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Finding Roger Federer Meltdown footage on YouTube is like finding a seat on the Number 4 Lexington Avenue subway at 9:30 in the morning. [Non-New Yorkers, take note: it's rare.] The Greatest of All Time usually deals with blown shots by dragging his middle finger across his forehead and tucking his hair behind his ear. Not this time. This was a semi-final match with Novak Djokovic at the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Florida. Djokovic just broke Fed in the third and deciding set and was up 15-0 when the Greatest of All Time took his eyes off a routine approach shot that could have evened the score. Federer went through lots of racquets when he was playing the junior circuit; wonder if he felt a little wave of nostalgia upon banging this one hard into the court.

On the Sideline
Wednesday
Jun182014

Gone Fishin'

Well, no, not really.  I don't know how to fish.  But I Hate Tennis is taking an injury time-out to put some Ben Gay on my temples and re-string my thoughts.  

Look for I Hate Tennis Even More, coming as the tour wraps up this fall.  Or maybe when it starts at the Australian Open in 2015.  Depends on how quickly the Ben-Gay works its magic.

I leave you with this bit of Tennis Hate: a tennis ball, found stuffed in the grate in SoHo, corner of Prince and Thompson.

 

Sunday
Jun152014

Meltdown of the Moment: Vintage Andy Roddick

One year after winning the US Open as a junior, Andy Roddick has his first major US Open meltdown as a pro during his thisclose 2001 US Open quarterfinal against Lleyton Hewitt.  Roddick was serving to stay in it, at 4-5 in the fifth set. Momentum was on his side.  He'd won the first set in a tiebreak, 7-6, lost the second and third and then regrouped to snatch the fourth set from Hewie at 6-3.   

That look. I know it well. Andy Roddick tries to control his Tennis Hate after a bad overrule from the US Open chair ump in his 2001 quarterfinal against Lleyton Hewitt.I appreciate the look on Roddick's face as he tries to corral all the Tennis Hate he sent galloping around Arthur Ashe stadium.  He takes a big breath and tries to settle himself.  It reminds me of Coach Al, saying to me, "don't get excited.  Get composed before you serve."  

Hewitt, meanwhile, is fiddling with his strings while his squeeze at the time, one of my favorite players, Kim Cjisters, keeps her game face on.  Roddick makes several unforced errors to give Hewitt the break, the set and the match.  The 20-year-old from Australia went on to win the US Open, his first of two Grand Slam titles (He won Wimby the next year).

Roddick got his turn to hoist the trophy at Arthur Ashe Stadium two years later, in 2003.  It would be his only Grand Slam title.  

I can't embed the video.  Click on the link.  It's worth a watch, just to see how the two young guns handled the pressure.  And to see how young they were.  I forget that these tennis pros, especially the ones we're talking about now -- Sloane Stephens, Milos Raonic, Francis Tiafoe -- are barely at legal drinking age.  

 

Tuesday
Jun102014

Second Set Walkabout

I've heard commentators -- I think it's ESPN's Patrick McEnroe -- talk about players going on "walkabout" for a game or a set.  Often the comment is directed at Andy Murray, who, pre-Ivan Lendl, used to become curiously passive in the middle of a set.  I don't know how his new coach, Amelie Maursemo, is going to help there, as she was known to lose her nerve aplenty during her time on the tour.

Still able to smile after getting bageled in the second set by Worthy Opponent Ting. Must've been the thought of bagels.... But why focus on the pros when I've got my own experience vanishing during a match? The most recent was Friday's USTA league match against Worthy Opponent Ting at the National Tennis Center in Queens.

I did my pre-match mental warmup, reminding myself that I get excited -- not nervous! -- when I play matches and that I love to compete more than I love to win.  I also reminded myself that I get to every ball, but in Tennis Story 2.0, I added, "and I make the appropriate shot when I get to it."  

Too many times in my last match I got to the ball, all right, only to sky it or slap it into the net.  

My story started to waver when I saw Ting hit.  She hit with pace.  She could pull off shots in either corner at the last minute, leaving me stranded in mid split-step in the middle of the baseline.  She scurried up to the ball, racquet back, and smacked it.  Note to self: She gets to every ball and hits the appropriate shot, too. 

Hmmm.  What to do?

I noticed her serve was her weakest shot, and I worked  to make the most of my returns.  I focused on hitting down the line, to take away her ability to just sit there and wait for my slow ball to roll into her strike zone.  And I put some spin on my serve, to make it a little less predictable.

 I stood there and watched to see if it was going in.  I should have been watching Ting.

Ack, mein serve.  I pushed a lot of first serves into the net.  I could not find the height I needed on my toss without sending it way over my head.  I double faulted, and handed Ting the first set, 6-4.

And then I forked over the second set, too, gift-wrapped at 6-0.  

Haters, what happened to me?  And how can I save you from the same fate?

Well, my serve didn't just head south...it blew past Coney Island and went all the way to Australia.  I could not control my toss and felt like a white dude at a wedding reception, unable to find a rhythm.  I was no longer seeing the hit.  Worse, I became a spectator of my own serve.  I stood there and watched to see if it was going in.  I should have been watching Ting.  She was setting up and hammering return winners that caught me flat-footed.  

Call it a walkabout, a letdown, a lapse.  It happens a lot in sport.  You stop competing, stop trying to solve the puzzle that is your opponent, and start THINKING.  

Golfer and Caroline Wozniacki dumper Rory McIlroy apparently goes on walkabout a lot in the golf course of his mind.  McIlroy, a favorite to win ths week's US Open, mentally checked out of the Masters, shooting 71 in his first round, then 77 in the second.  Last week, during the Jack Nicklaus Memorial, he opened with 63, then drooped in the second round, finishing with a 78.

"I think I'm first in scoring average on the PGA Tour on day one.  And I'm like 181st on the second day," he said in a Daily News article.   "I don't know if it's because I've got off to such good starts in tournaments where I may be thinking too much about my score, and I'm up early the leaderboard and I might be trying to push too much and keep it going."

Thinking too much, Haters, about the wrong things.  That's walkabout.  My feet are blistered.

Thursday
May292014

I Actually Enjoyed Myself

Haters, I played my first league match of the season, and I didn't throw up.  I didn't throw a tantrum.  I didn't lose.  And I didn't cry.

I actually enjoyed myself.

Worthy Opponent Lori and I celebrate our awesome tie at the USTA National Tennis Center in Queens.That was my goal.  The fact that my USTA women's 3.0 Queens league match with Worthy Opponent Lori ended in a tie, with me winning the first set, 6-4, and Lori to serve for the second set at 5-3, was an afterthought. Maybe it shouldn't have been.  Perhaps I should have really buckled down and made holding my serve in that eighth game my brass ring, but I was too busy focusing on more important matters, like breathing.

My goals were simple.  Stay calm, see the hit, get to every ball

Seriously, have you ever paid attention to your breath in the middle of a match?  I found I hold mine throughout the point.  No wonder I get tight.  Even my lungs are clenched.

I started the match on the way there, repeating to myself in the car my Tennis Story:

 

  • I get to every ball.  
  • I improve every time I play.  
  • I play with confidence and gusto. 
  • I relish testing my limits and seeing if I can expand them. 
  • I am a Worthy Opponent, respecting my opponent and the game through a positive attitude and good sportsmanship.  
  • I love to compete more than I love to win.

 Yes, Haters, repeat after me: I love to compete more than I love to win.

I was so nervous.  I was filled with dread.  Tennis Hate was yammering away in my head.  I haven't practiced enough.  I don't have a put-away shot.  I shouldn't play in a league until I'm really good.  I'm going to let my teammates down!

I sat in the car for ten minutes, breathing nice big belly breaths, the kind I often don't take because, well, it's just wrong to deliberately push OUT what you've been spending a lifetime sucking IN.  I remembered another part of my story: I convert nervous energy into excitement.  I'm excited every time I take the court.  I thought of Rafael Nadal, jumping around at the net during the coin toss, doing that zig-zag sprint back to the baseline to start the warm-up.  He wants to play.  I was wanting to hide.

By the time my fellow Ball Busters walked onto our assigned courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with the iron smell of rain in the air, I was calm.  I thought of how cool it was to be playing on Court 8, the same court that the top tennis players in the world will be sweating and grunting on in a few weeks.  During last year's US Open, Court 8 hosted Simona Halep, Roberta Vinci and Daniela Hantuchova.

I was cheered by the exclusive welcome extended to me and my profession by the court itself: Media Only.  The message was spray-painted on the court surface at the gate.  

They knew I was coming, so they sprayed a gate. Photo: yours truly.My goals were simple.  Stay calm, see the hit, get to every ball.  I caught myself at times wishing it were over, wishing I was home watching somebody else putting it all out there on the court.  I didn't want to face this pressure.  It reminded me of practicing zazen, Zen sitting meditation, where you sit on a cushion looking at a white wall and counting your breath to three, over and over, fighting off the urge to leap up and demand that somebody turn on a TV to The Housewives of Orange County.  

Tennis is my practice, I thought, standing there on the baseline, getting ready to receive Lori's serve. This is my Zen, my spiritual practice.  I live every moment fully.  I want this moment to go on and on and on, because it's the only one I am living.

I got jammed up when I became a spectator of my own game.  I noticed my Worthy Opponent was winning with cross-court forehand angles near the service line of the deuce court, so I started defending against them by putting more shots to her backhand.  I saw that I was putting a lot of balls short.  She gobbled many of them up, hitting short, angled winners to whichever side she wanted.  Lori made it look easy, like it wasn't tennis. I tried to adjust, and got a few more balls back deep, including some that bounced high and gave her trouble.

 I told myself, I love these pressure points.  These are the sweetest moments of the match. 

My best moments were when I came to net.  I move up to net about 3 or 4 times, not much, but enough to be a big deal for me.  When I got there, I won the point. My biggest triumph was when I went against my deeply-held sense of fair play and courtesy, and hit a forehand volley winner for the break at 15-40, deep into the opposite corner, away from my Worthy Opponent.  I had to stop myself from apologizing: Sorry, Lori, I forgot, I usually hit those back TO you. Oops.  

Oh, yes, service breaks.  Lori and I played it just like some of the pros of the WTA, trading them like cards in a game of Old Maid.  I didn't hold until my third service game in the first set.  Then, the next game, I broke her! Wow!  Then she broke me back!  Shit!  Then I broke her with the aforementioned put-away volley winner.  YAY! And then -- let loose the pigeons -- I held serve at 40-30 to take the first set, 6-4.  

I was pushed to deuce many times during my service games.  I told myself, I love these pressure points.  These are the sweetest moments of the match.  I love facing break points, because I get to see what I'm made of. Lori and I must have reached deuce about 6 times in the second set, me serving at 2-3.  She ended up breaking me, but, Haters, I didn't fizz into a fury.  Instead, I thought, I fought off 3 or 4 break points in that game. Cool.

And then I broke her back.  

I didn't consolidate the break, though.  As was our way on this night, Lori, my Worthy Opponent, broke me back, easily, 0-40.  She was to serve for the set at 5-3 when it was time to stop.   We had been playing for two hours.

In the end, my story came true.  I got to most every ball.  Now, I have to add to my story a clause that says, "and I hit the appropriate shot once I get to it."  I stayed calm.  And, the happiest ending of all, I loved competing on this night more than I loved winning that first set.  

Wednesday
May282014

French Open: Serena, Defending Champ, Ousted in 2nd Round

If there's any reason for women's world number one Serena Williams to succumb to Tennis Hate, retire and open her own nail salon, it was her listless, straight-set loss to unseeded Garbine Muguruza.  It took just over an hour, 64 minutes, for the 35th seeded 20-year-old from Spain to demolish the defending champ.

Winning just four games against the 35th seed leaves a sour taste in Serena's mouth. Photo, me.Williams won just four games in the entire match.  That's not like her.  She couldn't find any rhythm on her serve, winning just 55 percent of her points on her first serve.  Her second serve point percentage was in the basement, 27 percent, compared to Muguruza's 68 percent.  The vaunted slugger hit only 8 winners.  EIGHT.  That's one for every other game.  That's just not like her.

Serena's Tennis Hate was visible on the court, according to The Guardian:

She moved sluggishly throughout and, although fighting to the end, was clearly distraught at her inability to keep the ball in play and racked up 28 unforced errors. At one point in the penultimate game, she shook visibly before serving and seemed on the point of collapse, but she gathered her composure to finish.

Finish the game, but not the tournament.  Muguruza made sure of that.  

"It’s amazing,” Muguruza said of her victory over Williams, by far the biggest win of her young career.  It's her sixth Grand Slam ever and only her second appearance at Roland Garros.  “I didn’t expect that. But I played very, very good. I am really happy. My plan was to be very aggressive and I think I did it very well."

Moment of victory: Muguruza in disbelief as world number one dumps a match point return into the net. Photo, me.Williams, who had to withdraw from Madrid earlier this season because of left thigh trouble, said nothing was physically wrong with her.  A journalist pressed her on this point, saying she had overheard Williams muttering that she couldn't serve.

"No, I just couldn't serve," Serena said, in a rare, publicly critical self-assessment.  She never talks about her game like that.   It's just not like her.  

"It was one of those days, you can't be on every day," Serena said.  "Gosh, I hate to be off during a Grand Slam, but it happens.  It's not the end of the world.  It is what it is."

"I honestly never saw her play like this," Williams said of her opponent.  "We'll see if she can keep it up."

Ahhhh.  That's my girl.  Show me some of your characteristic bravado.  That means you're on your way back from this super ugly loss.

But Williams said something different to Muguruza at the net, when it was all over.  "She said, if I continue to play like this, I could win the tournament," Garbine told reporters in her post-match interview.  

Muguruza's mug shows nothing but pride and pleasure. Photo, moi.She'll play Anna Schmiedlova, another unknown, who triumphed in three sets over Williams' sister, Venus, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.  

Just to keep the American Tennis Hate going, Sam Querry is also simmering on the sidelines.  The 26-year-old, who's been struggling to regain the confidence and form that had him as high as 17th in the world in 2011, lost to 31-year-old veteran Dmitry Tursenov, 6-4, 7-5, 6-1.  

Every picture tells a story, and this one sums up Serena's match. In control of the point, she dumps an overhead into the net. Photo, moi.