Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Playing Ball: Finding a Rhythm
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Playing Ball: Finding a Rhythm 11/26/2008 - 8:39 PM

Tennisballrebound1aFor Thanksgiving last year I wrote a post saluting my old tennis coach. This year I don't have anything tailored for the holiday, so I'm going to reprint a piece I wrote for the most recent issue of TENNIS Magazine about the difficulties that come with combining two lifelong loves of mine. It does end with a thank you of its own. Other than that, I'll just say that today I'm thankful to be able to write these kinds of articles for a living.

As for tennis in 2008, see what I'm not going to remember fondly in my turkey shoot post over at What am I thankful for? Most of all, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for making tennis the best that it's ever been. I don't need much more than those two guys.

Have a good holiday.


When it comes to getting psyched up before they play, team-sports guys have it easy. They punch each other in the biceps, reach down for a low-five and up top for a knuckle bump, or, if all else fails, they gather around an inspirational wild man—think of the NFL’s Ray Lewis or the NBA’s Kevin Garnett—who works them into a collective bloodlust.

None of this is available to tennis players. We’re solitary souls who must get our competitive rage flowing by ourselves. What are our options? You might try to mimic Bob and Mike Bryan’s flying chest bump with your doubles partner, but that seems like a recipe for a career-ending injury rather than match-winning inspiration. A quick scan around the lounges at many pro tournaments reveals that the world’s best players opt for a safer method: They blast music through their ear phones.

I’ve played tennis since I was 8, with varying degrees of seriousness. I’ve been fanatical about music for almost as long. As a junior and college player in the 1980s and ’90s—in the age of the Sony Walkman and Maxell cassette tape—I tried dozens of songs, by everyone from Public Enemy to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to the Sex Pistols, to help me get fired up for matches. It’s admittedly a lot to ask of a pop tune; after a few early mishits or a service break, it’s tough to keep any kind of inspirational sound going in your head. But if nothing else, these songs have formed a soundtrack to my tennis life. It begins with Top 40 hits from the ’80s, which I heard over fuzzy FM stations on the way to junior tournaments in central Pennsylvania. Each summer I’d take trips to small towns around the state with my friend and fellow player Jeff. On the way home after a day of matches, we’d doze off in the back seat of our moms’ cars as the radio buzzed in and out, keeping us half-awake with its static and the latest offerings from legendary artists of the moment like Cyndi Lauper and the Fixx.

What did we listen to on the way to a tournament, when we needed a jolt of confidence? Well, it was 1982 or ’83 and we had recently seen Rocky III. Yes, I’m afraid it was the dreaded “Eye of the Tiger,” by Survivor. One of us had a blank tape that contained only that song, recorded over and over—why waste time rewinding? We would put it in as we approached a tournament site. At one event near Lancaster, we turned up the volume and lowered the windows as we drove up the gravel road that led to the courts. Our message was clear to everyone within earshot—“It’s the eye of the tiger/ It’s the thrill of the fight”—but perhaps a little frightening to some parents—“The last known survivor stalks his prey in the night.” As we parked and a dozen heads turned our way, I wish I could say that Jeff and I didn’t step out of the car wearing matching Wayfarer-style sunglasses. But I think we did. Either way, the song didn’t do its job. I lost in the final.

My taste in music had developed a bit by the time I joined my high school tennis team in 9th grade. I was a Rolling Stones fan, and my favorite song of theirs was the infamous “Sympathy for the Devil,” with its sinister historical riddles and cheesy-but-kinda-scary “whoo-hoo” background vocals.

Near the end of our team’s season, I lent a Stones tape to my doubles partner, Mike. Whatever the song’s lyrical message, the two of us began to put “Sympathy” in our Walkmans and listen to it at the same time before matches. During the local district championships, we sat together in the team van and nodded our heads as viciously as we could to the song’s tribal beat. As the week went on and we kept winning, we began to hum that beat back and forth between points. It worked: Mike and I played to the same groove, and we ended up winning the tournament. Heading home in the van after the final, the two of us were revved up, joyous. We listened to “Sympathy” for the thousandth time and pounded the tops of the seats in front of us, to the extreme annoyance of our teammates.

My musical tastes expanded further in college. I spent an inordinate amount of my first semester at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia borrowing dormmates’ CDs and creating mix tapes out of them. In the spring, I made one to listen to during our tennis team’s annual spring break trip to California, where we would play our rivals for the No. 1 ranking in the NCAA’s Division III, UC-Santa Cruz, on their home courts.

This was our Super Bowl. In my four years on the team, we would play Santa Cruz for the Division III national title twice, winning once and losing once. On this day, they were ranked No. 1 and stocked with upperclassmen; we featured three freshmen, myself included.

My tape had begun as a hard-rock mix, then detoured into softer territory. It wasn’t designed as pump-up music. But as our team made the nervous walk to the courts to warm up, one of our seniors, Vivek, hit the play button on his boom box. The familiar, towering opening chords of the first song on the tape, Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” resounded.

Vivek put the box on a bench nearby and we started hitting. The early songs were appropriately hard-edged—Bob Dylan’s sarcastic “Positively 4th Street,” some early, punky U2. A few minutes later, the Santa Cruz team took over the remaining courts. One of their seniors plunked his own box down on the bench nearest them. He pressed play with what I thought was a hint of disdain. As the first notes thumped out, I knew we’d been routed in the psych-up contest. It was Led Zeppelin’s primal, unmistakable “Whole Lotta Love.” As the tape continued, it became clear we were going to get Led Zeppelin II in its entirety.

Part of me scorned the lack of imagination, but a more honest part had to hand it to them for staying focused on what was important: Zep’s grinding guitar and banshee vocals quite simply made you want to crush someone. The wisdom of this approach became clearer as my own tape, now barely audible, played on. It no longer seemed so inspiring, or even all that manly. The final straw came when I heard the opening lines of the Chiffons’ 1960s girl-group classic, “He’s So Fine”—“He’s so fine/Wish he were mine.” I closed my eyes in pain and whispered, “Oh, God, not this,” then jogged off the court as inconspicuously as I could to stop the tape. When I got back, one of my teammates asked, with a slight smile, “Tignor, what have you been listening to?” I had no good answer. We would have to use Santa Cruz’s music for motivation. We lost.

That was 20 years ago. In that time, the boom box has given way to the iPod, a device that has made zoning out before matches almost mandatory. I could psych myself up with the Chiffons in peace if I wanted to now, but I compete only sporadically these days. A year or so ago, I set up a match at a club on the other side of Manhattan from my office. It was a nice evening, so I set out across the city on foot. I scrolled through the songs on my iPod and finally settled on one of my favorites, one that I thought would brace me for the match: Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.” Its stately rhythm suited my walking pace, and the soaring harmonica solo—on this evening, I could imagine that Dylan was bending notes against the sky—was a perfect soundtrack for the sunset that was lighting up Manhattan’s skyscrapers.

Then the song ended. I walked into the club in a daze. It was too much. I couldn’t focus—that harmonica was stuck in my head—and ended up losing. I wondered if an activity as cerebral and in the moment as tennis can be affected at all by music, the purpose of which is to take you out of yourself. If Bob Dylan couldn’t make a difference, who could?

A week or so later, that question was answered by a single booming, overamped drumbeat. I heard it while sitting in a New York bar, but it was powerful enough to transport me back to my teenage years in Pennsylvania.

In the mid-’80s, I had played in a weekend winter league in my hometown’s indoor club. Every Sunday I got in my parents’ Honda Accord and popped in a tape of Run-DMC’s “Rock Box.” I’d turn the volume up to ear-splitting levels and make the drive through the small, snow-covered town to the club. The streets were deserted, a far cry from the Queens neighborhoods where this music was born. But that’s what made its energy, its screaming guitar and laughably bombastic lyrics—“I’m drivin’ a Caddy/You’re fixin’ a Ford”—so galvanizing. These three guys from the boroughs had turned themselves into superheroes. And they understood a harsh fact of sports, and life: For victory to mean anything, someone else had to lose. Driving the Caddy isn’t half as sweet if the other guy isn’t fixing the Ford. It’s not a pretty thing to say, but winning a tennis match wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying without the knowledge that your opponent lost.

“Rock Box” always ended as I pulled up to the club. Every week I played a match with the words ringing in my head. Every week I won. So here’s a belated thank you and salute to Run, DMC, and their late DJ, Jam Master Jay, for—accidentally, no doubt—giving one tennis player the best inspiration he's ever had.


Posted by Andrew Friedman (a.k.a. Rolo Tomassi) 11/26/2008 at 09:15 PM

Happy Thanksgiving, Steve!

Great piece - read it in the magazine, and just reread it now.

Funny what you said about not needing much more than Fed and Rafa - so true...

Enjoy the holidays...

Posted by crazyone 11/26/2008 at 09:25 PM

*What am I thankful for? Most of all, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for making tennis the best that it's ever been. I don't need much more than those two guys.*

This is kind of hilarious, given that earlier you said you didn't understand why these two guys had so many ardent fans that adored them above the rest....

Posted by jon 11/26/2008 at 09:33 PM

I'm not even joking when I say that I've burned a cd with nothing but 'Eye of The Tiger' on it, 15 times. Kind of pointless on a cd, but it's funny to put it on in a car full of people, pretend to get tired of the song after like 2 minutes, then go to the next track's the same song. I made it to pump me up for running a few miles every night, but a tennis match is just as good. death/black metal gets me pumped up for tennis (strange but true).

Posted by SwissMaestro 11/26/2008 at 10:36 PM


I don't need much more than Federer vs Nadal either, I completely agree when you say they make tennis the best it;s ever been. I can't wait for the 4th RG-Wimby double in a row...

Posted by SwissMaestro 11/26/2008 at 10:51 PM

What about "burning heart" also by survivor for a pump up song???

" the warrior's code there's no surrender though his body says "stop!" his spirit cries "never!"..."

Posted by Game,Set,Match... 11/27/2008 at 02:09 AM

I'm grateful for roger and rafa too, but it would be nice if roger could win a few more, preferably at the big W

Posted by SRao 11/27/2008 at 07:02 AM

Thanks Steve...i'm from Bangalore.I read these posts every day.I must admit,I've begun to like your late.I'm a big fan of Pete and Kamakshi though!This concept of Thanksgiving is absurd..especially for Easterners...but your post just was awesome,it was enlightening in some ways.You made it sound like it is one helluva of a day.Now...i can also say Thank-you to Roger-Rafa for making Tennis so beautiful and the-best sport on this planet.Tennis dosent need anybody else,indeed.It's kinda of sad,u know,I adore Rafa so much but not his game..and that's where the problem lies...i prefer just-Roger-winning all the time.Only then Tennis becomes satisfying for me knowing that Rafa has lost!!!

Posted by Story of Os 11/27/2008 at 07:08 AM

For 2009, we need the good, the bad and the ugly... Fed, Nadal and Murray.

Posted by 11/27/2008 at 08:56 AM

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
Story of Os- totally agree with you about needing Murray in the mix, too. Although, I really enjoy the rivalry between Nadal and Federer, tennis tournaments are more interesting to me when there are a couple of other threats to the world's #1 and #2. 2008 was wonderful imo mainly because I didn't always know which player would win the final match (except during the clay court season).

Steve, you wrote about Nalbandian playing well during the fall indoor season when nobody was watching. I think you underestimate most of us tennis fans. I, for one, was watching, watching, watching....and I'm not a fan of Nalbandian...just a fan of tennis!

Posted by luvten 11/27/2008 at 10:38 AM

oops! That was me at 8:56. My mind is on the meal today:) (family and friends, too, of course)

Posted by luxsword 11/27/2008 at 12:47 PM

Wow, very good read, indeed. Love it. :D

Posted by Valevapor 11/27/2008 at 01:05 PM

Thanks for your great articles, Steve, you've definitely become my favorite tennis writer! The entire world of sport should be thankful for Rafa and Roger and their peerless blend of athletic excellence and sportsmanship. Best small moment of 2008: a weary and deflated Rafa Nadal signing numerous autographs AFTER his LOSS to Murray at the US Open.

Posted by andy 11/27/2008 at 01:13 PM

Very entertaining article. Read it in the magazine and enjoyed rereading today.

In some future posts, I'd love to hear more stories about college tennis, from you or any other posters who played college ball. I didn't start following tennis all that closely until my late-20s. I've since watched a few DIII matches and been struck by how good these players are.

I remember once watching a couple of players from Washington College, a pretty good DIII school, ripping groundstrokes with what, to my untrained eye, looked like a pro-level combination of power and spin. I asked the coach whether any of his players had ever turned pro. He looked at me like I was from Mars. I soon learned just how just how competitive the game is at the higher levels.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Posted by skip1515 11/27/2008 at 08:50 PM

So, years ago I drive to the courts to play Gene. We've been duking it out since we were teenagers. I have Beethoven blairing on the cd player. I lose, playing like poop. Gene says, "That's what you get for psyching up with that ubermensch music."

Can anyone really play a match without a soundtrack in their head? It's a rhetorical question; I know it doesn't work for everyone. For those for whom it does work, or seems to be a requirement, it still doesn't guarantee anything. It's like that lucky red sweatband: you won big with it once, so it *had* to be a key element to the W and must be worn for every big match afterwards, regaredless of its subsequent track record.

Going to matches now I don't look to get ramped up. Instead I want something with a rolling groove that will give me something to focus on, a foundation other than the match itself and how it's going. Lyrics might matter. The music line always does.

Recent picks: Moby/Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad? from Play, Los Lobos/Good Morning Aztlan from the album of the same name, something from the Eels I heard but didn't absorb well enough to remember, and the Kinks/This Is Where I Belong from Face To Face.

I can't think of a place I'd rather be.
The whole wide world doesn't mean so much to me,
For this is where I belong,
This is where I belong.

Hearing it in your head on the changeover is kind of like Billie Jean's saying she'd find herself at a big point, full of pressure, and she'd think, "I LOVE this!"

But with more pop sensibility, don't you think?

Posted by Pierre 11/28/2008 at 05:59 AM

Is it possible that when you are beaten, rather than being due to your choice of pre-match music, it might be because your opponent is better than you?

Posted by skip1515 11/28/2008 at 09:05 AM


Posted by skip1515 11/28/2008 at 09:06 AM


Posted by steve 11/28/2008 at 04:26 PM

hilarious comment yourself, crazyone!

skip, 'this is where i belong' works because it is actually a positive sentiment from ray davies, of all people, so you know he must mean it.

in the same vein, i used to try 'the lucky one' by freedy johnston. very soothing and, i once thought, very positive. until i listened to the words more closely, which are about a deluded gambler trying to leave las vegas. he kept saying to himself, 'i know i'm the lucky one' as he lost it all.

so i stopped listening to that one.

glad you enjoyed this one twice, andrew and andy

Posted by steve 11/28/2008 at 04:31 PM

it's all about the musical choice, pierre. if i have it right, i'm unbeatable

Posted by steve 11/28/2008 at 04:39 PM

SRao, glad you are finally coming around to my posts. why did you change your mind? and what do kamakshi and bodo possibly have that i don't? (actually, sometimes i like their posts better than mine, too. sometimes.)

yes, anonymous, i know the hard core are watching nalbo in the fall season. i was watching, too; i knew this was the time to watch him. but i think you know what i mean.

Posted by andy 11/28/2008 at 07:08 PM

My personal pre-match soundtrack is McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't no stoppin' us now."

I feel mildly ridiculous as I pop it into the dash on my way to a league match with a bunch of middle-aged warriors, but I've had enough success after listening to this Philly International anthem that I'm convinced I don't stand a chance without it.


Posted by Pierre 11/28/2008 at 07:42 PM

You know, I am going to try the Blue Danube Waltz tomorrow, maybe it will keep me on a nice even keel.

Posted by skip1515 11/28/2008 at 09:57 PM

You go, Pierre! Now you're talkin'!

Posted by luxsword 11/29/2008 at 10:09 AM

It's funny, last month I heard Nina Simone's take of Sweet Lord and I though it'd be great to practice on that... Anybody tried ? :)

Posted by RM 11/29/2008 at 10:09 AM

interesting to read srao's thought. it is wierd that as much as i like rafa and not his tennis, nothing makes the game more beautiful than to see him lose to roger. strange how someone else feels exactly the same. nonetheless have to agree that these 2 have brought a whole new dimension and fans to tennis.

Posted by John 11/29/2008 at 10:11 AM


Posted by jojo 11/29/2008 at 10:26 AM

Try inspirational Church music to set your focus before a match. Beethoven's Song of Joy is great......the modern Shine, Jesus, shine will help as well.........

Posted by Pierre 11/29/2008 at 01:42 PM


Dahh Dah-Dah-Dah Dahhhhhh……… Doink Doink!...Doink Doink!

Dahh Dah-Dah-Dah Dahhhhhh……… Doink Doink!...Doink Doink!

Dahh Dah-Dah-Dah Dahhhhhhhhhh……

Posted by Steve 11/29/2008 at 01:43 PM

'only then can i enjoy tennis knowing rafa has lost'

srao and rm: appreciate the thoughts about nadal/federer; it seems to be a common reaction. i personally don't think the game is more beautiful, or more right, when nadal loses to federer. to me, nadal's unique personality and game have extended the plane on which modern tennis excellence, even genius, can exist. it doesn't have to be on the sampras/federer, smooth-attacking model. if you think either federer or nadal plays tennis the 'way it was meant to be played,' you're wrong. it's a personal preference, nothing more

Posted by Steve 11/29/2008 at 01:46 PM

Nina simone: i'd think anything would work, whether you want soothing or propulsive. the voice itself is an inspiration

Posted by Steve 11/29/2008 at 01:53 PM

the pro tour awaits, pierre

Posted by Pierre 11/29/2008 at 01:57 PM

I don't want to sell out and lose my integrity as an amateur.

Posted by Story of Os 11/29/2008 at 02:04 PM

A few players can produce beautiful tennis but nobody does it as well and often as Fed. RM, Fed needs his A game to beat a healthy Nadal so when that happens, it is always a beautiful match. Wish Nadal can stay injury free and keep the rivalry alive but their health situations are heading in opposite directions already so Fed will regain his 2006 form and take at least 3 slams in 2009 (US Open will be very tough with grand slam on the line). Well, isn't this what Xmas is all about.

Posted by Lleytsie 11/29/2008 at 07:14 PM

HAPPY TG steveie -

this was a lovely post

i love eye of the tiger - and no leaf clover by metallica - before i hit some balls


Posted by a 11/29/2008 at 08:43 PM


Posted by Slice-n-Dice 11/29/2008 at 11:09 PM

My soundtrack has covered everything from Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright" to lots of Traffic (yeah, I'm a big fan of their stuff, too) to Pink Floyd (just for the instrumentals and metronomic rythms) to Led Zepellin to The Kinks to The Beatles to The Stones to Roxy Music (yeah, I admit it). The Beatles would play in my head incessantly when I was on the mound as a 12-year-old Little League pitcher. To this day, when I hear certain songs like "Come Together" I'm transported directly back to that dusty mound where I first discovered my inner competitor.

Thanks for this one, Steve.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 11/29/2008 at 11:10 PM

Oh, and The Guess Who also. Really like their stuff, and even today "She's Come Undone" thrills me.

Posted by Jack 11/30/2008 at 01:37 AM

Right now my 'pump up music' is Bleed It Out by Linkin Park.

Posted by joger 11/30/2008 at 06:21 AM

Simply the best - Tina Turner

Posted by foible 11/30/2008 at 11:00 AM

linkin park... eww. i'd bleed on court before i lost to a linkin pork fan. best not to tell your opponents you listen to linkin pork, they mat develop a superiority complex :P

kudos for a thoroughly entertaining read, Steve.

Posted by 11/30/2008 at 02:26 PM


Posted by Steve 11/30/2008 at 03:46 PM

slice, what is embarrassing about roxy music? was it 'love is the drug' rather than 'more than this'

last good one for me was the drive-by truckers' 'two daughter and a beautiful wife.' not sure why, but it is soothing (despite the fact that it's about death).

or maybe it's because i was going to play squash, which may require a whole different pump-up procedure than tennis. i haven't found it yet. oh, also 'i don't mind' by the buzzcocks. ripping punk, with the most exhilarating mid-song chord change in rock history. it sticks in your head, but it doesn't make you think too much, like dylan.

Posted by Andy 11/30/2008 at 08:27 PM

Can't tell if you're being ironic with the Roxy Music comment, but I like Charlie Hunger's version of "More than this" with Norah Jones on vocals. More a post-match, than a pre-match, song. Too mellow. I need something to fire me up, not calm me down.


Posted by skip1515 11/30/2008 at 09:01 PM

How could one ever be ironic about the band that recorded In Every Dream Home A Heartache?


Roxy: one of my top five best concert stage sets ever. Avalon tour.
Bryan Ferry: one of my top five concerts ever. Amazing, just amazing. From standards to English Tin Pan Alley to Al Green to echoes of Ray Manzanera's guitar skittering on top of the melody, all with horns and an female string quartet.

Posted by Jimmy Mulligan 11/30/2008 at 09:20 PM

I played competitve USTA tennis through every age division in Florida. I don't remember music that for sure helped win a tournament. Its possible that I couldn't stand to listen to the same song over and over or it would have been permanantly stuck in my head? Rockin out with your head phones on by yourself was not as normal back then, as it is now.

High School tennis was much more relaxed because the competition was at a different level than I was. So we would jam 6 guys on the team into a ford ranger, that had two sixteen inch speakers behind the seat. Park right by the other schools courts when they were warming up. Then we would blast welcome to the jungle by guns'n roses, and jump out of the truck like wild maniacs! It was great fun although Im 100% sure we looked really stupid. We didnt lose. So may be I should have done this in tournaments when it counted. LOL.

Music can keep your mind off all the technical things that are going through your head and allow you to play in the moment. It's possible that you believe a certain song has helped you win? You put confidence and faith into your song thats running through your head, and there for it helps you "find a rhythm" on the court.(or you have rhythm and the song helps bring it out?)

If it helps your confidence than do it. I enjoy practicing with the music for fun, and then in competition just thinking about key points over and over. I've told myself more than a million times " Hit your shots or your going home!" lol thats my favorite still to this day.

Its an interesting subject and a great write up. I don't think that tennis players by nature would tell you "yeah, I just got the new Beyonce CD. I listened to it before every match and I won the French Open!" That would be funny.

Steve if you won matches after listening to Run-DMC then your the man. Those guys were the greatest. Happy Holidays.

Posted by tomasson 11/30/2008 at 11:37 PM

Yes!! Led Zeppelin the best of the best!!

Posted by 12/01/2008 at 09:11 AM


Posted by punter 12/01/2008 at 11:23 AM

I'm curious Steve, what level do you play?

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/01/2008 at 12:32 PM

You're right, Steve, there's nothing embarrassing about Roxy Music. Bryan Ferry's vocals are so sultry. But yes, "Love Is the Drug" was a wart. But "More Than This" was exquisite.

Posted by joe_can_bike 12/01/2008 at 02:55 PM

Steve, saw a mention of Nina Simone. I've never used her music to inspire me for tennis per se, but definitely to inspire me to be more...I don't know, more human? more magnificent? more something, that's for sure.

For everyone, find "who knows where the time goes" on youtube.

Steve, thanks for the great writing, always a treat.

Posted by lois 12/01/2008 at 06:32 PM

I am most thankful for all the new friends I have made on the different tennis blogs I have found and Rafa and Roger games that brought me back too a wonderful love of tennis. But I would like Roger to get away-way from Djoke. Come On Rog you can do this.
Stay Well and Safe-Please!

Posted by M-life 12/03/2008 at 05:12 PM

Led Zepplin??? People still listen to them???

Posted by Jennifer Browne 12/04/2008 at 03:51 PM


This is off topic, but can you put a bug in the ear of the USTA to have the Davis Cup with the Swiss at MSG-
Fed proved he could sell it out when playing top Americans-
that would be quite the event, don't you think?

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