Playing Ball: A Minute in the Zone

Friday, August 19, 2011 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1a This is my last post before a brief, pre-U.S. Open vacation; you'll have to survive the rest of Cincy without me. For my Racquet Reaction on Mardy Fish's win over Rafael Nadal, go here. See you next week.

*****

When it comes to choosing a racquet, I’ve always been a fair-weather player. Nothing but a No. 1's frame will do for me.

I started, in the early 1980s, with my first idol Bjorn Borg’s orange and black Donnay, a sledgehammer carved out of wood. Under pressure from the midsize graphite revolution, and wanting to stick with a winner rather than a retiree, I switched to my second idol John McEnroe’s equally club-like Dunlop Max 200g in 1984. Even as Mac himself began to fade, I stuck with the ol’ green-and-black through high school, until the next great American player, Pete Sampras, came out of nowhere to blitz his way to the 1990 U.S. Open title. Sampras was never an idol of mine, but I immediately loved the 85-inch, and extremely dead, version of the Wilson Pro Staff that he used. It took me 10 years to trade that one in, and even now, when I pull it out and take a few swings, it still feels perfect—perfectly dead.

By the time I reached 30, though, 85 inches wasn’t quite getting it done anymore. I moved on to another, larger, friendlier version of the Pro Staff, the purple 5.3. No racquet has ever felt quite so right in my hand, but Wilson stopped making it fairly quickly, and my last one finally broke in half. Plus, the best player who endorsed it was Magnus Norman. The Swede was No. 2 for about a minute and a half, but whatever his ranking and whatever his nationality, he was no Bjorn Borg.

Each summer, for the last few years, I’ve picked up a new racquet in Tennis magazine’s offices. That’s not a bad perk, but it has kept me from getting grooved with any one frame. There hasn’t been much rhyme or reason to my choices, and I’ve had to alter my game slightly each year to fit my new, temporary racquet. One summer it was a Boris Becker Serve Man model; another year it was a Yonex with a very open string pattern. Last year I went back to my roots with a thin-beam Donnay. And I did gravitate to a new No. 1 player’s racquet one season, when I had a brief, difficult relationship with the Wilson that Roger Federer was using at the time, the NCode or the KFactor or the BLX or whatever it was called that year. Federer’s 90-inch frame wasn’t easy to swing, but when you swung it right, the ball went to good places. I’ve always been amazed at how the pros basically want the toughest thing they can find to play with, and then they proceed to make it even tougher by adding all kinds of weight to it. I tried one of Yevgeny Kafelnikov's Fischer frames one year at Wimbledon and had to put it down after 15 minutes. I’m not sure what it did to my arm, and I don’t want to know. It took half the fortnight to recover.

This summer, when I got back from Wimbledon and began searching the offices for my new summer stick, our gear editor, Richard Pagliaro, suggested I try Novak Djokovic’s 100-square-inch Head racquet. I was torn. I’d never used anything bigger than a 95, and I didn’t want to admit that I might need the bigger head to give me back a little of the power I’ve inevitably lost. But Djokovic was a No. 1 now, so I decided to keep the tradition going and took it hiome.

I didn’t love it at first. The extra head size bothered me. It’s just a little more racquet that you have to get through the hitting zone, and that’s particularly tough on one-handed backhands. (It’s the two-handed guys who typically use the big frames, and I can see why Roger Federer would be loath to move up.) But after a few sessions, I got the hang of the Head. My first serve had more pace, second serve had more bite, and I was even coming over my topspin backhand more easily, and occasionally keeping it in the court. My opponents immediately noticed the difference. I had to admit it: I really had needed the extra space.

Of course, all problems were not suddenly solved forever. I still missed just as many first serves, still threw in ugly shank backhands at inopportune moments, and still hit my share of ill-advised crosscourt approaches—there was nothing the Djoker’s racquet could do about that.

It’s been a good abbreviated summer on the courts nonetheless, and the bigger stick has given me some new life, and perhaps new prospects for improvement. I’ve been able to move back farther behind the baseline again, a particular pleasure for anyone who plays in New York. There’s rarely much room behind any court here, but a couple of them at my club do give you some space. It’s fun to roam, take time to set up, launch topspin balls from far away—we always tell Gael Monfils to move up in the court, but I can see the appeal of hanging back, even if it isn't the smartest way to go.

On humid weekday afternoons I’ve gotten to play on an otherwise empty set of courts, with only the rising sound of the cicadas all around us for company. In the evenings, I’ve played until the only thing you can see is the yellow of the tennis ball coming out of the dusk. I’ve been unable to get any number of songs out of my head as I’ve played; today’s was “Marianne,” by Nolan Strong and the Diablos, not a bad tune to have stuck in there. And I’ve given myself the usual wide variety of instructions and reminders in my mind: “Reach up” for my serve; “hit out” on my second delivery; “attack the ball” on returns. I even tried a tribute to my favorite departing TV show this year, Friday Night Lights: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose," I mumbled to myself as one set began. Just so you know, it’s not true.

I also, for a few games, found the Zone. They say it’s a peaceful, Zen kind of place, where you can’t miss even if you tried, and that is how it felt. I really didn’t think I could miss a forehand from any part of the court, and for the span of maybe 20 minutes I didn’t. And then it was over. There was no explaining it's coming, or it’s going; it wasn’t connected to anything I told myself or what I ate that day or how much sleep I had or even what I was consciously thinking. One minute I felt like if I swung all out at a forehand, whether it was high or low, crosscourt or down the line, it was going to find the corner. But by the start of the next set, I felt different as I swung. It felt like the ball might go out, might sail long if I took a big cut, and that made all the difference. I didn’t start shanking forehands all over the place, but I stopped hitting winners.

Our confidence, or at least my confidence, seems to move like a pendulum. It swings between poles, and every so often it swings into the elusive zone where you can make the ball go exactly where you want it to go. It’s true, as they say, that when you’re there, you’re not really thinking; your arm takes over for your brain. But it’s not as if you can control this, either. You don't play well every time you stop thinking—more often than not, the opposite is the case.

No, you can’t talk or think you’re way into the Zone. It doesn’t last long. And it’s sad to leave it behind when it does go. But where else in life can you feel, for a few minutes at least, that you can do no wrong?

*****

Have a good weekend and enjoy the rest of Cincy. I'll be back mid-week for the Big Show. Until then, I've got Clarissa and Soft Machine and some time at the beach—what else do you need?

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