12 June, 2008

Flipping Tennis

Ah yes, now where was I?

And how do you work this "blogger" thingy?

I do vaguely remember a time when I used to post pretty frequently, so I'm sure it will all come back - just like falling off a bicycle.

A couple of you have followed my tennis ramblings over the years, and I thought I'd share a little bit of what's been happening lately. In a nutshell, I may have played the first decent tennis match of my life on Monday night. It felt almost like one of those science-fiction stories where the hero falls asleep and wakes up in a new world. I blinked, and found myself playing at a level I never knew existed. I still lost, but I think I'll make it back to that place again the next time I step out on court, and I'm looking forward to that moment in a brand new way.

It's kind of along story from 1972 when I first started hitting tennis balls until 2008 when I finally hit one right, so I'll skip forward to Aug 2007.

Last summer my forehand was tearing apart my right wrist. I was using a really twisty motion known as a "windshield wiper" to put topspin on the ball, and all that wrist motion plus all the power was doing bad things to me. I was pretty convinced I was doing life-long damage to it, but I was still winning so I couldn't stop playing. As the 3.5 doubles season came to an end, I decided something had to change, and before quitting tennis I figured I'd try modernizing my game. (Anyone who knows me, knows how anathema "modern" is to me, but I was desparte!) As is my wont, rather than changing my forehand, I changed everything. I went from the Eastern grip taught for the old wooden rackets to the Semi-Western grip that is so natural with the new carbon-fiber rackets. Before all was said and done, I'd changed my forehand, backhand, volley and serve, all in radical ways. There ain't nothin' else to change, or I'd have changed it.

The new strokes gave me more spin and more power, all with the added benefit of my wrist no longer feeling like it was splitting in half. But wait! There's more! For no additional cost, I also received more accuracy and a more reliable shot under pressure.

There was no downside.

I was prepared and empowered to take the world by storm!

I entered my first tournament in September, and beat one kid before losing to a couple of solid players. They were easy losses to understand, though. Under pressure, 35 years of habit proved hard to break. I was mingling my Eastern style into my Semi-Western performance, and those two flavors did not taste great together.

I kept grinding the new style into my body, creating muscle memory with every stroke. I practiced a lot and critiqued every swing, working to keep my style as purely simple as I physically could. I never reverted back to the old style under pressure. I'd lose with the new style rather than scrape by on the old even one more day. It was all going to pay off. The temptation to give up and fall back was strong each time I lost, but I resisted.

Come December, I entered my second tournament. I beat one flaky player, before losing to a couple of solid players. They were easy losses to understand, though. I still reverted to the old style sometimes, and I hadnot enough played under match pressure with the new style.

I played some more between January and May, and even started having some success. Usually, I was pulling off come-from-behind wins against decent players. The inexplicable thing was that I had vastly better strokes than the players I was beating, and I was losing to my equals. I was choking in every match, and my game was suffering horribly for it.

Choking has been the eternal theme of my tennis, and it was not going away without a fight. If I could get past the choke, I usually won any match I played. The opponent became an after-thought for me. More than anyone I feared the enemy stuck eternally between my ears, and I was searching out weapons with which to fight him.

The new strokes were very helpful in fighting the choke. The Semi-Western is twice as choke-resistant for me as the old Eastern style. Others have different experiences, but the Semi-Western fits me like a glove. And my new skills gave me confidence that helped me fight the choke.

But something was missing, and the choke was always one wrong thought away for me.

I entered the Lancaster Open on Memorial Day weekend, and beat one kid before losing to a couple solid players. They were easy losses to understand, though. Nah. Not really. The losses were getting harder to understand. I beat that first kid 6-0, 6-0, which was nice, because in the past I'd never been able to beat anyone effectively. So, things were looking good. Then I ran into Steve Gunderson. I lost to him 0-6, 0-6 and I simply shouldn't have. Yes, Steve should beat me. Yes, he's much better than me. But no. He's not THAT much better than me. He plays with the old Eastern style, and he uses it brilliantly, but my strokes should have matched up well against his, and obviously they did not.

My other loss that weekend was to Pete Mudre. He ate me alive with frankly inferior strokes. He put wicked slices in the middle of the court, and watched me fail to handle them. Should I have beaten him? Probably not. But losing 0-6, 1-6 was just not right. He was not that much better than me. Really.

I registered my lessons from Lancaster and went home and added an attacking game to my style repertoire. It was the right decision, and it completely failed me in my next match. I played a guy who wanted to beat me really badly, and I choked. It made him really happy. Not so much for me. It had been so long since I'd won a tennis match, I was beginning to wonder whether I deserved to hold a racket at all.

I talked all this over with a kind-hearted, long-listening friend, and we decided I needed to feel more released in my tennis. I was too uptight about each error because I took them as indicators of my commitment or some such. Instead, I needed to realize that tennis was just a great opportunity for me to learn about myself, so every mistake was just another clue into my mind.

Then I entered the Gahanna Open. I only entered one division this time (I think I'm going to just stay with the Open divisions for a while, and quit playing the over-35's) and was paired against the #4 seed. The guy was much better than me, and it showed in my 4-6, 1-6 loss. The 5 games I won in Gahanna were an improvement over Lancaster, and my mood after the match was improved. I'd "felt it" a little bit, and when I'd made mistakes I'd been able to relax and avoid choking. I'd lost because my opponent was better than the, and not because I played worse than I should have. It felt better than the drubbings I'd received of late, but it was a far cry from good.

And then Sunday, blessed Sunday, happened. I went out to play against my "measuring stick," Nate. Nate could beat any of the guys who beat me (except maybe Steve, but I'd enjoy watching that match.) When I am finally able to put real pressure on Nate, I'll be able to play anyone. Sunday was not that day. I failed to play even to my own level against Nate. It was awful. All my self-talk about "release" kept me mentally positive, and I was not exactly choking, but nothing I hit was going in.

After we were done, Nate tried to give me a pep talk. It was an uphill battle, and he was not making much progress until he said these fateful words, "You're trying to flip everything."

I was baffled.

Nate explained.

If my opponent hit a ball low and wide to my backhand, I was in a bad position. That's tennis 101. I had maybe a 20%/80% chance of winning that point. 20 times out of 100 I win the point, and 80 times out of 100 I lose it. Nate observed that I was trying to flip that percentage with one awesome shot. I was trying to flip my 20/80's into 80/20's, and that required that I hit something amazing.

I won't be falsely modest here. I can hit shots just like that. Really. From that ridiculous position, I often will hit a screaming cross-court winner that leaves my opponent gaping.

I won't be falsely proud here, either. Ten times as often as I hit that screaming winner, I hit the ball just wide, just long, just into the net, just within my opponent's reach, or just out of the tennis park. There happen to be a lot more ways to miss than there are to amaze.

Nate said, "When you're in a 20/80 position, fight for neutral. Don't look for an advantage. Hit for 40/60, and if that works, then hit the next shot for 50/50, and then start thinking about 60/40. Don't try to flip it. Fight for neutral"

The light hit me like an arc-welder in a mirror factory.

I can scorch the ball back right at my opponent, instead of trying for an amazing winner. The chances are he will still win the point, but my percentages are up to 40/60 instead of 20/80. My odds improve. The chances are his next shot will not be as wicked as the one I'm dealing with right now. And if he does put the ball away, oh well. Against quality opponents you're going to lose some points even though you never made a mistake.

The reams of history and understanding that flowed through my mind at that moment would torment you, my reader, far too much, but let me point out a couple things.
+ So, THIS is what it means to "build a point!" I always thought building a point was trying to hit an almost winner followed by a clean winner, but no. It's bigger than that.
+ All I earned with my shiny new strokes was entry into the "rookie" level of real tennis. The guys I'm playing now all have every stroke I'm just learning. And when I say, "have," I mean they can hit it in practice 9 times out of 10, and can hit it confidently under match pressure. I really am vastly better now than my old 3.5 hitting buddies, but that means squat at the 5.0 level where I'm trying to play.
+ With every stroke, I need to be adding 10% to my advantage. That means I should not be hitting just to stay even, but I should not be trying to add 45% to my advantage with one stroke, either.
+ But my opponent is doing the same thing!
+ Wow!
+ Tennis is really an arm-wrestling match, with both of us trying to push through for 5% at a time until our opponent falls too far behind to make it up. And then we play another point.

No wonder they're beating me!

For 35 years I've been stepping out there and trying to flip disadvantaged positions. When I fail at the improbable, my opponent gets the point. When I succeed, though, they don't try to flip the point. Instead, they fight for neutral and build until they have me at a disadvantage again. Then I try to flip it again. If I'm lucky, I flip 1 in 5 points. In tennis, you must win 55% of the points to have hold a comfortable lead in any given match. Winning 20% of points leads to brutally ugly scores.

My opponents have been working to neutralize my advantage without risking a "full flip" like I do.

And this realization led to another, and more important one.

No wonder I choke.

You can only miss important shots so many times before you begin to feel like a failure, and begin to doubt yourself. More often than not if I'm in the low percentage position in a point I'll miss a big shot trying to flip the point, and when I'm at the high percentage position my opponent will hit a neutralizing shot to get back to even. Once we're even again, it just means I have another opportunity to fall behind, which gives me another opportunity to miss. I keep putting myself in positions that lead to missing! Psychologically, I've been shooting myself in the foot for 35 years.

The percentages don't lie. If I'm as good as my opponent, at some point I'll be ahead in 50% of the points we play and behind in the other 50%. From that position, if I win 55% of points in which I'm ahead and win 15% of points in which I'm behind, I'll get my butt waxed in public. In a 180 point match, that puts the score at 63-117, or in tennis score terms, 0-6, 0-6, 0-6.

Let me put it another way. I have to be so much better than my opponent that I am ahead in more than 70% of all 180 points to win. I will only win when I'm playing an inferior opponent.

And THAT's exactly what's been happening in my tennis life. I win with difficulty against people who are worse than me, and lose to people who are at my level.

Hmmm. When intuition and statistics agree about a thing, one had best pay some attention to that thing.

So, I signed up for the Bexley Open, drew another #4 seed, and held my breath. I went out there determined to "fight for neutral." I'd literally not touched a racket since Nate breathed his advice out upon my game just the day before, so I had no idea what it would feel like to "fight for neutral," but I was gonna give it the old college-dropout try.

The match started at 0-3. It was not propitious. :-)

But I learned. I saw that I was not going to be able to attain a neutral position by hitting softly or down the center. The guy I was playing was a former college player. That means he had been killing tennis balls daily for 4 years and testing his skills against high level competition weekly while I was plinking around barely winning 3.5 doubles matches. He was ripping shots that I don't even dare to try, and generally kicking my butt easily. To reach neutral against this guy, I needed to hit hard and toward the safe edges of the court.

So I did.


The set ended at 2-6, and I was feeling the despair. I was broken twice, and that never feels good. Then again, I had nothing to lose, so I doubled my commitment to fighting for neutral and added to it a commitment to emphasize the word, "fight."

To start the second set, I broke him and held my serve to consolidate for a 2-0 lead.

I had never, ever, not even once been in the lead in any way against a seeded player in a tournament in my life, not even while down a set. Heck, I'd only once won more than 1 game in one single set against a seeded player! This was new territory for me.

Choke time.

Only I didn't choke.

My opponent had to work to win the next game, and then he had to work hard to break me back for 2-2. It hurt to be broken, but I'd made him earn it. I didn't give anything away, so I squared my chin and shoulders and went back to work.

I broke him again for 3-2. And consolidated by holding serve for the 4-2 lead!

I could not believe how I was playing. I was not surrendering points like I always do in pressure situations. I was playing like I belonged on this court with this guy who had years of experience under his belt, was 15 years younger than me, and taught tennis for a living at a local junior high school. I was making him sweat.

He held and broke me back for 4-4.

There was no longer a question of him deciding whether to bring out his A game. He was playing with every drop of tennis in his blood, and he was scraping out games. The two service games I held, I held at love. I was officially winning more points than him because I was making him scrap for every one of his service games.

But he did have all that experience, and there was a lot of tennis in his blood.

He held for the 5-4 lead.

At the changeover, I actually changed shirts. The pros do it when they want to feel ready for whatever comes, and it made sense, so I did it.

5 points later, the score was 30-40 - it was Match Point against me. If I lost the next point, I went home a 2-6, 4-6 loser. If I choked, I went home feeling like a sucker again. If I double-faulted, I felt like a moronic sucker. If I patty-caked the ball, and he killed it like he should, I felt like a sucker masquerading as a tennis player. And yes, all those thoughts squirmed into my mind past the locked doors of my subconscious. I shoved back down before I could serve.

I cast the krypton beam of "fight for neutral" all around my brain, and filled my mind with the determination to hit for 5% at a time. I served a good kicker to his backhand, and he sent back a mere 30% reply to the center of my court. I was up 70/30 in the point, and barely knew what to do. I fought off the urge to crack the ball somewhere, and went for 75/25 by hitting a reasonably tough shot to his backhand. I followed it in to the net, and he hit a neutralizing shot back to me. By attacking the net, though, I'd placed myself in position for just that shot. I stepped up and firmly punched the volley away.

Just like in the textbooks.

Just like I'd practiced when I added the attacking mojo to my game.

Just like a real tennis player would do.

That moment was the culmination of everything I've done in learning to play this game at this level.

I followed that point up by taking the next two and the game for a 5-5 tie.

Nothing could take that moment away from me. I played the percentages and made my attacking game the deciding factor at a critical juncture. I succeeded because I didn't choke, because I fought for neutral, and because I knew how to take the attack to my opponent safely. Just like real tennis.

I still cannot describe what that feels like.

For 35 years I've wondered, if I'd had the chance, could I have played real tennis with the big boys. For any number of reasons I've not tried, and when I finally did try, I failed miserably, and when I failed I wanted to quit. That volley put away 35 years of doubts and fears, and said to me that I'd grown up just a little bit. Finally.

I forced my opponent to weather a deuce during his service game, but he pulled through for the 6-5 lead.

This time, at the changeover I ate half an energy bar. It's the first time I've ever done that, and the first time I've ever wanted to do it. My opponent was suffering badly in the heat, and I was feeling as good as I've ever felt, but if I pulled off the next two games, I need the energy for that precious third set. I was hydrated and nourished and pumped.

And behind 15-40 very quickly.

My experienced and honorable opponent was cracking winners at the lines. I held firm. I served hard, and leveled at 40-40, then even pulled ahead for a game point. If I won the next point, we would go to the tiebreak and my chances looked good.

My next serve drew a 35% reply to the center of the court on my backhand side. I decided to go for my most beautiful shot, but I didn't decide it with enough conviction. I went for the inside out backhand. It's a shot I have, but not when I lack conviction. To take that shot felt to me like I was changing dance partners, and playing against the percentages. It was the right shot at the right time, but I didn't quite believe it.

I missed that shot, and probably the match, by 5 inches.

Back to deuce we went, and my opponent earned two more Match Points. I fought them off with an ace down the line (you should have seen his face) and a kicker out wide. On the sixth match point, I finally succumbed. In a heated exchange I put an inside out forehand just a couple feet long. It was a good shot, played for the percentages and played with conviction, that just happened to sail a little bit on me.

I lost, but I lost my first good match.

Looking back, I think my opponent knew somethiNg I had not figured out yet. Toward the end of a match, during clutch time, and after a hard fought battle to get to the moment of truth, you have to let fly with some calculated gambles. That's the moment to let the "wild things" off their leashes and see what you can do, if you're going to beat an equal opponent. I suspect in those last few games, after your body is fully dialed in and firing on all cylinders, you swinging with calculated abandon can shift things your way. It worked for my opponent, and he knows this game a lot better than I do.

If I had known that on Monday, I don't think my opponent could have stayed on his feet for the third set. The heat had about taken him out.

It's OK.

I'm signed up for the TennisFax Classic next week. We might just meet again.


Tennis Tickets said...

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Milly said...

It’s almost 5pm and I’ve finally slowed enough to finish reading this post. I started at 4:20 something then made a copy so that I could read it at work, my first few hours are slow most days. I was next to a chatty fellow worker so I wasn’t able to get much reading in. Before I knew it the boss had found his way to the floor and folks were drifting in.

What a great read! It was worth the wait and the 7 pages.

As for the next game Break a leg! (I’m from the theater, it’s what we say! Never put a hat on the bed or whistle in the dressing room) I suppose I had the same feeling when on stage, when the audience faded away and I was that character. Even when I played a goose. I was told that I was the best goose in the group. It was a goal, like yours. ;-} sort of.

Keep us posted

Milly said...

It's match. . .right. . .not game?

My bad.

tari said...

Beautiful! Your excitement and joy really came through with this post.

Good luck next week. :)

Weekend Fisher said...

Cool. Congrats on the payoff for all that effort.

codepoke said...


I made the Failure Digest!

I know you're jealous. :-)

I only wonder that I'm not a leading member of their team.

codepoke said...

On the "plus" side....

The guy who beat me on Monday only lost 8 games beating the next 3 guys. The 7 games I took off him were almost as good as the other 3 guys could do together. :-)