My wrist was probably at 90% healed, so I got on the phone. The hardest competitor available to me doesn't like to play when the weather drops below 40 degrees, so he was out. #2, though, was happy to play. Phew!
#2 is the man I would let coach me, if he believed he had anything to teach me. I have tremendous respect for his mental game. At 67, his legs are a little weak, and I suspect that he once had a little more power on his groundstrokes, but his game was never about power. So, the last time I played him, I was crushed 2-6, 1-6. It was the best I had ever done against him.
I hit the ball harder and more accurately. I move at least twice as well as he does. My serve is a weapon, where his is only adequate. I am the better player. There are two reasons I always lose to him.
#1 He plays smarter than I do. I drive the ball at the two far corners, and when my opponent starts reading me, and getting to the ball, I try for too much. Coach uses all four corners, mixes his shots better, and always lets me be the one to try for too much.
#2 I choke. He starts getting to my shots, and giving me easy shots to hit back. That's a brutal, brutal thing to do to me. I hit the first easy put-away easily. The second one I think about. The third one I muff. It goes downhill from there. I always start out well against him (especially in warm-ups - hard to choke in the warmup) then win some very easy points, then relax and tighten up at the same time and in the wrong ways.
Do you care about any of this? Ah. If you don't, I forgive you for not reading this. :-)
He came out to play on Saturday. His ankle was freshly recovered from an injury, and he really wanted to get out and use it. In case you are wondering how his ankle injury plays into the story, the last time he beat me at 2 and 1, his elbow was barely working and he could not hit the ball. The time before that, his back was sore. Come on! The guy is 67 - something is always going to be hurting. It was my bum wrist and general fear against his healed ankle, 67 years, and perfect record against me.
I broke him for a quick 3-1 lead. He was playing the rope-a-dope against me, giving me easy put-aways, and waiting for my mind to fade. I kept putting the winners away. But it was early.
My serve began to fade. This is a problem. If you live by your serve, as I have much of my life, when it goes away, you go with it. Sure enough, I was in trouble on my serve. Down 15-40.
This is where it happens.
"What happens?" you ask?
I don't know. But it is usually at about this time that I look down, bounce the ball a couple times, look up and find the score is 3-5, 15-40, set point against.
Choking is the most bizarre experience I know. It's a crap shoot for me. Sometimes, if I can find the right shibboleth, I do the opposite of choking - whatever that's called. Let's call it heroic breathing. Sometimes, I breathe like Hercules himself. I believe that I have lost 5 or so matches from being ahead 7-1, and maybe won 15 matches from 1-7 behind. Neither is excusable. If I can win 7 games in a row against my honorable opponent, I should not be able to lose 7 games in a row against him. But knowing that I can silence my mind, find my arm, and put together 28 points by a simple act of will is frustrating - because I cannot do it nearly as often as I should be able to.
BTW, (as all of you may already know) I silence my mind by opening my mouth. If I can make words come out of my mouth, and flow happily to my ears, my mind finds rest and peace and remembers what my arm should be doing. If I can say the right things to myself, I can actually play tennis. If you search the archives of this blog, I'm sure you will be amazed at how boringly consistent I am on this point. I need to talk to win.
But, I won't talk.
Instead, I think in my head. I think I'm thinking the stuff I would be saying if I were saying anything, but I'm not. I'm thinking the right thought surrounded by five wrong thoughts. It's like one golden nugget surrounded by five pieces of pyrite. When I speak these things out loud, my tongue acts as a gate, blocking the pyrite and letting the gold flow back to my ears.
Why don't I do this more often?
Ancient habit of being alone, I imagine. I don't think it was until I flipped burgers that I ever did anything that I did not do alone. Years of talking only to myself drove me mad.
So, at 3-1 I could afford to lose a game. That's one of the pyrite pieces. At 15-40, I needed to take a couple chances/I needed to play conservatively. Pyrite. I needed to relax, and play my game. Pyrite. I needed to focus on the ball and trust my arm to do what it's been doing well in practice for 35 years. Pyrite.
What I actually said to myself was, "I've been winning by playing deep to both sides with power. I'm softening up my shots, aren't I? I need to not do that."
My serve continued to fade, so my game continued to fade. More pyrite. Lots more pyrite. But, I took 2 of the next three games for 6-2. The last game was a "skin of my teeth" thing. I won it by gritting my teeth, and forcing the shot that finished it. It's a win, but it's a mental loss when that happens. Trust me on this. I'll take the win, but bad things are coming when I win by gritting my teeth.
New mind games to lose. Coach is a crafty opponent. The first time we played, he told me with amazement that I was no good at hitting back his topspin. He was absolutely right, but most people will never identify that weakness in my game. He picked it out by the start of our 3rd game together. We had played about 20 points (around 200 points make up an average match.) Ten minutes into a 90 minute match, and he already knew what to do to win any important point against me.
He broke my serve immediately (fading even worse.) I broke him back. He broke me again, and then he held. 1-3.
My thoughts began their death-spiral. "He must have found some weakness in my game. And, of course, my serve is laying down bad. This is how I always lose. I'm going to lose. Well, at least I played one good set. I can build on this. I don't have to be completely ashamed. So, I can relax, and play like I have nothing to lose. I can swing out, take some chances, play more conservatively, focus on the ball, trust my arm, come back like I've done so many times before."
I had completely quit talking to myself.
Picture these thoughts flowing around in my head like images in a bowl of mercury, mesmerizing me with their truth, hypnotizing me, moving my mind away from my arm. It's hard to describe a good choke, but thinking the "right" thoughts is always a part of it for me.
Of course, pyrite is a euphemism for other terms that are floating around in my head right now, but in this case, the euphemism is superior to the other terms. It is the shinyness of the thoughts above that make them attractive. It's their shinyness that keeps me talking in my head instead of out loud where my tongue can filter them for me.
We traded breaks twice. He kept thinking he was going to close me out, and I kept not quite going away. At one point I was serving at love-40, and put the next ball in the net. At another, he was serving at 5-3, 40-30 set point. I didn't know what to say to myself. I probably need to get all uber-dweebish and script out my talking points for each match, but I've never tried that before. Never thought of it before. We'll see.
Anyway, there's one thing I can always say to myself, "Tennis. Come on. Play tennis." It works. It worked.
Coach began to falter. He went back to his rope-a-dope. And who can blame him. It's always worked against me in the past. This time, I took each of his bloops, and turned them into points against him. I repeated the "tennis" shibboleth, and my eye stayed focused on the ball, my arm knew what to do, and I took some chances while being more conservative. I didn't have to think about any of that stuff. It just worked.
I won my next service game at love.
Now Coach was serving to stay in the set. I pushed him hard, but he came up with the goods. It was tiebreak time.
And finally, I was into the match.
This is the moment you play for. I didn't need to talk to myself any more. I didn't need to filter away the pyrite. I just needed not to think about how I didn't need to think any more. I was there. I was 100% playing just for the joy of doing with the ball what it needed done to it.
Why does it take me 20 games to find that mental place?
We split the first 6 points of the tiebreak. After losing each of my three points, I did a silent little mind check. I shouldn't, but I couldn't help myself. I did it quietly enough, though, that I didn't disturb the fragile balance of my psyche.
I took the next 4 points straight, and it was over.
I had withstood Coach's assault on my mind, and my own Vichy collaboration with him. The resistance had won. I don't know that I've ever beaten a full-blown choke like that on my own before. I've come back from early suckiness, but I don't know that I've ever been ahead, choked, struggled against the choke for the rest of the match, and made it back into the zone.
Not in singles.
I've always needed a partner to whom I could talk. I've never been able to do this when trapped between those white lines with just myself to lean on. I've never been able to break out of the trap that is always waiting for me inside my head.
But now I've done it once.
Who knows? Maybe I can survive being single.