Playing Ball: Easier Said Than Done

Friday, July 11, 2014 /by
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Every so often, the spectator should enter the arena, the reviewer should take the stage, the armchair quarterback should stand up and throw a ball across his man cave. It's helpful, now and then, to be reminded of what it’s like to try to do the things we watch and criticize all year long. Friday was that day for me. It was my first time on a tennis court since coming back from Wimbledon, and it didn’t take long for me to start thinking, again, that there are quite a few things about this game that are much easier said than done. Here are a few that came to mind while I was playing.

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“Don’t show so much negative emotion”

I’ve given this piece of advice to Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic more than once recently. It seemed to me that they both talked themselves out of Paris, and that Djokovic nearly did the same in his Wimbledon semi with Grigor Dimitrov. He was much calmer in the final, and it helped.

But while Novak may have listened to me, I had trouble listening to myself. In the second game of my match, after my third straight return of serve had sailed long, I stopped, stared across the net, threw my hands up, shook my head, and kept shaking it as I looked up at the sky in pain—I won't tell you what I said. Not surprisingly, I sailed the next return long as well. 

Why do we need to dramatize our mistakes, to act out our reactions to them? The tennis court is one of the few places where people can talk to themselves without being called crazy. As Tim Gallwey wrote in The Inner Game of Tennis, the sport shows us that we have two selves. We’re the actor and our own audience, and the game is a play that we perform for ourselves.

Sometimes, when I’m starting to lose it, I’ll tell myself, “Try to play like Borg.” If he could hold it all in, why can’t I? Then the thought passes, I get mad again, and I think, “No wonder he quit when he was 25. That's what you get for hiding your emotions all the time.” Maybe the lesson is: You won’t play better if you're angry, but at least you’ll keep playing.

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“Don’t go for so much”

This thought has run through my head countless times as I’ve watched Maria Sharapova. Even when she’s obviously off her game, she keeps firing away, at top speed, into the corners. So on Friday, I tried to take my own advice and do the opposite. When I approached the net, I hit for placement rather than power, chipped my backhands deep, gave myself time to get in, and, as tennis pros like to say, “made the other guy come up with the pass.” The only problem was, the other guy kept coming up with the pass. In an attempt to play the percentages, I had become too cautious

From the outside, a shot that’s hit hard and close to the lines can look unnecessarily risky. What we don’t see is what would have happened if the player hadn’t taken that chance—he or she might have given the opponent an easy ball. It's easy to forget, as we watch, that every shot must strike a balance between too much risk and too much caution, and the outcome might have been just as bad if that balance had tilted the other way.

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“Attack your volleys”

This is what I’ve been telling Roger Federer for years. He tends to run through his, relying on his (admittedly reliable) hands, rather then his legs and feet to get him set for the shot. Like Federer and virtually every other pro, I spend most of my time at the baseline. For me, and for many of them, the net can feel like a foreign country.

Djokovic, Sharapova, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick: All of these major champions have looked, at times, as if they had no idea what they were doing at the net, no idea which way to move, or what to do with the ball when it came to them. I understand the feeling. Suddenly, you have half the amount of time to get ready. Suddenly, your normal grip doesn’t work. Suddenly, you have to fly forward and cut off a shot, rather than waiting for it. Suddenly, as you’re thinking all of these things, the ball is past you.

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“Don’t play so far back”

This is the cry of every Rafael Nadal fan. Rafa, when he’s not feeling confident, has a tendency to drift backward. Yes, he’s better when he’s closer to the baseline, but there’s a reason he moves back: It works, too. There’s something reassuring about dropping back on an opponent’s serve—first or second—and sending the return back with more height and topspin. You have time to take a full swing, you don’t feel rushed, and you can still get good depth and pace—the more topspin you put on the ball, the more it will jump forward. Backing up is not the same as giving in.

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“Stop choking”

OK, I understand that controlling your nerves is not simply a matter of effort and willpower—sometimes you just can’t do it. Still, perhaps more than anything else in sports, choking in tennis shows how different our outward appearances and our inner emotions are. A player can look the same as he or she has all set, yet play completely differently when it's close. Shots that the player was making look so easy a few minutes earlier are now virtually impossible to repeat. This is what I walked away thinking at the end of the Wimbledon final. Federer had lived by his serve for four hours, until he was down 4-5 in the fifth; then he couldn’t buy one. He hadn’t out and out choked, but something in his mind had changed just enough to change that shot.

The same happened to me on Friday. In my first four service holds, I could hardly have missed a first ball if I had tried. But when I tried to close it out at 5-3, I was just a little less loose in my motion. I tried to force it just a bit. I ended up double-faulting twice and was broken for the first time. 

The only saving grace was, unlike Federer, I didn’t have anyone asking me afterward: What went wrong out there? Why couldn't you get your serve in?

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I’m going to the beach, and will return on Monday, July 21. Have a good week without me.

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