17 January, 2006

Sentimental Favorite at the Aussie Open

Hingis is back.

I like Hingis for the same reason I like Federer - she plays tennis.

I know - she had the maturity of a 12 year old when she quit in a huff because the Williams sisters were beating up on her. I know, she threw tantrums on the court. I know she made excuses for everything that ever went wrong.

I don't care.

She has more strokes than, "hit it harder," and more ideas than, "hit it even harder." She spins the ball, she drops it, she places it, she will even moon-ball it. She needs the power to hit back at the Williams's, Davenport, and their ilk, but she is capable of finding that weakness in their games and exploiting it. I know she can.

She just needs to face her demons.

She has mental troubles when she is on the court. She likes to play from in front, and when she is behind a Williams-type player, she begins to doubt herself.

Take a quick look at Anna Kournikova. You know how she never made a splash in a major, right? She was all looks, and no tennis, right? Did you know she was the world's #1 doubles player for quite while, and that she was the strong half of the team?


Her mind feeds on itself.

Singles is a very lonely sport, and much more so when things quit working. You are out there on the court, alone, and the ball is not doing what it does in practice. No, instead it is doing what it always does when you are having a meltdown. That ball just keeps sailing and falling. Deep. Net. Wide. In your mind, the conversation begins, right where it left off last time you drummed yourself off the court. The conversation is already half over before you notice it is eating your mind away.

A doubles player looks at his (or her) partner and says something stupid, and he says something stupid back. The demon conversation is over.

A singles player says something smart to himself. You don't have time to be stupid when you are out there alone, watching the match slipping away. But saying something smart doesn't end the conversation. You're dying out there, and you know it.

On a really good day, I quit thinking. I just feel my body uncoil itself and wrap itself around the ball, grab it with the racket, and set it anywhere on the court my subconscious desires.

Then two or three balls sail long, when they should have gone for easy points.

When the conversation starts, instead of feeling my body, I feel that little spot on the handle of the racket just past my forefinger - just out of my reach. I can't play from my bellybutton any more. I have to play from WAAAAAaaaayyyyy out there past my finger tips. I swing the racket, and I hope that I can put the head of the racket somewhere near the ball, and I aim for the center of the court. It's like writing in cursive without letting either hand touch the paper. You can do it, but every shot is filled with fear.

It's called choking.

Kournikova never had the whole game. I sympathize with her, but never cared to watch her play. Hingis has got it all, plus my sympathy vote.

Good luck.


Rich said...

Excellent, excellent post. I love the mental aspect of sports.

You see it when a quarterback starts getting hit and that ticking clock is going off in his head telling him he has to throw it before it's time. When a baseball player goes into a batting slump. When a basketball player starts missing shot after shot. Your mind just fools with you. But in all of those, you have guys around you that help determine whether your team eventually succeeds or fails.

Not so with tennis, at least singles. Unless you're far superior to the person you're playing and can basically maintain a center court postion (and sometimes even then), there's the physical grueling nature of the sport, running to and fro across the court or up for a drop shot, cutting time and time again, and swinging and hitting over and over. But yeah, you see it all the time in pro tennis. Shots made early start going wide or into the net, and suddenly things change for the player. The thinking begins. It should be like shooting a free throw, where if you shoot it the same way every time, it should go in. But you hit the ball the same way, or at least you think you do, and this time it went long whereas last time it was just in. You make adjustments and sometimes they help out and sometimes things get worse. When I'm watching and I can see the cogs and gears turning in a player's head, it makes the match so interesting. And because women's tennis seems to have longer rallies, I think the mental aspect is even more important there. But it's crucial in the men's game, too, especially with all the baseliners nowadays.

As far as Martina Hingis, I'm glad she's back, but... I can't help myself. I always cheer for the Americans. She'll retire soon, and her movement ain't great (anymore -- it was never spectacular), but I cheer for Lindsay Davenport on the women's side. At this point in her career, even as top seed, she has to grind to win, and she does. Then, like last year in one of the majors where she had a chance to win the Singles title but was also alive in doubles -- she didn't let her partner down, and it may have cost her another major. To me, that's character. I just have always respected her attitude. I'm sure I've missed some of the bad things, but what I remember most is when the Williams sisters were coming up beating everyone, Davenport, although she got beat some, always maintained that competitive spirit and said that she just planned to go out and beat them.

For the men, Federer, at this point is just heads and tails better than anyone else. But I always cheer for Blake, Roddick, Agassi, Ginepri, Dent... basically any American to win. One of the reasons I loved McEnroe, despite some of his pronounced faults, was that he was serious about Davis Cup tennis, so I guess the patriotism aspect means a lot to me. And speaking of guys who had to overcome a lot of self-inflicted mental struggles, Johnny Mac was one. And usually he did.

My comments are heading down rabbit trails now. But I did want to say that one day you're going to have to post on why the heck all the players have given up on the serve and volley game (except Dent, I guess). I used to love it when Becker and Edberg used to go to the French just doing what they do, and sometimes they made it pretty far. Those guys were easy to cheer for. Maybe it's all the new technology and power game, but Sampras thrived with the style. It seems more people would try to take it up. Especially in the women's game. Martina Navratilova (check spelling) made a career with it in the women's where most of the players just couldn't deal with it. Anyway, sorry to take this where it wasn't meant to go.

Rich said...

Wooo. That was long.

codepoke said...

It should be like shooting a free throw, where if you shoot it the same way every time, it should go in.

Especially the serve! It's just you and that fuzzy little ball, and you even toss it wherever you want it. There's NO excuse.

But you see it every time.

I'll tell you what to watch for. When you see a great player suddenly start hitting his or her service about 6 inches low into the net, it's over. That player has gotten tight, and there may not be anything he can do about it.

When I hit my third serve directly into the net, I immediately begin with the heavy spin serve, and just forget about trying to win points on the serve at all. Maybe, at least half way into the next game I might try a real serve again.

I would love to cheer for Roddick (never say "root" for anyone, especially in Australia - you don't want to know what it means!) I just cannot do it. His game is serve it hard, serve it harder. Hit it hard, hit it harder. That's why Federer owns him.

There are 5 targets on a tennis court, and 3 spins. Roddick uses 3 targets and 2 spins. Every time I watch him, I just see oodle-bobs of talent being wasted. It's like watching a jeweler use a pneumatic impact wrench to adjust a grandfather clock.

Blake, though! Now there's an American I can pull for! He uses all 5 targets, and knows how to switch between strategies when his opponent is beginning to dial him in.

In 2 years, Blake will own Roddick as much as Federer does. Roddick's body is going to start to give out under the strain of an all-power game, and everyone is going to get used to his pace. When that day comes, you will see Roddick bemoaning the fact that he is losing to people because of his own unforced errors - not because their game is better.

He will sound just like the Williams sisters. The fact that they only play a few tournaments a year is the thing that has kept them healthy enough to stay in the hunt.

How's that for some hubris ;-P

(I play serve/volley, so some day I will post why we are a dying breed. Great idea!)

codepoke said...

Has anyone ever scored 8 points in the last 30 seconds of a basketball game against a determined opponent? Tennis is NOT ON right now, because Wisconsin is trying to tie up a game they have already lost.

Nope. They didn't score a single point over 10 minutes of the last 50 seconds.

codepoke said...

Ah, who am I kidding. If it were my team, I'd be yelling, "Foul him!" just like everyone else.

Ain't sport beautiful!

Rich said...

So far, Hingis is rolling on. Not so for James Blake, the Williams sisters, Robbie Ginepri, Taylor Dent, or any of the other American men save one.

That leaves Andy Roddick, and despite his flaws, I'm cheering for him. He rolled into the fourth round, and he should be favored to make it into the round of 16. Lindsay Davenport was tested last night, but she managed to grind it out yet again. Just by looking, she's not winning this tournament, and I think Henin-Hardene will take her out. But of course that's why they play the matches. Sharapova gets a break with Serena going down, so she should advance to the second week. And we'll just see how Hingis holds up. She's had some good fortune in her draw, so I think she'll go into next week rolling, but when she hits some of the higher-seeded players, it's going to be work for her.

Good luck!

codepoke said...

Dang about Blake. I know he's got the stuff. I wonder what happened?

Lindsay is just being Lindsay. She always grinds, and she always has a couple matches that make her look like a dark horse. You can just never tell with her.

Roddick, now. That's another story! With the matches on after hours, and sleep a high priority, and VCR usage a thing of personal distaste, I have seen very little actual play.

But I have seen Roddick's new stroke.

Wow. He used that backhand slice pretty effectively, as near as I could tell. He seems to be trying to manipulate his game to take something new to Federer. Growth is great! I wonder what the match will look like. I look forward to it, and I'll wish you good luck too!