Impulse is a powerful force. It’s likely the juggernaut that’s fueling the keystrokes of this impromptu blog as time ticks to within a half hour of midnight on this Wednesday, hump day, the 6th of August 2014. I have quite a hump to ascend. Abundant apologies for this momentary lapse in my usual literary decorum: I am flippin’ (not the genuine word I was thinking of) pissed off right now. Comprehensively clobbered on the tennis court tonight (6-1, 6-0), I’ve about had my fill of humble pie. Any more and I may need mental Maalox. I’m perfectly willing to admit overt dominance when such tribulation should come to pass. But, you see, this is my ninth loss in ten matches. From a tennis point of view, I usually function within the paradoxical disposition of “controlled aggression,” but the law of averages commands that my yogically mediated court attitude will, inexplicably at times, dissociate itself from my best ball striking. I’ve had pockets of dumb luck in which my strategy comprises thumping go-for-broke groundstrokes that somehow stay within – or barely on – the lines. It would be infallibly prescient to say that this is not always a winning tactic.
That was as far as I got. My train of thought screeched to a halt when I became enthralled with late-night television programming, a failure-proof recipe for insomnia and disruption of circadian rhythms. At first, it was extraneous background babble incapable of bothering my deep focus and fast fingers. But then a “siren song” of sorts – a police siren, that is – reeled in my attention. Turns out a police chase reality program had just come on... a late night adrenaline rush… Before I knew it, the clock revealed “2:00 AM.” Bedtime.
Fast-forward nine days. Seeing that, in most cases, time is the great healer, I’ve been able to cool my jets since that evening. Today is Friday, August 15th. As I type, I’m reminded of the fortuitousness of this blog as I watch ESPN2 coverage of a tennis tournament in Mason, Ohio: this is a warm-up event for the U.S. Open, the last of the big four tennis competitions of the year. Throughout the summer, the reason I’ve had what seems like an assembly line of opponents waiting in the wings is because I signed up for two United States Tennis Association (USTA) “Flex” leagues, collectively comprising seventeen adversaries, ten of whom have found success against me. (“Flex” suggests a “flexible playing schedule,” in which opponents can schedule a match on their own terms.) I still have five more matches to play before the end of the month. That, coupled with my landing back in the academic world this summer as a means of personal enrichment and career development, made for a busy June and July.
I’ve played three times since August 6th (one being a non-Flex match). I won one out of those three. Winning, of course, is always gratifying. But I actually took certain gratification out of my two losses. A really tough opponent who beat me in straight sets previously needed three sets the second time around (non-Flex match). The other loss was to an opponent who hit really hard and was able to keep the balls in and his unforced errors low. Two instances when I know I did the best I could… Even though it’s been a lot of work on court and scheduling-wise, it’s been worth it. Signing up for two USTA leagues has given me exposure to all kinds of opponents: the classic “pusher,” the “can’t miss,” the “mirror image style of play”,” the older, the younger, etc. It’s a bit of a metaphor for life: you meet lots of people along the way and no one person is exactly like the other.
Fast-forward two more days... It’s Sunday evening, August 17th. At the risk of negating my self-directed didactic musings up to this point, I’ve relapsed into a state of frustration after another quick loss. I suffered another near shutout and was on the verge of losing my courtliness (pun intended). This time, it was a mirror image result of the one that initiated this article: 6-0, 6-1, colloquially referred to as a “bagel and breadstick” score because of these baked goods’ resemblance to the “0” and “1” respectively. I rack my brain trying to come up with an excuse for losing other than the perfect storm of my many unforced errors and my opponent’s few. Could it be all the pushups, squats and abdominal exercises that I exhaustingly accomplished Saturday morning during a hurts-so-good CrossFit workout? Was I cumulatively kaput from all the tennis matches I had played up to that point? Or was it simply that my opponent had a better game plan? My suspicion would be the latter. He was a “pusher.” That means someone who wins by hitting medium- to low-pace shots against someone who is more accustomed to hitting and receiving high-pace shots (i.e., yours truly), therefore increasing the likelihood of the non-pusher’s having a higher-than-average unforced error count. As much as the devil-on-my-shoulder part of me thinks this is an abhorrent tactic, the better part of me must admit that it is still a legitimate one that falls under the rules of the game. That he won therefore deserves my respect, because that is, after all, the ultimate goal.
Sitting in the car after my match with mobile phone in hand, I found my silver lining within about five minutes of opening my Twitter app. On a whim, I had tweeted former professional player and current ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert, asking how I could rectify my recent track record against pushers. Gilbert has coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray. He also wrote a book called “Winning Ugly.” So I figured he may have a few sage words of advice… because I sure lost ugly tonight. I know he’s probably a busy guy and may not have tons of time to answer questions outside of his immediate family, friend and coworker circle. But it wasn’t long after I sent my message that I received an apropos response! Not knowing Gilbert personally, I’ve always found his on-air persona to be affable and funny and it’s good to know that he enjoys interacting with the spectating public, too. He suggested three items for my punch list: be patient, wait for the right shot to attack and give my opponent a taste of his own medicine. It’s good to have two or three clear points in mind when your typical style of play isn’t working. I’ll do my best to use this template for any match I play henceforth.
Fast-forward one week… Today is Sunday, August 24th, the eve of the U.S. Open, a tournament that will surely have my fanatical television viewership over the next two weeks as my schedule allows. As of about 10:30 this morning, I’m pleased to have clutched my third Flex win of the summer. In the opening stages of the match, I had a sense of déjà vu. On top of dealing with the habitually high late summertime humidity and Fahrenheit readings already in the lower 90s, I was down one game to four (1-4) in the opening set. Just as quickly as “not again” popped into my mind, I recalled Gilbert’s suggestion to “be patient.” I wasn’t playing a pusher, but I figured that’s a good rationale for any game in which one is on the losing side of the battle. Hearing the voices of my inner cheerleaders, on my favorite tennis surface of green clay (formally known as “Har-Tru”), I somehow managed to gut out six consecutive games, winning the first set and getting up a break in the second, 6-4, 1-0. After my opponent and I suffered several service hiccups early in the second set, I pulled through with a score of 6-4, 6-2. FINALLY. If there were a men’s version of the Petko Dance (Google it if the link to the YouTube video expires), I imagine I’m ecstatically channeling Fred Astaire.
In spite of today’s good outcome, my USTA summertime win-loss results stands at 3-11, an overall underwhelming record. Therefore, I suppose now I’m trying to rationalize and take the sting out of the efficiency of my frequent dismissal from the court of play. So here goes…
There exists an intangible psychological athletic space called “the zone,” when there is effectively a disembodiment of the negative, cynical mind from the perfectly capable physical specimen able to handle the sport-specific task at hand. What brings this about? I have no idea. It could be a timely confluence of biochemical interactions. Or a racquet whose string tension and type meshes perfectly with the meteorological conditions and the racquet holder’s power gradient… Or the player’s propensity toward topspin shots, which are arguably “safer” than flat groundstrokes… Whatever the reason, this mode of operation, unfortunately, is transient. But, this is what brings us back to the game again and again: the effort to find that elusive zone. As odd as it sounds, I think it’s actually good that this is not a perennial frame of mind. To be constantly at ease on the tennis court (or any sports venue) would be to have no incentive to tool with your game, to streamline your strengths, to reform your weaknesses, or to call upon a track-and-field temperament that leaps over mental hurdles… I can’t even tell you how eager I am to get back out on the court and keep plugging away until victory is mine! Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.
Sometimes, in sport, you are your own worst enemy, capable of beating yourself with substandard play. In the end, I have to remind myself that it’s just a game! Outside of the pros, for whom the tennis court is their office, tennis is just for fun and a great form of cardiovascular exercise. In order for me to have more fun, I’ve scheduled a tennis lesson for the week ahead. My last one was in May, so I’m probably overdue. As an amendment to a well-known phrase, I’d say that practice makes better, not perfect. I’m nowhere near perfect, but I’m definitely getting better.