Playing Ball: I Smell a Meltdown

Friday, August 08, 2008 /by

Tennisballrebound1aNo, this column is not about Marat Safin in L.A. this weekend. Nor is it about the Olympics, which I am now suddenly excited about after viewing this slideshow of the Opening Ceremonies and photos over at Getty Images of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Fernando Gonzalez eating them up. Starting this weekend, our friend Ed McGrogan will be live-blogging the matches over the feed at NBC.com; I’ll be taking over next weekend (no, we’re not in Beijing; we’ll be doing our work from someplace slightly less hazy: Stamford, Conn.).

For now, I leave you with a humble, and perhaps somewhat disturbing, recreational piece about one man's struggle to keep it together on court.

I attended a Philadephia 76ers playoff game this past spring. Surrounding me was a staple of the city’s sports scene: Young men with loud, raspy voices who provide running commentary on the action for anyone within earshot. It’s not as bad or gross as it may sound; these guys are often knowledgeable and funny. They say what you’re thinking, for better and for worse.

The Sixers led the Detroit Pistons early but were losing that lead in a hurry. Our only hope seemed to come in the form of Philadelphia native son and all-time head case Rasheed Wallace. Each time the Pistons threatened to run away with it, Sheed would go on one of his painfully desperate arguing sprees after being called for a foul. Early in the fourth quarter he was whistled for another one. That crazed look came into his eyes again, but his teammates gently bodied him away from the referee and formed a wall between them. Still, Sheed continued to stare him down. From two rows behind me came the taunting voice of a young man who spoke for all of us: “I smell a meltdown!” For a second, there was hope that Wallace, who had been killing the Sixers with his outside shot, might get himself ejected. Alas, the Pistons coach took him out and sat him at the far end of the bench, where he couldn’t do any immediate harm.

This summer I’ve heard those four words—“I smell a meltdown!”—in my head more than once on the tennis court. I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about how the best players are the ones who can control their emotions, and for the most part I practice what I preach. I don’t spend a lot of time muttering under my breath, berating myself, or bouncing my racquet off the clay at my club. As I’ve read more about the history of the sport over the years, I’ve also taken its sporting credo more seriously than I once did. Seeing someone show serious anger on court makes me cringe now—it seems like a violation of tennis’ gentleman’s code. I’ve even gotten into the mental habit of blocking out negative thoughts and psyching myself up—I tap the court with my racquet and say a quick “come on” to myself (yes, I really do that)—whenever I’m down 30-0 on my opponent's serve. I can’t be that positive, or that ridiculous, all the time, so I give special attention to that one situation. The difference between 40-0 and 30-15 is too big to let that point go by like any other.

Then there are my less-than-positive moments. These tend to occur against one opponent of mine. We get along well, play competitive matches, and have never come close to having an argument on court—we’d both be embarrassed if we did. But there’s something about the familiarity of his game that breeds, not contempt, but annoyance. Competitive annoyance. He’s a scrambler and a good defender—he’s got too many shots to be labeled a pusher—whose anticipation allows him to run down virtually anything, even if I’m hitting from inside the service line. I can’t count the number of times he’s floated back a serve that I was sure was an ace. Even worse is his confounded, uncanny ability to race all the way across the baseline to track down a well-hit forehand of mine, stab at it just as it’s about to bounce a second time, and send it soaring into the air, after which it lands with a smack on my baseline. Just as I've begun to relax, thinking the point was mine, I’m starting it all over. This is annoying—OK, infuriating—beyond all words. Rather than play a normal shot back, I want to blast the ball over the fence and claim the point on principle. What principle, exactly, I wouldn't be able to say.

Having played my opponent so often, I obviously know that he’s going to do this. And I know that my best chance of winning is to face reality and ignore my anger. I stop and remind myself of this periodically, and I play more controlled and rational tennis for a while. But the fact that I know he’s going to make these impossible shots doesn’t help my mindset. It only makes it worse. If it happened once a match, I might say, “Wow, nice get.” As it is now, I never say that. When it happens over and over, when my best shots float back and land on my baseline time after time, it just seems, for lack of a more grown-up word, unfair.

Every once in a while it gets to be too much, and, well, I begin to smell a meltdown. I typically pick up the scent at the beginning of one of my service games, immediately after a game in which I’ve had chances to break. If I’ve blown a makeable shot on one of those points, I’ll have trouble getting it out of my head before I start serving the next game. This is one of the burdens of playing sports, and tennis in particular: The past stays with you. I know there’s no way to replay a point that I’ve lost, but my mind doesn’t accept it. The time in between points isn’t long enough for my brain to process my error as history, as something that can’t be changed. Often, in the middle of a point sometime late in a set, I’ll find myself thinking—daydreaming, really—about a crucial earlier ball that I’ve missed. I’ll even go so far as to imagine myself hitting it for a winner. This may be one clue as to why I never became a pro.

Even worse is blowing a point in a characteristic way. I’ve lost innumerable break chances over the years by floating my slice backhand return long. When I do it now, I don’t react immediately, but the frustration—with the mistake, with my nervous reaction to a key point, with my inability to improve that shot, with everything about me—begins to build.

It happened again this past weekend. Playing my usual opponent, I sailed a backhand long on a break point and eventually lost the game. On the first point of my service game, I sent two serves long; obviously, the frustration was there, even if I wasn’t conscious of it. When I bounced the ball before my next serve, it took a bad hop off the clay. This was too much for me to handle. I sighed, threw my palms in the air, and stared at the bumps in the clay surface below me, silently blaming them for this inconvenience. It was meltdown time. I was powerless to stop it.

I managed to get my serve in and we started to rally. I hit a good forehand into the corner, and, like clockwork, he got just enough of his racquet on it to send up a towering lob that barely cleared the net. I jogged forward, savoring the chance to take out some of my frustration on the ball. I let the ball bounce, took a huge—too huge—swing, and sent an overhead 10 feet long. I stood and stared across the net, not sure whether to chuck my racquet over the fence or try to beat the net to pieces with it. Instead, I walked over to pick up another ball and said, under my breath, “Sick of this baby tennis!” On one rational level, I didn’t want my opponent to hear this; but on another irrational and competitive level, I did. I wanted him to know that, unlike him, I was playing real tennis, whether I’d won that point or not. I lost the next point and sent my racquet flying toward my sideline chair with a hard, sidearm toss. Meltdown complete.

By the time we changed sides, I’d gathered myself enough to be thoroughly embarrassed. My opponent is a friend of mine and now I could only hope that he hadn’t heard what I said—of course his shots weren't unfair. I realized again that the line about “the heat of battle” is a cliché for a reason. The feelings you have when you’re in it, the things you’ll say, are mortifying just a few minutes later. This is the challenge that tennis’ gentleman’s code lays down for you: To remain civilized while you’re in the heat of the moment. Living up to it is not easy, but I’m glad it’s there, if only to make me appropriately embarrassed when I don’t.

My opponent won that set. He mixed in forehand winners and excellent serving alongside his irritating defense—like I said, he’s no pusher. I took it like a man, if not a perfect gentleman. But seeing his winners touch down in the corners was only marginally easier to take than missing my own easy shots had been. When I lose, I’m never consoled by the idea that “the other guy was just too good.” Unless I’m playing someone who's utterly out of my league, or unless my opponent aces me on every point, I always have a hand in my defeats—we all do. In an individual sport, no one can perform well unless you let them. Playing fields don’t get any more level—any fairer—than a tennis court: You’ve got the opportunity to make whatever you can out of virtually every point. That may be the most satisfying thing of all about the sport. And the most infuriating.

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