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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 from October 1, 2013 - October 31, 2013


New Indoor Season, New Inner Tools

There was a smell of dry leaves in the air outside, and new plastic inside the freshly-bubbled courts of the Prospect Park Tennis Center.  The green grit of Har-Tru crunched under my sneakers as I spun out of the revolving door and onto resurfaced courts now free of divets.  I walked out to Court 3, my Thursday morning destiny for the next 28 weeks.

So much for working on my service toss. Drawing, courtesy of Richard Codor.

The 2013-2014 Indoor Tennis Season is underway.  Haters, I'm dedicating it to vanquishing not just my Worthy Opponents Tam Thompson, Surinder Singh, Henry Strozier and Nelson Simon, but my Tennis Hate.  

I'm going to be stronger!  Fitter!  More composed! Hit more powerful forehands with a single wave of my arm! I will say only nice, sweet things on the court like "gosh" and "good shot!" and "gee whiz, that's a great drop shot."  I will not swear, damn it, I will not swear.  I swear!

Well, sh*t, I fell short.  

My beloved Mark and I, playing together for the first time in months, lost to Surinder and Tam, 6-1, 0-6, 7-4 (tiebreak). 

We had plenty of opportunities to take the tiebreak. During one point, with Tam and Surinder at net, Mark hit an excellent defensive lob, high enough to get over Skyscraper Singh and near the deuce court baseline.  I was expecting the point to be over right then and there.

Ah, but that's future tripping, as performance coach Bob Litwin likes to say.  I was already thinking about the next point, and not the one I was still playing.  Surinder, his back to the net, hit behind and up on the ball, putting it back in play.  It soared toward me in the ad court at net.  An easy put-away.  I was thinking cross-court angle, at Tam's feet.

That's what I thought.  What I did was send the ball in the exact opposite direction, back at Surinder....and wide.  I had taken my eye off the ball to see if Tam and Surinder and the court were still there.  For some reason, I thought I might have accidentally teleported myself into some other time-space continuum.

After shanking that ball, I wished that were true.

Here's what I loved about our first match this winter season.  We had a strong second set.  We were close in the tie-break.  We know what we have to do next time, and that is cut down on our own errors.  We had 'em in the crosshairs several times, but let them get away because of simple things like not staying with the ball and taking mental bathroom breaks.  In the middle of a point.  

What are your tennis goals for the next 28 weeks?

I also held my serve.  Yes, Haters, you read that right.  I practiced scanning my body for tension before starting my service motion.  It helped me relax and get physically present on the court, not in my head.  I focused on hitting the slice serve that I learned during the US Tennis Congress, zeroing in on that 2:00 spot on the ball and swring the racquet through to 7:00. It didn't always have the Mariano Rivera cutter curving action I long for, but at least I tried it, and in the heat of a match, no less.

So, a noble start.  How about you?  What was your first indoor season match like?  What are your goals for the next 28 weeks?  Let's work on this together.






US Tennis Congress: Emilio Sanchez Coaches Coaches

Day One of the inaugural US Tennis Congress had attendees getting loose with a pro-am game of king of the court, and several pros getting ready to iron out our wayward strokes with a coaching session by Emilio Sanchez. He's a coaches' coach.  He captained Spain's Davis Cup team for three years, culminating in its Davis Cup victory in 2008.

Emilio Sanchez-Vicario, Doubles Silver Medalist, 1988, co-owner of Sanchez-Cabal Academy in Florida. Photo: Amy EddingsHe was putting Lucasl, one of the instructors at his Sanchez-Casal Academy in Florida, through a V-patterened footwork drill at the baseline.  At the bottom of the V was an orange cone.  Sanchez fed to the right and left of the cone, alternating between Lucas' forehand and backhand, and just a little in front of the line of the cone, so that he had to move up and into the ball.    

The point wasn't to turn Lucas' legs into butter, though I could see how that could happen.  It's a tough, demanding drill.  To keep your form throughout all that lateral and diagonal movement?  I'd need divine intervention.  But Sanchez stressed to the coaches to feed the ball in such a way as to give the student time to get their feet under them and make their shot.

Lucas loads up for a forehand. And what an awesome one it was. Photo: Amy Eddings.

Sanchez told them that, in a junior academy situation, about 20 percent of their training time is spent one on one.  "You want that time spent having them hitting successful shots."  

He said he stops his players when he sees their form breaking down, and urged pros to do the same.  He says he's seen pros on the court turn into human ball machines, mindlessly feeding the next shot and not even looking up to see what their students are doing.

"Thirty thousand times.  That's how much a person has to do something in order to write it on the brain," he said.  I swallowed hard.  Just another reminder to stay patient while changing bad stroke habits.  "Tennis is difficult because you need to repeat."

But he said it's much more critical to have players play correctly than to go on winning with poor form.  

"Winning is one thing," Sanchez said.  "Playing well is another."

Today, we start to learn how to play well.  I've got sessions on the forehand and the slice serve.  Watch this space.




US Tennis Congress: Warm-Up Southern Welcome

Peachtree City, Georgia is dripping with Southern charm and hospitality, even on its tennis courts. Within minutes of walking alone onto one of the two well-maintained courts at Pebble Pocket Park, a man who was teaching a woman backhands invited me to hit.

Oozing Southern hospitality, and sweat: me and George Beauchamp. Photo: Amy Eddings

An hour and a half later, my new buddy George Beauchamp and I were sweaty and flush with the fun of long rallies.

Haters, I'm here in Peachtree City for the first annual US Tennis Congress, just down the road at the Dolce Hotel and Resort, and scared as all get out that I'm going to show top instructors like Emilio Sanchez just how well I can shank the ball.  So I was at the court in this little park in Peachtree City, looking to hit against a wall and practice my serves.  

You know, like cleaning up the apartment before the cleaning lady comes.

I was grateful to hit with George Beauchamp.  It took the jitters right out of me.

George told me he teaches tennis. I could tell. Watching him initially, with his sister, Martine, I heard the verbal mannerisms of a teaching pro: "Bounce? Hit!"  And then, as her ball arced over the net, "That's riiiiiight! Gooooood!"

I didn't ask him how old he was, but he's old enough to be "somewhat retired." He moves well, getting smoothly to wide balls and deftly fielding the inevitable loopy long shots from my forehand wing.

"May I give you a tip?" he said. "Don't tilt your racquet face up and don't hit under the ball. I know you have to clear the net, but...."

I mentally finished the sentence for him. "But we're not talking Empire State Building here, lady."  

"You should hit the ball further out in front of you," he continued.  "Don't let the ball push you around.  Hit it earlier."

Know what keeps you focused on the court? Your eyes.

I nodded.  Sounds familiar.  I thought of my Sunday sessions with Coach Al.  Pivot, with your racquet back, then move toward the ball.  See the hit.  Your eyes make the shot.  Because of hearing these instructions, over and over again, I was able to take what George was saying and make it make sense.  Different set of eyes on my game, different way of delivering instruction, but the principals are the same: prepare early, so you play the ball instead of it playing you.  Get your racquet back and then move to the ball, TO it, not away from it.  Watch the ball. See the hit.  

"You don't play your opponent when you play tennis," George said.  "You play the ball and the lines.  You shouldn't even be looking at your opponent, except to see how the ball comes off of his strings."

Later, at the net for a quick breather, my Southern friend got Socratic method on me.  

"Know what keeps you focused on the court?" he asked.

I thought of Coach Al.  Your eyes make the shot.  Without hesitation, I answered.  "Your eyes."  

He smiled.  "That's riiiiight."

I felt encouraged.  These are the basics.  They are like a hammer, a wrench and a screwdriver.  You should never abandon them, no matter what new gizmo is being hawked near the cash register.  George Beauchamp did me a great favor, hitting with me.  He warmed me up physically and mentally for the weekend of instruction ahead.



Outdoor Season Over. Inside Job Just Beginning.

It was carved into the Har-Tru by one of the little girls who were taking a lesson with Saintly Pro Al Johnson ahead of mine, an "I was here" statement on the last day of the 2013 outdoor season at Prospect Park Tennis Center. Grace.


It was the little girl's name, but it's a good description of what I'm feeling as the summer comes to a close and tennis season pauses to move indoors.  Grace, as in, the free and unmerited favor of God, the Big Kahuna, the Force, the Unseen Hand that supports my meager efforts at proficiency in anything, let alone tennis.

Lessons learned this summer?  Eye on the ball, eye on the ball, eye on the ball.  Really.  It's the first thing you hear from a coach and it never grows old.  Eye on the ball.

"Your eyes make the shot," Coach Al tells me.  I've resisted this wisdom.

No, no, no, no, it's my swing that makes the shot.  It's the kinetic chain, that rotation of the hips and torso into the swing of the arm into the path of the ball that I can't seem to get.  It's my racquet head speed (sluggish) and my footwork (clumsy).  Once I get these elements down, in the proper order, then I'll have a forehand and a backhand to be reckoned with!

Your eyes make the shot.  How can it be that simple?

Coach Al is relentless.  He repeats again, "Your eyes make the shot."  It has taken me months to let go of the aforementioned skills checklist and to believe that Coach Al just may be right.  If I don't see the shot, I can't make the shot.  All those other skills follow from first watching the ball all the way to the point where my racquet meets it and spanks the living hell out of it.

How can it be that simple?  

I have spent countless hours on the court in frustration during a match, wondering why I'm still pushing with my forehand or shanking the ball into the sky off my frame on my backhand, perplexed at the volleys that sail long and the groundstrokes that land short.  Can all these problems be greatly diminished, even vanquished, by just focusing more fully, quietly, completely, on seeing the hit?  

This summer, I've learned the answer.  Yup.  Making the ball my only focus keeps a lot of other gunk from sloshing around in my head, the black, corrosive thoughts that wear away at my confidence and Tennis Love like rust on the underside of a 1981 Ford Pinto.  It's almost comical, how simple this prescription is.   Eye on the ball.

Simple, but not easy.  I am constantly looking up, watching where the ball is going, looking to see if it is going in.

"If you see the ball into your strings, you don't have to look up, because you'll know it's going in," says Coach Al.  That's how much of a difference he thinks seeing the shot can make for a 3.0 player like me.  

Really?  Really.  And I thought I needed a windshield wiper finish and a Western grip.

Alright, this is what I'm going to focus on.  This is all I'm going to do.  My matches, my lessons, my clinics, will be training sessions for my eyes. Just seeing the hit and developing this focus is all I want to work on right now. I'll leave for another day the kick serve and the buggywhip forehand finish and all the other shiny skills that I think will catapault me into the ranks of the Marginally Good.

Grace is the unexpected gift that always comes with letting go, the quiet at the end of the crying jag, the color that comes back to the fingertips when your fist unclenches.