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Meltdown of the Week


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

Am I Having Fun Yet?

Photo: Stephen Nessen

It happened during a doubles match, in the middle of yet another point that had me facing the daunting task of trying to hit a high, deep backhand, another point that my partner and I lost.

I thought, when do I start having fun? Because I'm not.

Nope, it wasn't fun taking the first set into a tiebreak, only to lose miserably, grabbing only measly point.  And there were no endorphins released when we were wiped clean off the court in second set, 6-1.

I've heard other players say, "It's all practice, anyway," as a way of trying to shake off the pressure of a point.  Practice is where you get to make mistakes and figure things out. Practice is where you get to play, to splash around in the mud puddle of your potential. Practice allows space for beginner's mind.  

I toyed around with the phrase, losing a few more points in the process because I was thinking of that, and not the ball. I spent a game trying to capture Practice's sense of ease and freedom, and ended up blowing shots because I was lackadasical in the way I moved to the ball or positioned myself in the court.  Then I tried interpreting Practice as I Don't Give a Shit, and watched as several of my service returns sailed over everyone's head, including those of the baseball team playing in a neighboring field. 

When does this get to be fun?

It used to be fun, at the beginning.  Mark and I batted the ball around, enjoying how we had to scramble to get the ball and find a way to make the other do the same when it was our turn to hit.  It was invigorating to see how we could outfox the other: I'm going to pull you up to the net with this short little dinker, make you pop it up to me, and then hit the ball past you deep!  Ha!  

Then, somewhere along the way, it stopped being this simple and carefree.  I became Invested, and not just because I started spending money on lessons, court time, racquets and gear.  I wanted to get to Ha! more often.  I wanted to win, and to win, I had to get better.  

Most people, at this point, say to me, "It's just a game!" as if that word, game, will magically transport me back to that carefree Eden of hitting the ball back and forth over a net with Mark, and trying to put the ball where he wasn't.  In response, I quote psychologist, former pro player and former college tennis coach Allen Fox, who opens his book, If I'm the Better Player, Why Can't I Win?  with this:

A tennis match is a violent psychological struggle.  Both antagonists are fighting for their own egos, seeking ways to strengthen their senses of power and enhance their self-images.

Does this sound a little overblown?  After all, a tennis match is just a game.  But what is a game other than a contest of sorts, played to obtain strictly psychological currency?

I've believed that I'd trade more frequently in that currency if I just got better.  I'd savor hitting the ball more if I hit it more skillfully.  I'd have more control over the ball, and, by extension, over what happens on the court.  More control = my way = winning = fun!  

But if this were true, my solution to my tennis blues would be to only play 5-year-olds, or other absolute newcomers to the sport.  And while it's very gratifying to hit a down-the-line backhand passing shot that blasts off the racquet with a thwok, it was also satisfying to doink and bop the ball back and forth with Mark oh these 8 years and lessons and USTA league matches ago.  

And here's another fact that screws up my "getting better = more fun" equation.  While I'm getting better, my Worthy Opponents are, too.  I'm always going to be chasing "better."  

So I have to find a way to have fun playing tennis, regardless of whether I get better at it. That, Haters, is a daunting prospect.  It means letting go of one of my most cherished defenses against the ego soreness that comes with losing.  Once I get better, I'm not going to feel like this anymore.  

When will I start having fun?  I don't know.  Thank God this is a blog, not a dissertation.  But I think there might be a beginning here, in this passage from the mental tennis classic, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey:

Here and now are the only place and time when one ever enjoys himself or accomplishes anything....Our desire that things be different from what they are pulls our minds into an unreal world, and consequently we are less able to appreciate what the present has to offer.


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