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.