Atlanta 2012

Off to Atlanta to play next week. My last tournament was the National 60 Grass in September and that was my first event in two years. Two hips surgeries and a few other bumps in the road took precedent. Now, though, life is wonderful and tennis is back on the drawing board. As I have been putting the finishing touches on a book for the last year, I haven’t been writing my tennis journal. If feels good to have a tournament to draw me back to writing about competition. It helps me shine a light on what I am thinking, feeling and believing about my current state and often steers me to a better state to be successful in my play. If my life is good, as it is, then I am much closer to being where I need to be to be effective on the court.

As I think about this tournament I have several stories going on. The Atlanta Senior Invitational is the tournament where my hip completely gave out in 2009. I was cruising in the semis against a top player, 5-1 in the first sey when I could no longer run. Lost 11 of the next 12 games and limped back to the locker room. Limped off the plane and didn’t play again for six months. So one story is that I am coming back to finish unfinished business. It is a good story. Triumphant return to the clay in Atlanta.

Another story is that I haven’t competed, except for a few days, for three years. Even though I am hitting the ball well and moving better than before my surgeries, I am not sure how tough I will be. Is it true that I need to be competing to be good at competing? Do I care enough about winning? Today I had a vision of competing great against the top guy in the tournament, but the win wasn’t in the vision. I looked satisfied.

Also, my fitness is questionable. I feel very fit but I have not done specific training for a tennis tournament. Singles and doubles each day for consecutive days, and each day needing to be a little better because the opponents get tougher with each win.

Do those stories work for me? The answers to most questions for me often are found in my mission so, after many months I need to review 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 compete for each point. To compete with effortless effort. To be non-judgemental of myself. To enjoy myself. To be enthusiastic. 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.

Sweet, the answers are right there for me. I read my mission and I get psyched out of my Asic sneakers. Back to competition. Playing for all of the right reasons for me. And the wonder, for me, is that when I manage to complete my mission at a tournament, I win. Whether the win is the satisfaction of competing like a champion or the win is the trophy, either makes it worth the effort.

As for my stories, they really don’t help me. In fact, they limit me. Needing to return triumphantly is a return to the past. I play my best when I am in the present, playing today’s match today. The story about not being tough mentally, well, the truth is that after the last few years, I am tougher than ever. On top of that, I have no fear of losing. I have experienced loss on a much bigger stage than a tennis match. Having been away from the game I love for several years, I return to competition with increased enthusiasm about playing and that is worth a lot. And, as far as my fitness, I have been resting my body for a few years while my opponents have been using theirs.

I am ready. I am psyched. I can’t wait to get my teeth into a tough match.

I practiced yesterday with Jimmy Malhame in brutal conditions, wind gusts of 40 mph. It was difficult and awesome. When I played today in normal conditions, it was easy.

One more practice session tomorrow, then Monday off, arriving on Tuesday at the magnificent Cherokee Club in Atlanta where I will practice with doubles partner, multiple National Champion Phil Landauer. He is a good buddy, a great player and awesome supportive partner.

May 1 
Cherokee Club, Atlanta, Ga.

My training over the last couple of months has had a lot of positive outcomes. I have, since March won almost every practice match. That might sound great but winning all the time not only distorts my perspective, but also does not make me improve. It might give me confidence but I already have that. My definition of confidence is simply knowing what I can expect of myself with good clarity of what my skills are. My practice partners are all very good but many have not competed in tournaments to the degree of those I face in tournaments. Frankly, i would prefer to lose more in practice as this is what would shine light on what in my game needs to improve.

Got my first hit in today in the 85 degree heat against a player who would be a perfect barometer of where my game really is. Phil Landauer recently won, in one year, seven Grand Slam senior titles, ending the year #1in the USA in singles and doubles.
I was really pleased. Although I was overplaying a bunch of shots, which peppered my game with too many errors, overall I played to the level that would make me competitive in this tournament. I was at Phil’s level. I saw exactly what I would need to clean up before my first match on Thursday. More patience, more margin for error, more attacking when my opponent was in trouble and adjusting for the balls getting heavy in the humid conditions. Shouldn’t be a problem to fix in my next practice session. My conditioning was ok but I was breathing pretty heavily after extended rallies. I am confident that after a second day in the heat I will be fine. It did feel good to be winded as it showed that I was at my limit and that would strengthen me. Just like working a muscle.

This is the first tournament for my fiancé, Jo Ann, and it adds a whole other level of excitement. I always felt that I had a huge advantage in my competitions by having Carol with me, providing support. Jo Ann is very much the same way. Watching me practice, giving me feedback, thinking I am special. I am blessed to have a new partner with me who provides so many intangibles. Many of the other players who travel alone think I have an unfair advantage. Competing is hard and having someone to love you throughout is huge.

Tomorrow singles and doubles practice. It will be an even better day.

May 2 
Bitsy Grant Tennis Center

What a cool place to practice. A public facility with 25 lighted courts, named for an Atlanta tennis legend. At 5’4″ he was a top player in the World and a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Playing at this site is one of the great experiences I get to have by competing around the country. By the way, the cost for playing for 1-1/2 hours was $9.00. New Yorkers like me find it hard to compute as we pay ten bucks for five minutes.

Played again with Phil and my game was totally there. I knew, from Tuesday practice what I needed to do and did it. More patience, more margin, more attacking and better adjusting to conditions. Adding to that was greater shot selection clarity, knowing when to defend and when to attack. All in all I felt like the player I was three years ago. Add to that the enthusiasm and joy of being back on the court and it was a formula for amazing results.

Later in the day we practiced as a doubles team for the first time and we clicked defeating handily Nash and Neely, two of the very best in the country. Phil and I meshed and had an awesome time.

Fun and enthusiasm are key elements of high performance and I am totally there. Before each of my surgeries I needed to say good bye to the tennis I had known. It was a mourning process that included acceptance that it might be over. But now, to be back out there, playing each day is a gift. I am in joy.

With this feeling, there is no losing. The win is in the playing.

May 3 Capital City Club

First match today. I was very well prepared. I was relaxed physically as well as full of energy. I had been hydrating a lot and eating strategically. I was mentally focused as I was clear about my game plan and free of concern about results. Emotionally I was chilled and excited. Additionally I was feeling patient while waiting to get started. I was scheduled for 10:30 but didn’t get on until 11:15. My competitive spirit was high as I was eager to do battle. I felt the challenge of my mission. To ignite the highest end of my talent and skill.

I won 61, 62. I felt that I had the speed and shots to win every point and that is how I competed. My opponent was very steady but my court coverage kept him from being able to hurt me. I was fully engaged throughout the match except for one game after taking a 2-1 lead in the second set. I dropped my serve at love as I got overconfident. It irritated me. It fired me up. I won 16 of the last 18 points. Match over.

Before the tournament I had been curious and a little concerned about my level of competitiveness and mental toughness. Not having been in competition seemed like it might be a problem. It is not the case atcall. I am fiercely competitive for each individual point, except for an occasional mental journey into the future when I think of final outcome. The challenging four years of Carol’s battle and my surgeries strengthened my skill of being in the present as there was no other place to live to be effective. I now see that a tennis match is a combination of about 100 individual moments (points) and that being competitive and tough is quite easy when approached one at a time. I am now living, on the court, what I have always heard…play one point at a time. It is easy! It is worth training the skill of presence.

Friday I play one of the toughest clay court players on the circuit. Joe Bouquin and I have played many times and have traded wins. Twenty four years ago I defeated him to win my first National Championship. Too bad that isn’t worth points for this match. I look forward to renewing our rivalry.

May 4 Cherokee country Club

Playing tournaments provides many hidden challenges that can strengthen character. Friday morning we all had to deal with one that is common. It was pouring when we woke up. My scheduled 9:00AM match was delayed until 10, and then to 11 and, then again, until 12. When to eat, when to stretch and how to get in a pre-match warmup

were all at the mercy of the weather. The New Yorker in me likes to do things when I want to do them. Having to wait is not on my list of favorite things. I used to be thrown off by delays at tournaments, becoming impatient, checking the weather constantly, complaining about no indoor backup. But thankfully I have evolved from these and other experiences into someone who quickly accesses the state of acceptance, which frees me from negativity and the tension that it brings. To resist what is is kind of a state of insanity leading to bad decisions, irritability and judgements. It is like being in traffic. You are in it. To keep thinking “I can’t believe” this is denying the absolute isness of the situation. We change lanes constantly, keep listening to the traffic reports and pull off the road to find some better way, only to find ourselves in another mess. Better to accept it and to put on some music. Either way, we will get there when we get there. At least we eliminate the worries. So I was fine with waiting and unphased by arriving at the site at 11:15, thinking I would be going on at noon, and then being called to play at 11:30. Acceptance. Always a great lesson. Am happy to get more practice at it. You never know when you’ll need to accept something tougher than a rain delay.

My match with Bouquin was awesome. 2-1/2 hours in 85 degrees and 85% humidity. I felt great in the warmup…loose physically, very relaxed mentally and completely present with no thoughts of winning or losing. I was just focused on each ball coming over the net. My strategy was clear. Do not get into extended rallies. Despite my speed around the court which enables me to get to just about any shot, Joe was clearly the steadier player and, being from Florida, he was used to the heat. I could win points staying with him, but I would deplete myself. No, I needed to adapt and be courageously aggressive, willing to lose some points by taking risk and attacking.

I started off that way and grabbed an early lead only to give it back by being drawn into his web of just staying in rallies. I still was winning points but he was gaining control of the match. Instead of me winning more than half the points, he was. At 4-4 in the first set, I was affected by the pressure of knowing that whoever won the game was one game away from the set and the loser of the game would be three games away. This out of the present thinking took me out of the focus of one point, one shot mentality and despite winning the first two points I found myself down game point. I knew aggressiveness was the play as he was strengthening. I went for a big high risk serve and aced him. Relaxed. Lost the next point. Ad out again. Knew attacking was the way. Missed a first serve. Found the courage to get to the net early in the point and won it. Attacked for two more points and was now at 5-4. Sitting on the side on the changeover I challenged myself to stay aggressive. Attacking a broke his serve at love and had the first set in hand, 6-4.

I was all over him in the second set, going up 4-2, feeling good. I have played enough to know that a lead is never enough because both of us are always competing for the point that we are playing. Leads guarantee nothing. Even knowing it, I went off the rails and dropped my serve at love. Oy! And then Joe took it to me and won his serve at love. Eight points in a row and we were knotted at 4-4. More character building time. And I was definitely fading physically as we were two hours into the match. Fighting off another break point I held on to win the game. I figured Joe might succumb to the

pressure. Before he started to serve at 4-5 I got light headed and was seeing spots. Went back to the fence and just leaned against it. Took my time. I even thought that if I lost the set I might need to stop. I played an awful, low energy game to 5-5. I asked myself my often used question: can you compete with this guy for this one point? Each point I answered yes. Again, fighting off a break point, maybe even two (I can’t remember) I attacked and won. Now it was 6-5 mine. The last game was a battle as I went up 30-0 and he fought back to 30-30. I got to match point and he hit a weak second serve. I smacked a forehand, makeable, long up the line. Oy! On my second match point I hit a big cross court return and followed with another big forehand. Victory!

Joe and I hugged at the net. He is a class act saying, “you are back. I am so glad for you even though I lost. It is good to have you back.” Tennis…a character builder.

It was huge for me. It has been a long road back. I wasn’t sure if I could get back to this level. I didn’t even know if I cared. Having to go this deep inside myself in this match felt amazing. I love it. I care. I want more. On top of the effort and the win, I was thrilled for Jo Ann to experience this part of me. For her to share in this with me. What a win.

Less than two hours later Phil and I were on the court for a doubles match. It lasted three hours and, unfortunately, we lost in three sets. I was exhausted by the time we were done. Long day.

No rest today as Phil and I meet in the singles semifinals Saturday at 11:30. I am psyched.

May 6 Into the Finals

Ten years ago I lost in the finals of the 50 and over World Championships, certainly my biggest extrinsic accomplishment in my playing career up to that date. Interestingly, what I loved most about that experience was that Russ Adams, a top tennis photographer, told me that he had never seen a player who looked so casual when playing….that it looked like I didn’t care. This became a sort of playing mantra and goal for me. Of course I cared, but what that look, as I developed it, was one that defined acceptance, one of the basic tenets of The Focused Game. For me to be in acceptance meant that resistance and the accompanying negativity would not interfere with my game. Acceptance would allow me to be physically relaxed, emotionally neutral, mentally focused and spiritually strong. I worked on this look for years knowing that the way a person looked on the outside could change the way they feel on the inside…that to look relaxed and calm would change me to one who actually was relaxed and calm.

Yesterday, when I went on the court to play Phil in the semis, I was so chilled on the outside, so relaxed, that I was too relaxed. I was overly casual. Too chatty with Phil, nodding and smiling too much to those watching. In some way, I didn’t care. I was so

satisfied with what I had already accomplished that I was not in that just right spot to compete. I fell behind early, dropping my serve in the first game. My “oh well, whatever” attitude continued through the first six games as I fell behind 4-2. I escaped with my serve game to get to 4-3 and, on the changeover, figured out that I was too chilled and that it was manifesting itself in laziness, in particular with my footwork. That realization changed the match. I jumped up out of my chair, channelled Rafa Nadal (to the extent that a 64 year old can) and sprinted to the baseline. My footwork became my focus. I had found the balance between physical intensity and emotional relaxation. I broke Phil’s serve and we both hung tough to 6-6. I got the lead, for the first time in the set, at 5-4 in the tiebreaker. I won the next two points, with the set point won on a long run from the back right corner to a drop volley near the left net post. I hit a running winner and my my momentum carried me off the court part way up the hill next to the court. Even I was impressed.

Oftentimes there is a moment in competition when you can break your opponent’s spirit. I think that shot did that as the air seemed to come out of Phil’s game. I sensed it. I didn’t know if it was actually true but the thought was enough to free me up to play with greater aggression and I rolled. Second set 6-1. Amazing. Into the finals of the Atalanta Senior Invitational. In seven tries I had never advanced past the semis of this event, certainly one of the toughest on the senior circuit. Amongst the nine age groups here this year were 35 National Champions with a combined 400 National titles. No other event comes close.

Today the finals against 6’8″ Larry Turville. He is the current #1 in the World riding a 96 match winning streak.

I am excited and eager to complete my 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 compete for each point. To compete with effortless effort. To be non-judgemental of myself. To enjoy myself. To be enthusiastic. 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.

I better not be too chilled.

May 6 The Finals

Woke up this morning and felt pretty good. Definitely stiff and a little fatigued but I knew that I just needed to get another couple of hours of good energy to complete my playing mission. I did some dynamic warmups and a few laps in the pool at the hotel which helped loosen up my muscles.

I had a good strategic breakfast making sure to get in all the food groups. Got to the courts early enough to get in some more stretching and warmed up on the court with good buddy Brian Cheney. I was ready.

I played solidly through the first four games but at 2-2, serving, Larry made some adjustments and took away some of what I like to do, as he kept the ball very deep to my backhand. The longer rallies were going his way and I was struggling to impose my will on him. I was hoping to hit a lot of attacking forehands but he managed to stay on top of me, forcing me to react too much. Each point was a battle but he still managed to stay in control and took a 5-2 lead. I kept fighting hard and broke his serve to get to 5-3. I played a shaky reactive game on my serve and he took the set. I was going for big first serves but couldn’t find the range as my shoulder was just a bit tight from all the hours of playing.

He stepped it up as the second set started and grabbed a 2-0 lead and I lost focus, momentarily thinking that I still might be able to catch a 12:30 flight as he was dominating me. I caught the thought early, walked back to the fence, cleared my mind by focusing on my breath. What a great tool to drag myself back to the present. I also considered my other strategic options, as my game plan was not working out. I went to plan B and served and volleyed, won a quick point and tried it again. There is a reason Larry is the current #1. He quickly countered with soft chip returns and ran down a few volleys to break me for a 3-0 lead. I kept searching for answers, never feeling that I was out of the match despite him winning two more hard fought games. Serving at 5-0 he had a match point and I anticipated that he would try to close it out by smacking a big serve to my forehand. I was on it and cracked a winner return. He was unfazed, I am sure, thinking the match was still about to end.

I have never been one to go down easily as I rarely think of the score. I know that I can compete for each point by staying in the present. I still had a mission to which I will always work on completing…”to ignite the highest end of my talent and skill in competition.” I was not done yet. I kept digging deep, eager to fight to the end, knowing that this was a chance to strengthen my competitive character, for win or lose, I would need that strength in future matches. Another part of my mission is “for every match to be one in which I grow as a player and person.” I kept reminding myself that I could compete with Larry for each point and, slowly but surely, I climbed back from 6-3, 5-0, match point down, to 5-4. I got the first point on my serve and was three points from being at 5-5 and right back in the match when Larry played like the champion he is. He took my best punch, got up off the mat, and took it to me. 6-3, 6-4.

I was thrilled with my effort. My level was strong. Any doubts about whether I could get back to being the best player in the World in my age group were dashed. My story going forward is one of certainty. My will to win is strong. My talent is still there. My skills will continue to develop. My fitness is returning. My focus is deep and enduring.

Most exciting is that the game that I coach my clients has again been validated. Being clear on the old underlying stories that sabotage performance, writing new stories that support taking one where they want to go, knowing the fire that burns deep inside and training in both good and difficult times all aspects of our being leads to extraordinary results in all dimensions of life.

I am happy to be back sharing these experiences with everyone, walking my talk.

Thanks to all of you for your helpful comments and support. Thanks to my practice partners Brian Hainline, Jeff Snow, Jeff Cohen, Jimmy Malhame, John McConnell and Corey Parr for pushing me.

Thanks to Jo Ann for loving and taking care of me while I live the life of an athlete.

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