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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

Entries in Worthy Opponents (28)


USTA League Playoffs: Perspective From the Peanut Gallery

Saturday night's USTA Women's 3.0 Metrotennis League regional playoffs reminded me why I love going to the US Open.  Like the Open, the matches were played at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which is preparing for the upcoming Slam.  There were bags of mulch stacked near empty flower beds and hydraulic construction platforms parked next to new sponsor kiosks for Emirates Airlines.  The lights were on, heightening the drama of our humble little recreational matches.

The loneliness of singles tennis: teammate Dana, in her 2nd singles match. It lasted 3 hours.

Each blue court was a stage.  The August night was soft and blue, with the setting sun turning the sky pink behind the hulking, now-dark outline of Arthur Ashe Stadium.  

A beautiful midsummer night to play, and watch, tennis.  Unfortunately for the Ball Busters, the beauty was skin-deep.  We lost 4 of the 5 matches to Team Cam/Caponi, and our 2013 season is over.

Click to read more ...


USTA League Playoffs: A Good Loss

I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I had a good loss this weekend.

Marcia won, I lost...why isn't she smiling? Tennis Hate must be infectious.Yes, Haters, I lost my singles match in the USTA 3.0 Women's League playoffs at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and I'm okay!

Stop calling the local emergency rooms.  I'm fine.  My racquets are still in playing condition. The USTA can confirm no balls were abused during my match.

I wanted to make the world fit into the circle of my racquet.  There was nothing else requiring my attention.

I played the second singles spot against Worthy Opponent Marcia.  She was the steadier player in our deciding 10-point tie-break and won the day, 6-2, 1-6, 10-7.  But there was that second set!  And I stayed even with her through the first 12 points of the tie-break, even trading a mini-break with her.

I was defeated by my serve (I frequently missed first serves and had at least two double faults), by pushy short balls that Marcia was able to pounce upon, and by her pace.  She can really clobber the ball.  She made money off a cross-court forehand wide to my forehand that I either hit long or pushed back to where she had quickly positioned herself, licking her lips, at the middle of the net.  Ka-ching!  Put-away volley.

She also rarely missed her first serve.  How'd she do that?

Okay, I'm smiling through the agony of defeat....but Marcia, where's the thrill of victory?Okay, so that was how I was beaten.  How I won was in keeping my wits and hope about me after that numbing first set.  And as much as I pushed, Haters, I also slugged.  I hit many strong drives.  I felt, for once, like I was actually playing tennis, not patty-cake.  And that is what keeps me heading back into the crucible of the tennis court.  Someday, I'm going to play tennis, not a close approximation.  

I reminded myself to stay focused and positive, and I told myself that those qualities simply required that I watch the ball, and see the hit.  I chanted Coach Al's mantra as I waited at the baseline for Marcia to serve.  "Your eyes make the shot."  I didn't have to be someone I wasn't or conjure up some feeling that wasn't there.  All I had to do was stay focused on that little fuzzy yellow orb speeding my way, and watch it all the way onto my strings.  

I wanted to make the world fit into the circle of my racquet.  There was nothing else requiring my attention.

What happened, as a result, was that I was waiting and ready for that ball, body coiled, racquet back.  All the movements Coach barks at me to make before the ball bounces, so that I'm not hitting the ball late and pushing it back.  What happend was that I hit the damn ball. Finally.  I was also, because of my focus, able to pull off some heart-stopping drop shot winners that would've made my husband proud.

That was what helped me during the match.  Invaluable, too, was time in the morning with my husband, playing at the totally empty asphalt courts at Jackie Robinson Park, about 6 easy blocks away from our new digs in Bedford-Stuyvesant.  I got a little Tennis Hate when he broke me to go up 4-3.

"You look like a watch on a branch in a Salvador Dali painting," he scolded me during a water break.  "It's not over!  Don't quit!"  

He shook his head and gave me one of his signature, incredulous, Don't Be An Idiot scowls.  "You can't be acting this way when you play this afternoon.  Make her beat you.  Don't beat yourself."

I rallied to bring the set to 6-6.  I looked at my watch.  I had an hour and a half to shower and eat before heading to the NTC.  Our match, and our marriage, saved by lunchtime.

Also keeping my Tennis Hate and pre-match panic at bay was additional warm-up time with my teammates an hour and a half before the match.  Coach Winston helped lightened the mood by bringing animal crackers, pretzels and beer.  This was, indeed, a time to celebrate, win or lose.  The Ball Busters made the playoffs! 

And I conquered Tennis Hate by warming up with friends and family, focusing on the ball during the match and learning more about how I perform best in big events.  




Miracle of Easter: We Beat Singh/Thompson!

My husband and I thought we were offering ourselves up like lambs to the slaughter for the Easter feast when we agreed to square off against Worthy Opponents Surinder Singh and Tam Thompson at the Prospect Park Tennis Center.  Singh is undefeated for the indoor season, and Thompson is a tough customer on the doubles court. She's got the game and the guts to serve and volley, Haters.

It may look like a tennis ball, but it's really a hand grenade when Tam Thompson volleys it at you."You can thank us later," we were thinking to ourselves as we made our intention to play together known to Tam and Surinder.

But here's an Easter miracle: We beat them in a tiebreak.

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Worthy Opponent: Francesca Marguerite Maxime

Only two and a half hours into my Lenten disciplines this Ash Wednesday, and already, I owe $6 to the swear jar.  

I blame my Worthy Opponent, Francesca Marguerite Maxime. 


And she thinks she's making an ugly Tennis Hate face: Francesca Maxime holds my notebook, filled with useless tips on how to beat her.Maxime, a news anchor with the wholesome cable TV network, Ebru TV, brought out the not-so-family-friendly language from me with her signature inside-out forehand deep to my ad corner.  She also changes direction on a dime, drilling her heavy topspin shot past me into the deuce corner.  Corner to corner she had me, running, as Andre Agassi used to say, from Bradenton to Las Vegas.

"I started playing in high school, and didn't really pick up a racquet again until I moved to Florida in 2006," she said.  "I played there for three years until I came to New York."  

She, too, is a Tennis Hater.  "I'm addicted to it. It's like a bad relationship you just can't leave."

She writes about it in her new book, Rooted: A Verse Memoir:

He asked me if I had a vice, and what was it, and I told him

I like to eat, and he said That's it?

And I said That's it (although I like sex as much too)

unless you want to call playing lots of tennis a vice.

No, tennis is definitely not immoral.  But it is a bit naughty in the way it gets into your head and your dreams, the way you obsess over recreating the feeling, once you've had it, of connecting perfectly with the ball, your mind as still as a winter lake.  Call it passion.

Francesca Maxime plays a lot of tennis.  "I take clinics, play in ladies groups, and am on several USTA Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Mixed Doubles teams."  Like me, she burns with a desire to get better.  Like a Type-A New York journalist, she's ambitious.

"I need more wins than losses this year," she said.  I like how she puts that -- need.  Her results last season were marred by a bad back.

When she's not smiling with Tennis Hate, Maxime just...smiles."Did I mention I hate injuries?" Maxime seeks relief from this kind of Tennis Hate by watching the Tennis Channel and considering the plight of the injured pro.  "Because when I see people like Rafa Nadal out for seven months with bad knees, I feel a little less bad about my human plight, and hate tennis a little less."

In our match today, I got back some good, defensive backhand slices.  Where has that been? Ah, my Worthy Opponent's pace forced me to keep my wrist firm and to hit through the shot, rather than get all wristy and slice down on the ball.  Instead of floating into outer space, or the net, my slice backhand zoomed low across the net and deep into Francesca's court.  It drew an error a few times.  More often, it at least gave me time to recover and position myself in Chicago, before Francesca pulled me east toward Bradenton again.

Maxime concedes her serve is her weakest stroke, but I could not take advantage of it.  I kept hitting the ball long.  In between my own expletives, I heard the voice of Saintly Pro Al Johnson asking me, in his dry, sharp way, "What ball were you looking at?" The one sailing over the baseline, Coach.   

Christians worldwide are abstaining from meat today; I abstained from double faults, double clutch tosses and second serves.  It's a miracle, one brought on by several weeks now of good, solid coaching.  Coach Al and I are reconstructing my service motion, getting rid of, as he calls it, "hysteria." For weeks, I've been starting with the racquet head pointing skyward, no take back.  During last Sunday's lesson, I started working on a take back, pointing my racquet back behind me before swinging it up into that skyward-pointing position.  I tried this motion today, and liked how it felt to release the momentum of the swing into the ball.  I served well.  

By that I mean I got it into the box, made few errors and put some body weight into the shot.  I wish I could say that "serving well" means that I actually held serve.  Nope.  Maxime broke me early and often, beating me solidly, 6-2.  

I've got more work to do to adjust to her pace, to turn quickly and get my racquet back.  And to keep my focus on the damn DARN ball.  

Make that $7 in the Lenten Swear Jar.





Worthy Comrade: Gerry Marzorati

The photo instantly caught my eye: a middle-aged man in tennis whites doubled over at the baseline of a greenish-grey Har Tru tennis court, hands on his knees, racquet dangling, limp and useless.

Robert Caplin for the New York Times, courtesy 

It was the same tennis asana I've practiced many, many times on the court: Downward Facing Blown Shot.

 Were Gerald Marzorati and I separated at birth? Photo: Stephen Nessen

Then there was the opening line of the accompanying story in The New York Times:

"There is seldom an hour I spend alone with Kirill when I don’t come to feel worn and inadequate."

Worn and inadequate! Thus was I convinced: Gerry Marzorati IS my tennis soul mate.   

Marzorati doesn't need tennis to feel adequate and accomplished.  He edited The Times Magazine for seven years. Since 2010, he's been the managing editor of digital initiatives.  He was an editor at Harper's Magazine and the New Yorker.  In short, Gerald Marzorati is at the peak of his career and his powers. Except when he's on the tennis court, as he described in oh-so-familiar detail in his article last August:

Come on, I whined to myself [he had just blown an overhead], having walked to the side of the court for a towel and a gulp of Gatorade.  Come on.  What was I doing, thinking I could be a tennis player?

Since taking up tennis five years ago, what Marzorati's been doing, as he explains in his piece and in an forthcoming book based on it ("The working title is 'Late to the Game,'" he told me), is trying to stay mentally young, even as his body bends toward 60.  

I wanted to do something difficult. That was why I wanted to try tennis. I had been good at things. I was still good at things. I didn’t need a hobby, or a way to meet people. I wanted to get better at something; it had been a long time since I’d sensed that. I wanted to learn something that I would not be learning by reading; I had been reading all of my life, had spent the better part of four decades reading for a living. I wanted, one last time, to struggle at something I could control because the last real struggles were going to be ones I could not.

"I’m seeing that with my own parents now," he told me over bottled water and herbal tea in the Times' 14th floor cafe.  "They’re in their mid-80s.  At some point you lose the ability to make meaning with your body and that seems a terrible goodbye.  And you’re facing your mortality on death’s terms, not your own."

Marzorati initially tried taking up a foreign language.  "I did actually take French lessons for a few years.  Then I saw I was just transferring my ability to read to this task.  What I realized was I wanted to do something physical."

Marzorati getting drilled by Saintly Pro Kirill Azovtsev. Photo, Robert Caplin, courtesy New York Times.He was an athletic kid, playing football, basketball, baseball.  He wasn't very good. "I was the shortest, skinniest kid in my class.  I just got the crap beat out of me in whatever sport I played."

Marzorati says he always liked tennis, got to love it, as many Americans did, watching men's tennis in the 1970s.  "I was a Borg guy," said Marzorati.  "I thought Borg was cool.  I didn't hate McEnroe, though."

His favorite player now is Roger Federer.  "Watching Roger Federer is a gift," he said.  I nod. We are in agreement here, both feeling lucky to witness The Greatest of All Time.  "He’s the most beautiful shot maker and has the most beautiful footwork.  He’s so light on his feet and balletic and has so many ways of making the most minor adjustments to his grip in the middle of an intense rally."

Marzorati helped birth one of the best articles written about Federer's superior skill and artful genius.  That piece, by the late David Foster Wallace, appeared in the short-lived sports magazine Play that Marzorati launched.  

"I’m drawn to beautiful things," he said.  And the elusive beauty of tennis is part of what drives his love of the sport.  "I'm drawn to, can I do something beautiful by hitting this ball properly?  That’s part of it."  The other part is what he calls an "Emersonian aloneness" of tennis.  "It's the idea of being self-reliant and also just really self-conscious, in an interesting way."

I spend a lot of time losing.  I don't think you can get better unless you play people who are better than you."

Interesting self-consciousness?  Mine is more immolating than interesting.  But Marzorati is not a meltdown kind of guy.

"I’m not a self-hater.  I’m not racquet smasher," he said. Even though he loses a lot.  Just like when he was a kid.  Only this time, his failures are part of a deliberate strategy.

"I only play people who are better than me," he said.  Marzorati said his Worthy Opponents are all younger than him.  Some even played Division A college tennis.  "I spend a lot of time losing.  I don’t think you can get better unless you play people who are better than you."

Okay, Haters, Marzorati's ability to metabolize losing, to embrace it as a necessary byproduct of his learning process, is rocking my time-space continuum.  How does he do it?  

It turns out he employs a glass-half-full outlook and a little bit of schadenfreude.  

Me, drilling my pushy backhand. But, like Marzorati's game, it's better than it was last year. I think...."One of the key things for me is this idea that I am still improving," said Marzorati.  "There aren’t any places in my game that I’m not better than where I was from a year ago."  There's a lesson for us, Haters.  Stop comparing yourself to the pros, or to your peers, or to some idealized version of yourself making the perfect strike on the ball, and appreciate how far you've come from Day One on the court.  

Now the more delicious part, the schadenfreude!  Marzorati told me he has a mental advantage against his younger, more skilled opponents: "I'm playing people who already know their game has diminished remarkably.  Their frustrations with themselves are with shots they routinely made that they can't do anymore. It’s disturbing.  A fair number of them give up."

He didn't cackle with glee and twirl a racquet in his hands with twitchy, joyful anticipation, but he might as well have.  Ah, he's a Hater after all!

But his love/hate relationship is really with aging, not tennis.  That's what his new book will explore, "neuroscience and the physiology of aging."  (That's good, because I thought it was going to be about his love/hate relationship with tennis, and the psychological challenges of the game.  That, Haters, is my book. Some day. When I better understand my love/hate relationship with writing.)

"My goal," explained Marzorati, "is to be as good as I possibly can be, given the limitations of who I am and where I began.  When will I hit the wall, when my age simply means no matter how much I’m practicing or learning, my game, too, is diminishing?  That will be interesting.  [There's that word again.  I'm going with "devastating."] 

"I’m hoping," he said, 'to keep that at bay for as long as possible."  

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