When last we left, well, me, I was deliberating whether I should appeal my rating from a 4.0 to a 3.5. I didn't feel like a 4.0 and there are more league opportunities for 3.5 players out here. So I appealed, and it was successful. Just like that, I was a 3.5. Sure, that years-long climb to get to that higher rating was all wiped out, but oh, well. You gotta crack some walnuts to eat the walnut. Something like that.
I promptly signed up for my usual 7.0 mixed combo team, expecting to play better now that the pressure of carrying a team was off. My partner and I strutted onto the court and started warming up against our opponents. I was feeling really good. Then I took a look down at my racquet strings, which were barely still connected. I'd just switched racquets and only had one of those. I figured that if the strings broke during the match, I'd have to use one of my old ones, so I switched out racquets towards the end of warmups and yikes! I'd been hitting that stick for probably six years and in that moment, it felt completely foreign to me. There was no pro on site to work on my new racquet, so I took a deep breath and forged ahead.
The first set probably lasted about 20 minutes and every second of it I spent cursing my luck, and wishing I'd had a backup. My partner was playing pretty well, as were our opponents, and every time it came to my racquet, I botched the point. I decided to switch back to the original racquet for the beginning of the second set, and I felt much better. Unfortunately, my inward drama had no effect on the opposing team. Despite much tougher points in the second set, we still lost. And the strings never did break.
I am aware of the mental issues that have settled into my game, especially in league matches. I just don't know what to do about them. Having to play with a backup racquet should not be a big deal. So why was it? Why did I allow it to derail my entire match?
No one's been able to answer that for me in a way that leads to making an actionable plan. Enter Steven Pressman, the author of "The War of Art." It's a great kick in the booty if you tend to procrastinate, as I do. In it, Pressman writes about the differences between amateurs and professionals. He references Tiger Woods a couple of times, including a time that Tiger was about to hit a shot off the tee and in mid-swing, a fan snapped a camera shutter in his face. Tiger was able to stop his swing, reset himself, and hit the ball straight down the fairway for over 300 yards, all with barely acknowledging the offending fan with a withering glance. Pressman's point was this (and I quote): "He could have groaned or sulked or surrendered mentally to this injustice, this interference, and used it as an excuse to fail. He didn't. What he did do was maintain his sovereignty over the moment. ... And he knew that it remained in his power to produce the shot. Nothing stood in his way except whatever emotional upset he himself chose to hold on to."
Powerful stuff. Can be translated onto the court? Well, I read this book passage just in time to test this theory for our last combo match of the season.
Within about 10 minutes of our match start, my partner and I were down 1-3, and it was because of me. I was making dumb mistakes -- I barely could get the ball in play. Then I had a thought: You don't have to let what happened affect the rest of the match. You can still hit your shots. I focused in on improving my footwork, and on their weaknesses, and before I knew it, we had reeled off five straight games to win the set.
We faced another deficit in the second set -- we were down 3-5 with me serving to stay in the set, which I still really felt good about. But all of a sudden, we were down 0-30, then 15-30. I served out wide and, hearing no call, walked over to the other side to serve again, but my opponents were staring at the spot. (SIDE RANT TIME! Look. It's either in or out and you have to make a timely call. If you are not sure, you do not summon a committee of your best tennis buds to analyze the mark. No. If you are not sure, the point belongs to your opponent! That's it! This is actually in the rules.) I stayed on the other side and bounced the ball to serve again, and at that point my opponent says, "Yeah, that's out."
There aren't a lot of things that annoy me while I'm playing tennis -- it's usually the highlight of my day. But when people do that, I get annoyed. I have unleashed on people who do late calls on important points, on any point. I was annoyed then, and I said so. I lined up to the ad side and hit essentially the same spot, and my opponent barely got a racquet on it.
This is what Pressman is saying, I think. You are always in control, even when people stare at a ball mark for 30 minutes before calling your shot out. You choose how to respond.
No, we didn't win the match. But I felt good about the way I played. When we went down early in the tiebreak, I lined up to serve and my partner whispered right before he turned around: "Just get it in." When you think like that when you play, that's you choosing how to respond.
(By the way, that's a bad way to respond. You don't respond to nerves by embracing them. Not if you wanted to win or anything like that. Never think this, and never say it to your partner. I mean, feel free to say it to your opponent, though.)
Anyway, we'll see what happens. Knowing how to respond to something is not the same as doing that thing consistently.