. Again I played a clean first set and won 6-3. In the second he started to serve and volley very effectively and it was a battle of holding serve. With him serving at 2-3 I cranked it up and got to love 30. He didn’t fold and managed to hold. At 3-4 I knew I needed to crank up some more because his confidence was growing and mine was just so so. I got to 15-40, lost the next point, but broke with a pass at 30-40. After holding my serve routinely up until that game I was confident that I could serve out the match. As happens, he played a good first point to go up love 15, the first service game that I didn’t win the first point. Then I choked a volley and was down love 30. Uh oh. The difficulty of closing out a match was in my face. I took a lot of time before serving and came up with an ace. Managed to get back on track, stopped future tripping and won the next few points and the match. Into the quarters which will be played on Friday. Doubles quarters on Thursday afternoon.

Journal Entry Sept. 7
My first event, the USTA National 55 Grass Court Championships,
started on Tuesday at Rockaway Hunting Club yesterday. I was seeded #2 and, as a result, was given a bye for the first round. When I arrived at the club I was told that I might have to play on Tuesday even though I wasn’t scheduled because the tournament committee was concerned about upcoming weather. To deal with it, they wanted to get more matches in on the first day. For much of yesterday I was in limbo because my potential opponents had to play a match first. It turns out that they didn’t get on until 4:30 and, as a result, no chance for me to play. I was tense all day because I never knew for sure what I was doing. Should I practice? Should I watch other matches? Should I get away from the club and chill out? I ended up playing a few practice sets, fortunately, because I never got to play my match. Now I am a round behind and will probably have to play two matches today. It is not very fair but I have to just do it. To add to the challenge of playing two matches, it is pouring this morning, so, in spite of all of the preparation for grass court play, I will be playing indoors today.

Regardless, I am hitting the ball really well, I am focused and I couldn’t be more ready to start. My first round opponent is a solid player who has had some success in the Nationals, including an upset win in his first round. If I should win, my second match will be against the #9 seed, who would be playing his first match of the day. Just one more challenge. Last year, everything fell into place smoothly. Just a reminder that when competing I must expect nothing and be ready for anything. I am working hard at being flexible and taking things as they come.

Preparing for the Nationals, Sr. Davis Cup and the World Championships

Journal Entry 9/2
Didn’t practice at all from Friday until today, Thursday. I had planned on kicking back a little, both at the gym and on the court, but I wasn’t planning on six days off from the grass courts. One practice partner canceled on me at the last moment. Another day I couldn’t find someone to play. Regardless, I was less up tight about not playing than I would have thought. I wasn’t feeling all that primed and ready to go because my first match was still a week away. No real sense of urgency. All of that changed today. I practiced today at Rockaway Hunt Club, the site of next week’s tournament. Last year I played great there, probably the most consistent week of good tennis, both singles and doubles, that I have played. Within the first few minutes I was back there again. My game, today, felt 50% better than it felt last week. I felt 50% better. I felt energized. I felt eager. I felt happy on the court.
Two things had happened. Firstly, the layoff turned out to be just what I needed. My body felt rested and flexible. I had been working so hard that I was sore all the time. I guess my tennis gods were guiding me because I hadn’t really planned it. Secondly, the courts at Rockaway were totally different than the courts on which I had been practicing. I had been playing on courts that were so soft that the ball barely bounced. Of course, all grass courts play differently, but some have a higher bounce, like Wimbledon, and some have a lower bounce. Very few are as soft as those that I used. Rockaway, I realized today, has a perfect bounce for me. I have low compact backswings that work well while hitting on the rise. These courts play right into my zone. The result is that I felt totally connected to the court and the ball today. I realized that, for the last couple of weeks, I have been minimizing the fact that I had been winning sets from players that I thought would trounce me. I made excuses for their bad play because I didn’t think that I was playing all that well. It turns out that it wasn’t that at all. It was that playing well on the soft courts didn’t feel like good tennis to me. Turns out it was and that it also was the perfect preparation for the courts at Rockaway. It is funny how sometimes it feels like something is not working when it actually is working better than you knew it could. Can’t wait to get that turf under my sneakers again.

Oh, one more little wrinkle. One more challenge on the bumpy road to playing matches. It turns out that the top four seeds in the tournament, next week, are the four players on the Austria Cup team. The four of us will be representing the USA in the World Team Championships in two weeks in Philadelphia, also on the grass. Who plays what position for the team (two singles and one doubles) will, in a large part, be determined by how we all do, individually, next week. Just when you think you can take a deep breath…

Journal Entry August 28
This week of practice has been particularly interesting and fun because of the people who practiced with me. First I played a 35 year old teaching pro who is currently #1 in the East in the 35s. Next I played a 32 year old former Canadian Davis Cup player who played for UCLA. Next I reached into the cradle and worked out with a nationally ranked 16 year old. Finally, I played at legendary West Side TC in Forest Hills with the top 65 and over player in the country. A former American Davis Cup star and US Open semifinalist, he is preparing for Cup matches and the Worlds in his age group.

What was interesting was that even though the younger players hit the ball better and were quicker, the veteran player was my toughest opponent. Not so much in terms of outcome and scores but in terms of being able to figure out what I was doing and how to counter it effectively.

The experience to be able to stay mentally in a match by analyzing what is going on and what to do about it was the lesson that I relearned this week. Without realizing it, during my first three practices I figured out how to disarm my opponents by varying what I was doing. The funny thing is that I thought all three of the younger guys just didn’t play well against me because I split sets with all of them. I even felt a little guilty that I had an unfair advantage, having played on the grass so many times this season. In retrospect, after my last practice this week, I realized that I had played a game that made them uncomfortable and that I had a lot to do with how they played. This may seem obvious. To me, it wasn’t. I tend to think that when I am playing badly it is all about me. I will stay aware that many times my opponent may be making me play less than good (and I can do that to them.)

Went to the Open quallies the other day and bumped into John James, an Aussie who, when he moved to New York was undefeated in my age group for 10 years. People often said that I was his nemesis because I had played him 11 times, often in finals. I never beat him. Never even took a set. How can you be a nemesis when you have no impact. Well, here it is many years later, John is not competing and I have had a lot of success. Regardless, I felt small next to him. I wanted to read him my resume. In competition you always want to end up with a win, even if it is on paper. I still hope that someday he comes back so that I can close that chapter.

This week I will slow down a bit and go into more of a rest, relaxation and flexibility mode. Having overtrained and gone into the last few major tournaments with injuries, I am determined to start these events feeling good. So far, knock on wood, I have taken care and feel ok. I will still get out and hit on the grass a few times. I probably will do some drills that will address serves, first volleys, returns and passing shots. These are the shots that I want to be rock solid when I begin competing on September 7. By the time I am hitting those first balls at Rockaway Hunting Club in the Nationals I want my game to be complete.

Journal Entry August 19
Over the last 10 days I have gotten in a lot of practice on some local grass courts. It is an exceptional tennis experience to play on it. It is lush and beautiful. The ambiance of the game is so different in that there is no sound when the ball bounces and no sound from running on the court. The whole game is very quiet so it seems almost heavenly. The game is different than on any other surface in that the points are very short, more often than not, four shots or less. This requires a different type of focus than long points. Here there is no breather. I need to be alert every moment because a minor mental vacation from the task at hand will usually end badly. Every shot must be executed or their is little chance of winning the point. Underplaying or overplaying a shot usually costly. I need to approach every point and each shot as if the fate of the universe depends on my effort and attention. On other courts you can recover from a so-so shot during a point. On the grass, down means out. At the same time, the grass can be forgiving…a bad volley doesn’t bounce up and earns the point. A mishit return can throw off a charging opponent. Any shot that I hit to my opponent can take a bad bounce. All in all, playing on the grass is a great challenge to my flexibility, adaptability, balance. Of course, the greatest challenge remains the same…to be focused more and more of the time in more and more big moments. I feel lucky that I have such a concrete experience in which I can test myself. It keeps me on track and disciplined as my preparation continues.

I have noticed that I keep mentioning to people that playing for three straight weeks is going to be tough and that I need to be at my best at the end of 21 days if I am going to succeed big time in the World Championships during the third week. Mentioning it so frequently means that I am having negative thoughts about it, so starting today I will start focusing only on one day at a time. It is a relief to get rid of the burden of anticipating difficulty.

Playing wise I am in good shape. I have a few playing goals that I plan to get worked out in the next two weeks. My serve has been erratic because I am fussing around with my timing in order to generate more power and depth. In another few days I will settle in on what my serve will be. I am also nailing down my service return plans…where to hit them with my backhand from both the deuce and ad sides. I am tempted to go down the line on the deuce side but keep hitting it wide. I will either get it together or stop trying to go there. Each day that I play I clean up another part of my game. Starting next week I will be playing 3 days a week on the grass. What a gift!

August 1-8
Beginning Sept. 7, I will be on a tennis whirlwind that will find me playing 3 consecutive weeks on the grass against the best players in the country and the World. Week 1 will be a return to Rockaway Hunting Club in Cedarhurst where I will be defending singles and doubles titles for 2003. This is a first for me, never having won singles and doubles National titles in one tournament. On September 12, I will go to Philadelphia to check in as one of four players representing the USA in competition for the Austria Cup, representative of the World Team Champions for 55 and over players. On September 19, also in Philly, I will participate in the Veteran’s World Championships , playing singles and doubles. Whew! That is a lot of tennis.

The biggest challenge for me in preparing is to balance working on my game and conditioning with getting enough rest and renewal to be fresh for the task. It is possible that I could play for 21 straight days, many singles and doubles. Matches will be tougher as the days go on.
I need to remember that I have worked all year in improving my conditioning. I am prone to kicking everything way up in anticipation of a tournament and have hurt myself a couple of times.

To this end I committed to myself that beginning August 1 and continuing to the end of this run that I would meditate and stretch daily. Sure, I know I should do it every day, but I get lazy. Now, though, my reason for doing these daily tasks is more engaging and that will help me with the discipline.

Over the last couple of weeks I have started to play some competitive matches to get the juices flowing. Having lost a couple of doubles matches that I might have won, I got charged up even more than I expected. My love of winning in competition got out of hand last week when I played a 20 year old Division 1 college player. He beat me like a drum and I was really annoyed. Everyone I spoke to during the day tried to remind me to have perspective. I wasn’t upset that I lost…I was upset that I lost the way I did. I was so eager for a win that I didn’t see what I needed to do to be more competitive. I was too result oriented and that is what bothered me. As usual this is a wonderful reminder to me about what to pay attention to. I need to focus on me and my game. How I will execute. Where I will hit the ball. Outcomes will always follow.

Played on the grass twice this week. The first time served as a reminder about several important aspects of being tough in grass court matches. The points are very short. There is no opportunity to work your way, mentally, into the point. You lose concentration for a moment and the point is over. Each service point and return point must be started with the highest level of focus. Doing that over and over again makes for a very difficult opponent. I plan on being one of those.

Right now my plan is to continue going to the gym three times a week to work on my strength and cardio. I will play two or three times a week. I hope to get practice opponents who can beat me up to help me be strong for the road ahead. Sitting quietly and stretching each day will be my mainstay so that I will start these tournaments in a calm and relaxed state. My tennis will be fine.

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