It’s time to write my last Ready Set Goal entry, and I suppose I should look backward and sum it all up. But what I really want to write about is a new topspin forehand shot that is making my forehand a more potent and versatile weapon. I could describe it to you, but I thought it would be more fun as an imbedded video, so you could see what I’m talking about.
All right, so now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I guess it is time to look back. I was watching a 3.0 USTA match last week, when it struck me that only last season, my first, I was a 3.0. It wasn’t long ago that I was playing just like that. Even more than the mechanics of the strokes, what stood out for me was the difference in anticipation, movement and positioning on shots. I watched a player hit a ball from the baseline and stay there long after it was clear that the returning ball was going to land near his feet. He managed to keep the ball in play, but it was an awkward shot. I thought, “Yep, that’s what it was like. The ball used to play me instead of me playing the ball.”
I believe that in the coming years, I will have the same feeling looking back on my game now. One day, I'll be out playing and suddenly the accumulation of a bunch of barely noticed improvements will add up to a noticeably different level of play.
Well, part of setting goals is checking to see if you reached them. The overarching goal this year was stepping up to 4.0. I had some performance goals around improving my backhand, transition game and volleys. I also knew I needed to get on the court more than twice a week to make more progress. On the mental side of the game I wanted to use visualization and other skills to improve my focus, mental toughness and overall performance. Along the way, I wanted to see if I could beat Conrad, Ben and Ray.
I met all of my goals except the last one. Between injuries and schedules I just didn’t get on the court much with these guys. I did take a set from Conrad and one from Ben, but I can’t really claim a match win. Conrad took a set right back that day and Ben was just coming back from injury and having a rough day while I was having a good one.
I also met a less quantifiable goal that was nonetheless the most important one. My life time tennis goal is to make tennis interesting and fun enough that I keep coming back to the courts and staying in shape.
I feel grateful and honored to have had this entire experience. Yep, you guessed it. Roll the credits, play the exit music, here come the thank yous. Thank you to: TENNIS magazine and tennis.com for giving this kind of opportunity to a recreational player like myself. Thank you to my pro Ken Dehart. You’re the best and I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks Dr. John Murray for opening my eyes to the mental side of the game. Thanks Kellie for being such a great virtual partner and inspiration. Thanks to everyone who kept my blog from being a monologue by joining the conversation. And a special thanks to Messagesent, Dross80, and Tony along with the other regulars who have become my virtual tennis mentors. I sure hope to step on the court with you guys some day, but for now I’ll try to content myself with joining you on the tennis.com message boards.
Thanks for visiting. Happy holidays and all the best to you on and off the courts!
First off, I just found out that USTA ran the numbers and their computer now tells me I am officially rated a 4.0 player. I would have been a bit embarrassed to have announced this year-long goal in public and worked this hard only to come up short. What a relief...mission accomplished!
I often tell you how things go in a given match, but this time I'd like to focus more on my preparation for a match. I spent last week with one tennis goal in mind, to bring my best game to the District Championships in Fresno, where my 6.5 combo team competed. Post Thanksgiving, my game was off and my confidence was low, but with the skills I've learned this year, I felt I could pull myself together for the playoffs. I'm not always so focused on tennis, but I knew I would enjoy the rare experience of participating in a USTA playoff match more if I brought my "A" game.
As a recreational tennis player, I don't usually think much about how diet and lifestyle affect my game, but this week I decided to pay more attention. Thanksgiving left me feeling deeply sluggish on the court and I thought the food and wine were largely to blame. Do you ever have those days when your focus just feels fuzzy no matter how much you try to dial it in? It can just be mental, but in this instance, I felt it was also biochemical. If I am short on sleep or have had a couple beers the night before it can take just enough away from my mental acuity to keep me from playing my best tennis. Drinking isn't a problem in my life, but it's not uncommon for me to have some beer or wine in an evening. I decided to see how much sharper I would feel if I went without for the week. I also resolved to get plenty of sleep.
On the mental side of the game, I envisioned a plan that caused me playing my best, relaxed, and most confident tennis. I saw my partner Chris Pass and I playing well and winning and imagined how it would feel. With the path clear in my mind, I just had to work the plan. The plan itself was simple. I would seek input early in the week from Ken on some parts of my game that were giving me trouble, particularly my volley and serving. I would get on the court at least three times during the week for both drills and match play involving my partner when our schedules aligned. I also planned to get a good hour warm-up on match day. Things went according to plan and by the end of the week I was feeling relaxed and confident. I arrived early enough the night before to visit the Copper River Tennis Club. What a beautiful facility! Tim and Colby, the tennis pros, were kind enough to let me join their juniors in a workout. They clearly emphasized good sportsmanship along with skills and it was striking how friendly and supportive the juniors were with each other and with this strange old guy who suddenly appeared in their midst. Jared, who clearly had stronger skills than I, beat me in a close set 6-4. In addition to just being fun, the workout and match really helped me get over my pre-match jitters. Thanks again for making me feel so welcome, Copper River.
The match itself was a close one. Chris and I were down 1-3 in the first set, but came back to win it 6-3. Our opponents from San Mateo, Steven Chanan and Andrew Chin, raised their game in the second set and came from behind to win 7-5. Chris and I pulled it out in the tiebreaker 10-5. I was happy with the win, but even happier that I had found a way to play well when it mattered most to me. Our team won 3-0 on day one against San Mateo (with one default). We also won 2-1 on day two against Napa, but lost 0-3 against Walnut Creek, who will be going on to the sectionals.
Oh well, we sure made a good run at it San Jose!
Next post I'll be wrapping up the Ready Set Goal project before the holidays. It's been a great year.
Shortly after my last entry, I answered the call on the neighborhood email list for a touch football game. As you probably already know, football is a dangerous game even for those who play often. For a group of people who haven’t played in years, it’s asking for trouble. We had a great time, a 50% injury rate and agreed it was a terrible idea that we should do again soon. I left the game uninjured with a couple new nicknames, Joe “Crazy Legs” Pambianco and “Where’d-he-go?” Joe. I was uninjured, but deeply sore for several days and my tennis game suffered more than I would have guessed. For a week or more, I felt kind of spastic and out of sorts on the court. All my movement felt less refined and my serve fell apart. Ted Garvey and I managed to tough out a 7.5 combo win together with both of us struggling. It was frustrating but gratifying that we found a way to win with what was available to us that day.
That same week, I was searching for the feel of my first serve with a lighter grip on the racquet, when I accidentally released the racquet right into the ground. Crack! Scratch one Wilson N-Code Pro Surge-X. A few weeks earlier, I had the strings go out on both of my racquets and had borrowed a racquet from Ken Dehart. It was the first time I had used a racquet and instantly liked it better than mine. So the bright side was that I new exactly what I wanted when my old racquet met it’s untimely end. I am loving my new Wilson K Zen!
Gradually I got my legs back under me and have had a couple nice combo and mixed wins. I’ve also been focusing on backhand service returns and am breaking through on that shot. I hit an “oooh ahhh!” down-the-line return winner in my last match and tried not to look surprised. It was nice to realize with practice, that I can have that “right in my wheel house” feeling on my backhand too.
Lastly, I have been getting back out to one of my testing grounds, public parks on Willow Street. Sometimes I get tight and don’t play well there because I’m too impressed with the higher level of play. In my last visit, I managed to stay loose and brought my best game. It was very gratifying to see that even if I don’t have all the polish and consistency of these 4.0 to 5.0 players, I can compete with them. There are several points my partner and I won after the other team had hit what they thought was a winner. We ended up winning a set 6-3 and leaving a second one tied at 6-6 when time ran out.
Greetings from the air somewhere between San Jose and L.A. I didn't realize I was going to be flying until yesterday afternoon. That's when I discovered the class I was scheduled to teach wasn't remote, it was face-to-face in Los Angeles. Doh!
My non-tennis life has been demanding lately, keeping me off the courts, but the little I've played has been very satisfying. In the past two weeks, I have had two home matches immediately following my Thursday night clinic, which is my favorite pre-match warm up. Last week I played well with my partner Ben Horner, winning 6-2, 6-2 in our 7.5 combo match. Last night went even better in my first 7.0 mixed doubles match with first time partner Joni Beebe. In my last entry, I was just glad to be healthy and on the courts. This time I get to report that rare treat of playing at a new level. It feels a bit immodest to say so, but I hope it's balanced by the fact that I've reported my low points as well. What made these matches even sweeter was that my partners were having great matches, too. Firing on all cylinders at the same time as your doubles partner sure is fun and in both matches we just savored it and worked to keep the momentum from turning.
I'll tell you more about my match with Joni, since it's fresh in my mind. We played against Teri and Chris Field, a husband-and-wife team. Warming up with Teri, I was impressed by what good strokes and soft hands she had. I felt clumsy in comparison to her in our short court warm-up and as we stepped back she was hitting with good power, depth, and consistency. As we started the match, it became clear she was the stronger, more experienced player on the team. My partner Joni has a style that works well with mine. We have seen each other play, but have never played together, so we talked a bit before the match about strategy. She gets almost everything back in play, does a great job of keeping away from the net player, and lobs well. Big kill shots are not her forte, so we settled into a strategy where we would be patient and I would be aggressive when the opportunity arose. I told her I would try to make a nuisance of myself at the net to disrupt and distract them if I could. Isn't it great when a plan comes together? We played it just like we wrote up it and jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set. At times they tried to go at Joni, but she didn't give an inch, patiently hitting deep balls that kept them off the attack. Eventually they would make an error, or hit something short or in my reach. Oh the joy of a big leaping poach! We closed out the first set 6-0. In the second set, we dropped a couple games early, and had a little assessment break at 2-2. We decided that our strategy was still sound and that we had just lapsed into some unforced errors. I think sometimes it's important to know when not to make a change. We stuck to our plan and regained our momentum, winning the second set 6-3. Thanks Joni, great playing with you!
Aside from generally putting more balls on the court, a few things stand out when I try to get clear about why I feel like I'm playing better than ever.
Approach shots: One of the goals I set early in the year was to get better in transition. It used to be that I'd force a lot of weak short balls with my serve or deep baseline shots but I couldn't consistently make my opponents pay for inviting me in. I've been improving steadily on this, but last night I really felt myself turning the corner with both forehand and backhand. My slice is getting there, but a big topspin dropper is becoming a favorite. You know, the kind that dives toward a volleyer's tennis shoes. Tennis is so much more fun with confidence in this shot. Short ball, thank you very much...BAM! Ironically, one of the keys to improving this driven shot has been finally learning not to muscle it so much. I already have power just running up, so a very gentle swing produces plenty of power.
Court positioning: I used to get so excited about applying pressure at the net that I wouldn't do a good job of anticipating a lob. This led to a lot of entertaining scrambles chasing down lobs, but kept me from being able to sustain an attack. Now I'm picking up clues of an impending lob earlier and am floating back to get more overheads. Closing to the net is one of my strengths anyway, so I don't need to start right at the net.
Legs and hips to power serve: I've written about the jump serve and how Ken used it to help me feel the flow of power as a chain reaction from my right leg, through my hips, spine, shoulders, arm and cracking the whip with my wrist. While I am sometimes still using the full jump serve in match play, even better, I am able to tap into the same power with my standard serve. Before I was putting my weight onto my front foot too early, neutralizing any power from my back leg and only getting the power from my shoulder and arm. Now, when I want it, I'm getting a ton of power and pace along with the spin. My slice serve has a huge break, a nasty skid, and enough pace to generate aces. I'm also getting comfortable enough with all of this that I'm not double-faulting much at all.
My backhand service return needs improvement. I am hitting a much weaker return from the backhand and am giving up too many balls to the net player from that side. Next time I get on the court with Ken I want to focus on that. I'll look forward to telling you about that and other USTA matches in my next post. Thanks for visiting!
Well, that nasty recurring back spasm certainly got my attention, but at last, I'm playing tennis again. I overcame my aggressive nature and stayed off the courts for a couple weeks, and then reentered slowly. My first trip back to the courts I hit gently for 20 minutes. I played a couple recreational matches with days off in between, gradually ramping up and feeling surprisingly good. Then I played a 7.5 USTA doubles match with Ben Horner. We lost a match we could have won if we had our "A" game going, but the sting of the loss was mitigated by the fact that I was alive with a fully functioning body. I'm back!
That feeling of gratitude for health was at the heart of my experience last night. I returned to my Thursday night ritual of a clinic with Ken DeHart, followed by pickup doubles, then beer and snacks. I was reminded of why I wanted to improve my tennis to begin with. I wanted to have more fun. Being athletic and aggressive with poor skills was a recipe for frustration and I knew if I didn't move past that stage, I wouldn't want to stay with it. Solving this challenge was really my first tennis goal. I wanted to get good enough at tennis that so that it was more fun than frustrating to play. I've also been on guard against making this endeavor an insatiable quest for improvement, in which I might never enjoy the game at whatever level I happened to play at.
Last night, playing hard, but laughing and joking with friends on the court, I found myself thinking how well I have achieved that goal. A few weeks out of action made me appreciate even more how much fun I have playing tennis. What an unusual combination: Something that feels good, that I do reasonably well and that is even good for me! All that plus the camaraderie of regular tennis mates makes tennis a rich part of my life that I really found myself savoring with a well earned Dos Equis lager in hand.
Next week, back on the court with Ken to tune up for more 7.5 combo and 7.0 mixed doubles play.