Return of the Tennis Journal 2011

I wrote my last entry in May of 2009. I had been unable to complete a match in the semis of the Atlanta Sr. Invitational. It was clear that I could no longer postpone hip surgery.

So much has happened in the last 26 months and now, for this first time since that match, I am preparing to compete again. Next Wednesday I go to DC to play for the United States against Great Britain for the Avory Cup. It is a perfect event for me to return to the competition that I love so much.

This is a brief story of how I got here. I had the latest and greatest hip surgery, called resurfacing in July of 2009. It went well until December. I was feeling great, playing hard and then I had terrible pain in the joint. That month, Carol, who had been battling breast and lung cancer, found out that the lung cancer had moved. This was bad. In February, the docs, deduced that I had a stress fracture in my operated hip. Get on crutches for six weeks, no weight bearing. Meanwhile, Carol had started chemo. Me on crutches, her weakening. Tough times but good times. We bunkered down for the battles we were facing. She was amazing. I was, daily, working on bringing myself to the best possible place to be so that I was at my best for her. It was like a tennis match. No time to whine. No complaints. Just get ready for each point. Each day. I would, on my crutches, bring her nutrition drinks, one step at a time. She would find the energy to do the things that I couldnʼt do. Even though she was getting weaker she was getting stronger, in spirit, every day. Even though I was losing her, I was growing, in spirit each day.

Carol lost her battle in July, 2010. I have often made references to the men I compete with being amongst the best I know. My three doubles partners, Ray Lake, Brian Cheney and Charlie Hoevelar all hopped on a red eye from Seattle, where they were scheduled to begin the National Hardcourts, that day, to honor Carol at her funeral. Tennis competition makes special people.

What would I do now, in my life, without Carol? I was like a leaf, formless, floating.

The tennis gods called me. They said “use us to heal yourself.” To rebuild your body, mind and spirit. Could I play again? Would I compete again? Would I care? Would my body let me? I did physical therapy to prepare to go on the court because I had only tried to play a handful of times March. By August, I started to play, with no gaining idea. The National Grass was coming up in September at West Side in Forest Hills. Singles? Doubles? Cheney and I had won the doubles for five years in a row before I sat out in 2009. I didnʼt feel ready enough to encourage him to come to NY to play so I told him to take a pass. By early September I knew I wasnʼt ready for singles, but felt good enough to play doubles and did with Pete Bromley, a great Eastern player. With very little competitive practice, he and I managed our way to the the semifinals and I felt great…until the day after the semis. My hip was killing me. Same spot as when I had the stress fracture. I laid off. It got worse.

In late October, my doc said that my most recent xray showed that I was at risk for a massive fracture and that I needed to get on crutches immediately and that I should book surgery at once. It was a major body blow. I was convinced that I had nothing left to take on another challenge. I was sure I had used up all of my fighting spirit energy and that I just couldn’t handle it.

I am alone. Who will take care of me? I canʼt do three days in the hospital. I moaned and whined for a couple of days and then on November 8, Carolʼs birthday, I looked in the mirror and said what she would have said to me…”what would you tell a client?” Iʼd tell him to come up with a new story because the one heʼs telling is worse than useless. It creates immobilization. I had been through this with my tennis game many times during my development. Bad stories lead to poor choices and a lot of inaction. So my new story of itʼs only a hip, I have family and friends to chip in, itʼs only three days in the hospital and I will be on the road back to health and tennis every day once the surgery is over. And I mobilized.

Operation, six weeks on crutches, physical therapy. Once off the crutches I walked a lot, all this while healing from the my losses. Carol. Tennis. A cat. My hip. Wasnʼt allowed on a court until March 1. I had to take it really slowly. Stand I one place. Resist running. Each day I played, a little more movement. In my mind was a return to competition in Atlanta in May. I wanted to have my return be at the tournament where I had broken down two years before. It would make for a great story. By April 1 I felt that I was hitting the ball great. My movement, though, was not good outside of a few steps in each direction. No acceleration. No rapid deceleration. I played some doubles with some of my buddies. I hit the ball well but was just not moving. I was cautious. Drop shots were miles away. I was still weak. It was both tough and easy to bail out of Atlanta and the May tournament. I was disappointed. I wanted so much to play. It was just going to be doubles. Small draw. Three matches maximum over three days. I was used to doing as many as nine matches in five days. At least I was used to that before two hip surgeries. One of my doctor buddies said to me, “if you win two matches, who are you likely to play in the finals?” I knew it would be Cheney and Neely, two of the very best in the World. He asked, “are you ready to compete with them?” Decision made. Competition would just have to wait for me to be ready.

So I played doubles for my club team for May-July and each match I played I felt more and more of my movement returning. I started hitting singles in mid July and dealt with my limited but improving mobility. I had to play a bit smarter than I used to because my legs were not covering for some of my weaker shots. But better. A little each day. I started taking notes on my game. The system that I had used before was pulled out of mothballs. I listed what I needed more of…and what I needed to get rid of. What was working? What wasnʼt? I was back in the process that I loved. Two weeks ago I sent out a request to five of my former practice partners: I am training for two events and I am training for two events and I need you. I listed twenty of the following thirty days. Happily the response was what it was in the past. I booked every practice session.

I am ramping up. I am excited to be back in the process. Future entries will address where I am in the process and what I am doing to get to where I need to.

And next Wednesday I will play my first competition in a long, long time.

Plans to practice today, which would have been my fifth day in a row were put on the sideline as Hurricane Irene intervened. It gives me the opportunity to clarify those parts of my game that require additional focus. This is often my favorite part of the process of attempting to live out my tennis mission: 
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 have every match be an experience where I grow as a player and a person.

As I take a look at what is good in my game and what is lacking, it provides me with direction that moves me closer to succeeding at my mission. Shining light on what is going on inside my head is the foundation for me moving forward in any change or improvement. I need to know my thoughts, my emotions, my attitudes and beliefs. They are what drive my outer game.

A little background is necessary. When I decided to have hip surgery in 2009 I had reached a point where I was ok with whatever my tennis future would hold. I had accomplished way more than I had ever dreamed and, if I never played another match, I would have no regrets. I reached a personal pinnacle. I could move on if I had to. When I had to have the second surgery, last December, I was not so clear about being ok without tennis. I talked a pretty good game of acceptance but quietly, lurking deep in my soul, was some sort of “have to.”

“I have to get back to where I was.” As I often find with these deeply buried thoughts, my mind and body donʼt work quite as well as when these thoughts are visible.

I was sure that my return to pre-surgery form would be dependent on my bodyʼs ability to heal. I believed that “my game” would be
fine because it was deeply ingrained in my tennis DNA. As I started to practice I saw that I was right. I was hitting the ball as well as before. I was clear about what tactical adjustments I needed to make to compensate for my mobility. It was just movement that was lagging. Through the first couple of months I progressed steadily and by mid-July I was covering the court well. I was getting to drop shots and getting in and out of the corners as well as most 60+ players. Not quite what I was, but definitely good enough to win against players who did not take advantage of the one or two missing steps.

As I started to play singles points against players that were as good or better than me, I was surprised and confused because my movement was really fine but I was not competitive with these practice partners. My shots werenʼt sharp and my tactics were nothing like before. Years ago I had reached a point in my game where I had found the balance between offense and defense. I had known when to defend, when to stay neutral and when to attack. Now, though, when under pressure, I was confused about when to hit what shot. I was irritated with myself while on the court. I kept complaining to myself, “what is wrong with you? You not even listening to yourself.” I even tossed my racket a few times.There was a quiet, internal script running that was so quiet that I didnʼt notice it, so I kept playing badly. There would be stretches where I was doing what I wanted, and I figured I was back, but when the pressure built, the wheels would come off…and I would be annoyed with myself.

I needed advice. I called Neal Newman, Kirk Moritz and Jimmy Parker, three of my tennis gurus. Each of them understands the game in a unique way and I learn from them. It took Neal saying something three times for me to announce to him that I was resisting. Realizing I didnʼt want to hear what he had to say was enough to open me up to his suggestion:

maybe you need to warm my body up more before playing so that it will be more willing to be patient in the early points of the matches. I told him that I didnʼt ever have to do that before. He just said, “I know. Maybe now it is different.” Kirk reminded me of how I was stubborn in the 35s and 40s and that I was impatient with myself then. Maybe, he thought, that this return to tennis was similar to my first time through. Hmmm. Jimmy, an 8-time World Champion, reminded me that the balance between offense and defense is the trickiest part of the game to get and that it is, even for the very best, transient. You have it and you lose it because there are so many parts of the game that impact on it. He said to me “it’s the process of striking the balance that you’re working on…to get all the elements working together is a tantalizing challenge isn’t it?”

Bam! It hit me between the eyes. I had invested too much in the results and forgotten the wonders and joy of the process.I “had to get it together” by the first day of the Avory Cup. Non- acceptance of what is and impatience. A sure formula for arrested development. Within two days may game had grown. I needed to return to what got me there before: a love of the process of discovery. Of watching my own tripping and stumbling as I found my way. Laughing at myself when I stepped into an old hole. Forgiving myself for being imperfect. Smiling internally when I put it together for a stretch. Returning to my mission:

To love the competition more than I love to win and to accept whatever the outcome with dignity and class. To have every match be an experience where I grow as a player and a person.

I can’t wait to get to this tournament. What a gift It is for me to be able to spend days in a process of evolution. I love this game.

September 2 Avory Cup

It was an exciting and eventful return to competition.

The Avory Cup is an event that is played every other year between Great Britain and the US. There are multiple age groups represented, both men and women, and amongst the players were two Grand Slam champions and seven past World Champions. There were more than 200 National titles won by the participants. Bottom line was that there were some serious players there. Many of us have bonded over the years as we have competed in Senior Davis Cup events around the World.

Not having seen many of these friends since Carol passed away and, now that I have another wonderful angel in my life, Jo Ann, I had the hope that they would be happy for the joy that I am now feeling. I was not surprised how these special friends welcomed her as a new part of this group. It was seamless and, regardless of how the tennis would play out, the trip was a win. For Jo Ann it would be the first time she would see me compete. It gave me even more motivation to achieve my mission: to play at the high end of my talent and skill, to accept the outcome with dignity and class, to be a good winner and loser and for each match to be a growth experience. In some ways I felt as I used to when playing in front of my daughters, Jody and Amy when they were kids. I wanted to make them proud and, so too, did I want to make Jo Ann proud. Competition brings out the best and the worst in people and having the opportunity to bring my best is a gift.

On Thursday morning, for my first singles match in nearly 2 1/2 years, I was up against the Brits #1 60 and over player. He is currently ranked #13 in the World. Before surgery he was a player against whom I would have been a heavy favorite. Of course while I was on the sidelines, Jeremy’s game was improving. He was now a very fast steady player. I got to the courts later than I would typically like, rushed through my pre-match rituals (dynamic stretching, hydrating and visualization). Actually I didn’t do any of it. I was overconfident that I would play as I had in the past and that the match would go my way. I started off well, winning the first three games. I immediately slipped, mentally, into the dreaded state of hubris. “This match will be over in less than an hour. This guy cannot stay with me. The way of the tennis world is right.” This kind of thinking is usually a fast track to poor performance. I didn’t spot it and, in a blink, I was losing 3-4. While this turn in score was going on, I was getting exhausted. The points were long as Jeremy cut down on errors. I was sucking wind and my hands were on my knees after every point. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I did not want to see that I was nervous in this return to play and that I was overIy-focused on results. This manifested as tension and my muscles were tight and my breathing was shallow. I was struggling to find the balance between when to play steady and when to go for more aggressive shots, just what I had been experiencing in my practice sessions over the last month. The mental tape that was running in the depths of my mind was one that suggested “this should not be happening!” Regardless I kept fighting with that part of me that would not give in to loss. I found the way to win the first set, 6-3 but, physically, I was toast. I was exhausted. My heart rate was high. I was having difficulty staying focused. I kept changing strategy, making bad decisions, was struggling emotionally and I was cramping. Continuing to stay blind to my tension, the second set slipped away. Two and a half hours of battle and we were going into a third set tiebreaker. My ability to succeed would depend on my ability to ignite my spirit: my love of competition and the desire to face adversity as a warrior. Despite exhaustion I found the way. Before each point I leaned on a question that I had used in the past: “Can you compete with this guy for this one point?” I recalled Agassi saying that we can’t be perfect, that we don’t need to be perfect and that all he ever needed was to be better than one guy for just this one moment. I got through it. I won the tiebreaker 10-7. (the new tiebreakers in senior tennis are played to ten points). I was happy to have won. I was not happy with how I had played. I had neglected to prepare effectively before the match. I had not succeeded in being aware of my thoughts of overconfidence. I hadn’t accepted that I was nervous. I had gone away from the all important patience in the process. It was a break that I had won and a bigger break that I processed all of this after the match. Having Jo Ann there, with whom I was able to share these awarenesses was huge. And, as usual, writing my journal shined light on the experience. And I would have the opportunity to improve on all of this less than twenty four hours later as I would be playing singles against the Brits #2 player on Friday morning.

Despite feeling depleted I played a doubles match two hours later which we lost 6-4, 7-6. I actually felt really good in the doubles. I got to hit a lot of balls and, thankfully only needed to cover half the court.

I got a good night’s sleep. Up early enough to have a strategic breakfast and a run to the pharmacy to get power gel and some pedialite, which is used for babies who are dehydrated. I got to the courts early enough to stretch, do my dynamic warmups and some visualizations.

This match went much more comfortably. My opponent was an aggressive player so the points were not as long. My preparation paid off and even though I fell behind 3-1, I settled in, played smartly and ran off five games for a 6-3 first set. His game came up a bit and I, again, got a little off by future tripping, thinking that I was going to get through in straight sets. He went up 3-0. Today, though, was different. I was aware of my counterproductive thinking and got back on track. Although the 3-0 lead was too big a hole to climb out of entirely, I managed to get even at 4-4. It can take a lot of energy to come back in a set and I was just a bit fatigued, my focus faltered slightly as, again, I thought of the finish line. I dropped serve. He had an easy game at 5-4 and we were off to a third set. Again a tiebreaker. We both played aggressively and I took a 6-3 lead and, again, that insidious thought “I’ve got it” slipped in. 6-6 in a blink. Back and forth, good play, hard play to 8-8. He served a good one, I made a shaky return but, feeling the pressure, he missed a volley. At 9-8 I put in a good serve, I came in and he missed the pass. Victory! Great feeling. Big improvement over the day before.

My mission includes that “every match is one in which I learn and grow.”
I learned that even those rituals that were part of my game in the past had been at rest for two years. That these were habits out of which I had fallen. I would need to practice these pre, during and post match rituals again until they become a part of me. No habit can survive without repetition.

Most of all, what this return to competition gave to me was that recognition that I still love it. The challenges of needing to reach deeply, to problem solve, to stay optimistic, to fight when it feels like I have nothing left, to refuse to lose, to ignite the right emotions, to revel in the obstacles, to welcome the adversity, to stumble and get up, to push myself beyond the ordinary. These experiences push me and pull me. They expand me. Each piece is one that takes me farther up some mountain, one that will have rewards about which I am not even aware.

The difficult days of the last few years strengthened me to the point where, at least for these couple of days, a weak physical was not as powerful as the strong spirit that has grown within me.

I now have two weeks to prepare for my favorite event, the National Grass Court Championships. It will be played at the historic West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, NY. It is time to rededicate myself to my rituals. To eat well, exercise daily, hydrate, to access hope-filled emotions, maintain focus, to stay in the present and to continue deepen my spirt though acceptance of what is in the moment, non-judgment of others, detachment from positions of right vs wrong and forgiveness of myself for my inability to be perfect.

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