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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
Monday
May192014

A User's Manual of the Mind

Imagine if you could just turn the volume down on your Tennis Hate.  Imagine if you could reach up to your forehead -- or maybe have your doubles partner do it -- and turn a knob, the one that's over your third eye, to silence that voice that's hissing like a tea kettle, "That shot sucked, you've got the worst forehand in the league, you are never going to succeed at this sport, go take up basketweaving, it suits you better." 

My Tennis Hate is at 11 dB. One louder. Photo, artistry: Me.

Worthy Pro Jeff Greenwald wants us Tennis Haters to do just that when we're playing, to think about dials instead of how sucky and freaked out we are that we're blowing easy volleys.  Rather than standing at the service line, thinking of how I'm serving, 0-5, his "mental game changer" method would have me think of a different set of numbers, ones that indicate the level I'm playing at when it comes to intensity, looseness and focus.

"You don't try to relax," he told me in a recent telephone interview from his base in Marin County, California.  "That doesn't work."

Haters, don't we know this to be true?  The more I tell myself to relax, the more I tighten up.  I have whiffed plenty of shots, especially second serve returns, immediately after exhorting myself to focus on this next shot, get this next shot, nail it.  My tennis game is like a 16-year-old.  The more I command it to be a certain way, the more it rebels and does exactly the opposite.

Imagine if you could reach up to your forehead -- or maybe have your doubls partner do it -- and turn a knob to silence that voice that's hissing like a tea kettle, "You Hate Tennis."

Greenwald, a former touring pro, a national and international senior circuit world number one, sports psychology consultant and licensed therapist, has a two-hour downloadable Tennis Hate reduction method called, "Play Out of Your Mind: The Mental Game Changer." It combines some of the stress reduction strategies he outlined ten years ago in his audio course, Fearless Tennis, with his recent work with performance "dials." 

Jeff Greenwald: Feet Intensity, 8; Looseness, 4: Focusing cue, stay down. Photo: Jeff Greenwald.The work begins, Greenwald said, with becoming aware of what's going on in your body and your head on the court and accepting it.  Yes, Haters, embrace the Hate.  It's what I've been encouraging you to do all along!

"The first thing is accepting the reality of the moment, and that offers you options and perspective," he said. Acceptance begins with awareness.  Greenwald advises scanning your body for tension, and just noticing it.  That's all. Hello, my neck feels like rebar and my service arm feels like a 2x4.

 I remember working with Greenwald on this at the US Tennis Congress last fall.  He had me and several other participants do this mental scan before serving or returning serve.  "Just observe how you're feeling, where your muscles are tight, don't try to relax them," he instructed.  "Now, think about your feet.  Notice your toes, wiggle them around in your shoes." I fluttered my toes, noticing how sweaty they were.  Yuck.  

Uh oh, a judgmental thought.  Okay, Amy, so they're sweaty.  Duly noted, let's move on.... 

"Now bring your attention to the ball," he told us.  He was giving us a pathway, a trail of breadcrumbs, out of our heads, into our bodies and back onto the court.

With Play Out of Your Mind, he offers additional tools to get Tennis Haters into their optimum performance state while in the middle of the on court drama.  After becoming aware of the tension I'm holding in my body, and accepting it, I can now take a course of action to dial up....or down....a deeper level of Focus, Looseness and Intensity.

"Say that you are at an 8," Greenwald said about Looseness.  "You're really nervous, really tight." (Man, I'm this way even in practice, let alone matches.)  "If you can go from 8 to 6, you have good chance to win the match."

He offers a PDF file with his audio course with tips on how to find and drill with this concept of dials and numbers.

Hit down the middle with low tension (1) and move up scale to (10), spending 30 seconds or 1 to 2 good rallies to connect level of tension with ball striking.  Stop after you reach (6) on the dial to see/assess and observe tension level. Discuss with partner or coach.

During the Tennis Congress, Jeff had us start with a level of 8.  Some in the group started really nailing the ball well, interpreting Greenwald's instructions as Intensity rather than Looseness or tension.  "I want you to think of how your body feels when you're really tense and scared on court, really nervous."  

 Crank 'em up. Or down, depending. From Jeff Greenwald's Play Out of Your Mind's Quick Start Guide.

Oh, that dial!  My buddies and I started recalibrating.  I tensed my arm up as hard as I could, pulled my shoulders up toward my ears, where they usually reside, clenched my jaw.  You know, my natural on court state.  I couldn't clear the net.  My fellow Congressmembers were getting the same, pushy results.

Greenwald congratulated us on how tight we were.  "Those are great 8's," he said.  Now he had us dial it down to a 2 or 3.  "What does that feel like?  What's your 3?"  

It took a few passes before I could hone in on the feeling.  I wanted to go all spaghetti, but you can't hit a ball that way.  There has to be some flexing of the muscles of the shoulder, arm and wrist as it pulls the racquet into the ball.  But there it was, a feeling of release, of flow, an uncharacteristic smoothness and fluidity to my forehand that I savored in the experiencing of it.  I couldn't wait to hit the ball again.  It was pleasurable.  It was clean and unobstructed by mental chatter or extra, unnecessary clenching. My balls sailed easy and deep into the opposite court.  

Wow.

But my Tennis Hate immediately seizes on a conundrum: How do you play Loose without playing Careless?  How do you play with Intensity while staying Loose?  I'm a Type A overdrive kind of player.  I've told myself, in the midst of a match, when I'm losing and wanting to cry or smash my racquet or just check out, let them win, who cares, thinking that that will take off the pressure.  Thinking that that's "letting go" and being "loose."

No, that's playing LOSE.

"You're hitting the heart of the challenge for many," Greenwald told me.  "You're thinking that the solution is by not caring.  You need to care a little bit about winning and losing…but not so much."

Greenwald says the performance states of careless, carefee and careful are on a continuum.  "You don't want to play careful."  That'd be playing at a (10) on your Looseness dial.  "You don't want to play careless, reckless." That'd be, perhaps, a 1 on the Intensity dial.  "You want to find a way to be more carefree, carefree about the results [of a match or a point], which we only have partial control over, anyhow."  

He said working with his dials of Intensity, Focus and Looseness, identifying what my optmium settings are, and learning to conceptualize getting to those levels while in the thick of things in a match, will help me inch further along the path toward...well, if not Rafa Nadal-like mental toughness, then improvement.  One less expletive rant after my forehand down the line sails long...so long, it's over the chain link fence and into the neighboring softball field at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds.

"The best in the game, they want to win badly," Greenwald said of the pros.  "Rafa wants the ninth French Open title, they want it as bad as anybody else, or more." But rather than focus on a result that is not in their control, Greenwald said the pros have learned how to shift their attention away from results and onto their optimum performance state.  Their own little forehead dials.  

Nobody gives us a user's manual of our mind."

"Rafa takes a freezing shower to get out of his head," Greenwald said.  "[The pros] are like a finely-tuned instrument.  Their anxiety is not so much about losing the match as it is performing less than they can and being in a state that they know won't contribute to best tennis. It's the difference between wanting a particular state or winning or losing that match."

His hope for Play Out of Your Mind is to help Tennis Haters like me find that performance state more often.

"Nobody gives us a user's manual of our mind," he said.  "I have made a great effort to take what we all experience at every level and be as human and practical in remembering how the brain works [as possible], to give people tools where they can adjust what's happening in the moment in an effective way. The zone happens two times a year, or whatever.  Mostly, what we're trying to do is have our worst day be better and our best day happen more often.  I think these dials speak to the experience we all have and can help."

 

Wednesday
May142014

A Roland Garros Umbrella Sighting: It Must Be Spring

Better than the flowering pink trees, better than sandals and short sleeves. -- a Roland Garros umbrella! Proof of Tennis Love and springtime, after a long, crusty winter. Bring on the May showers, I wanna see more French Open rain gear.

Saturday
May102014

Madrid: Nishikori Beats Ferrer, Wooden Arm, to Reach Final vs. Nadal

It was painful to watch Kei Nishikori claw out his 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-3 upset of David Ferrer, heart-clutchingly so.  I can still feel the tension in my chest, long after Nishikori's exhausted, relieved walk to the net to shake Ferrer's hand.

For Nishikori, it was the agony of victory at Madrid. Photo: yours truly.

That final game in the third set?  It lasted more than seventeen minutes.  Nishikori, serving for the match, had had a match point when serving 5-4 in the second set. But a blown call erased that opportunity, and here Kei was, in the ninth game of the third set, with another chance.  And another.  And another.

The look of Tennis Hate leaving the body of Kei Nishikori. Photo, mine.

It all started with match point #2 for Nishikori at 40-0.  The kid kept stoning the ball into the net.  The 24-year-old from Japan, who had been so fearless and aggressive, now had a right arm that you could light for kindling, it was so wooden and dead.  He blows all three match points, to the increasing delight of the crowd.  

Now I'm hurting because I lost a really tough match."

Fast forward to match point #7, when I start taking notes.  Nishikori drives a forehand into Ferrer's backhand, a pattern he was working throughout the match, but there's no topspin and he pushes it long.  

During the deuce point, Kei seemed to relax into what turned out to be a 33-shot rally with Fancy Feet Ferrer, who was scurrying back and forth along the baseline like the needle of a metronome set to presto.  But Kei's coffin arm blew a forehand down the line wide, and it was break point #3 for Ferrer.  The Spaniard was shouting with delight at every mistake Nishikori made.  The partisan crowd in Madrid was applauding the Japanese player's double faults.  I admired how cool Nishikori was being, how slowly and deliberately he set up for his next serve.

BAM.  Down the T in the ad court for an ace. Where'd he been hiding that shot?  They were sorely needed, those easy points, because every time Nishikori got into a rally with Ferrer, he was hitting unforced errors.  Here he was, at deuce again, and again, he pushed it long to Ferrer's backhand, setting up break point #4.

Another clutch serve from Nishikori draws a high, loopy return from Ferrer, one that barely drops outside the baseline.  Ferrer was now catching Tennis Hate, shouting at retired Spanish clay court great Carlos Moya and others in his box.  Carlos, we're Spanish, we're in Spain, we're in Madrid, even, home of bullfighting and the Spanish Inquisition, we're born with red clay on our feet.  So, tell me, why isn't Nishikori folding like origami!?

Ferrer's backhand errors cost him aplenty against Nishikori. Photo, courtesy newsobserver.com. It goes on like this, Ferrer hitting backhands long to ruin break point opportunities, Nishikori blowing match points because he's slowly turning into a tree, rooted to the red clay, moving his right arm like a branch in the wind.  

On match point #10, he hit several rally balls into Ferrer's backhand, finally inducing Ferrer to go wide crosscourt. There was no fist pump of triumph from Nishikori.  He threw his head back and winced.  It took a few moments before he even mustered a smile.  Pinocchio was turning back into a boy.

Nishikori has reached his first final in Madrid, an achievement that will move him to Number 9 in the world when next week's rankings come out.  He's the first Japanese player to hit the top ten. If he beats two-time defending champion Rafael Nadal -- and that's a big if, because he's 0-6 against Rafa -- it'll be his second clay-court title.  He won Barcelona two weeks ago.  

 

Lessons learned watching Nishikori?  Stay calm.  Be deliberate and focused in your between-points routine. Nishikori took deep breaths and wiped his mind clean.  His eyes, his face, betrayed no sense of panic, though I know his stomach must've been churning like a hamster wheel.  Whatever he was thinking, he wasn't verbalizing it or externalizing it in any way except in his unforced errors.  He didn't pile on.

Lesson learned from Ferrer?  Time heals all wounds, even this one.

"Now I'm hurting because I've lost a really tough match," said Ferrer. "Tomorrow I'll see it another way. I'll be more positive. Not because I've been there, because I made to the to the semi-finals and had good feelings here. It hurts me not being able to be in the final tomorrow."

Thursday
May082014

Agassi: Nadal is Greatest of All Time

Eight-time Slam winner and tennis Hall of Famer Andre Agassi threw another log on the fire in the long-smoldering debate over who is the greatest tennis player of all time, siding with those in the Vamos Rafa camp.

Speaking to Singapore's New Straits Times, he said he'd put Federer in the Number Two spot.  Is it even worth it, to be spoken about as ONE OF the greats? Can greatness settle for sloppy seconds? Or does Tennis Hate muck up the discourse with its need to be right?

Agassi is basing his rankings criteria on the quality of the competition they've faced, and not just on trophies collected and Grand Slam titles accrued.  In that department, Federer leads Nadal, 17 to 13.  But five of Fed's 17 Slams were won between 2003 and 2005, before Rafa started finding his form and his way into the second week of major tournaments.  It was in 2005, in the semifinals at Roland Garros, when Federer and Nadal met for the first time in a Slam.  Rafa went on to win that match, and the championship agains Mariano Puerta of Argentina, to take his first of eight French Opens and the crown as King of Clay. 

Fed, wiping off sweat during Indian Wells in March, where Novak Djokovic snapped his 11-match winning streak and beat him in the final. Courtesy AP.

"Federer separated himself from the field for four years," said Agassi.  "He separated himself from (Andy) Roddick and (Lleyton) Hewitt.  Nadal had to deal with Federer, (Novak) Djokovic, (Andy) Murray in the golden age of tennis. He has done what he has done and he’s not done yet.”

Whose side am I on in this debate, Haters?  I have to agree, grudgingly, with Agassi.  I say grudgingly, because I love Fed's game, his class, his all-court style, his effortless effort, his footwork.  But Nadal is smarter in competition, more mentally tough. He has not only beaten Fed, Nole, Andy, he's done so after coming back from big physical set backs, like the knee injury that had him laid up for seven months in the latter half of the 2012 season.  

Whose side are you on in this debate?

Remember that streak, Haters? Most other players - think Andy Murray right now with his back injury -- take a while to find their form.  Not Nadal. He finaled in his first tournament back, at Vina del Mar, then went on a tear, winning 22 consecutive matches and picking up titles like girls at Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break: Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Indian Wells.  Ten in all, out of a career-high 14 finals, including victories over Federer in the final in Rome, the quarters in Cincinnati and the semis in London.

That's amazing resilience.  That's Greatest Of All Time kind of mental tenancity and confidence.  

Is he writing in shorthand, GOAT? Rafa, in Madrid, signing autographs. Courtesy AP.

Sunday
May042014

Madrid: Does Nadal Believe He Can Win?

We all know Rafael Nadal, number one in the world, King of Clay and all that, can and should win in Madrid.  He's won it the last two years.  He's 302-23 on clay, what Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal rightly described as "absurd." So why is everyone worried?

Rafael Nadal in a rare moment of defeat with David Ferrer. Ferrer is now 6-27 against Rafa.

Perrotta's article is titled "This Isn't the Nadal We All Know."  On the ATP's website, it's "Nadal Hoping to Banish Doubts in Madrid."  Over at Grantland, Louisa Thomas writes about Rafa's "Land of Nod," as in, nodding off, like he's in the midst of a bad dream and needs to brush off the cobwebs like he knocks the red clay out of the soles of his shoes before serving.

That's because Nadal is heading into Madrid having lost in the quarterfinals of the last two clay court tournaments he's been in, to guys he's routinely beaten.  

Here's how Perrotta sets up the conundrum:

The first defeat came against David Ferrer in Monte Carlo (where Nadal has won eight titles). Nadal had previously beaten Ferrer 17 straight times on clay. Then, last week in Barcelona, where Nadal had won eight titles and 41 consecutive matches dating back to 2005, he lost to Nicolás Almagro, who had never beaten Nadal in his career.

To those of us long accustomed to the logic of Nadal + Clay Court = Victory, just like 1 + 1 = 2, this New Math answer of Loss doesn't compute, especially when there's no apparent injury hampering him.  

Nadal's knees aren't broken this time.  What appears to be broken is his spirit.  He's suffering from Tennis Hate.

Nadal at Barcelona, where he lost to Nicolas Almagro. Not a face we often see on Nadal on clay.

Nadal tried to seize control of the storyline today.  As reported on ATPworldtour.com, he told reporters in Madrid, “When you lose, you have a hard moment, you have more doubts. But that's what happened. I've already said it several times. I didn't try to win Monte Carlo 12 times or Barcelona 12 times. Maybe that isn’t normal. This is the reality of the situation. Maybe it's normal to lose three times in the quarter-finals."

Wait a minute, is Nadal now second-guessing his past success?  "Maybe that isn't normal"?  Yes, it's extraordinary for most people, but it's been normal for him.  

Haters, this doesn't sound like a winning mental strategy to me.  Does it to you?  Hell, I've tried this! I've caught myself saying variations of it.   

  • "Maybe I'm supposed to lose to my husband.  After all, he's a guy and I'm a girl, and guys are just better at this eye-hand coordination thing."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win any matches my first year playing on a USTA league."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win, ever, because I am just not very good at this."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win because winning is for really competitive, bossy, control freaks and I'm just here to have fun."

My colleague, WNYC digital editor and 5.0 tennis player Caitlin Thompson, thinks Nadal's back-to-back quarterfinal losses to lesser players means he's in real trouble.  

Nadal's confidence took a hit after his 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 loss to Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open in January.

"For a streakier player, such as Serena Williams, this would not be a big deal at all," she said in an e-mail. Williams is not as "emotionally invested" in a loss at a lesser tournament than she is in a Slam.  "For Nadal, who famously plays every point as intensely as the last, all losses are equal, which means they're all equally troubling. 

"When I was a junior tennis player, something my coaches tried very hard to instill in me was the idea of belief. Most matches, they'd tell me, were lost or won before the players struck the first ball - the winner having been decided by [the person whose confidence] was stronger. By thinking you could win, you made yourself able to win, and often did win.

"The big players - Rafa and Serena and all the others who dominate the rest of the field - have the biggest belief. And sometimes more important, they're helped out by their opponents lack of belief. Nadal's losing record indicates he's having a hard time - and he knows it." 

Nadal said he hopes the energy he draws from playing in Madrid, a tournament he describes as "special," will boost his confidence. He said he's also training hard, looking to make little changes.

"I don't think I have to change many things," he said. "I think I can change very small things, and the change can be quite drastic and quite big."

This is a great tip, Haters. You don't have to throw the racquet over the fence. I find I load up too much on all the things I'm going to do to win the next point. "Okay, watch the ball and hit through the ball and breathe as you hit and move your feet." And then what happens? None of the above. I'm too busy trying to remember what the first item on the To Do list was to even notice the ball coming over the net.

"I hope that it just works out," said Nadal. That's all you can do in this game, right? That hope-y, change-y thing. Hey, it worked for our nation's first black president. "If things don't come out well, we will go to Rome; if things don't work out there, we will go to Paris

Onward, through May, through the clay.