Monday, March 28, 2011

How Djokovic has gone from good to great (I)

Novak Djokovic has always been a good tennis player. He has always served and returned well. Preferring the baseline, he has always been a tactically sound and intelligent tennis player. But it is hard to dispute that he seems to have reached a whole new level of excellence since the end of 2010. In fact, it is clear in 2011 that he has gone from good to great. I am curious about the psychology of this transformation.
There is no doubt in my mind that Djokovic’s transformation is largely psychological. Always a good tennis player, he has now become a threat, a source of intimidation belied by his slender frame. How did he get here?
Practice of course. That is the physical part of the journey. Becoming great involves sacrifice. Whereas other players can be seen clubbing and enjoying the financial spoils of their success, the great ones sacrifice all of this and more to the demon of practice. I have a friend who so badly wanted to be a successful hockey player that at age 15 he left his family in the US, moved to Canada, and lived with a Canadian family, all so that he could get picked for a junior team in a location where hockey rules.
The best tennis players all have similar stories of sacrifice. Federer moved away from his parents at age 13 to train in Switzerland. Marat Safin left Moscow at age 14 to move to Spain for training – not knowing a word of Spanish. Many South and Central American tennis players move to Argentina for coaching. Agassi moved away from his family and into the Bolletieri academy as a pre-teen. Indeed, in the US, South Florida has become the location of choice for tennis factories in which students from all over the world manage to get a rudimentary education while spending their days and evenings playing tennis and more tennis.
The NY Times recently ran an article about 12 year old Ingrid Neel of Minnesota who had spent some time working with John McEnroe at his new academy in NYC. The article beautifully documented the mother’s struggle over wanting to encourage her daughter’s tennis talent while making sure she continued to have a balanced life.
But in truth, the great ones will tell you that there was little balance. The ones who succeed are the ones who truly love tennis and who have their own dreams of greatness – as opposed to just living out a parent’s imposed desire. This is my worry for players like Aravane Rezai. When a parent’s dream is harshly imposed onto a child, there is always the possibility of flaming out. When the dream truly belongs to the child, making the sacrifice of excessive practice becomes a much easier task.
But the payoff of that excessive amount of early sacrifice and practice is that when you get to the court, you don’t have to think about what you are doing. The tracks of muscle memory become so well laid down, so intrinsically defined, that your mind and body work in perfect harmony to produce the exact shot at the right time.
So there is no doubt in my mind that Djokovic has sacrificed a lot over the past several years. He has so clearly put in the punishing physical work towards greatness. There is, as they say, no short cut to success. It’s also not an overnight achievement.
But greatness is also a mental journey. And psychologists who work in the field of performance enhancement believe that this journey involves four steps: goal-setting, mental visualization, self-talk, and arousal control. I will discuss each of these in turn. And while I am not privy to Djokovic’s training arsenal, I will unhesitatingly bet on his inclusion of all of the following in his preparation for greatness.
(Part 1 of 3)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How dare you Pablo Cuevas?

I mean really, where the heck do you get off señor? Don’t you know who he is? Don’t you know that Andy Roddick is the top tennis player in the USA, a Grand Slam champion, and a former #1 in the whole world? Didn’t you know that he was the defending champion in Miami, with 1000 points on the line? And just like that, without even breaking a decent sweat, you go and beat him? How dare you Pablo Cuevas?

Did no one tell you that this is a man who is married to a world-famous Sports Illustrated model and actress who recently did a movie with Jennifer Aniston – the one where she had to humiliate herself and pretend to be in love with ugly-assed Adam Sandler who was pretending to be married to Aniston all so he could attract the attention of the hotness that is Brooklyn Decker? And did you happen to catch the Duck’s cameo at the end of the movie where he appears as his wife’s new lover? Yes Pablo Cuevas, the man you beat is a world famous actor too! You should have been begging for his autograph, not beating him!

Also, did no one tell you that Duckboy goes home every day to one of the hottest women on the planet? And blonde! With boxes of hair! (Well it used to be boxes but she recently cut it to lighten the load on her brain.) But whom do you go home to Pablo Cuevas? What makes you so damn important that you think you can come into the Duck’s own country, into his own damn tournament, and defeat him on a hard-court? I mean really, where do you get off?

And her breasts! I forgot all about her breasts. That’s what she’s famous for you know. And Roddick is the man who gets to touch those titties on a legal basis. Whose titties do you get to touch Pablo Cuevas? And if you get to touch any titties at all, which I doubt, do you get to touch them for free or is that a paid service that your new earnings will now help to cover? Because really Pablo Cuevas, no matter whose titties you get to touch – paid or unpaid – none will come close to the tittles caressed by the hands of Roddick. So how dare you have the nerve to beat him? And in straight sets too!

Did no one tell you that he was ill? And just to prove it, he had a medical time-out in the second round. And then he coughed on that reporter’s cell phone in the post-match interview. Just hacked and coughed all over it, sending out droplets of his infection into the world. We should all be lucky to get infected. He should have coughed on you at the net, that’s what he should have done.

But no, being a true gentleman, he reserved his hacking and coughing for that poor woman journalist who will probably have to buy a new cellphone. So how dare you Pablo Cuevas count this as a real win when your opponent was so sick he could barely work up the energy to be sarcastic in the post-match interview? Clearly he was a very sick man.

You know it was bad enough when he lost to Gasquet last week in Indian Wells. But at least everybody knows of Gasquet, thanks to the cocaine infusion that entered his blood stream via an innocent tongue kiss, allegedly with a woman. But who is Pablo Cuevas? No one knows of you coño.

OK so you happen to be the best player in Uruguay. Ha ha ha. Guess what dude, most Americans don’t even know where Uruguay is on the map! Come to think of it, most don’t even know how to pronounce the word Uruguay. And speaking of Uruguay, why the heck aren’t you playing soccer anyway? Isn’t that the sport of choice in your country? Who died and made you rey de tenis?

Furthermore, tell me Pablo Cuevas, how many tennis tournaments have you won, even in Uruguay? That’s right, NONE. Well I see you have a few lousy doubles wins but so does Roddick. But do you know how many singles trophies the Duck has collected? 30! And that’s not even counting Davis Cup. So where do you get off, you unknown journeyman, coming into Miami with your calm attitude and your big serve and your down-the-line backhand passes to destroy the mighty Duck? I mean really, how dare you?

And do you know that the Duck has the best coach in the world? A man who has brought other players to the top of the rankings and kept them there. And what has he accomplished with the Duck? Well, he did almost beat Federer at Wimbledon. But don’t change the topic. This is about your coach versus the Duck’s. Who is this Daniel Orsanic – just another dirt-baller with a bunch of clay doubles titles. That doesn’t compare to the greatness that is Larry Stefanki. So again I ask you, Pablo Cuevas, how dare you!?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Peng Shuai flourishes under freedom

Peng Shuai was introduced to tennis at age eight by an uncle who was a famous tennis coach in China. At 13 she had to have heart surgery, which almost took her out of the sport – a story that Adidas would later highlight in their “Impossible is Nothing” campaign. Peng first came to attention in 2001 when she received a wildcard into the $10,000 ITF tournament at Baotou and defeated her much more famous  countrywoman, Sun Tiantian, 6–1 6–4 in the semi-final. In 2007 Peng worked with Michael Chang – that other Chinese player by way of Hoboken, New Jersey —and saw her rank climb into the Top 50. Under the regimented control of the Chinese government, she managed to win some doubles events. She has yet to win a WTA singles title.

But perhaps her biggest breakthrough came some two years ago when the Chinese government changed its rules and began to allow some of its top athletes to manage their own careers, to include spending more time on the international circuit getting exposure to top-level competition. Along with other Chinese women players like Zheng Jie and Li Na, Peng has been enjoying the benefits of this new freedom and her performance has steadily improved.

Today the benefits of that freedom were cemented in her crushing defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova at the 2011 Ericsson Open. Peng did a fantastic job of taking the ball early and changing its direction, often going behind Svetlana to win easy points. Peng took early control of the match and simply never let go. Playing double-handed on both sides, and producing some hard driving points in between shots that can only be described as semi-moonballs, Peng left Sveta looking flat-footed and deflated.

But this article is really about freedom. It’s funny how you can take freedom for granted when you have so much of it. Not that life in the US is perfect – it isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. But I can’t imagine any Chinese player with the arrogance of an Andy Roddick or the sense of entitlement of John McEnroe back in the day. It’s just not done. And it’s going to be interesting to see how long this freedom lasts, and whether it’s going to be curtailed the minute any of these women do something that is perceived as shaming of their country of origin.

I am reminded of the Chinese writer, Ha Jin. Most famous for his novel “Waiting”, my favorite of his writings is his short stories. If you have not yet read it, please buy and read his collection called “The Bride-groom”. In “The Woman from New York”, Chen Jinli leaves her husband and daughter to find an imagined better life in New York. Rumors soon start seeping back home about her immoral life in the big city. When she returns, her husband’s parents refuse to allow her to see her daughter. She is treated as an outcast. It is a heart-wrenching story that is sparely but beautifully written.

I thought of this as I found myself wondering exactly how much freedom do these Chinese players really have. I mean really, in a sense there is no such thing as freedom. We all have to follow rules and be guided by the mores of culture and society, no matter how far away that culture may be located. Those of us who elect not to, end up as outcasts, like Chen Jinli. But freedom is also relative, and I think that it is fair to say that some of us have way more freedom than women living in countries like say Afghanistan.

This question of freedom is so intertwined with culture. Take for example the persistent rumor that Aravane Rezai got into some kind of altercation with her Iranian father in Melbourne earlier this year. What is fact is that the result was that he has been indefinitely banned by the WTA. What remains unclear is who was the victim. Initial reports claimed that Aravane herself was beaten by her father; later reports described a confrontation between the father and her boyfriend. Aravane herself has remained silent on the subject.

But my point is this – although Aravane was born in Saint-Étienne, France, her parents are Iranian. That an Iranian father would reportedly put his hands on his 23-year-old daughter may seem far-fetched to those of us living in the West. But in his original culture, her tennis career may have remained limited to that of picking up balls for her older brother who would have been the one expected to have legitimate success. From his cultural perspective, his behavior may seem perfectly reasonable. And while Aravane is the product of his apparently longstanding obsession with producing a # 1 player, I would be shocked if her own feminine needs and feelings are factored much into his thinking.

But this entry is about Peng Shuai and her Chinese cohorts, and they way in which they seem to be flourishing under their new found freedom. Some people do not do well if freedom is introduced too early or if they never learn the skills of managing this freedom. Jennifer Capriati is probably the best example of how not to handle personal freedom. It’s easy for some to self-destruct when they are free to do anything they want. It’s hard to imagine this group of Chinese women making similar mistakes. They all seem to be thriving in a way that makes their government look good for taking this risk, and makes them look even better for proving that most women do just fine when given the independence and freedom to forge their own paths.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Rafa’s interesting little mind games

Rafael Nadal has an intriguing way of handling mental pressure. Whenever he is asked by an interviewer about an upcoming match, he always finds a way to put the pressure onto his opponent and deflect it from himself. He never admits to feeling any kind of threat or stress. It’s always the other guy who has something to prove. And if he happens to lose, he always praises his opponent’s current form – almost as if implying that the loss may be real now but it may not happen again in the future.
It’s an interesting ploy that at the same time accomplishes two things. First, as I said, it allows Rafa to deny feeling any psychological pressure. And second, it allows him to praise his opponents while taking nothing away from himself. Notice that I am only saying that it allows him to deny feeling pressure. In point of fact we are not always clear what Rafa himself is actually feeling. He keeps his emotions closely guarded.
In the early days I used to wonder if Rafa sometimes hid behind his lack of mastery of English to remain emotionally private. Now that his command of this language has clearly grown by leaps and bounds, he seems to have learned how to play with words so that he can convey his intended message – all of the pressure is on the other guy. Rafa chooses his words carefully when interviewed as he is about to step onto a tennis court. As opposed to Lleyton Hewitt who always looks as if he would rather strangle the interviewer than answer these predictable questions, Rafa seems to relish the opportunity to tighten the screws just a little.
This strategy was honed on his best rival, Roger Federer, against whom it was often hugely effective – despite Roger’s awareness that he was being played. I know he was aware because he himself has commented on Rafa’s little mind game. But just because you can see a ploy a mile away doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to work against you.
But it was interesting to watch how this same mind game failed spectacularly against Djokovic yesterday. Part of its ineffectiveness of course may be due to the fact that by now everyone is onto Rafa and can smell his predictable BS coming from a while away. As he stepped onto the court at Indian Wells yesterday, Rafa offered up his typical BS about how all of the pressure was about to be on Djokovic. I had to laugh. Given how often he repeats this crap, it’s amazing how much he continues to look as if he means it. But that too is part of the success of this strategy at reducing pressure on himself.
But it is impossible to deny that the person under pressure yesterday was Rafael Nadal himself. Man was he feeling the hurt. Sure he fought back gamely to take the second set. But by the third set he was almost a shadow of his former self. I joked on twitter that Djokovic started reminding me of Wozniacki – he just kept getting balls back and getting balls back. Nothing that Rafa came up with fazed him. Sure there were moments of angry muttering, but there was never a moment in which Djokovic lost his confidence.
But here’s Rafa talking to reporters after the losing match. See if you can detect the psychological ploy:  “After Roland Garros, I will tell you who is the biggest favorite to be No. 1, because is after two months of competition. Only thing I can tell you is Djokovic is in the best position. Right now he’s playing on his favorite surface, I think, because hard court, outdoor I think is when he plays better. It's his favorite surface. So he has confidence, he's playing well; he's a very good player. We will see what's going on in the clay season. After this, first six months of the season, we start to see what are the chances of everybody.”
In other words, yes Djokovic is enjoying a current run of form, but wait until I meet him on my surface, then we will see who is boss. Rafa then went on to say essentially that it doesn’t matter who becomes # 1 during the year, it matters who ends the year at the #1 position. Now that is a sweet mind game.
Not to be outdone, Djokovic responded that he felt that he had beaten the best player in the world – a diss that I think was double-barreled at both Federer and Nadal. Rafa’s response was to laugh, tell the reporters to tell his good friend thanks, and then dismiss Djokovic’s attempt at a mind game with: “But it's not true. It's stupid”. (Message to Caroline ‘Kangaroo’ Wozniacki – this is how it’s done.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The problem with making excuses

I would have expected Söderling to come into this match with a plan for conquering a nemesis who is practiced at beating him. What I would not have expected is a string of lame-assed excuses after he lost. It’s not as if Kohlschreiber is some kind of novice who happened to be having an inspired day. Kohlschreiber is an experienced tennis player who has long had Soderling’s number. This loss is not new. It has happened three times before. Their head-to-head is now 4-1 favoring Kohlschreiber.

Granted Söderling won the last time they met but that was no easy win. That match in Rotterdam went to 3 difficult sets, ending with a third set tiebreak that Söderling won 9-7. That is not a walk in the park. So at Indian Wells, the minute I saw Kohlschreiber use the one-two punch and hit a confident backhand to break Söderling right back in the opening set, I knew that Söderling was in trouble. I was therefore not surprised that he lost. What surprised and disappointed me was the string of excuses he unleashed upon losing.

First he said it was his ankle, which he injured during Davis Cup. Then he had a hard time being specific about the nature of the injury because he had only played one match at Davis Cup and at no point was there a misstep or a fall. And no, he did not get it x-rayed or examined. Then it was that he got sick and spent five days in bed with a fever so he couldn’t really prepare. At no point did he simply acknowledge that he had been beaten period. At no point did he acknowledge his opponent’s better performance. In fact, he had to be forced by the end of the interview to even acknowledge Kohlschreiber at all:

Q. Kohlschreiber had a 3-1 record against you before this match, and the one win was a tough one in Rotterdam. Does his game match up well against yours?
ROBIN SODERLING: Yeah, he's a great player. Apart from these two last matches, we haven't played for a very long time. So the previous match, it was a long time ago. But again, you know, he's a great player. When he's playing well, he's very dangerous.

In other words, those old wins that Kohlschreiber has over him don’t really count. What counts is the last match in Rotterdam that Söderling won. And today’s match didn’t count because his ankle was hurting and he was fresh off a fever, and the tennis season is too long, and he could not give 100% and really he should not even have bothered to show up. Steups.

The problem with excuses – especially such drawn out and repeated ones – is that they make you look like a deceitful fool. In fact, in a study done in 2008 and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers found that outsiders have a negative view of people who are constantly full of excuses following crappy performances.

One particular finding from this study may be especially relevant to Söderling. If in fact he was as ill-prepared for this tournament as he claims, his decision to enter anyway is completely self-sabotaging. If indeed he had suffered an injured ankle, a five-day fever, and inadequate rest after Davis Cup, the sensible thing to do would have been to call in sick for Indian Wells. At worst, he would have been charged a fine. Surely he can afford this?

However, the decision to enter the tournament anyway gives him a built-in excuse for failure. And a built-in excuse allows him to protect his self-image in the event of failure. A loss under conditions of injury and illness means that it was not his fault, that Kohlschreiber really doesn’t have his number after all, that it was just a fluke. He was off his game because he wasn’t feeling well. Excuses, excuses. And all this time I was thinking that gentleman Magnus might have taught him some manners.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

More info please on smaller tennis events

Before I launch into Part 2 of my criticism, let me acknowledge that there are some things that the USTA is doing just right. For instance, the decision to change the rules for tiny tot tennis was a great idea. No way should kiddies now starting out have to go through the same physical rigors as adults in their 20s and 30s. The participation in Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign is also a wonderful idea. Everyone knows that the rate of childhood obesity in the US is embarrassingly high. And any tennis player can tell you that playing regularly will help you lose weight faster than contestants on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (except Bristol Palin of course). So yes I would be the first to admit that in many aspects the USTA is doing a fantastic job.

But when it comes to promoting lesser tennis events – by which I am referring to the 250 series and under – unless you happen to live in the countries or cities in which these events are occurring, there’s a good chance you won’t know anything about them. And even then, there is no guarantee because often there is simply no information available to the public about these upcoming events.

Even subscribers to the Tennis Channel in the US do not get live coverage of all of the tournaments played. Tournaments in Santiago, Chile, or Costa do Sauipe, Brazil, still do not make the cut. And I get that it may not seem cost effective to cover some of these lesser known events, but I think that it is only perceived that way if one assumes that the average tennis fan is white, male, and English-speaking.

In truth, tennis remains a very diverse sport both among its players as well as its fans. And what separates a Slam attendee from someone who can afford tickets to the Monterrey Open in Mexico, say, may have everything to do with skin color and language. But TV access is the great equalizer. If you put it on TV, fans will watch, I promise.

It would help as well if the USTA/WTA/ATP kept us informed about some of these smaller events. Slams practically sell themselves – people will come from all over the world at attend a Grand Slam, whether it is advertised or not. But the lesser events are like neighborhood fund raisers – they rely on local and regional support. But you can’t help raise money if you know nothing at all about the event itself.

Both the WTA and the ATP have added several new smaller events to the 2011 calendar. For example, the WTA has added Troy Park Women's Tennis Championships in Maryland, and the Baku Cup in Azerbaijan, both with a purse of $220,000. The ATP has relocated its New Haven event to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a loss for Yale University but a gain for Wake Forest.  But try clicking on the weblinks for any of these new events and you end up with dead air. There’s nothing there. They are new events with zero promotion. And that I believe is utterly shameful.

The events in Maryland and North Carolina are interesting addenda to the tennis calendar. Of course folks in Maryland have always had the option of attending Legg Mason, but the inauguration of the NC tournament is a big deal in a state that thus far has been known mainly for a couple of ITF events.

So just for the heck of it, I decided to sign up on the website. I received a confirmation email from informing me that I will receive periodic emails in the future from I was invited to contact them if I had any questions or comments. Contact whom? Where? At least the NC event had dates posted. but the Baku and Troy events don’t even have a dedicated website. That to me is unacceptable.

I think that the lack of information is disrespectful to tennis fans willing to plan their year’s attendance in advance. Since mid-2010, a friend and I have been poring over our schedules to see if we could line up a cycling and tennis tournament that we could attend at the same time. Yes USTA, some people do plan ahead and therefore need the right information available to them in order to do so.

Furthermore, the timing of the Winston-Salem event means that I would have to choose between attending it vs. going the US Open a week later. I never went to New Haven for the same reason – it was simply too close to the US Open and I could not do both. Of course there was always the worry that the big players may make a point of losing in an early round – assuming that they showed up at all – in order to be well-rested for the Slam. Which means that I would show up for a Championship weekend to watch two players ranked in the nether regions of the ranking system, playing their hearts out.

But you know what? That is totally OK with me. That is part of the specialness of these smaller events. It’s your chance to see a younger player on her way up the rankings. And you can look back at your pictures years later and remember that you knew her when, and that your support helped her along the way. 
(Part 2 of 2)

(Irina Falconi, finalist singles & doubles @ Dow Corning Tennis Classic)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

In support of smaller tennis events

I didn’t make the trip to Family Circle Cup last year. My reasons, if you remember, had everything to do with Serena’s decision to withdraw. But given her recent run of health challenges, I have been forced to accept that I can no longer base my attendance plans on the chance of seeing Serena play. In turn, I have been forced to discover some new talent. The result is that I have generally become less Slam-focused and have been paying even more attention to some of the smaller tennis events.

It helps of course that a string of exciting newbies – and some late bloomers – have managed to bring a level of excitement and attention to smaller events that have long suffered the fate of being what many tennis fans put up with while waiting for the next Slam to roll around. Between Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (two time champ in Monterrey), Magdalena Rybarikova (winner in Memphis), and Petra Kvitova (winner Open GDF SUEZ), not to mention the resurgence of Jelena Dokic in Malaysia, and the refusal of Kimiko Date to be defined by her age or location – women’s tennis has lately been a sweet blend of the new and the nostalgic.

The same is true on the men's side of the tour. The emergence of Raonic and Dogopolov, to name just two, has helped to attract new energy for fans gone weary of the inevitable Nadal-Federer final. For myself personally, this rivalry will never grow stale. But I too understand the importance of injecting new blood into any sport. And as with the women, it’s been sweet to watch some of the Old Farts as they refuse to roll over and play dead. In the end, it’s the fans who win.

Thanks especially to some of these talented newbies, I have been satisfied to discover that the next generation of tennis seems to be in tremendous hands. And what I like about many of these newbies is that they are not all playing the same kind of cookie-cutter baseline bashing typical of players coming out of the tennis factories in Florida. (Let’s face it, you see one Bollettieri product, you’ve seen them all). These players are bringing a level of variety that is refreshing for both the ATP and the WTA tours.

Sadly, none of the WTA newbies appear (as yet?) among the confirmed list for the 2011 Family Circle Cup. I was nevertheless thrilled to discover that there’s gonna be a whole lotta shaking going on in Charleston this year. It's going to be super tough to predict which of the confirmed attendees will still be hanging around by Championship weekend. Just yesterday Wozniacki announced that she will be there. And because she is the current favorite (in my opinion) in any one-week competition, you know that some of the previously confirmed attendees are probably not too thrilled by this news.

Among the other confirmed players are Samantha Stosur, the defending champion, who crushed Vera Zvonareva in a largely one-sided match last year (6-0 6-3). I have not seen Vera’s name among those confirmed to be playing. Maybe she’s so busy being mentally strong that she forgot she has points to defend. And really, I do look forward to seeing her game up close. I’d like to get a better sense of what has really changed for her.

Other confirmed participants include Jelena Jankovic, Maria Sharapova, Shahar Peer, Nadia Petrova, Daniela Hantuchova, Melanie Oudin, and Sabine Lisicki. Of the above names, I am most excited by the confirmation of Sabine Lisicki. Yes I know that she is the lowest ranked member of that group, but I can’t help whom my heart loves, and my heart fell hard for Lisicki when I saw her play for the first time at this same event two years ago. Since then injuries have prevented her from producing her best tennis. But for me she is one of the talented newbies with whom I would gladly entrust tennis’ future.

I think that it is important to support these smaller tennis events. Indeed, this brings me to one of the changes I would like to see in tennis (change #8? I’ve lost count). I would like to see both the WTA and the ATP do a better job of promoting some of these smaller, more affordable events. I am thrilled that Family Circle magazine has continued its support of this tournament at a time when the economy has gone bust and corporate funding seems to be slowly drying up. But we can’t leave it all up to corporate sponsors. We fans too have to play our part. But so too do the WTA and the ATP. And frankly, they are not doing enough.
(Part 1 of 2)

(Sabine Lisicki)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Jelena Dokic is back and, duh…WINNING!!!!

OK I couldn’t resist. Maybe it’s because today’s Charlie Sheen reminds me so much of Dokic’s dad back in the day when his crazy and substance use were routinely on public display. I’m not saying that Papa Dokic was necessarily a drug-addicted manic-depressive. But he was known for his episodes of public intoxication and crazy talk. And like Sheen, he seemed to be a violent man, prone to outbursts and threats, and also faced allegations of being a perpetrator of physical abuse against women (in Damir Dokic’s case, his daughter).

Happily for Jelena, those days seem to be well in the past. But as Sheen’s children will one day have to face, there is really no getting away from a crazy parent. You’re forever going to have to deal with his antics. You will forever be referred to as the child of a lunatic. And some will even look closely to see if the gene for crazy got transferred to you. My heart bleeds for the children of these out-of-control men who cannot see beyond their own violent delusional narcissism.

So it is wonderful, and deserving of celebration, that Jelena has returned to her winning ways. To be honest, it took a long damn time. In 2009 she herself announced that if she did not get a breakthrough she was going to give up on tennis. At that point she had not won a tournament since 2002 in Birmingham. It would take almost two more years of persistence before the tide turned.

After 1999, when Dokic famously spanked a sulking Hingis out of Wimbledon, her life became a messy, public roller-coaster ride. One minute she was ending the relationship with her father. The next minute she had moved back to Belgrade to live with him. Then for a few months there she literally went missing and turned up in Australia.

Jelena also seemed to have a hard time figuring out which country she would call home. One minute she was playing tennis for Australia. The next she was joining her father in allegations that the Australian Open draw was rigged and that she was representing Serbia for Fed Cup. Next minute she was proposing a truce with Tennis Australia all over again. It was an exhausting roller-coaster. As exhausting as it was for her fans to watch, no doubt it was ten times more draining for her to live it.

And through it all, her father, Damir Dokic, kept bringing the crazy. He was banned from WTA events for six months after several contretemps with officials and journalists. In 2009, his 15-month sentence for threatening the Australian ambassador with a hand grenade was upheld in court. His extreme political views were cited as part of the reason why his daughter found herself physically accosted and attacked by a group of Croatian fans in 2006.

In face of adversity, some people become victims and succumb to pressure. Others remain resilient and determined to survive. It’s been really difficult trying to gauge which of these labels apply to Dokic.

It’s taken a lot of years and apparently the right kind of coaching and loving from the Bikic brothers for her to re-build her life and her career. Along the way she had to overcome severe depression, weight gain, a complete loss of confidence in herself, injury after injury, and public disregard for many of her own actions and statements. She was forced to grow up and sometimes even eat some humble pie.

And finally it all seems to have paid off. The win in Malaysia was significant in many ways. For a start, she spanked the top seed, Francesca Schiavone, in the opening round in three exciting sets. Granted Schiavone fell and injured herself, but it was still a significant win. But to be honest, I kind of expected Jelena to implode after that because she seemed so happy about that victory that I wondered if she could sustain the hunger to the end.

When she beat Michaella Krajicek in straight sets in the semifinals, I decided that I liked her chances in the finals against Lucie Safarova. I knew that she had beaten Safarova just two weeks ago at the Open Gaz de France. That wasn’t an easy win for Dokic. She had to do it in three sets. But because she did it, I felt confident that she could do it again.

And she did. She saved match points to close out Safarova in the second set tie-break. And then she claimed victory in the third with her powerful baseline game, and serving an incredible 13 aces.

In the press interview afterward Jelena responded to the concern over whether she still has the hunger: “I just kept pushing and pulling myself up to win the match. I’m very happy to win the tournament. After winning one, your appetite gets bigger and it will be the key to maintaining the momentum.” Spoken like a woman who seems to have learned a thing or two along the way.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Keeping Serena in our thoughts

Some years ago I went through a scary experience of being diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. I was at the time living in a so-called Third World country so that may have been a factor in the misdiagnosis. What happened is that I went to the doctor for a reason I can no longer remember, but think that it was something minimal and unimportant. While there he commented on the frequency of my cough and asked how long it had been going on. To be honest, I hadn’t really given it much thought but replied that I had been coughing for a few days. He suggested that I get a chest X-ray and come back to see him.

I had to go to a different lab to get the X-ray. The technician came running out and asked me how soon I intended to follow up with the doctor. To be honest, I hadn’t given that a thought either. “Why?” I asked. “You need to go right away”, she replied. I tried to get more information out of her but she insisted that it was not her place to interpret the X-ray. I had to return to the doctor who had sent me.

Well needless to say, I was becoming a bit frightened. I dashed over to the doctor’s office, more conscious now of my coughing. He took one look at the X-ray and insisted that I had to go see a pulmonologist right away. He said that he could be wrong and didn’t want to make a mistake. He called up a pulmonologist friend and got me an immediate appointment. By this point I was starting to become frightened. What could be the matter with my lungs?

I got to the pulmonologist’s office and he was not only waiting for me but I was ushered in immediately. It was the first and only time in my life that I did not have to wait forever in a doctor’s waiting-room. The pulmonologist put up the X-ray on his machine and studied it closely. He then told me without mincing words that I had a pulmonary embolism and would have to be admitted to the hospital right away.

I asked him if I had time to go home and pack a bag. He said that I could do only that but that I should not go anywhere else afterward but straight to the hospital. On the way home I called up a good friend, a psychiatrist. He told me to stay home and he would come to pick me up to take me to the hospital. “Is this serious?” I asked, somewhat naively. “It’s as serious as a heart attack”, he replied. And he was not referring just to the expression.

He must have run every stop-light getting to my house. It turns out that on the way, he had made every arrangement for me to be admitted to a hospital where he had attending privileges. Again, I have never been processed that quickly into a medical system. That night I lay in the hospital bed trying to decide what to tell my family. Was I going to be alive by morning? Is this how and when I was going to die?

I can honestly say that ever since that moment, I have lost some of the fear of death and dying. There’s nothing like a close call to make you realize the importance of living every day as if it is indeed your last. I certainly hope that this is the perspective that Serena gains from her own close call. And indeed, her call was far closer than mine.

Because it turns out that I did not have a pulmonary embolism. The dot on the X-ray was the presence of fluid in my lungs. The fluid was drained in a procedure so horrific that I will spare you a description. And the continuing good news was that the fluid was not malignant. After several weeks and months of every kind of testing imaginable, to this day I still have no explanation for what caused my lung to partially fill with liquid. I never had any symptoms of being unwell and I still don’t. Other than a subsequent diagnosis of mild asthma which came several years later, I have remained as healthy as a horse. I wish Serena continued health as well.

The whispers have not yet started up about this bout of ill-health and I hope that none ever do. Because I know from personal experience that sometimes things happen for no reason. Although I have since concluded that my own experience may have had everything to do with getting my heart terribly broken at the time. At least that’s what I concluded after reading some interesting research coming out of Johns Hopkins University that confirmed that experiencing heart-break can cause symptoms that mimic cardiac arrest to include fluid in the lungs.

I wonder if the reason is that simple for Serena. Or that complex? Regardless of what is going on with her health, it’s time to keep her in our thoughts, prayers, and well-wishes. Tennis needs her to return healthy and strong. Fingers crossed that she will be able to maintain interest in the sport after her health issues are fully resolved.