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.
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.