Monthly Archives: September 2009

Grieving Through Tennis

Some items in the sports section look pretty frivolous compared to the civil wars and natural disasters in the world news section or the health care debate in the U.S. news section. But I often find sports burrowing itself very deeply into my life. Recently I’ve used sports as a tool for grieving.

Many people in my life have died in the past few years and the grieving has profoundly affected my day-to-day life. The major disturbance was a sleep disorder. I’d go to sleep just fine but I’d wake up in the middle of the night and that was it, I’d be awake for the rest of the night.

My yoga teacher suggested I have conversations with people who’d died because it doesn’t matter how old someone is when they die, or whether someone died unexpectedly or not, you always have unfinished business with them. But I couldn’t get into it. I’m a poor actor I guess.

Luckily life gives you situations in the present that allow you to resolve painful experiences from the past.

The nights before I played tennis, I couldn’t sleep at all. Especially nights before my Friday tennis group. I’d played with them for seven years but recently the leader of the group, who’d always been very inclusive, started sending weaker players off to other courts while he played with the best players.

The weaker group now included me because it’s pretty hard to run around the court on no sleep. I confronted the leader about his behavior but he acted as if nothing had changed. My father behaved in much the same way. He wasn’t big on discussion. When I’d visited him in New York City in the 1970s, he called his friend in Rome to complain that I was wearing pants (instead of a skirt) rather than say something directly to me.

The leader of the Friday group had taught me a lot about tennis and he was something of a father figure. It was painful but I told him I wouldn’t play with him until his inclusive ways returned then siphoned off part of the group to play elsewhere. My father was dead but tangling with a father figure in the present helped me resolve some of my frustration towards my long gone father and sleep returned.

Well, some of it returned. I had trouble sleeping before my Wednesday tennis game and for help with that I went, again, to my yoga teacher. He asked me to think about how wonderful I’d feel when I reached my tennis goal of a 4.5 ranking and I immediately burst into tears. All I could think about was calling up my friend Billy and screaming out my supreme delight at finally having reached my goal.

Except that Billy probably wouldn’t have answered the phone. He isn’t among the recently dead but he’s fallen into a deep depression and while he manages to take care of himself, he’s essentially a hermit. I had to transfer my possible celebration elsewhere so I asked two tennis friends if they’d throw a small party for me if and when I reached my goal.

It won’t be the celebration I was looking forward to but it was enough to restore my sleep and, who knows, maybe some day Billy will answer the phone.

Serena’s Outburst: A Few Questions

[Correction appended]

I’m off to a U.S. Open costume party (I’m going as Elton John complete with stacked silver heels, rhinestone studded glasses and my Mo Connelly wooden racket, image to follow later), but first I have a few questions for you about Serena’s outburst at the U.S. Open (see above):

  1. Will foot faults be reviewable before there’s a roof on Arthur Ashe stadium?
  2. While a foot fault is not as important as a line call, is there any reason a foot fault should not be called on an important point?
  3. Should foot faults be eliminated?
  4. Has there been an increase in foot fault calls in the past year or so or is it just me?
  5. Have you ever seen a line judge approach the chair umpire and complain about a player’s behavior before?
  6. Do you think a line judge at one of the other three (non U.S.) slams would have approached the chair umpire?
  7. Would the chair umpire have given Serena the point penalty that ended the match if the line judge had not approached the chair?
  8. Should Serena have lost the match for her outburst?

Let’s hear it.

[Correction: One should never put up a post in the middle of dressing up like Elton John, it’s too distracting. Apparently the line judge was called by the chair umpire so questions 5-7 are are irrelevant. As for the other questions, please weight in.]

Murray and Clijsters: Living With Expectations at the U.S. Open

Murray Struggles Against Cilic At US Open

My, my, my, Marin Cilic has taken out Andy Murray in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open and it wasn’t close. On the flip side, Kim Clijsters beat Li Na in the quarterfinals and that wasn’t close either. What do I mean by flip side? Murray had tons of expectations and Clijsters very few.

Clijsters was famous for being “the best player never to have won a slam” before winning the 2005 U.S. Open then retiring in the spring of 2007. And now she’s managed to do something that is very rare: create a low pressure situation for a seasoned professional. She did it by leaving the tour for two years then returning with a kid in tow. When I twitted this theory, ESPN’s Bonnie D. Ford responded by pointing out that Clijsters did choose to come back in the heart of the U.S. Open Series. True, but all the more reason for expectations to be lower.

Murray may have an excuse. He might have a wrist injury. We won’t really know until he comes out with his second (and counting) memoir in which he might reveal that his wrist was killing him by way of explaining how it took him so long to win his first slam. Anything but the pressure. For example, look at this exchange after he lost to Cilic:

Q. There were some people that were picking you to win this tournament coming in. Did you ever feel any pressure or expectations on you?
ANDY MURRAY: No. I put pressure on myself to win the tournaments. I mean, it’s nice to hear sometimes from the other players or, you know, ex players, but it doesn’t really make a difference to who win who wins or loses the tournament. They’re not out there on the court with you, so it doesn’t make any difference.

No genuine pretender to the crown admits to injury or weakness under pressure and that may be part of Dinara Safina’s problem. I can’t remember the last time any player was under such pressure to win a slam and while it’s not nice to blame the victim, she does feed the frenzy by repeatedly discussing her mental weaknesses as she did again this weak:

I go to the court with so much that I want to win, and I put so much tension in it, I guess, not to lose, and that’s why I’m not playing relaxed, instead of just going out there and just play, let it go. I can’t control when I lose but, come on, do your thing. But I’m in too much not to lose a match. It’s blocking me.

Safina’s main source of pressure, Serena Williams, has little pressure herself. She has now won three of the last four slams and absolutely nothing in between. She’s the anti-Dinara. By the way, has anyone ever done that before? Pete Sampras didn’t win anything in the two years between his 2000 Wimbledon title and his 2002 U.S. Open title. That’s the best I’ve got. Anyone got anything else?

In the parallel realm of U.S. Open pressure, here are few ratings. Feel free to add your own:

  1. Roger Federer: Hasn’t had this little pressure since he was hitting gorgeous backhands as a 12-year-old at Old Boys Tennis Club in Basel. He’s already passed Pete Sampra with 15 slams, he’s got the career slam, and he has the built in excuse of tiny twins to distract his attention and keep him up all night.
  2. Juan Martin Del Potro: He’s only 20 years old, he didn’t really emerge until last year, he’s still growing into his body… Medium pressure.
  3. Melanie Oudin: She beat Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova to reach the quarterfinals. Anything past the first round is unexpected for her. Negative pressure, meaning less than zero.
  4. Rafael Nadal: It’s a curious thing now that I think about it but I seldom think of pressure affecting Nadal. His attitude is so humble and his media responses are so measured that we know very little about what goes on in his mind. I’m inclined to believe what he said after beating Gael Monfils today and taking back the number two ranking from Murray: “I say it every day. I am here just to try my best.” Boring but true and, incidentally, probably the healthiest attitude out there.