The President’s Cup

A competition between USA and France.
Philadelphia Cricket Club

I am off today for a fun and exciting competition. On Friday and Saturday, a team of 20 Americans of various age groups will match up against our French counterparts in competition for the President’s Cup. We will be playing at the historic Philadelphia Cricket Club on their spectacular grass courts. I am scheduled to play singles and doubles on both Friday and Saturday.

For me this is a special location as, in 2004, I played two of the most important events of my playing career on the Philly grass. First I played for the USA in the Senior Davis Cup. Although our team came in 2nd, during the final match I defeated, for the first time, the #1 player in the World, Jorge Camino of Spain. It was an important match in my development on my journey to becoming a competitor that exceeded my actual play. At one set all, with our team in trouble, knowing I needed to come through for us to have a chance to win it all in the doubles (two singles and one doubles and we had already lost one singles), I hit the locker room for a few minutes. During that time, I was feeling nervous about the amount of pressure that I perceived. I looked in the mirror and looked directly into my own eyes and told myself that these were the moments that I had always wanted to be in. The moments that Jordan, Lebron, Gretzky, Manning, Jeter and all the greats talk about. The moment that the game is on the line and they want the ball. I asked myself, “is it true? Do you really want to be here, right now, with the ball?” I remember the feeling as if it were yesterday. A welcoming of the opportunity to play and to attempt to conquer the beast of the pressure.

I pulled off the win, enjoying the challenge as never before. That talk in the locker room, with my eyes locked on me, changed me as a competitor forever. I play for these moments now. No more fear in these moments. I love having to fight from behind. Break points against me.

Tiebreakers. These are the reasons I play. Just excitement. Joy. Challenge. A desire to be the best Bob that I can be.

The second experience happened the following week. In the individual World Championships I got on a roll and made it to the finals. That was good but what happened next was life changing. Rather than play the finals, with the opportunity of achieving the #1 World ranking, I defaulted. The match was scheduled to be played on Yom Kippur, the holiest of the Jewish holidays. I had, months before, informed the ITF that if I made it to that day, I would not play. I had reminded the ITF again, after winning the quarterfinals, asking for them to find a way to adapt in the event that I made it to the finals. Long, unimportant story about how they tried, unsuccessfully, to make it happen.

After winning the semis, I was faced with another conversation with myself. Could I, just this one time, make an exception to what had been a tradition in my life, something that I had been taught by my parents…that Yom Kippur is holy. Would it be something that I could overlook just this one time. No, the tradition and the values were more important that a tennis match and ranking, no matter how big the opportunity. I happily defaulted and accepted the penalties of no prize money or ranking points, coming up short in my quest to be ranked at the top. This was my little profile in courage. It became, in my mind, the biggest tennis success that I had ever had.

I learned, in that moment, that it is easier to be committed to a value 100% of the time than 99%. That little, one time exception, to something to which I am committed is what allows for more and more exceptions down the road. Stay true 100% of the time and success follows.

As karma would have it, the next year, in Perth, Australia, I won the World Championships and ascended to the top World ranking.

So, as I walk on the grass this afternoon at Philly, for the first time since that default day, I will re-experience two of the greatest moments of my tennis career.

More to come.

Friday, August 24 Opening Day

8:00AM To compete effectively, which, for me, is all about igniting the highest end of my talent and skill when it counts, it is important to be aware of what thoughts, beliefs and attitudes are roaming around my mind. If the are counterproductive, they interfere with playing to potential. To observe them is the means to let go of those that just don’t work.

At breakfast this morning I shared with Jo Ann a couple a thought that was bouncing around. Since recovering from Carol’s passing away and my hip surgery, I have not been sure that I have had the same fire in my belly that I had before. Tennis, at least the winning part, has moved into a new place in my life. In the past, I often measured myself by my external successes…the wins, the titles. Now it feels more like a wonderful activity that I do well and the playing is enough. That is ok on one level. Competitions, though, always end with winning or losing. Do I want to win? Yes, of course. I think, though, that I have been spinning a story for myself that makes it ok to just go out and have a good time playing and that is ok. But does that story work for me. Am I really content to just play or do I want to win? Having lost a few doubles matches this summer where I was “just happy to be playing,” I know that I was not happy with the outcomes. So today, playing against France, I will be sure to ignite that fire because I do love to win, in addition to all of the other wins that come with this game: to fight hard to the very end, to believe in myself, to solve problems, to be a good winner and a good loser, to find it within myself to fight no matter how close to defeat, to make calls with the highest level of integrity, to accept the results with dignity and class and to accept the isness of the match and my play as it is going on.

The day went well. I played a strong French player, a Davis Cup player in his day. I started slowly and his tactics were creating a problem for me. He was adept at getting into the net quickly, taking the offense away from me. I was uncertain and letting him dictate. I played one loose game and it cost me the set, 6-3. When changing sides with him about to serve at 1-2 in the second set, I told Jo Ann, who was sitting on the side, that I was having a tough time changing my strategy. She reminded me that I believe that change can be simple and quick…good reminder because I instantly changed to being more aggressive, broke his serve and stayed ahead for the rest of the set to win 6-3. In these Cup matches, we play a 10 point tiebreak for the third set. At this point I had good momentum and was dominating with my serve. I felt in good control. Credit to my opponent, though, as he grabbed one of my serve points early and was able to hold on, winning the breaker 10-8. It was a good match for me as I progressed throughout and felt that my game was improving, which in team matches is important because you get to come back and play the next day, regardless of winning or losing. This event is both important in the moment and also part of me preparing for the upcoming National Grass. I have always felt that every match is an opportunity to improve and that, with the exception of the finals of the World Championships, there is no one match that is that important to win. Every time I step on the court it is a chance to climb one more step up the mountain.

The afternoon was much better as David Nash and I played doubles against the guy who had beaten me and his partner, also a Davis Cup player. In the second game David pulled his back and was not sure he could go on. I told him that if he needed to stop it was ok but that if he wasnt going to stop that he would have to stop talking about his back. I encouraged him throughout, letting him know that, if he played, winning the match would be one of his great wins ever. And he has had some big ones as a 19 times National Champ. It is not easy to play when you are hurting but play he did. As for me, I welcomed the challenge to pick up the slack. We came back from 3-5 in the first set to win a tiebreaker and then, after holding a 1-5 lead in the second I served it out at 5-4 for a great win. I am still finding my game but definitely used the first match as a lesson for the second and I feel confidently that tomorrow will be even better as I take on another of the great French in singles in the morning with doubles following in the afternoon.

The best part of the day, competitively, was that I relit the fire in my belly. I took myself to a level of wanting it that I haven’t felt in a couple of years. All it took was a good look inside, a willingness to shine the light on the dark corners of my mind. Awareness of what is…the tool that allows us to perform up to the highest levels of our true potential.

Our team is down 8-6 in matches going into the second and final day. We have our work cut out for us. I plan to bring the fire.

Saturday, August 25 Final Day of Competition

I was pretty stiff on Saturday morning. Although my tennis is back to the level of pre surgery, my fitness level has not yet come back. Before my 2 1⁄2 year layoff from playing I could play two matches a day for 6 days in a row and often felt better at the end of a tournament than at the beginning. Now, though, my body feels pretty beat up after two or three consecutive days. Two days of practice and then two two tough matches on the grass and I was feeling it.

This, though, is one of the reasons that I love to compete. Because I have to push myself beyond my normal limits. No whining. Just go out there and do the job that is required. To bring my best no matter what. Today would be a day that my mental strength would be called on as my physical was not at the very top. We produce overall energy physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Mentally, focus and positive thinking create energy. Emotionally, optimism, fun, challenge, and joy create energy. Spiritually loving the competition, persistence, perseverance, determination, no quit, welcoming adversity all contribute to an increase in energy. So when physical energy is not at the very top I then need to pull on these other sources.

I managed to find these resources in winning in singles in the morning by straying positive and focused, looking for the challenge, having fun and welcoming the competition. I love to compete as much or maybe even more than I love to win.

By lunchtime the USA team had crept within striking distance. We needed two victories out of the three remaining doubles matches to take the Cup. Captain Beautyman called on me to play mixed doubles. I had nothing in the physical tank but had huge resources in my mental, emotional and spiritual. I was thrilled to, once again at Philly Cricket Club, be in a situation where the win was a must and I “had the ball.” I wanted to be the one to make it happen. And, just like the story of my life, my partner and I won the match that gave us the victory…the clinching match…and the USA walked away for the President’s Cup. Sweet. Fun. Exciting.

The takeaways for me in this competition:

Playing for the team is always special. A win for the team is always bigger than a win for myself. It provides that little extra motivation that is not often there in individual sports.

I was trying too hard during a lot of the games that I played. Trying easy has better outcomes frequently. Trying to hard interferes with my own performance.

I feel the fire to compete and will keep doing what it takes to play to the highest level of my skill and talent.

Thanks for following along….

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