Monthly Archives: March 2005

crafty junksters and temper tantrums

Last week I played tennis with a friend who is a better player than I am so he gives me 2 games per set as a handicap. It used to be 3 games but I improved enough to drop it to 2. This week, though, he asked if we could move the handicap back up to 3 games because he plays better when he’s behind. I was so upset by his request that I broke down in tears on the court. I imagined Tom Hanks running out onto the court, putting his his hands on his hips and yelling at me, “There’s no crying in tennis!”

This week we played again and I got so mad about losing that I smashed my racket on the court and now it has a crack in it.

Then I lost to a crafty junkster and as I got to the bottom of a forward bend while I was doing my yoga practice after the match, I broke down in sobs.

What is going on here?

Crafty junksters don’t care how awkward they look. They don’t care if their backhand makes them look like they’re swatting flies. They don’t care if they can barely get their racket above their shoulder when they serve. No, all they care about is putting the ball where you are not. Many of them move terribly. One guy in my league has a limp for heaven’s sake, but he toys with hard hitters and frustrates the hell out of more athletic players because he gets the ball back with a lot of junk on it in and puts it in hard to reach places.

I was so tired of losing to junksters that I had a tennis lesson with my instructor, Sean Brawley, in late January

Sean told me that I could beat crafty junksters by just thinking about getting the ball over the net. Not only that, but most of the time, that is 90% of the work. You might need strategy at times: hit to your opponent’s weak side for instance or hit down the middle to take away the angle, but mostly, just get the ball over the net.

When we worked on this in the lesson, I got ninety five percent of the balls across the net. The exercise also uncovered a habit that is probably losing me a lot of points. I like to come to the net at the slightest hint of a short ball. A true recipe for disaster if you are only 5’4”. If the ball is beyond my service line, even if it is well in front of me, I should hit it over the net and then retreat to the baseline.

Sean explained it this way: first aim for consistency, then placement, then power. Once you can consistently get the ball over the net you can think about putting it in a particular place and only after that think about hitting it harder.

And now I’m a complete mess.

After Tiger Woods won the 1997 Master Tournament, he changed his golf swing. It took him over a year to feel comfortable with the change. After knee surgery in 2002, Woods changed his swing again and just now seems to feel comfortable with it. I don’t think Tiger broke down in tears on the golf course but I guarantee you he wanted to.

I’m used to thinking about attacking not just getting the ball over the net. At the slightest hint of trouble, i.e. the first game I lose, I revert to attacking and the ball goes into the net. Attacking should come in the flow of the game. If you force it, you will end up in a bad position. Undergoing a change in thinking is like going through a phase change. When ice melts or water boils, there is a stage of complete chaos before the material settles into its new state.

I could continue to play low percentage tennis and stay at my current level or I could hang in there through a few more smashed rackets and temper tantrums and learn to hit the ball consistently which should improve my game in the long term.

Match of the week: Davis Cup mutaytion

I drove down to the Home Depot Center to take in the first day of Davis Cup play between Croatia and the U.S. Wow, I haven’t seen that much red, white and blue since I saw Jimi Hendrix play the Star Spangled Banner on the fourth of July at the Atlanta Music Festival in, I believe, 1970. I remember because each time the fireworks exploded my friend Allen, who had a recurring dream of Jeff Beck walking out of the ocean, fell down then stood up just in time to fall back down again when the next bunch of red, white and blue fireworks exploded.

It was a relatively sedate, sparse crowd despite the party atmosphere. There was a band, there were performers on stilts, acrobats and clowns and you could get the American flag painted on your face if you liked.

Andre Agassi played Ivan Ljubicic in the first match. Both players started off poorly and were making a lot of unforced errors. Ljubicic hit creampuffs and Agassi floated them back and over the baseline. Maybe it was the snare drum and the clappers. Or maybe it was the band’s rendition of “Jesus is Just Alright With Me.”

Ljubicic broke Agassi in the second game. Agassi broke back to get to 3-4 then immediately lost his serve and Ljubicic served out to win the first set 6-3.

Agassi started to heat up in the second set but it still took him three game points and a total of thirteen points to win the first game. Agassi was trying to find a way to break up Ljubicic’s rhythm. He hit short and long and threw in some drop shots. It worked for a while. He went up 5-2 in the set. But then he reverted to pounding Ljubicic’s backhand relentlessly.

Ljubicic is no stiff. You can’t just pound away at him. He’s been in four finals already this year and I can see why. He’s a big guy with a lot of different strokes and a very intelligent game. This might be another legacy of Roger Federer. Maybe we’ve gone beyond “pound the ball into submission” tennis and we’re heading into “pound the ball when necessary” but have a full court intelligent game that makes it hard for your opponent to adjust to. Even when that opponent is as tactically savvy as Agassi.

Ljubicic’s kick serve was killing Agassi. It bounced up high and curled into Agassi’s body and took away Agassi’s usually superior return game. Ljubicic won the next three games and forced a tiebreaker. Agassi lost the tiebreaker 0-7 with two unforced errors and a forced error while Ljubicic hit two winners – one after a serve and volley on the second serve – and two aces.

Ljubicic broke Agassi in the sixth game in the second set to go up 4-2 after a bad line call that woke everyone up. Ljubicic sensed the moment and started attacking. He switched to hitting the ball hard instead of looping it. He won his next two service games and ended with two aces to win the set and the match, 6-3, 7-6 (0), 6-3.

It looked like Patrick McEnroe was being outcoached by Croatia’s coach, Niki Pilic. Ljubicic was mixing up his strategy from game to game while Agassi was trying to find anything to stay in the match. Davis Cup is the only event on the men’s tour that allows the coach to be on the court during the match but it’s not the player’s coach sitting there, it’s the Davis Cup Captain. It would make more sense if the player’s regular coach could be with him on the court, in this case Agassi’s coach, Darren Cahill. But it turns out that Cahill was sitting in the players’ box and McEnroe was running back and forth getting advice from him.

Andy Roddick played Mario Ancic in the second match. I left after Roddick went up 3-1 in the third set. It was getting cold and Ancic had started to yell at himself so I knew it was all over. Roddick went on the win the match 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. Roddick plays the “pound the ball into submission” version of tennis. He throws in slice backhands and now has a slice backhand down the line, but mainly he slams the ball deep and into the corners whenever possible. That might be insufficient in today’s game of tennis. He might be able to win another slam and he might temporarily get back to the number one ranking, but he also might not have enough game to stay there.

Maybe we’ve gone beyond “pound the ball into submission” tennis and we’re heading into “pound the ball when necessary” but have a full court intelligent game that makes it hard for your opponent to adjust to.

Later that evening I went to see the Mutaytor (“mutaytion because evolution takes too long”) at The Key Club. I felt like I’d been airlifted into the middle of Burning Man Festival. On stage there was huge group of performers: firethrowers, drummers, an angel performing a hula hoop mating dance, aliens with flashing blue and yellow lights, an acrobat hoisted into the air by counterweight. A big guy at the end of a rope ran up a tall ladder then jumped off thereby lifting the acrobatic flyer high in the air. All performed to a killer beat with electronic music and looping visuals.

The guy standing next to me wore an empty turquoise iMac computer on his head. Underneath it he wore a black hood and cloak. He looked out of the computer where the screen should have been.

I felt like I was back amongst my people.

why you should be nice to someone who is killing you

I don’t mean murder. I mean someone who is beating you badly – at tennis. I lost all three sets to T today: 2-6, 3-6, 6-7(1-7). It’s worse than it looks because he gives me a handicap of two games each set. He was getting all his groundstrokes in and his high topspin forehand was bouncing over my backhand and into the back fence.

Sometimes there’s not a lot you can do. The other person is playing very well on a particular day and you are doing your best but it’s woefully insufficient. Try complimenting your opponent each time they make a good shot. The alternative is to get mad or, if not mad, then dejected, maybe a bit depressed. You’ve all done this exercise. Put a smile on your face. How does that feel? Put a scowl on your face or an angry look or a dejected look. How does that feel? Get angry at something, anything. How does that feel?

O.k., sometimes I feel very refreshed after getting angry. I’ve gotten it out and over with. But if I stay angry, it’s like wearing twenty-pound armor. On the court it means I’m half a step, at least, late and totally distracted and I don’t have the presence of mind to consider that it might be time to stay behind the baseline and track down those high looping topspin balls or maybe come in and take them on the fly or hit them early.

The point is that you’re not complimenting your opponent to help them. You’re doing it to help yourself. Turn to someone and give them a compliment. Don’t fake it now. Really mean it. How does that feel? If you feel that way while you’re playing you will be in a positive, happy mood. You’ll be able to play your best tennis. It still might not be enough. Notice that even though I did get to the tiebreaker in the third set, getting only one point in the tiebreaker is not enough. But at least I got there.

When Phil Jackson was still coaching the Lakers last year he’d take time outs in the last few minutes of games that the Lakers had absolutely no chance of winning. He’d diagram plays and give players instructions. He was telling the opponent and his team that they’d never give up. He was also using the situation as a teaching tool. They weren’t going to win the game but they could use it to work on certain defensive or offensive situations because they were likely to play the same team again.

Unlike basketball, we don’t have to worry about the clock in tennis. The last person who gets the ball across the net wins. Even if it doesn’t look like it’s going to be your day, act as if it is because it could be and there’s still the possibility that you could be the last one to get the ball over the net.

Try complimenting your opponent each time they make a good shot. The alternative is to get mad or, if not mad, then dejected, maybe a bit depressed.

I videotaped my serve from the front, back and both sides today. When I looked at it later I was amused and a little puzzled to discover that I twist my front foot back and forth as though I was putting out a cigarette butt at the start of each service motion.

A very good way to study your serve is to import the videotape into iMovie, or whatever is the equivalent on a PC, then compress it into a Quicktime format. Open the compressed file with the Quicktime Player then go through the video frame by frame by clicking on the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard. If you want to try this out, go to the site, scroll down and click on the Quicktime video clip. After you click on it, go through it frame by frame using the arrow keys. It allows you to step through the video at 30 frames per second and break down the action in great detail.

I must warn you, though, I was so freaked out by seeing myself serve that it affected my serve during the match. In my mind, my serve looks like Roger Fererer’s serve. On video, it’s looks like a recreational player’s serve. It’s a bit daunting to see how pedestrian it really is. After I got over the shock I was able to appreciate it. Besides the cigarette butt move, the bent tossing arm and a toss that’s not far enough in front of my body, the serve looks somewhat acceptable.