Worthy Opponents: Good and Plenty
No, that wasn't their names. But one gal wore pink and the other wore black, and they were plenty good.
My Manhattan USTA League 3.0 team is in the divisional playoffs, and Antoinette and I were teamed up again for 1st Doubles.
"You guys can handle it," said Captain Deb.
We told ourselves to focus on the ball, keep our opponents away from the net with deep shots, and stay aggressive.
Let's pause for a moment and talk about this word, "aggressive." Haters, when I think of aggressive tennis, I think of hate (naturally). I think of aggression as a mind set, an attitude, a "I'm going to win this fucking point!" energy.
But a cursory Google search set me straight. The search terms "aggressive tennis" yielded nothing about mental toughness or an emotional framework for winning. Instead, this About.com article made clear that aggressive tennis, the holy grail of the game, is a style of play that puts you in a position to seize control of the point by taking time away from your opponent (hitting balls on the rise, hitting with heavy topspin) or forcing them into uncomfortable hitting positions (slice, pace, angles).
It has nothing to do with anger.
And yet, I often feel I play better when I'm angry. There was one memorable doubles match I played with Worthy Opponents Richard Codor, Robert Kaplan and the late, great Larry Frost where I got so pissed off at the guys across the net for what I thought were cheap points that I started slamming serves into the court with a fury that Hell hath none of. They were unreturnable. The guys were stunned. So was I.
Okay, so anger got me to accelerate my racquet head through the ball. And it focused me, as adrenaline is designed to do. But anger is an unreliable resource on the court. More often than not, I turn it against myself, scorching my confidence instead of the ball.
So, I don't want anger/aggression. I want something else, something with the focus and energy I'm looking for but without the self-destructive, negative backwash.
For help, I turned to In Pursuit of Excellence: How to Win in Sport and Life Through Mental Training, by Terry Orlick and found an entire chapter devoted to intensity.
"What usually works best to free yourself to perform is relaxed intensity, relaxed attack, or relaxed power," Orlick writes. "You go after your goal with full focus, you push your limits, and at the same time you relax enough to free your body to perform in a powerful yet flowing way."
Orlick pairs intensity with relaxation because pure intensity can stifle you. To illustrate, he uses the example of blasting music on your iPhone or car stereo.
When you crank up the volume to the highest level, the device starts to vibrate or shake a bit, and the sound is no longer clear and crisp. If you turn down the volume a notch, the vibration stops and everything becomes clearer, crisper, more focused -- right where you want it to be for high-quality performance.
And what's the method of finding this optimum intensity? Orlick says it's "trusting yourself to do what you are capable of doing, by relaxing your breathing and your body, and by connecting full with the doing part of your performance."
Relaxing, I can do. It's the trusting and connecting that need work. Where can I get me some of that?
Okay, pause over. Let's get back to my and Antoinette's playoff match. Our intensity flagged in the first set. We hit returns long. We missed volleys. And, most of all, we looked at Good and Plenty, instead of looking at the ball, and guided our shots right at them at the net. Haters, you' know what's coming next. Ka-ching! Volley winner to the left of me. Volley winner to the right. And plenty of them slapped right down the T. They won the first set easily, 6-1. Time to get pissed, or, rather, boost our intensity.
Antoinette's great for doing that, with her high fives and "C'mon's!" The second set was much closer as a result. We starting serving better, drawing return errors. We hit some great volleys and smashes. And we shifted our tactics. They had been so successful at net, hitting at our feet or smashing balls that bounced above our heads and out of reach, that we decided to both play back, and come in when they gave us a short ball.
They got into baseline rallies with us, and lost, They tried to intentionally draw us up to net with short balls, but ended up putting their shots in the net. We were giving them a different look, and they were surprised. But they adjusted. Plenty started poaching during the crosscourt baseline rallies. I missed two juicy overheads. And we were still playing too defensively, failing to do to them at net what they were doing to us. We lost the second set, 6-4, and the match.
But it was a good loss. I learned something about tennis: aggression is a style, not an attitude. Don't get mad, get intense (but not too intense; this should be interesting, Haters, and worthy of a few more blog posts). And, best of all, our compatriots were successful in their matches, allowing our team to advance to the next playoff round.
Year to Date, Antoinette and me: Wins, 1. Losses, 1. We're batting .500!