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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 mental tennis (7)


Monte Carlo: Djokovic Will Try to Stop Nadal's 9th Straight Title

The excitement around a Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer final feels so five years ago.  The match-up generating words like "blockbuster" is the one on Sunday at Monte Carlo between Nadal and world number one Novak Djokovic.

He huffed and puffed and blew Tsonga's surge down. Rafa and his "champion luck" escape a 3rd set against Tsonga. Courtesy Getty Images.

It will be their 34th meeting (Nadal leads 19-14) and a re-match of last year's final, which Nadal won handily in straight sets.  

Fed and Nadal have played fewer matches, just 29, but they're the stuff of awe and history.  Nineteen of those matches were finals, including the epic, twice-rain delayed 2008 Wimbledon championship match that Nadal won in the dark.  

But those legendary Rafa-Rog moments appear to be waning.

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Hitting the Wall

When long-distance runners talk about hitting the wall, they mean the dead legs and overwhelming exhaustion that comes from gobbling up all their bodies' stored-up glycogen. When tennis players talk about hitting the wall, they're usually more literal.  

My Worthy Opponent, ready and waiting at the corner of Greene and Waverly Avenues.

They're talking about a form of practice that doesn't need a court or another tennis player.

When I Hate Tennis talks about hitting the wall, it's about both.  Because when I've tried to hit against a wall, I've developed such a mental weariness that it's made me want to chuck the racquet and eat a box of donuts.

My Worthy Opponent, Marcy Rosewater, was singing the praises of wall-hitting.  "It really helps me focus on my strokes.  I can feel what I'm doing wrong and correct it."

"Not me," I moaned.  "I hit the ball, it hits the wall and then dies in front of me, or sails above my head."  Oh, yeah, I failed to mention that often, I hit the ball over the wall itself. This is quite a feat, Haters.  Take a look at that handball wall above.  It's, like, 20 feet high.  

I sighed.  "The only thing I seem to get to work on is being a better ball retriever."

"You just have to keep at it.  You get into a rhythm," said Marcy.  

Well, YOU do, I said to myself.  I could feel Tennis Hate blooming like a black rose in my chest. Where were those donuts??  

Now, I'm a True Grit kind of athlete.  I've taken 2-hour spin classes. I've been on century bicycle rides.  I've been to Saddlebrook's grueling, 5-hour tennis clinics in Florida, and have relished them.  Eventually, after rolling my eyes and whining, I suit up and show up.  I'll take Marcy's suggestion and try once again to put some time in front of the wall.  But I'm stunned by the knowledge that my default setting is, I can't do this!  It's not fair!

I'm inclined to think something is wrong with me.  I need to change my mindset, reduce my frustration, BE POSITIVE, visualize happy hitting.  Sports psychologists encourage this.  

But I'm intrigued by Oliver Burkeman's book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, who surveyed psychologists and philosophers working in the field of happiness and found this:

The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.  And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative -- insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness -- that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.

The solution, what Burkeman calls the "negative path" to peace of mind, involves "learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death."

I got familiarity with failure down, no problem.  Value death?  Got to work on that one.

I've been in a funk about my game.  In the middle of a lesson or a game, I can feel myself pushing the ball, swinging from my wrist, not my shoulder, leaning toward the ball from my waist rather than bending my knees, all the bad habits I've been told not to do.  I've taken thousands of dollars' worth of lessons, have spent 10 years on the court trying to develop a forehand drive and a finishing volley. Why do I keep reverting to my old, tentative, pushy ways?  I can't do this!  It's not fair!

I have toyed with the idea that tennis isn't for me, and I should take up something more immediately gratifying and endorphin-producing.  Like baking donuts.

I've been asking myself: If this is the best that I'll ever be, is that okay?

But I don't really want to give up.  That's not the True Grit creedo.  I really love tennis.  I enjoy the camaraderie, the warm-up rituals, the courtesy and sportsmanship embedded in its rules.  I love how physical it is, and mental, too, how it requires total and absolute focus from moment to moment, much like meditation. When I achive those precious seconds of concentration, everything dissolves -- the court, my opponent, Tennis Hate and the infernal chatter of what W. Timothy Gallwey calls Self 1.  I feel free and powerful and alive, even if I lose the point.  

So, I've been playing with my Tennis Hate rather than against it.  It's okay that it's there.  I'm not, as Burkeman describes in his book, "trying to drown negativity out with relentless good cheer."  I'm trying to seek "the happiness that arises through negativity."  

I've been asking myself: If this is the best that I'll ever be, is that okay?  What does it mean to have limits? What happens when I reach mine?  Will anybody kick me off the court?  Will no one want to play with me ever again if they don't see continued improvement toward a kick serve like Samantha Stosur's?  No, really: Will others love me less?  Will I have less value if I don't get a good, strong forehand approach shot?

That's the mental part.  Technically, I've been following what my Saintly Pros, Anne Hobbs and Al Johnson, have been telling me, and that is to simplify what I do, narrow my focus.  I think of two things while I hit a groundstroke: turn sideways to the approaching ball and extend through the shot, "swing to catch."  At the net, I think of getting my racquet out in front of me for my volley.  That's it.  I practice leaving all the running commentary on the sidelines, in a messy pile with my warmup pants and coat.

When I expose the lies my Tennis Hate tells me, I start to find some peace -- even joy -- on the court.  When I put my focus on simple tasks, like turning my body sideways to the ball, I experience the sweetness that comes with executing something you intended to do.  It's easier to just turn sideways and swing through the ball than it is to follow a ten-point checklist: "Racquet back? Check! Body sideways? Check! Left hand extended out to the point of contact? Check! Butt of the racquet toward the ball? Check!" Ad nauseum.

Forget those donuts.  Where's my racquet?


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."  


Soderling: Sidelined by Mono and Seriousness

Robin Soderling, before mono left him too weak to play, or make a fist.Robin Soderling the Giant Slayer has defeated Rafael Nadal on the King of Clay's favorite surface, the red crumbled brick courts of Paris.  He's triumphed over the Greatest Player of All Time, Roger Federer.  But the giant slayer cannot beat back a bout of mononucleosis.  The viral infection has pinned the Swede far behind the baseline -- actually, the sidelines -- for a year and a half, and maybe for good. Soderling tells he may not return to the sport.

"Overall, it's getting better, but I'm not as desperate to come back anymore tomorrow," he told ESPN's Ravi Ubha.  "I will give it a shot, of course, but I learned to live with the thought that maybe it will not be possible. Whatever happens, I will feel I did all I could." 

That has included a trip last spring to doctors in California, who discovered a thyroid problem.  The discovery hasn't led to improvements for the 28-year-old, who says he struggles to rack up a string of good training days.

"The hope, the hopelessness, then the hope again, then the hopelessness -- that really kills me," Soderling said.  Wait, is Soderling talking about his recovery from mono, or his recovery from tennis hate?

"I feel really good, then I start to practice, and then I think maybe in a couple of months I can come back and I really believe it. Then I do a bit too much and wake up one morning not feeling well again."

Sodering is a Hater on the court.  He famously mocked Nadal in a 2007 Wimbledon match by mimicking Nadal's pre-serve shorts tug.  


He now says it would have helped him to "relax a little."  

Meanwhile, Nadal is having the last laugh.  He has started praticing again, after missing most of the season because of ongoing knee problems.  He told reporters today he intends to return to the same shape he was in before his shocking second-round exit at Wimbledon.


Saintly Pros: Nate Chura

Nate Chura, radiating goodness at the Brooklyn Heights Casino.Saintly Pro Nate Chura is my Tennis Yoda.  

He's got such a healthy, wise perspective on the game, I suspect he spent several years living under the root system of a tree on some boggy planet in deepest space, communing with the Force.

Actually, Nate's deep respect and love of tennis comes from years of playing and teaching it.  He started playing when he was 11. At 15, he knew he wanted to teach tennis.

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