16 September, 2008

The Year of Rallying Dangerously

In August of 2007 I made a promise to myself that I was going for one year to pour everything my body had to give into winning a tennis tournament. I started my quest at the Reynoldsburg Open. In August 2008 I played the Reynoldsburg Open for the second time. In 2007 I won through easily to the Quarterfinals, then lost in a tough match to the #1 seed. In my second attempt I won the hardest match I'd ever played to get to the Quarterfinals, then lost in a tough match to the #4 seed. They were my best two showings of the year, and the second was no better than the first.

This is the story of my continued failure to master tennis.

I've had an expensive affair with this elegant, introverted sport, and never more so than this year. I know everyone doesn't like to read and think about tennis as much as I do, not even most players, but if you're interested read on and I'll tell the story of this year and what it's meant to my life. If you don't I promise I'll understand.

I fell in love with tennis at age 14 or so.

Back at 14 my whole life was at, "Love All." That's the score at the beginning of every tennis match, and my life was still a blank sheet awaiting the unfolding of whatever story it would tell. I spent hours back then hitting against various wooden walls all over my little home town of Grass Valley, CA. I did the same thing with soccer, but it's much easier to practice tennis alone than soccer. With soccer, you can kick penalty kicks all day, and do some light dribbling, but without at least one other person it's pretty hopeless. With tennis, a simple wall will let you practice everything but volleying and return of serve.

I even bought my own racket. The $20 things my parents bought me just weren't cutting it any more. The T.A. Davis Imperial I bought was $80 of pure, voluptuous beauty. (http://www.woodtennisrackets.com/makers/tad/tadrac1.htm - it's in the third row, on the far right.) It was my own money, and when I wore out the first racket, I turned around and bought another just like it. I never regretted spending that money, and I never regretted wearing those rackets down to nubs.

I found that I actually loved more about tennis than just playing. I learned how much I loved being alone with my wall and my ball. I could settle into a groove, pushing myself left and right, wearing my body down, and wondering where the hours could have gone. I was a pretty massively depressed kid, and solitaire tennis played profitably into my survival.

I guess I was emo before emo was cool. :-)

In high school I began to make a little bit of a name for myself. No one on the team hit with as consistent form as I did. Against the wall, I had even worked out a dependable form on my one-handed backhand. No one else used the one-hander back then, so it became a kind of signature of mine. I went on to win a number of high school matches.

All I remember are two losses.

The first one was a really close ladder match on my team. John had not watched as many pros as me or modelled his game after them, but he was resourceful and he was getting the better of me. At one point the coach walked by and found out I was losing. He just said, "I guess John wants it more than you," and walked off.

I was devastated.

That was a deep, deep blow. I wanted that win much worse than John did. It meant a lot more to me to be #1 on that team than it did to him, but John had figured something out that I didn't figure out for years. Looking back, I know I could not have beaten him that day, but I carried my coach's accusation for decades. It might have motivated another player, but it hyper-motivated me. It placed a burden on me that I could not bear, and my reaction to it started me down the road to choking in a way I could not cure.

My second memorable loss was in a match against the local public high school's scrub team. Our little Christian school didn't have a lot of players to choose from, so their scrub team ended up beating us. I don't remember whether if I had won my match, we would have won the meet.

Anyway, it was a single-set match, first to 8 wins. I was ahead 7-1 and felt badly for the poor little kid on the other side. I backed off the littlest bit to let him get a game or two and lost 7-8. It's the kind of thing one doesn't forget, but my coach's look told me I'd really, really never forget it. His eyes reminded me I lacked heart, and couldn't be trusted to deliver under pressure.

Halfway through my little opponent's comeback, my niceness turned into panic and finally into a full-blown choke. I started losing because I was nice, and then choked because I feared I hadn't "wanted it bad enough." I learned that day never to lose out of niceness again, but my habit of choking was permanently fixed by that day.

I'm a very emotional man, and tennis is a fickle sport to emotional players. I needed help dealing with my emotions in more areas of my life than tennis, but tennis was a perfect mirror for everything else that was happening in those years. I was a kid with some potential but who never figured out how to harness it. Instead of the real strength that I did have, I tried to harness some "true grit" that just wasn't me. I started trying to do everything by some unnatural force of will, and it just didn't work for me. And that never works for anyone on a tennis court.

Pretty much everything about life sucked. It just showed most obviously in my tennis.

I laid down my rackets when I graduated high school. Nothing good was happening for me out there, so I let it die. Any potential I might have had was long since gone, and there was no point in playing the game any more.

It was about 10 years later when I picked them up again. I found that tennis was fun if I played doubles with a partner who could keep my emotions under a wise rein. Singles was still too much and too hard for me, but doubles was fun and we won the city championship at our level - and the city was Atlanta. The level was pretty low, but it was nice to have some success.

Then I injured my knee, and laid the old rackets back down again until my divorce.

It had been 11 years since I'd last touched the old Wilson Pro Staff 7.5 in my closet, but with everything else falling apart I needed something unimportant to call my own. My knee was OK if I wore the brace, so I had the racket restrung and joined a 3.5 doubles team.

My two years were just what the doctor ordered. They were good men and I began to feel like I could play the game again. They whetted my appetite, and I began wanting to play more and more.

During my two years there, my main tennis weakness was on full display. No matter what kind of match I was in, I could find a way to choke. I could find a way to be intimidated, or to play below a poor opponent, or just to try too hard. Somehow, I figured my problems out by the time we reached the playoffs, and that never hurt. I think both seasons I was something like 5-3, but I don't think I lost a playoff match.

My little bit of success gave me courage. The choking problem was still there, but I began to hope that I could master it. I was, after all, 40-something now - not 16. The lure of singles tennis began to grab me. I had failed at singles all those years ago (2 1/2 decades? Really?) and I wanted to try my hand at it again. I'd heard there were singles tournaments around Columbus, and I wondered what would happen if I played them.

It seemed like I'd kind of learned how to handle choking during our playoff matches. Maybe playing in tournaments would tap into whatever helped me with that same kind of stress.

So, I started training for singles. And the choking only got worse. Somehow this sport that was a game for many seemed to be a life and death struggle for me. The fear of missing a simple shot grabbed me around the throat point after point, match after match, and year after year. I'd loved tennis for 30 years when I finally played that first official tournament in August of 2007. I beat a guy who hadn't played in years pretty handily, and then played the #1seed. I gave him a run for it. I surprised him, and hung with him for quite a while before he imposed himself on me.

He beat me in straight sets, and there was an obvious skill gap between him and me. If I was going to win a tournament, I really needed more and better skills.

So, I called in a pro.

I went to Joan Ramey's tennis camp.


I'd recommend her gifts and experience to anyone. She retooled my game from top to bottom in 3 days. She saw more hitches and more glitches in my game than I'd ever guessed anyone could find, but she was equally observant of what I was doing right. I left her camp with the strokes to compete with the big boys. It was expensive, but it was the cheapest money I'd ever spent. I could have spent years trying to put together all the things I learned from her in one weekend, and having those years given to me at 43 was quite a wonderful gift.

And with that training in hand, I came back to the local tournament circuit.

And it knocked me on my butt.

I'd love to tell the story of how I rose to the top of Columbus tennis, but I never even made a splash. I'm afraid I have no desire to the tell the story of loss after loss after loss. I know that will disappoint you, but try to understand.

It probably took 8 months after my time with Joan, practicing 3-5 times a week, for the things she taught me to settle down into the depths of my unconscious the way the 30 years of bad habits had done. The strokes I wanted at the beginning of my tournament journey were finally beginning to come naturally.

And even after those 8 months I was still losing to 1st string high school players. Now, that's not exactly something to be ashamed of. A 1st string high school player usually has one or two really good strokes, a lot of stamina, and a deep, burning desire to win, but I was playing to win.

An old man like me usually has cunning, experience, and a valuable calmness in any situation. Oddly, I have none of the three.

I'm not a cunning player. I come straight at you with my best game. If you can beat it, I'll lose.

And my experience was useless. When you throw out all your old strokes, it sets you back a bit. Suddenly, you don't know what to do in a given situation, because you've always done something else before. You find yourself having to think when you should be simply performing, and that's the death of any value experience might have brought.

And more than anything else, I was not calm. Even having strokes that should make me a decent tournament player could not help me breathe when the pressure hit.

I think I played fifteen to twenty matches total. I met up with about five 2nd string high school players during my tournament play. I beat them all. I brought my best game straight at them, and they could not beat it. I probably met up with about ten college level players. They all beat me easily. I brought my best game at them, and they knew exactly what to do to it.

And I met up with three 1st string high school players.

These were the losses that hurt. I lost all three of these matches, and I lost them because I choked. It was truly heartbreaking. And just to cheer me up, a couple of the happy winners gave me tips about what do to when I'm under pressure. Thanks guys. Every tip was one I've heard about 100 times, and whispered to myself during the trial by fire. Every tip failed me.

My old high school coach was a really great guy, and a good man. I praise him for everything he did, and I don't want it to sound like I blame him for what I did to myself across all those years. He did what every teacher does. He experimented. He cared and tried to figure out a way to help me reach my maximum potential. And he did what I've done so many times in my life, and guessed wrong. It's not his fault.

For 25 years I'd carried his words around in my head, and with my game sharpened beyond anything I'd ever achieved before, I was still pulling those words out and killing my potential with them in really unhappy ways.

I have to admit, I was getting close to putting the old rackets down again. I'm a card carrying masochist, but the fun of paying good money to get my butt stomped in the first round of every tournament was beginning to wear on me.

In July, I found Brent Abel.

I may or may not ever play in the style Brent recommends. I've tried it out, and had both great success and abysmal failure. Some of the fault has been mine, and some of the credit belongs to my opponents. We'll see what I do next year. But whether or not I start playing his game, I purchased everything he had on mental skills, and it was a bargain.

Brent's primary aim is to teach each player mastery of themselves, and I needed that more than anything. My strokes were never my problem. It was always me. He freed me of my choke. And he did something even better than that for me. He taught me things about myself I didn't even know. He gave me permission to play tennis like an introvert, and in so doing I learned what I look like when I'm really competing well. I don't look like my high school tennis coach thought I should look. I don't look like tennis announcers think I should look.

When I'm playing my best, I look like I'm really unhappy and almost bored.

Since I started looking at myself through Brent's magnifying glass, I've seen something change in my game. I've become competitive. I beat my first 1st string high school player, beat a 1st year college player, and lost well to a pair of college+ players. It's been a new world for me, and a happy one.

My first win in the Reynoldsburg Open of 2007 had been against a 3rd string high school tennis player. My win in 2008 was against 1st string high school player or maybe even better. And my Quarterfinal loss there in 2008 had twice the quality of my loss in 2007. I was still losing, but my tennis was actually better. Finally. And more than that, I enjoyed myself in a way I did not enjoy my loss in 2007. Tennis is a lot more fun when you can breathe.

My results are no better, and I doubt they ever will be, but my joy with this game is much richer now.

Last night I lost a match 6-7, 4-6 to an old, cunning, inexperienced competitor. He beat me in exactly the same way I lost that ladder match back in my high school days. By rights, I should have won. My strokes were better and my mental game was sharp, but my opponent found the same old weakness. He discovered that I eat up any shot that comes hard and flat at me - like a wall might return. All those years ago I taught myself to hit balls that come off a wooden wall - hard and flat. Anyone who hits anything to me that a wall would not hit always has a great chance of humiliating me.

I lost that match, but one thing was different. I enjoyed myself. And I was sure the guy cheated me out of four critical points! If he had seen those 4 critical points the way I saw, I might have won by as small a margin as that by which I lost. But even with that weighing on my mind, I was enjoying myself. I could see how a worthy opponent was beating me, and I honestly enjoyed trying to stop him.

3 months ago the scoreline would have been 4-6, 1-6 because he figured me out at 3-3. We both knew the moment he changed his game against me, and we both knew the battle was on. It was a real hoot as I tried to force him into positions that kept him from hurting me, and he kept finding ways to hit that one ball I couldn't figure out. He pushed through, but I only choked away three or four points the whole night. It was fun.

And that makes me want to hold on to these old rackets for another year.

Tomorrow I'll work on that shot my opponent kept hurting me with. It'll be just like old times; me, a tennis ball, a machine (that can toss me exactly the shot I need to practice) and pushing myself until I wonder where the hour's gone.

And after my next match, I'll work on whatever hurt me worst that night.

And I'll enjoy myself.

In all this, I've learned one thing above everything else. I've learned the golden value of pushing myself to master something. I accept the reality now that I'm never going to master tennis. After all these beatings, it's still hard to accept. I really thought one day I'd be able to win a tournament, but I can now see that if I do it will take a lot more work than just a single year, a little bit of luck, and it'll have to be a small, small tournament. The guys who play the big tournaments are phenomenally good. The distance between their skills and mine is greater than the distance between Federer's skill and theirs. Really. They are that good. On my best day my best backhand can't compete with what they do while joking around and practicing.

And it is good, it is very good, for me to see what real mastery looks like. I'm embarassed to say I can see how little progress I've really made toward it, too. But I'm proud to see how much more progress I've made than if I'd stayed where I was and kept flattering myself. Pushing against the standard of play at these tournaments finally forced me to come to grips with things that had bothered me for decades, and that can only be good.

I finally learned to enjoy the game again.

Some day I'll probably rewrite this story, because it deserves to be more readable, but today I'm going to publish it as is. It's my story and it's kind of a rough ride. It makes sense that it'd be a rough write.

I'm really glad the Lord made me with a love of tennis, and I'm really glad I came back.


Milly said...

It’s a long journey written in a few words but those of us who know see the journey well traveled.

It’s so cool how God put that tennis racquet back in your hand when you needed it the most. For my brother it was scouting. For me it’s my children. It needs to be running Miss Littles is running in the Tulsa Run this year.

Anonymous said...

I just looked at the results from my 15-mile race on Sunday. I finished 189th. I finished 9th in my age group. A 67-year-old man beat me by 5 minutes and a 63-year-old man beat me by over 14 minutes. I'm 41, by the way. And I beat my goal of 2:30:00.

While there was some satisfaction in finishing the race, partly because that is the farthest I have ever run, the journey wasn't that great either. I often find running to be boring and tedious and masochistic.

I would be wrong if I didn't say that God has blessed me by keeping me from injury and allowing me the improvements that He has. He has used running to keep me going as well.

I understand your journey and I think it has helped you in your everyday life. I just haven't found the love of running that you have with tennis. It is more of a dating relationship with pain.

May all of your matches bring you joy and thankfulness.


Sidd said...

I am once again humbled and amazed by your incredibly accurate descriptions and personal stories with just the right amount of warmth.

I used to think I was all that just because I won a few tournaments here and there. Then I played this 8 year old kid who absolutely knocked the mess out of me. His serves were so blazing fast I didn't have time to react, plus he put massive spin on everything. He was everything about tennis I wish I am. But I looked back on that match (which I lost 6-3, 6-2, 6-4) and I am thankful that I am at the skill level that I am and that I have injury free and able to continue the sport that I love.

For whatever reason I'm not very socially adept. I have people I talk to, but they mostly talk amongst themselves and ignore me. If they have something to say, they say it to each other. I don't know what it is about me. I try to be nice, but I am kind of intelligent for my age so maybe...

Anyway, I have not many real friends, so to speak. Even when we hang out in a bunch of people I feel pretty alone. Tennis is what keeps me going, pretty much. It is my passion, my sport, my everything, second only to education. The only place where I really feel at home is on the tennis court.

Just thought I'd add something deep and/or interesting here, Kevin.

Kevin Knox said...


You don't sound remotely 14 years old. You are highly articulate, and of course you have great taste in authors. :-)

I think I had worse trouble getting along with other kids than you do. I gave into the paranoia that everyone disliked me. It sounds like you keep that instinct in check. I have great respect for that and can assure you it speaks well for your chances as your life goes on.

It's going to sound hokey, and as a Christian it's almost an odd recommendation for me to make, but get the book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. It's amazingly insightful, and will almost certainly give you some important insight into the social stuff.

When I learned how to put my intelligence at the service of others, instead of it being threatening to them, everything changed. A lot of that happened during my year of college. The pecking order is not so rigidly important in college as it is in high school, and you'll find a lot more people happy to befriend you there. Just hang on. You'll get there.

Tennis is an interesting sport for introverts. It's both perfect for us, because we are wired to depend on ourselves, and horribly difficult for us, because we are so very alone out there. As soon as it makes sense, I hope you'll get connected with a group who play right around your level and who like to shoot the breeze before and after the matches. A nice 4.0 USTA league usually offers that feel. Hearing adults for whom tennis is just a game will redefine it for you, in a good way. It has for me.

And technically, my latest advice is never to use words. Talk to yourself in pictures. I used to lose the first two points of too many games, because I was coaching myself with words. Coach yourself with pictures. Talk to yourself in grunts and feelings. Your tennis is played in the mid-brain. When you use words, you engage the forebrain, and your mid-brain slows down a critical half-step. Besides, when you let that mid-brain passion take over, the game is SOOO much fun. And that skill will help you in other parts of life, too. You'll need that mid-brain in a number of awkward situations life will throw at you if you're lucky.

And I think you will be.

Sidd said...

Thanks! I have nothing left to say... for the moment:)