Monthly Archives: September 2005

Bill Tilden, The Complete New Yorker, 1926

Bill Tilden, the brilliant tennis player who dominated the game in the 1920’s, did live in New York, he had rooms at the Algonquin don’t you know, but the New Yorker is also the name of the venerable magazine which is eighty years old this year. The Complete New Yorker, an eight DVD set of every issue from 1925, the first year, to February 14, 2005, has just been released. I pre-ordered it from so I could get my hands on it as soon as possible. Who needs the library any more? I can open the search menu and research to my heart’s content.

John K. Winkler wrote a profile of Bill Tilden in the September 18, 1926 issue. The article is an interesting comment on the mores of the time and the writing style as well as tennis history. Tilden, thirty-three at the time, had won six straight US singles championships and led the US to six consecutive Davis Cup victories and was about to lead it to a seventh.

Winkler interviews Tilden in his room at the Algonquin as he is preparing to shift his focus away from tennis and into writing plays and performing in them. Winkler bemoans the situation with a slightly overblown but certainly literary lament, “Soon (would I could drown the very thought) the rhythm and the beauty of his startling flashes of speed, Wagnerian service aces, and heart-halting rallies may be permanently submerged.”

Winkler surely knew that Tilden was gay, it was openly known in tennis circles though not by the public. Homosexuality was not an open subject in the 1920’s and Winkler uses code words and characterizations typical of the attempt to broach the subject without really broaching it. He describes Tilden as “Intimate with none,” an “acetylene-eyed solitary”, and “a lone antagonist of destiny.” There was truth to the characterization. Tilden had been orphaned at an early age and raised by a maiden, it was important to point out, aunt. And he had developed his exceptional tennis game without the benefit of ever having a lesson from a professional tennis instructor.

But this is also how you describe a gay man or woman. They can’t be intimate with anyone because they’re not allowed to be. Before she came out, Rosie O’Donnell appeared in a magazine as a single mother who prized self-sufficiency even though she has a partner who plays a large role in her childrens’ lives. You’d never know that Jodie Foster has ever had sex in her life. She is eternally un-partnered.

On the other hand, Winkler refers to writer Samuel Merwin as Tilden’s “most constant companion”, see what I mean by code words, and denotes the time of year by calling it “the fag end of July.” He was either having fun with us there or I’ve been reading too much literary theory.

… Winkler refers to writer Samuel Merwin as Tilden’s “most constant companion”, see what I mean by code words, and denotes the time of year by calling it “the fag end of July.”

Tilden changed his mind about shifting his vocation to the theater. A loss to protégée Vinnie Richards stoked his competitiveness enough to switch his focus back to tennis though he continued to write plays and appear on stage and in movies throughout his life.

Tilden was the Roger Federer of his day. He had a powerful serve he could use on critical points. He spun an array of tactical strategies using slices, powerful strokes, lobs and drops shots to undo his opponent. He loved neutralizing big servers with highly angled returns and passing shots. When he lost the top third of his middle finger on his racket hand to an infection, he remade his game to play more aggressively so he could shorten the rallies.

Unlike Federer but typical of a performer, he was also a drama queen. Tilden was flamboyant on the court and opponents suspected that he threw opening sets to make the match more entertaining and give the audience what it paid for.

At the end of the article, Tilden explains that we would rather give lessons to promising junior players free of change than join the professional tennis circuit and make a lot of money. The grand slam tournaments were limited to amateur players at the time. Winkler points out that Tilden sometimes chose to play doubles in important tournaments with junior players.

Tilden changed his mind and turned professional in 1931. His interest in junior boys prefigured troubles to come. In 1946 he was arrested for having sex with a teenage male prostitute and served seven months in jail. He was arrested again in 1949 on the same charge and spent ten months in jail.

It’s a statement of his brilliance as a tennis player that even after serving two jail terms on morals charges, he was voted the top tennis player of the first half of the century soon after he was released from jail for a second time.

Davis Cup 2006: Roddick and Rochus – a classic match with a rude ending

Andy Roddick and Olivier Rochus played a Davis Cup match for the ages last Sunday in Leuven, Belgium. The match lasted four hours and thirty-two minutes and was determined by one of the strangest calls ever seen in a tennis match.

The US was in Belgium because they lost to Croatia in the first round of the 2006 Davis Cup. They have to win this tie to get into the World Group competition for 2006. James Blake has already lost in straight sets to Olivier Rochus. Roddick beat his brother, Christophe Rochus, and the Bryan Brothers beat brother Olivier Rochus and Kristof Vliegen to put the US up 2-1. Roddick can win the tie if he beats brother Olivier.

Rochus is no taller than I am at 5’4”, so he spins his first serve in and he does it well. At one point he had a first serve percentage of 85%. Roddick, on the other hand, has the fastest serve on the tour and this turned out to be very important.

Neither player lost their serve or even faced a break point in the first two sets. They split the sets winning a tiebreaker each. In the third set, though, everything goes haywire. Roddick breaks Rochus twice to go up 3-0 and it looks like the set might be over pretty quickly when Rochus strikes back and breaks. Then Roddick gets to 4-2 but gets broken then loses again when serving for the set at 5-4. This is how it will go for the rest of this set and most of the match. Every time one player gets on a roll, the other player steps up and takes back the momentum.

The crowd has hundreds of clappers and they’re clappering and chanting now that Rochus is showing that he can match Roddick’s play. Combine that noise with the quietness of a clay court match, you don’t hear the foot movement very much, and the fact that the indoor building seems to mute the sound of the racket hitting the ball, and it’s a bit like being in an empty gym with loud crowd noise piped in now and then. Kind of like a sitcom with a laugh track.

The crowd is already annoyed because Andy Roddick called out the Belgian Davis Cup captain, Steve Martens. With Rochus serving at 4-4, Roddick accused Martens of standing up during the point. After US captain Patrick McEnroe finished discussing the issue with the chair umpire, is it against the rules for the captain to stand up during a point?, Roddick insisted on walking towards the net as he repeatedly asked the Belgian coach if he had stood up. Martens sat there with a puzzled smile on his face and said nothing. A replay showed that Martens hadn’t moved at all.

Rochus’ strategy is to pound Roddick’s backhand – he hit ten straight shots there on one point – then run around his own forehand and hit winners down the line. Roddick isn’t the best mover on the tour and it’s even worse here today. This is soft red clay on a temporary indoor court. It’s like playing beach volleyball. You feel like the cartoon character The Road Runner. Your feet are turning at an incredibly high rpm before you can gain enough traction to actually move. Thankfully Roddick’s serve is in fine form, he wins the tiebreaker in the third set by hitting five straight aces. Isn’t that a record of some sort?

In the fourth set, Roddick finally figures out that most of the serves are going to his backhand and starts to run around it to hit forehand returns. He runs so far around his backhand that he is off-screen – you can’t see him hit the return. Both players trade early breaks and holding serve becomes an adventure. Rochus played through six deuces to hold serve in the sixth game. He threw in a phantom swing at a Roddick shot that was clearly on its way out, no doubt in retaliation for Roddick’s borishness towards Martens. Roddick struggled through three deuces in the ninth game before finally losing and putting Rochus up a break at 5-4. The match was now three hours and forty-one minutes long. Roddick was so tired that he double faulted twice in a row and went for aces on his second serve so he wouldn’t have to play long points.

Rochus held serve to win the fourth set, 6-4, but he is not doing much better. Both players look like a toy I used to get in a Cracker Jack box. It was a little plastic boxing ring with two fighters facing each other. If you pressed the bottom of one side of the toy, the fighter on that side completely buckled over. If you pressed the other side, the other fighter buckled.

Roddick’s strategy in the fifth set was to hold serve at all costs, rest during Rochus’ serve and conserve his energy for the tiebreaker. When Rochus’ hit a drop shot, Roddick didn’t even bother running for it.

Maybe it was exhaustion that led Rochus to make a bad mistake serving at 15-30 in the sixth game. Roddick approached the net and hit a short volley. Rochus could have passed him any number of ways, he had plenty of room to work with, but he hit the ball right at Roddick who then put it away and went up 15-40. That was bad enough but what happened next was beyond belief.

The Belgian players are pissed, the home crowd is stunned, and the Americans, well, they’re very quiet. They know not to look a gift-horse in the mouth.

Rochus hit a very deep approach shot just inside the line to Roddick’s backhand. Roddick managed to get to it but could only hit a wounded duck that flew up in the air and just made it over the net. Rochus had plenty of time to set up and hit an easy overhead just inside the deuce court sideline. So far so good. After the point, though, the linesperson on Roddick’s side of the net walked up to the chair umpire and told him that she had called Rochus’ shot out. Rochus and Martens are outraged, as is almost everyone else in the building except Roddick, who is getting an unintended and desperately needed rest.

There are a number of unbelievable things about this event. First of all, this match is in Belgium, not the United States. Why would you make such a bad call against the home team? Second, in clay court matches, players are all over any ball that even looks like it’s going out. You can be sure that Roddick would have been right there to draw a ring around the mark if there had been any question.

Third, and most puzzling of all, the chair umpire, Sune Alenkaer, didn’t overrule the call – he must have seen it just like everyone else in the house – and never left his chair to check the ball mark. All match long, whenever a player questioned a call, the chair umpire obligingly jumped out of his chair and ran over to the mark. Now, when it would have been crucial to do so, he doesn’t make a move.

The chair umpire awarded the game to the US giving Roddick a 4-2 lead in the deciding set. The Belgian players are pissed, the home crowd is stunned, and the Americans, well, they’re very quiet. They know not to look a gift-horse in the mouth.

After both players held serve, Roddick served his thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth ace to win the set and match, 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-3. With a courageous effort that included an exceptionally high number of aces on a clay court surface, Roddick managed to hang in there long enough to take advantage of an inexplicable mistake and win the tie for the USA in the longest match in Davis Cup history since the introduction of the tiebreaker.

The US team didn’t celebrate. They circled Roddick, gathered up their belongings and got off the court as fast as possible.

institutional tennis instruction

In Peter Bodo’s book, The Courts of Babylon, he describes Australia’s effort to create world class athletes by creating the Australian Institute of Sports. This was after the wave of tennis champions such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Margaret Smith-Court. Dennis Colette, a key figure in the Institute, had analyzed Ivan Lendl’s forehand and developed what he called the multi-segmented forehand, whatever that is. He decided that all of the junior tennis players would be taught this stroke. It didn’t work. As Bodo says, you can’t institutionalize tennis instruction. Why not?

I’ve been feeling elbow pain for the past few months. It comes from the way I hit my forehand. Most instructors would look at my stroke and tell me to hit the ball earlier or hold the racket more level at impact. They would try to correct my stroke to eliminate the pain I am experiencing.

I’ve been working with two different instructors who use thinking and awareness to make changes in habits. Neither one of them subscribes to the “bits and pieces” way of learning. A bits and pieces tennis instructor tries to correct your stroke or teach you a new stroke by breaking it down into smaller pieces and working on the pieces until they all come together.

Sean Brawley works with awareness to change habits. In the case of my forehand, I noticed that I often flip the racket from low to high when I want to hit a topspin forehand. I hit a number of forehands and kept my awareness on my wrist as I hit them. Over time, I noticed that I gripped the racket with a slightly tighter grip, just enough to hold the racket more steady when I make contact with the ball. Using my awareness, I was able to change the way I hit the ball without giving myself something new to think about.

My elbow also hurts because I over-rotate my hips and end up hitting the ball late. Sean asked me to hit a forehand without moving my hips at all. I just stood there and swung my arm. Then he asked me to rotate my hips but keep my feet in place. Then I hit the ball by over-rotating my hips. Somewhere in there, I hit the ball comfortably and solidly. Instead of telling me to swing more and rotate less, Sean asked me to try a few different positions and see which one feels most comfortable.

Using my awareness, I was able to change the way I hit the ball without giving myself something new to think about.

David Gorman doesn’t teach tennis exactly, he teaches learning. He works with a technique he calls Learning Methods. When someone brings him a complaint such as pain during an activity, he doesn’t look at the movement that leads to the pain, he looks at the thought that leads to the movement.

What thought led to me over-rotate my hips? I watched videos of Roger Federer and James Blake hit forehands and I saw them generate a lot of racket speed with body rotation. Since they hit with an open stance – instead of turned sideways to the net, they’re turned more towards the net – their front foot ends up further to the left than a player who hits with a closed stance. This led me to think that their hips rotated more than they do.

Apart from the fact that it’s silly for me to try to play like Roger Federer, or James Blake for that matter, I was also trying to add a piece to my stroke instead of seeing how I could get more power with the stroke I already have. Not only that, Sean would suggest that consistency and placement come before power. So I’d be much better off if I thought about where I want to ball to go on the court for the time being.

David would add that when a player is in a zone and the ball goes effortlessly where they want it to go, they’re not thinking about bringing the racket back then stepping into the ball then rotating the hips then following through. If playing in a zone means that our strokes feel integrated, then we should learn that way too.

One way to do this is to use our awareness to learn new habits instead of trying to stuff yet another new instruction into our head. If we end up with pain, then we might want to look at what we’re thinking during the activity and see if that is causing the problem.

If you want a player to develop a feel for the game, they have to learn by feel. If you try to teach everyone the same stroke, you end up with mechanical robots instead of smooth, flowing athletes. That’s why you can’t institutionalize tennis instruction.

US Open 2005: the love-in

A lot of comparisons have been made between Andre Agassi’s run in this year’s US Open at age 35 and Jimmy Connors run to the semifinals in 1991 at age 39. It’s not just the age thing. Jimmy Connors had always been respected as a tennis player but he was hardly a beloved sports figure. Crass and outright unsportsmanlike behavior could not be ignored.

I always knew that Connors had wiped out a ball mark on a clay court before the umpire could come down out of his chair and look at the mark. But I didn’t know that Connors’ ball had made the mark. This meant that he had to run all the way over to his opponent’s side of the net to erase it. The linesperson had called the ball in but Connors probably knew that he had hit it wide and he wanted to make sure the call was not overturned.

Connors was at the end of a long career in 1991. He’d survived a history of legal tussles with the tennis establishment and a host of injuries to fight and scrap his way through tough matches to get to the semis. New York loves a fighter and an entertainer and this was the final crowning of the tough American champion from the rough town of East St. Louis, Illinois.

Agassi’s struggles have been personal but no less dramatic. He survived an image problem and a confidence problem to become one of only five players to win all four grand slams. He transformed himself from a punk to a wise elder and the 2005 Open was a love-fest in celebration of Andre.

There is, however, a major difference between Connors’ era and the current version of the men’s professional tennis tour. Most of the players seem to like each other. Connors and John McEnroe respected each other but they certainly didn’t like each other and they didn’t pass time chitchatting in the locker room. You didn’t hear anything like the mutual admiration club between James Blake and Agassi after their late night, five set thriller in the this year’s semis. “I know if I were in the stands, I’d be cheering for him to. Because he’s a great champion in every sense of the word,” said Blake of Agassi.

McEnroe interviewed Roger Federer in a Manhattan sidewalk café during the Open. Federer tweaked McEnroe about the sour relations between players during McEnroe’s time on the tour. McEnroe asked Federer how he managed to remain so calm under the pressure of maintaining the number one ranking and winning grand slams. Federer replied: “I was too anxious to win. And I said, every guy who had a game which I couldn’t beat, I thought, ‘This guy is an idiot.’ And then when I became number one, I was beating the guys, I started to understand. Well, it’s not about how they play or whatever. It’s how they are in person. And in the locker room I really feel like we get along very well.”

That’s an interesting statement. It’s a repudiation of much that McEnroe stood for. Federer is not concerned about his opponents, except tactically. He not only respects them but he’s figured out that it’s not about them.

Of course, Federer doesn’t have to play against Ilie Nastase. McEnroe and Nastase once played a match at the Open in which Nastase behaved so badly that the chair umpire defaulted him. The tournament director, keeping in mind that the stars are more important than the umpire, defaulted the chair umpire and allowed the match to continue so that McEnroe could win it honestly.

Federer doesn’t throw a tantrum with the hope of unsettling his opponent if the match is not going his way. Neither does Blake, Agassi or any current player except maybe Lleyton Hewitt or Guillermo Coria.

It’s not a popular sport, at least not in the U.S. Does this mean that we need tennis players who act like professional wrestlers before people will tune in or turn up at tournaments?

This is an unusually harmonious time in professional tennis. The doubles players are unhappy because the ATP is trying to phase them out but there isn’t a rogue group of players trying to start up their own league and very few players get defaulted. I’d like to say that this is a good thing except that tennis continues to be mired in a long slump. It’s not a popular sport, at least not in the U.S. Does this mean that we need tennis players who act like professional wrestlers before people will tune in or turn up at tournaments?

Golf has the most similar fan base to tennis meaning that it fights for the same advertisers. But look at the golf tour. Its popularity is at an all time high. Put Tiger Woods on television on a Sunday afternoon within striking distance of the leader and you’re guaranteed a good rating. Yet there’s nothing controversial about Tiger Woods’ behavior. He has a temper but he’s hardly crass. He probably doesn’t say much to Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh in the locker room but he also doesn’t run over and kick their balls off the fairway. He’s not even a good interview. Ever since a journalist printed his off color comments in a GQ article early in his career, Woods has kept his personality under wraps.

So we don’t need Hulk Hogan or Goldberg to pick up a tennis racket. But we could use an honest-to-God rivalry and it would help if one of the rivals was a colorful American.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to be satisfied with soaking up the love and watching exemplary tennis. Could be worse.

Roger Federer: Enough Grace To Go Around

A small but stunningly precious moment occurred at the end of the Roger Federer-Nicholas Kiefer match midway through the recent U.S. Open. Kiefer is a player who has bothered Roger over the years. He has something of an all-court game too, and he knows how to pick it up at key points and get under Roger’s skin. He even managed on this day to get a set off of Roger. But he still lost.

As Roger was being interviewed on court at the end of the match, he stopped suddenly right in the middle. “There goes Nicholas,” he said, taking a moment to turn so that the camera could see and follow his glance as Kiefer left the field of battle. Roger wanted to make sure that his opponent would be acknowledged too for putting up a pretty decent fight.

I do not ever recall seeing a player do this before. To give up any amount of that precious post-game spotlight to honor your opponent is, well, pretty amazing. Tennis is these days a fierce battle of egos as well as play styles and corporate sponsors. That anyone has time – and inclination – to do what Roger Federer did is rather out of the ordinary.

Who says graciousness and cordiality is absent from the tennis courts these days?

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