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Featured Meltdowns


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

Entries in Mental Toughness (34)


US Open: Petkovic Wins Ugly, But Fans Don't Mind

If Tennis Hate almost defeated Andrea Petkovic, it was tennis love that pulled her through.  Petko, seeded 18th, defeated qualifier Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, as she should have, 7-6 (7), 1-6, 6-3.  But, Haters, it shouldn't have been so ugly.  Both struggled getting first serves in.  Both hit a lot of unforced errors.  Both made some poor shot choices.

Andrea's army: from left, Tina Schulte, Aga Boska, Mariola Joschko and Sabina Redzimska, on Court 5.But the German had something Jabeur didn't, and that was a cheering section.  Four women sat along the sideline, about two rows up, wearing matching T-shirts that spelled out ANDY PET KO VIC.  They chanted, "Let's go, Pet-ko!" and cheered every winner and break point saved.

"We know her personally," said Mariola Joschko.  "We met her in 2009."

"Her dad, Zohan, is here!  He invited us for a beer!  Want to come?"

Haters, I demurred.  I must remain objective, you know.  This is serious stuff, this blogging.

Did I mention that I said, more than a few times, "C'mon, Petko!" during the match?

So did the T-shirt team.  They also cheered loudly when she hit winners (which didn't come often enough, 21 winners to 41 unforced errors) and when she fended off break points (six out of eleven, while Jabeur saved just one out of five).  

Mariola Joschko, a Petkovic fan from front to back.Andrea was able to stare down those break points by some clutch serving.  Overall, she got 65 percent of her first serves in, compared to a miserable 49 percent for Ons.  But that was the big difference between them. Otherwise, they were sisters in sloppiness.  Both had 41 unforced errors for the match.  Andrea double faulted four times, Ons, five.  Their serves averaged around 96 miles per hour, so cautious they were being in getting the darn thing in the service box.

Jabeur slumped around court looking gloomy.  Petko took her Tennis Hate out on her racquet, bouncing it sky-high after she let slip an early break of Jabeur in the third set to go down, 1-2.  

Her fans understood.  Asked if she ever experienced Tennis Hate on the court, Tina Schulte answered, "Doesn't everybody?"  Thank you, Tina.  I don't feel so alone!

What these tennis fans hate the most, though? The French Open.  "They allow too many people onto the courts," said Joschko.  "It's crowded.  It's expensive.  And the people there don't treat you very nice."




Cincy Open: Robredo Pokes a Hole in Sock

Tommy Robredo got it right when asked in his on court interview what the key ingredient was in the Spanish veteran's 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over American young gun Jack Sock.

"I think mentally, it helped me a lot."  And by that, I'd add that it wasnt just his mental fortitude, but Sock's very apparent lack thereof.

Jack socked in his first round loss to Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo at the Western & Southern Open.Sock was unable to hit the re-set button after losing the first set tiebreak.  He requested a trainer, and had some goo massaged into his upper right arm, his service arm.  But he still looked restless, irritable and discontent.

"Keep fighting, Jack," said a member of his camp.  "Make him earn it."  

He couldn't, not without his mighty serve.  Sock's first serve percentage got lost in the dryer, falling from 65 percent in the first set to 50 percent in the second.  Meanwhile, the years fell away from 32-year-old Robredo's arm.  He was getting 84 percent of his first serves in play and winning 75 percent of those points.  

Sock appeared like he was battling himself.  In the middle of one of his service games, he approached the chair umpire, crouching down in a squat and looking up at him, looking like a supplicant before God.  Please make this match go away.   

What can Sock bring from his doubles success? Maybe he needs some team spirit.

He lost his fight.  Pushed wide to his backhand wing by Robredo, Sock didn't even make an effort to cover Robredo's to-be-expected blast into Sock's wide-open deuce court. 

I've been in the middle of matches where I find myself thinking the same thing.  Why bother? I hate this game.  I suck.  I don't have it today.  

If not today, when?  

Maybe there's something he can bring from his doubles success.  Sock won his second ATP tour title in doubles in Atlanta last month with Canadian Vasek Pospisil.  The pair are undefeated at 10-1.  What's the secret?  The team spirit?  The feeling that someone is sharing the moment with you, there to back you up?  The crowd was trying to do it.  Maybe Sock needs to let them in.

Robredo, the No. 16 seed, is doing pretty good for an old guy.  He reached the round of 16 in Toronto last week, losing to Grigor Dmitrov. Robredo faces another big-serving American, Sam Querry, in the second round.


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 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.


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.  


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, 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."



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, 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.

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