THE MEANING OF REALITY – Allen Fox Tennis

realityThe philosopher Parmenides, known for the philosophical school he established in his city, Elea, (in Italy) and his main disciple, Zeno, opined that the external world was, in some sense, an illusion. That there was no “reality.” Of course this seems, on its face, ridiculous. There certainly seems to be a “real” world out there. As we sit doing whatever it is that we are doing we can see, touch, hear, smell, etc. tangible items that are “out there.” If someone sticks us with a pin, the pain certainly feels real. Our senses tell us this real world that we can feel and experience is a tangible, three dimensional one of length, width, and depth.

But there is another dimension – of time, and it is an intangible one. (Einstein dealt with it in his theories of relativity.) And it may well be in this sense that the ancient philosophers viewed the illusory nature of the world of the senses. Consider the following concepts: The only “reality” we actually experience is in the present instant. We see, touch, hear, smell, and otherwise experience objects and thoughts in the infinitesimally short microsecond of time that we define as the present. After we experience something, it is in the past. Before we experience something it is in the future. Neither of these exists in the tangible world. Both are in the fourth dimension, that of time, and this is not one of tangibility. Objects or experiences in the past or future are not “real” in the usual sense of the word. We can’t see them, touch them, hear them, smell them, etc., and they only existed in the “real” world during the infinitesimal time interval during which they were in the present.

To get a better feel for the situation, let’s look at it from a few different angles:
The time continuum consists of only three parts – the future, the past, and the present. And an event that occurred in the past no longer exists; an event that will occur in the future does not yet exist; and an event in the present exists for such an infinitesimally short period of time it’s hard to conceptualize that it is “real” (or tangible in the normal sense) either.

Like sand slipping through our fingers, time slips by us. We can’t grip it or reduce its slippage, much as we might try. (I suspect that the tourist’s compulsion to take pictures is an attempt to capture the “present reality,” make it tangible, and stop it from disappearing into the intangible past.)

The situation is analogous to a motion picture where the film passes quickly over a lit aperture and is projected onto a screen. The film images before and after the aperture are not visible. Only the tiny, single image that is momentarily illuminated is visible. But it is instantaneously gone – replaced by the next image on the film, and so on. Our senses are analogous to the lit aperture, where the future passes it on its way to the past. The “real” world exits only during the time interval of the “present, and this is immeasurably short.

In summary: the past and the future don’t exist in the real world and the present is too short! So were Parmenides, Zeno and their cohorts right? Is it all some form of illusion?

GREAT PLAYERS AND THEIR CHOICE OF COACHES – Allen Fox Tennis

Fed and EdbergThere has been much talk recently about Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer hiring former champions to be their coaches. There are several reasons why this is probably a good idea, most obvious is the credibility and respect former champions bring to the relationship. Their ideas are going to get a considerate hearing from the champions they coach, who all have strong personalities themselves and are not easily convinced to do anything by just anyone.

For example, coaches had, for many years, been telling Roger Federer to come to net more. Under Edberg he’s now doing it. Andy Murray’s previous coaches found that his contrary personality made him difficult to influence. Brad Gilbert, who coached him for 18 months starting in 2006, said he repeatedly pushed Murray to attack more and hit less slices and tricky drop-shots. According to Brad, it resulted in Murray doing just the opposite. Now under Lendl, Murray hits both his forehand and backhand more aggressively and attacks at net more often. Finally, Djokovic, who is generally able to dominate baseline rallies, has been working, in the past year, on finishing more points at the net. Becker, who was quite adept at net himself, will be helpful in the process of improvement.

This is all interesting, but equally so is the meshing of personalities. Champions tend to be realistic, observant, and practical, and these traits show in their choice of coach. It would seem that each has hired the iconic coach whose personality is most similar to his own.

Take Murray and Lendl, for example. Both appear to be dour, emotionally reserved, non-garrulous, and even boring. (In private, both are highly intelligent and both can be quite funny.) But neither give scintillating press interviews, and both had difficulties breaking through in the finals of majors and winning them. But both eventually figured it out, Lendl first, of course, and then Murray. Some of Murray’s improvement was technical, but much was psychological, and this was enough, apparently, to push him over the hump. This process was certainly facilitated by their congenial meshing of personalities, and we must admire the practicality of both in finding each other.

As valuable as stroking/strategy improvements might be, winning major championships in the face of today’s well-balanced competition requires key help in the psychological realm. This is where the iconic coach can be of the most value, particularly when the player’s personality engages amiably with that of the coach. With this in mind, let’s take a further look at the player-coach combinations: Murray finds Lendl; Federer finds Edberg; and Djokovic finds Becker; each seeming to be the player’s most suitable counterpart.

Consider Federer and Edberg. Both are extraordinarily classy, self-less, and gentlemen on and off the court. Both are considerate of others and seem to have gentle, non-confrontational, unaggressive personalities. Both give substantially of themselves to promote the game, and both are renowned for their extraordinary sportsmanship. For example, in 1985 Edberg played Paul Annacone in the finals of the tournament in Los Angeles. In the last set Edberg reversed a bad call against Annacone at 5-all that cost him the game, and possibly the match, which Annacone eventually won at 7-6 in the third. Very classy and selfless of Edberg. Likewise selfless and against his own interests, Federer has fought to increase the prize money for the lower-ranked players who are struggling to make ends meet. Federer wants to ease their burdens. Because of incidents like these, Edberg won the ATP Sportsmanship Award five times, in recognition of which the ATP renamed the award the “Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award.” Not surprisingly, Federer has won the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award eight times! All in all, Edberg and Federer would seem to very suitably matched.

Finally we get to Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker. Compared with Murray and Federer, Djokovic is by far the most emotional and expressive on court. He has an outsized sense of humor that occasionally gets him into trouble, as when he publically mimicked the strokes and mannerisms of his fellow pros a few years ago. I thought these impressions were awfully funny but many of his contemporaries didn’t. Recently he’s been shown on television doing a hilarious imitation of Becker’s own court mannerisms, with Becker watching and heartily laughing at it. Obviously, their senses of humor mesh, which is a good start. And like Djokovic, Becker also has an outsized, eclectic personality, and he was much more emotionally expressive on court than either Edberg or Lendl, making him a better match for Djokovic.

We don’t yet know how well these relationships will stand the test of time, but at present they appear to be off to quite a good start.

PLAYING IN THE WIND – Allen Fox Tennis

Serena WilliamsThe only player who can beat Serena Williams is Serena Williams. She is superior to almost every player on the women’s tour in every aspect of the game except emotional stability. She moves faster, hits harder, and serves immensely better. If she doesn’t self-destruct nobody has a chance against her. And she did her best to do just that in the 2013 US Open final when she allowed the wind to unhinge her emotional system.

At the beginning of the match she acted as if the wind were behaving immorally in disrupting her shot-making. There was a hint of arrogance in her petulance, as if the wind needed to make an adjustment for a player of Serena’s greatness, rather than the other way around. She often acted like a frustrated child after wind-induced errors, gesturing to the Heavens as if the Gods were picking on her. Luckily for her, she pulled herself together somewhat by the end of the first set. She stopped bemoaning the wind after every error, (only bemoaning it after every other one) and then was simply too good a tennis player for Azarenka and won the set.

Throughout, Azarenka provided a dramatic and admirable contrast in maturity and emotional control. She didn’t once acknowledge the difficulty of the wind or Serena’s great shot-making. She just kept plugging along, coming back from a two service break deficit to win the second set in a tiebreaker. Of course she was aided by Serena’s continued whining about the injustice of the wind in disturbing her game, but her calm demeanor allowed her to execute her own shots with commendable consistency in spite of the conditions. Added to this was a good deal of nervous play and choking by her opponent, but the saving grace of Serena’s performance was that she never quit. Yes she will choke but no, she won’t quit, and she’s won many championships because of it.

And the 2013 US Open Championship was no exception. Though she made it harder for herself than necessary, Serena just had too many weapons for Azarenka and won going away in the third. In the process Serena set a very poor example for young players. Don’t try to handle windy conditions the way she did unless you are, as she is, twice as good as your opponent, and even then it’s not a good idea.

The common wisdom is that wind is a great equalizer. In my opinion, it often is not. In fact windy conditions favor the strong-headed, emotionally disciplined players. Strong wind causes players to make more errors than usual. They will miss shots that in still conditions would be routine. The weaker-headed players cannot accept this. It upsets them. Instead of simply resetting their error thermostat, accepting that they will make more errors than usual, and making necessary tactical adjustments, they mope around complaining about the wind and continuing to make mistakes. It is the typical excuse-making scenario.

The strong-headed players recognize that the problems caused by the wind must be handled like any other problems – you either fix the problem (in which case there is no longer a problem) or do whatever you can to deal with it. Here, fixing the problem would involve making the wind stop blowing. Since that’s not going to happen, you have to devote your energies to dealing with it. Your emotions must be controlled just as always. If you get frustrated and upset over errors, whatever the cause, you will simply make more mistakes and increase the likelihood of your own defeat. If it’s windy accept that reality and keep your mind on the business of executing your game plan.

In addition there are a number of tactical adjustments that can help your execution under windy conditions. They are:

  1. Be prepared to move more and hit less precisely than normally. The wind makes it more difficult to hit close to the lines so you have to hit a few extra shots rather than your usual compliment of winners. And you will also need to take a few extra small positioning steps to get the erratically moving ball into your strike zone.

  2. Use shorter backswings. This is because the ball is moving unpredictably, and by the time you get the racket around with a long backswing, it may have been blown out of your accustomed strike zone.

  3. Use more topspin when playing with the wind, and hit flatter when playing against it.

  4. Hit the ball relatively hard. This is because the faster the ball moves the less time the wind will have to act on it. Thus the shot can be hit with more normal accuracy. Many players slice their backhands more when they are playing with the wind and let the wind carry the ball. This is generally a mistake since they can’t be as accurate and will more often lose control of the point.

  5. Use topspin lobs when playing against the wind and high defensive lobs with it. Avoid doing the opposite.

  6. Get more first serves in the court by playing them safer. Depending on the strength of the wind, this may require that you spin your first serve in rather than going for the big flat one. This is because the wind will move the toss around and make it more difficult to hit precise serves.

Even with these tactical adjustments, attitude is the key to performance on a windy day!It’s best to look at it as an interesting and challenging experience. You will have problems, but so will your opponent. And if you remain clear-headed, they are largely solvable.

CHAMPIONS ARE ALERT AND EXTREMELY SENSITIVE TO ACTIONS THAT LEAD TO SUCCESS – Allen Fox Tennis

alertThe winners seek information and mentally file away for future use every scrap of available data. Most importantly, they see what works. Much learning comes from experience, and the champions are alert. They concentrate intently on the task at hand, learn quickly from their failures and successes, and adjust their behaviors accordingly. Information gleaned from reward and punishment immediately shapes future actions. Champions do this because they are so deeply committed to their tasks. Their high drive sharpens their senses. Wanting so badly to succeed opens their eyes. It focuses their attention and masses their powers of concentration. In this state they are remarkably perceptive. In a word, they work “smart.”

Conversely, the less successful are not perceptive and tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly, behaving as if there were no difference between reward and punishment.
Because their fears of failure make them shun commitment, they tread only on the surface of life. The task at hand does not fill their view-screens and their attentions wander. Their insecurities and self-protective impulses cloud their minds, and they see with half-closed eyes. Not believing deeply in their own capabilities and only too willing to cast their fates to chance, they proceed blindly, making only perfunctory efforts to understand the competitive scene confronting them. In a word, they work “dumb.”

Consider how great tennis players learn where and how hard to hit the ball in particular situations. They learn by trial and error. For example, they may, in one situation, hit the ball to a certain spot and lose the point; later, in the same situation, they may hit the ball to a different spot and win the point. They mentally record the results of these and thousands of other experiences and develop a feeling for which spots are advantageous and which are dangerous. During competition they instinctively use this information to select the shot for each situation that provides the maximum payoff for the minimum risk. People like Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are able to choose with uncanny efficiency the highest percentage reply to any shot their opponents may hit. They rarely hit the ball harder or closer to the lines than necessary. They develop this judgment by keeping their eyes open and adjusting their strategies in response to what they see. They are sensitive to what works, drawn to it like a shark to blood.

On the other hand many people seem largely oblivious to the lessons provided by success and failure and respond only to the most obvious examples. (Champions, by contrast, respond to the slightest nuance.) I saw this in operation at the tennis camps I ran during my years as coach at Pepperdine University. During the summer nearly 100 young tennis hopefuls attended each week, eager, for the most part, to hone their skills and improve their games. My opening talk on strategy stressed the fact that at the lower skill levels defense has the advantage over offense, and the person who hits the ball in the court most often will usually win. Lacking fine accuracy, the player hitting hard and close to the lines takes too many risks, makes too many errors, and is going to lose. They all nodded in agreement.

Yet when they got on the court most of them did what they had always done – hit the ball too hard, too close to the lines, and made too many errors. Their take on the situation was that hitting 3 out of 4 balls in the court was not great, but good enough. Unfortunately for them, when they ran into an opponent who hit 4 out of 5 balls in the court, they had to hit a winner within three shots or lose. Since they couldn’t, they needed to become steadier, a condition accomplished simply by hitting the ball easier and farther away from the lines.  The few that understood this (and hit more safely) had a commanding competitive advantage and won almost all of their matches.

Somehow the majority did not respond to the evidence of their senses and continued to over-hit, even though they lost again and again to the steadier players. Instead they responded by calling the steady players “dinkers,” belittling their games, and claiming that the “dinkers” would never get any better playing that way. In the process, they failed to adjust their games in accordance with their capabilities. Rather they continued to hit too hard, miss, and lose.

Why did they do this, despite the evidence of their senses? They did so because the usual bugaboos of insecurity and the desire to avoid difficult tasks clouded their judgments. It is, to put it simply, emotionally easier to just bang away at the ball and leave the outcome to fortune than it is to, in a controlled and thoughtful manner, keep the ball in the court. If you have a good day, you win; if you have a bad one, you lose – no emotional drama. By contrast, playing consistently leads to long, difficult, stress-filled points. You go nose to nose with your opponent, and the contest becomes an obvious battle of wills. It’s hard work, and it gets personal. Winning requires emotional discipline and prolonged, strenuous concentration. Unruly nerves and choking raise their ugly heads and must be overcome. None of this is pleasant, so the average person dodges the situation. They subconsciously realize that if they scrutinize the scene too closely, they might have to take actions that they would rather avoid. So they don’t look; they keep hitting; and they lose.

In order to work “smart,” the way champions do, you have to be perpetually alert. You have to continually take in and process information. In a word, you have to always be thinking about what you are doing, not, as is too often the case, mindlessly going through the motions – on mental autopilot. As they plug away on a task or practice a new skill champions ask themselves questions like, “Is this the easiest way to do it?” “What are my weaknesses and how can I improve them?” “Why am I doing it this way instead of that way?” They want to know everything about what they are doing so they can do it better. Their eyes and minds are unceasingly active and vigilant.

For example, when tennis champions practice they constantly refine their techniques, and this requires mental effort. When working on their groundstrokes, great players focus on getting into perfect position, preparing the shoulder turn early, watching the ball, and any other technical device that proves helpful in hitting the shot better. They concentrate intensely for hours at a time making small adjustments, attempting to rehearse the muscle memory involved in a perfect stroke. Their goal is to make all motions correct and automatic for use in competition. On the other hand, their less successful contemporaries may put in similar amounts of  time on the practice courts and exert similar amounts of physical effort, but their minds are often elsewhere, hence their improvement per hour of court time is far less. The less successful are mentally passive during practice, assuming that simply putting in the time and doing the physical work will make them better. Of course they do get better, but not better enough.

Most people habitually avoid mental exertion. Examples are commonplace. Watching television, which is a mentally passive activity, is more attractive to the masses than reading a book, which requires active mental participation. The repellent aspect of exercising is more mental than physical. The mind has to force the body to work, and it is this, rather than the work itself that most people wish to shun.

Do you need proof? Recall the television ads for those belts that you wrapped around your midsection and which supposedly stimulated your abdominal muscles with pulses of electricity and caused them to contract. You saw beautiful young men and women with shapely abdominal muscles on these programs, claiming to have gotten their figures by relaxing and watching their favorite television shows while the belts stimulated their muscles. (It seemed too good to be true, and it was.) But what was the charm of the belts? Your abdominal muscles still had to contract in order to become shapely and strong, just as they do with sit ups and crunches. The difference was only in what drove the muscles to work. With the belts, your muscles were driven by external electricity whereas with normal exercise, the electricity had to be supplied by your brain. And people were willing to pay to escape having to use their brains.

To be maximally successful you must work towards your goals with your eyes wide open. Hard work is helpful but not enough. Lowering one’s head and simply grinding forward is apt to be inefficient. You must make a special effort to work with your head
up – alert and concentrating so as to soak up the available information. Absorb and employ ALL information so that you work not just hard, but also “smart.”

REVIEW OF “THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME” BY STEVE FLINK – Allen Fox Tennis

Steve Flink's BookThere have been so many great players and great matches in the past that we will, regrettably, never be able to see. Yes, the more recent ones like Nadal vs Federer and Williams vs Sharapova are on video tape, but what about the classic contests between Budge and Van Cramm, Vines and Perry, Lenglen and Wills, Gonzales and Hoad, etc.? Steve Flink brings them all to life in his wonderful new book, “The Greatest Matches of All Time.”

In it he gives you a point by point account of each match, along with the backgrounds of the players, their strengths and weaknesses, the importance and build-up to the match, and the careers and lives of the players afterwards. In many ways, it’s better than having been there! And only a tennis genius like Steve Flink can present the exacting detail in such a way that you can actually see and feel the physical and emotional struggles that took place on court so many years ago.

I love this book!! I keep it by my bedside and have already read it twice. Whenever I wish I can open it anywhere and get a relaxing, good read. It is so rich in detail that each perusal nets me a few gems that I missed the first time through. I don’t know how Steve did it. I have loved the game since childhood and read everything I could get my hands on about the greats of yesteryear, but never in this depth. I have always admired Steve for his historical knowledge of the game, but he must have done an extraordinary amount of additional painstaking research to produce a book of this quality. Moreover, you can comfortably believe in the accuracy of what you read. Steve Flink is an honest, understated gentleman. He doesn’t fluff, puff, or exaggerate, so you know when he says it, it’s indeed so.

Consider, for example, Steve’s depiction of the classic Arthur Ashe-Jimmy Connors clash in the 1975 Wimbledon final. He starts with a description of Arthur’s background – an African American brought up in Richmond by his widowed father, a policeman and stern disciplinarian. He was taught to be scrupulously honest with his calls, dignified, emotionally controlled, thoughtful of others, and to develop his mental skills with the same rigor he used with his physical ones. Arthur earned a scholarship at UCLA, where he distinguished himself as an excellent student and NCAA singles champion.

Arthur was a free-swinging, serve-volleying, shot-maker – unpredictable, creative, erratic, and, at the time of the match, 31 years old and somewhat of an underachiever. Yes, he had won the US Open in 1968 and the Australian two years later, but over the years his interest in international social issues had absorbed too much of his mental energy so that his results were spotty. Arthur was a classy, generous, decent person. (I can testify to this myself because I was a grad student at UCLA during his tenure there, and I knew him very well. The many reverent accounts written about his unselfishness and extraordinarily high moral character, were, believe it or not, understatements if anything.) Now, slightly over the hill, he was given little chance of defeating Connors, the brash, young defending champion whose game was at its peak.

Jimmy was brought up in Belleville, Illinois, and taught tennis by his mother, Gloria, and his grandmother, whom he called “Two Mom.” The two women taught him flat, mechanically-sound groundstrokes and a deadly two-handed backhand. He was a natural street-fighter – single-minded, antagonistic, churlish and disrespectful. He had one primary goal in life, and that was to win tennis matches, and he would stop at nothing to do so. The year before (1974) he had dominated the game as few others ever had, winning three of the four majors and 99 of 103 matches! He was a rough boy and the obvious favorite.

The contrast between the players’ games, personalities, on court behaviors, and off court activities was dramatic. While Arthur spent his time doing benevolent deeds and trying to make the world a better place, young Jimmy spent it fighting. Arthur was so respected by the rest of the players that he was, by 1974, President of the ATP, while in the same year Jimmy sued the ATP and Arthur Ashe personally as its President for $10 million on a scheduling and contract dispute. The showdown between these totally disparate characters took place the next year in the Wimbledon final. A fiction writer couldn’t have dreamed up a better script. (To be fair, I should add that Connors wasn’t really a bad guy. He was just young, brash, and rough around the edges. Seventeen years later he had transformed himself into a beloved old warrior and crowd favorite, reaching the US Open semi-final.)

I won’t repeat Flink’s blow by blow analysis of the match itself, other than to note that Ashe cunningly changed his normal slam-bang, frontal assault game to one of slices, changes of pace, wide serves, and minimal errors, knowing that Connors was quite good at countering flat serves and direct power. This also enabled Arthur to take advantage of one of Connors’ few weaknesses, his forehand approach shot played off of short, low balls. Arthur made sure to feed Jimmy plenty of these. As a result, Jimmy did not play his best, and though he struggled mightily to win anyway, as he always did, Arthur prevailed in four sets.

The epilogue to the match was that Arthur lost his reputation for being a talented underachiever and gained world-wide recognition for being a remarkable big match player and worthy addition to the lists of tennis greats. He continued to compete at the highest levels, but he was aging and never won another Grand Slam event. But he used his celebrity to help pursue his outside interests in international politics and charitable causes. He continued to compete into the late 1970’s, when he was felled with his first heart attack that ended his tennis career. Four years later he suffered a second attack. In 1988, at the age of forty five, Arthur began to lose motor function in his right hand and during the course of brain surgery, it was discovered that he had AIDS, contracted as a result of an earlier blood transfusion. Arthur went public with this information and for the remainder of his life became a spokesman for AIDS research in addition to his other compassionate causes.

As a person, he never changed. Arthur was the same soft-spoken, friendly, kindly human being as a world-renowned celebrity that he was as a teen-aged UCLA student. Tragically, he died at the age of 49, leaving behind his wife, Jeannie and his six-year old daughter, Camera.

Connors’ career slipped slightly afterward, and he was never again the totally dominant player he had been in 1974. Although later in 1975 he lost the US Open final to Spanish clay-court specialist, Manuel Orantes, (when the tournament was played on clay), he came back to win it in 1976 (on clay) and again in 1978 (on concrete). His first US Open win in 1974 had been on grass, so his latter two wins made him the only player to win the tournament on three different surfaces. He remained a top contender into the 1980’s and had a resurgence in 1982 and 1983 when he won two US Open titles (both over Ivan Lendl) and a second Wimbledon.

Of course Steve Flink says all of this in greater depth and far more eruditely than I have, but you get the idea. So if you want to immerse yourself in the history of tennis, his wonderful book is a thorough and enjoyable way to do it.

Steve Flink’s book is available on Amazon. Click here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Greatest-Tennis-Matches-Time/dp/0942257936

NEVER ALLOW YOUR OPPONENT TO OBTAIN MOMENTUM – Allen Fox Tennis

momentumPoints tend to be won and lost in streaks. This happens because the players winning them start to feel good and play better while the players losing them start to feel bad and play worse. When the game is going against you there is a natural tendency to rush around, make errors, and not play points one at a time with sufficient diligence to arrest the slide. Allowing your opponents to get “hot” like this opens you up to losing a lot of games in a hurry, so you want to do everything in your power to disrupt their momentum as quickly as possible.

Slow down when you are behind. Your first thought, when points start to tumble against you, should be to slow the match down. I’m not suggesting you become deliberately disruptive and unsportsmanlike by strolling around stalling and tying your shoes. I just mean you should take a few extra seconds between points to gather yourself together and allow your opponent to wait a little and think.

I learned this lesson as a 19-year old playing against an older, experienced player named Noel Brown, then ranked in the top 10 in the USA. I won the first set playing well and was eager to start the second. But then everything started to take an awfully long time. Noel walked very slowly and deliberately back into position after each point and sat down for the maximum allowable time on changeovers. Although it was only a few extra seconds, to me it seemed like an eternity. I now felt like I was playing with a sack of cement on my back, and each point had to be slogged out separately, leading to a brutally difficult 12-10 second set.

Noel was a friend of mine, a great gentleman and a fair sportsman, so I had no hard feelings about his slow-down tactic. It was all within the rules and within reasonable limits, but most importantly, I learned something from it that I afterwards put to good use myself on countless occasions.

Toughen up after each lost point.Another way of stopping your opponent from gaining momentum is to strengthen your resolve to win the next point after losing the previous point. The great players naturally do this, and the weaker players naturally do the opposite. For example, Jimmy Connors got more intense and tougher with each point he lost. So did Lleyton Hewitt at his peak, and Rafael Nadal does it now. When they lost a point they redoubled their concentration and efforts to win the next one. And if they lost that one too, they stiffened their resolves still further on the following one. In a sense they dug in their heels mentally with each point they lost in an effort to resist a downward slide. Against such players an opponent finds it very difficult to gather any momentum.

In contrast, when weaker players lose a point, they become more likely to lose the following one. Their resolve decreases slightly, they don’t mentally dig in their heels, and their opponents are actually induced to gather momentum. This is an unstable situation, and their opponents are likely to win streaks of points and games. Since most players will play as well as you let them, give them running room by making too many errors and they will begin to feel more comfortable and play better. If you are tough, resist, and keep them under pressure by being miserly with your errors, they will deflate and play worse.

Stop the slide before the set ends.Another momentum issue arises when you start out a match playing poorly and find yourself substantially behind in the set, say 5-1 or 5-2. In this situation many people feel like the set is going to be lost in any case and are reluctant to put too much effort into what appears to be a hopeless cause. So they decide to get it over with quickly and start out fresh in the second set.

This is a big mistake for many reasons. The most obvious is that no matter what the score you are not certain to lose the set, so it always pays to give it your strongest effort in hopes of a come-back. The second is that you forgo the opportunity to tire your opponent mentally. He is ahead, and players in this situation often feel the pressure to finish and get the set tucked comfortably away in the win column. Forcing them to struggle for it is mentally draining and can set them up for a breakdown if you can get them into a third set. A third important reason is that you fail to halt momentum that is going against you. Turning the match around may require tactical and mental adjustments, and it is best to make these as soon as possible while you have a little leeway and before your back is completely against the wall. Otherwise, you must stop the slide immediately in the second set from a dead stop, and if you fail you will find yourself running out of options. It’s best to end the first set playing on even terms, even if you lose it, so the second begins without you having to counter negative momentum.

In summary, momentum is an issue separate and aside from who is winning and who is losing. Smart competitors are aware of it and take deliberate steps to avoid allowing it to build against them.

THE RETURN OF THE VOLLEY – Allen Fox Tennis

volleyOver the years the game has evolved many times into many different forms. And it seems to be evolving yet again. The volley is beginning to reappear and assume, at the highest levels of the game, increasing importance. But it is not the volley of yesteryear, that of McEnroe, Sampras, Edberg or Rafter. Their volleys were of the chip and charge, serve and volley variety, usually requiring a maneuvering volley or two before finishing the point. By contrast, the new volley is a transition volley, hit after a severe groundstroke or serve has forced the opponent off balance and onto the defense. The volleyer darts forward opportunistically when he or she senses that the reply from an out-of-position opponent will be hit softly, high, or inaccurately. Instead of multiple volleys, the point is usually ended with the first volley or, at most, the second.

These days, Roger Federer is the most obvious practitioner of this type of volley. Although adept at the net and quite capable of mounting an old-style serve and volley attack, he rarely does it. Instead, he serves and volleys sporadically, just enough to keep his opponent guessing and insecure about hitting low-risk, deep, floating returns. The rest of the time he tries to get control of the point with his groundstrokes and looks to pick off high replies from out-of-position opponents at the net. His tremendous speed of foot and flexible hands allow him to make his moves suddenly and with deadly efficiency, deftly controlling the occasional difficult volley forced by an opponent who hits a better shot than anticipated.

Rafael Nadal has also learned to do it. He used to finish only with his big forehand, but in recent years he has become quite adept at the net, probably helped by playing doubles. He is very quick to jump on any ball an opponent hits that floats. Novak Djokovic is working on it, but isn’t nearly as good at it as Nadal, and it has cost him matches. In fact one of the reasons he lost the French final to Nadal this year was because he let Nadal float back too many high, defensive chips without cutting them off at the net. He is normally awfully good at hitting winners from the baseline, but it is a difficult and risky play, and he was just a little less sharp than usual on that day. Even yesterday I was watching Sam Querrey play Jurgen Melzer in the semi-final at Winston-Salem, and both of them were transitioning to the net more than they used to, especially Querrey, who never came in at all a couple of years ago,

Making this play successfully depends on a couple of elements. First, the players have to become better volleyers. This means they must spend more time practicing at net than the usual ten minutes and then back to the baseline for the next two hours. (About 45 minutes a day for several months should make them functional.) And they must practice hitting it on the move forward, which is how they would hit it in a match. So they should practice starting behind the service line and close forward as they hit. The second factor is the timing of the move forward. The decision to go in should be made before hitting the last attacking groundstroke so they can be farther forward by the time the opponent replies. Waiting to see what type of shot the opponents hit before deciding to go forward leaves the volleyer too far from the net at contact and is the usual reason they are often forced to hit swing volleys from mid-court. It’s better to hit a moving punch volley from right on top of the net.

I believe this type of volley will separate more and more of the strong baseliners from the pack. Every top player hits the groundstrokes pretty well. At the very top of the game, particularly on the faster surfaces, the players need something extra. And they are starting to recognize this.

This play works particularly well on an opponent’s backhand side, especially if the shot is a two-hander. When stretched wide these players will often be forced to hit with one hand, a physically weaker shot, and one that generally necessitates a defensive, sliced return. Even players with strong, one-handed backhands will resort to the defensive slice if forced severely. And with the ball moving slower and higher (in an attempt to maintain depth), the best percentage play for hitting a winner is to take the ball in the air. This reduces the opponent’s recovery time and puts one in position for an easy kill if the first volley is not conclusive. The alternative is to allow the ball to sail back to the baseline, giving the opponent more time to get back into the court, and to go for a winner with a groundstroke. Because of time and distance considerations, this shot must be hit very hard and close to the lines, imposing greater risk of error.

A secondary benefit of the transition volley is that it will cause one’s opponent to make more errors. Opponents get jumpy when surprise volleys preclude them from hitting low-risk, defensive returns and regaining proper court position. They are now forced to hit more severe and perilous shots from awkward positions. This factor also operates as a result of the occasional serve and volley. They no longer dare to hit the soft, deep, chip return lest it be intercepted in the air. Now they have to hit off balance with less margin against a fast-moving ball that is difficult to control in the best of circumstances. The result – more errors.

One might question why Federer (who was a serve and volleyer in his early days) and the others have opted to give up on the old serve and volley, chip and charge type of volley? The answer, of course, is because today’s improved equipment, stroke techniques, and training methods have led to more powerful and accurate groundstrokes. In order to profitably attack at the net these days, one must come forward behind heavier artillery than in days of yore. Now the serve returns and passing shots are hit too hard and too accurately for players to venture forward behind anything less than substantial heat. If today’s top players are allowed to remain on balance and given time to set up and hit passing shots, the odds appear to be against even the most proficient volleyers, with the possible exception of matches played on bad grass.

Tennis is constantly evolving as players come up with smart new ideas to give themselves an edge. In its early years it was a game played primarily from the baseline with relatively flat or sliced groundstrokes. In the 1940’s Jack Kramer discovered that the persistent volleyer had the advantage on fast courts against this type of player. Hence the serve and volleyers dominated the game for the next 25 years. To counter the volleyers, players developed topspin groundstrokes. (At the same time, the courts were slowed down and the balls were made heavier, helping the baseliners even more.) By the mid-1970’s, Borg, Connors, Vilas and the rest killed off most of the volleyers, and the game was again dominated by baseliners, many of whom won largely by attrition. (Connors was the exception, an aggressive baseliner with a transition volley, as were Don Budge and Bill Tilden before him.)

The next major development was led by Ivan Lendl, who was an aggressive baseliner. He won by attacking with a big serve and hitting winners off the ground with his forehand. And that has been the basic trend up until today, with most players winning as aggressive baseliners, hitting winners with their groundstrokes.

Of course there have been plenty of exceptions to these trends. John McEnroe and Stephan Edberg were serve and volleyers during the aggressive baseliner phase; Dick Savitt won Wimbledon in 1950 as an aggressive baseliner in the days of the serve and volleyers; and Maurice McLoughlin won by serving and volleying in the early 1900’s, when baseliners ruled. But these people were exceptional in their times, and we are discussing general trends. And the latest general trend appears to be that of the aggressive baseliner who is additionally armed with the transition volley.

BEWARE OF EXCUSE-MAKING – Allen Fox Tennis

images-8Hard-fought, dragged out tennis matches often become stressful. We want to win but fear we might not. One means of escaping the pressure to win is by making excuses. As bad as losing is, it doesn’t seem so bad if it’s not our fault.

A common example of this is where a player gets a bad call and rationalizes his decision to tank the match on the basis that, “If the cheater wants it that badly let him have it!” Then the thinking goes, “I didn’t really lose the match. I was cheated out of it!” This fits into the general category of rationalization generally known as excuse-making. After anger, excuse-making is probably the most wide-spread method of escape from the stress and uncertainty of competition. It’s a particularly fertile field and comes in a thousand disguises. Here the “problem,” whatever it is, becomes magnified out of proportion and fills the rationalizing player’s mind so as to mask the real issue of winning. Of course there are a host of counterproductive consequences, but the most obvious is that it makes us lose matches.

We have all had plenty of experience with opponents making excuses for losing, and while we may be too polite to say so, we tolerate it as a character weakness, maybe even a small moral deficiency. In any case, we don’t like it.

Fortunately, we rarely make excuses ourselves except under unusual circumstances. Or do we? It is an obvious “excuse” when our opponents see fit to share their on-court “problems” with us, and we suspect they are ungraciously fabricating them to devalue our victories. On the other hand it is simply a real problem and not an excuse when we share our on-court problems with them. We feel that they need to know these things to truly understand the situation. We think they will be missing the reality of the situation if we don’t help them understand we were playing with an extraordinary handicap. (We hate the thought that in their ignorance they may overestimate their own contribution to their victory and think they beat us heads-up.)

What confuses most of us with the excuse issue is that when we make them, the problems we tell people about are real. For example, if you have a pulled leg muscle and can’t run normally, would it be an excuse if you mentioned this fact to other people? The answer is yes! That it’s real is beside the point. Almost all the excuses people make are real. It’s just that nobody wants to hear them.

Your motivation in telling people your excuse is to convince them that you are a better tennis player than today’s result might indicate. You hope to improve their opinions of you or at least get some sympathy. Unfortunately, you will get neither and will, in fact, accomplish exactly the opposite. In the best case they might believe your excuse is real, but they still see you as weak for having to tell them about it. In the worst case, they won’t believe you and think you are fabricating in addition to being weak. In either case, they lose some respect for you. Finally, nobody except your mother is interested in your tennis problems, real or not.

If you feel an excuse coming on, bite your lip, and resist talking about it. And by all means resist thinking about it during play or feeling sorry for yourself. Put it out of your mind or work around it. If you want to win the match you will need all your mental faculties focused on playing better. Lamenting your problems will simply distract and weaken you.

You should be interested in problems only in so far as they make you alter your game plan to play around them. For example, if your leg hurts and you can’t move normally you can still win. You just have to hit more severely so that your opponent can’t get to your legs and be determined to execute better when you do get to the ball. Worrying about your leg and thinking about telling people about it only detracts from your execution, where you need to be better focused than ever.

Sigmund Freud pointed out that defense mechanisms like rationalization (in this case, excuses) are normal and often serve useful and protective purposes. Unfortunately, competitive tennis is not a normal situation, and the useful purposes they provide do not include winning matches or engendering respect from opponents or bystanders. Successful players resist making excuses by consciously recognizing the real issues on court and using the rational, practical parts of their brains to keep themselves on track.

PERSONALITY AND THE TENNIS CHAMPIONS – Allen Fox Tennis

NadelWhen I was working on my first book, “If I’m the Better Player, Why Can’t I Win?”, I became interested in how tennis champions differed in personality from ordinary people. (As opposed to simply being superior physical athletes.) To answer this I administered personality tests to 26 highly-ranked tennis professionals. The test was called the Cattell 16 PF test and, with 180 questions, measures a number of “personality factors.” Each is measured along a continuum such as suspicious vs., trustingdominant vs. submissive, anxious vs. calm. They were by no means all the same mentally but there were several characteristics in which, as a group, they showed statistically significant differences from the average person.

 

As a group they differed in being more suspicious, anxious, antagonistic, dominant and intelligent. Although I did not test John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, they also fit this profile nicely. They are both bright, quick to become antagonistic, and twitchy (anxious), having difficulty looking you in the eye during conversations. Of course this does not mean that all the players tested were suspicious or anxious or intelligent or dominant. A few were trusting or relaxed or less intelligent or even submissive. My statements only refer to group averages compared to the norms.

 

And the trait that stood out above all others was suspicion. A substantial number of them tended to look other people as potential antagonists. As a general rule high readings in this area, coupled with high anxiety scores, are predictive of troubled personal relationships and exceptionally high readings correlate positively with clinical personality disorders.

 

Why might characteristics like anxiety, antagonism, and suspicion be useful to a tournament tennis player? Because an anxious person is a person who is motivated to practice and work to improve. Small issues jangle their nervous systems and set off alarm bells to stimulate action. It moves them to practice and work.

 

Suspicion can also be useful in competitive tennis. Suspicious people think that others are out to get the best of them or do them wrong. In an ambiguous situation they immediately suspect the other person of evil intentions. They look at others as antagonists rather than allies, and they are quick to take steps to protect themselves. They are happy to get even with people they feel have wronged them. It useful on the tennis court because this type of person isn’t going to give the “enemy” on the other side of the net the satisfaction of winning. After two or three hours grinding under a hot sun the normal person may question whether winning the match is all that necessary and, in fact, really worth the cost. People viewing their opponents as a antagonists have extra motivation and cannot abide seeing them win. It tends to become personal, and it drives them to do whatever it takes to win. And if they lose they plot revenge. It motivates them to practice extra hours to get better so that this does not happen again. Losing to one’s enemies is too painful to bear gracefully.

 

I have seen these traits in action at close range since I have a bit of them myself. For example one evening many years ago my close friend and ex-doubles partner, Larry Nagler, and his wife, Jackie, invited my wife and me to their home for dinner. Larry had a pool table there and, after dinner, he badgered me into a game. Larry had played a lot of pool so he was pretty good, while I, never having played, was terrible. Pool is a tricky game. Unless you hit the ball perfectly it is very hard to control. Long shots are nearly impossible for novices and the only balls you can make at this stage are balls right next to the pocket. Being even more competitive than I am, Larry was having a wonderful time toying with me. We played straight pool and Larry spotted me 20 balls out of 25 and still beat me. All the while he laughed and teased me. As you might imagine, I did not enjoy competing when I was totally out of my element and helpless. By the end my stomach was in knots, and I silently vowed revenge.

 

At this time I had a shoulder injury that kept me from playing tennis, so I needed a project – something to work on. It so happened that at the end of my street there was a pool hall. Every day after work I stopped there and spent two hours clandestinely practicing pool. I bought a book by Mosconi, a legendary pool champion, and learned about proper technique. I was focused and diligent. After three months I had gotten pretty good. I could run four or five balls at a stretch and make almost any shot of medium difficulty. Although Larry was still better than me, I now felt ready for a rematch and an ambush.

 

Another friendly dinner was scheduled at the Nagler home, and afterward I suggested a little pool. To make it interesting I proposed that Larry again spot me 20 balls but that we place a few dollars wager on the outcome. He agreed with a chuckle and a superior look. But he was not chuckling quite so much when I won that game with my new controlled and deliberate style. The next game he spotted me fifteen balls, and I won again. Now I was smiling, and Larry was getting a little hot. (Hyper-competitive as he is, Larry is not a happy loser.) He gave me a ten ball spot in the third game, and I won it with a smirk on my face deliberately designed to rub my victory in. By this time Larry was frustrated beyond endurance. I quit and demanded immediate payment. With our wives looking on in disbelief and Larry straining to control his temper, he said he would be happy to pay, but first I would have to fight him on the living room floor for the money. (Rather immature for a 30 year old, established attorney, don’t you think? And what a sore loser!) Of course this type of drive, when channeled properly, provides a tremendous competitive advantage, and Larry doesn’t like losing law cases any more than he likes losing athletic contests.  (Larry, by the way, had won the NCAA singles tennis championships as a sophomore and had played on the UCLA basketball team for legendary coach, John Wooden.)

 

This same personality profile has been found by other scientists in other groups of people. For example, Drs. Rosenman and Friedman, in their work on the relationship between temperament and heart disease, described the famous “Type A” personality which was virtually identical to the personality profile I found in many championship tennis players. “Type A” individuals are aggressive, anxious, goal and achievement oriented, have difficulty relaxing, and have a layer of antagonism and aggressiveness towards other people smoldering just below the surface. (Sounds a lot like Connors and McEnroe) Particularly interesting was that they noted a large number of successful business executives among the Type A individuals that they interviewed, suggesting that similar types of people tend to be successful in both business and sport.

 

Along these lines, I was talking with Richard Riordan (before he became the mayor of Los Angeles), who was an attorney, a successful businessman, and an extremely clever investor in emerging companies. I asked him if he could identify any particular trait or traits that were common to the leading business executives that he knew. Almost without a pause he replied, “Paranoia.” He said this keeps them driven, alert, and one jump ahead of the competition. And Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, agreed with Riordan. His stated mantra was, “Only the paranoid survive.”

So a measure of paranoia can be useful to some people in achieving their goals, both in tennis and elsewhere. But it is obviously a matter of degree, and it may not be healthy in one’s personal life. Too much of it can lead to the men in the “white coats” instead competing against the men in the white shorts.