Closing it Out Against the Top Dog is HARD 118

Closing it Out Against the Top Dog is HARD

For many of you who have followed along in these many journals I have written over the years, you are aware of how I view Brian Cheney. He is the top dog. He is the standard. He is our Tom Brady, our Pavarotti, our Lebron. Over and over again he has shown all of us how to play this game, how to compete, how to come back from near defeats to championships. He is, in many ways, my mentor. He has helped me become who I am as a player and as a person. We have played each other and I have, much to my surprise, come away with a victory a couple of times. But mostly, he has owned me. I am not alone. There are very few who have a winning record against him.

Thursday night, the night before I was to be playing him in the finals of the Wilson World Championships, I was getting unsolicited suggestions of what I needed to do to defeat Brian. I had great clarity as I heard the many ideas. “I am not thinking about him. I will go out and do what I do best. I will spread the court. I will run down every ball. I will keep my errors to a minimum as I will play shots that are within myself. I will serve courageously (this idea after abandoning the serving rituals that were making me too uptight and too cautious). I will stay calm. I will play only one point at a time. I will deliver my game. He will deliver his. One of us will win the match. The other not. But regardless of the outcome I will be a winner by staying with and believing in the game I have been developing.”

Despite a long hard day in the semis, I woke up Friday morning and my body felt really good. Not often the case after playing 7 matches in only four days on hard courts in the desert sun. I felt confident that all the work in the gym had paid off and I had the fitness to go the distance if necessary.

I was aware that I needed to get a good start, asserting my game early. A shaky start can spell doom from the very beginning. I got more than a good start as I won my serve games and had break chances in every game on his serve. I was calm. I got one break and with him down 2-5 serving I held my nerve and, despite several missed opportunities to win his serve and the first set, I never let him off the hook and got the game.

Tennis doesn’t really have anything such as a big lead. One set for me doesn’t mean that it is now easy sailing, like a big lead with not much time left on the clock. In tennis there is always another chance. Remember that this week Serena was leading 5-1 in the third set and lost 7-5. Unheard of. No. And all of us players, especially the best, know there is always hope. If you get a foothold, the comeback is always possible. I wasn’t nervous that I was up one set to love. I was, though, aware that my opponent was not going away. In fact, I expected his level to rise. Mine felt already at the top. So I was going to have to maintain and fight off the challenge that I knew would come at some point.

There is nothing easy about closing out a tennis match. And nothing is harder than closing it out when your opponent is the master. I held my level but could tell he had raised his and the games were much closer and the points very competitive. There were very few errors from either of us and points were won on strong play from both of us.

I had broken his serve early in the set and had held mine until 4-3. “If I can just hold serve two more times, the match is mine.” The thought went through my mind quickly, hardly noticeable, like vapor. The deadly future tripping thought. But it must have stayed with me because I played a tight game, made a few quick errors off my forehand that had been rock solid until then. He had me on a string during the points in that game and I no longer felt like I was either dictating or neutralizing. He had taken control. Brian’s belief had taken over and he won his serve in Federer style. Big serve, Quick strike. Game over.

I was a little shaken but still believing in my game. Serving 4-5, love 30, I settled down. I hit some very aggressive serves, made a gutsy play taking a high looping ball out of the air for a winner and got back even to 5-5. I kept thinking that I have been returning great and that grabbing this game I could serve for the match. He took the lead 40-15. No. I will not go away. Brian, you taught me this. To bring my best, fearlessly, when things seemed to be going south. I kept fighting getting some break points only to be beaten back to deuce by his serves. But I hung and I fought and, more than anything, I believed in myself, the work I had done to get here and my game. I got the break.

Having only been broken one time in the match up until that game, you might think that I came off the bench totally confident that I would serve it out easily. But we were now in the part of the match that is the most difficult. The time where the person who is behind has nothing to lose by going after it and the player in the lead if fighting to hold on. It was hard times. I was aware of feeling my smile. That I was right where I wanted to be. To be competing with a best friend, a champion, who was pushing me to find my best me. How cool. To make it even tougher, he hit a short angled return winner and then, on a nearly perfect approach shot that I put on the line, Brian hit the best shot of the match. He ripped a cross court backhand winner that I not even close to touching. Love 30. Smiling both inside and out I thought “this is what I love about this game.” I knew that I was being asked the question. “Will you play safe and hope to escape with a win or will you go after it?” I went for the ace up the middle. Thought it might have been good but it was out. Second serve, got a short return, covered it and then Brian scooped up my return and I knocked off a winner. 15-30. Staying present I was aware that I felt no pressure, feeling that even if I lose this game, I had the tiebreaker and the whole third set if necessary. Forehand winner got me to 30-30. A funky second serve got me a short return that I approached on and he missed the pass wide. Match point. Not done yet. I didn’t take extra time. Got up to the line, committed to go big on the first serve, at his body, and his return didn’t make it over. Match over. Felt so good. So proud of the work I did to close it out.

After the match we shared a few words, with Brian telling me I played well. I told him that being on the court with him on the other side is always an honor and that I appreciated that he made me go beyond in order to win. The win felt great. The recognition that the hard work for the last month, the clarity of my game plan and, most of all, the belief in myself made it a bigger win than the score.

Thanks to all of you for following along and for your suggestions and support emails. Thanks to my practice partners: Andy Chernaik, Pat Perrin, Neil Kearney, Bread Bernthal, Jay Burch, Kurt Brakhage, Reza Pourkhomami, Brian Kasic, Jin Lin, Luke Silverman, Luis Garza, Chad Tsuda, Jo Ann Litwin, Andy Zodin, Brent Abel. Thanks to the team that keeps my body working: Kirk Anthony, Phil Wharton, Helen Grigg. And for supporting me and sitting though all my matches this week Julia and Luis Garza and, of course, my wonderful loving wife, Jo Ann.

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