Sunday, April 24, 2011

Did anyone think to warn La Sra Flaco?

When I heard that El Flaco (Mike Greenberg of ESPN’s Mike & Mike), was going to team up with Chris Evert to try to qualify for the US Open, my immediate thought was: Did anyone remember to tell Mrs. Flaco that her husband might be taking a huge risk? After all, his partner was a woman not well known for respecting boundaries when it came to her dealings with other people’s husbands.

I don’t know the woman personally, but surely anyone who is willing to spend her life with the annoyance that is El Flaco is fully deserving of my concern? Besides, El Flaquito must surely have some wonderful qualities to which only Mrs. Flaco may be privy. Maybe he even puts those fat lips of his to some good use – other than annoyingly flapping them every morning on ESPN – hey, you never know. And Mrs. Flaco is surely entitled to keep hold of possibly the only fat feature on El Flaco’s body?

So it was with trepidation that I watched the online clips of this match. It was not featured on the Tennis Channel as far as I am aware. Bummer.  And I discovered that Greeney totally sucked as a tennis player. His partner (El Gordo) can eat professionally a hundred times better than El Flaco can play tennis.

And it may be fair to accuse me of not having gotten over the way El Gordo y El Flaco both dissed Federer last year. Pissed me off so much I wrote about it at the time. So yes, I watched those clips with biased eyes.

And I was having a good time pointing and hooting, until the moment El Flaco hit Chrissy smack on her butt with a tennis ball. He was trying to return a cross-court shot, and next thing you know he was pinging Chrissy’s butt. She stopped play to laugh, so clearly she wasn’t very hurt. But my concern for Mrs. Flaco immediately deepened. Was that really an accidental shot or was El Flaco trying to get the ball to do what his hands couldn’t?

My worry reached its zenith when I listened to their post non-match interview. Here is a verbatim quote of their discussion of El Flaco’s feelings about his tennis partner:

El Flaco:  (referring to Chrissy) The first woman I ever loved and I say that with uh…with uh…

La Infiel:  With your wife sitting right there…

El Flaco:  With my wife sitting right over there.

Hello? Did I hear right that El Flaco was telling the world that Chris Evert is the first woman he ever loved? ¡Escándalo! See, I knew I was right to be worried for Mrs. Flaco! If I were her I would ban all future meetings between her husband and Chrissy’s butt. I don’t trust that butt at all. It has already proven itself to be highly potent and lethal.

In hindsight I have wondered what exactly was the real deal behind this entire piece of stupidness. Because the simple truth is that El Flaco cannot play tennis. No really, he truly sucked. I don’t care how much he flapped his gums both before and after the so-called match. Dude does not have a clue what to do on a tennis court. He was honestly an embarrassment. Don’t take my word for it. Watch the clips. Their opponents weren’t even trying to beat them. There was no need to try.

And if Chris Evert was serious about trying to qualify for the US Open, surely there are a ton of other qualified tennis players with whom she could have linked up? Why El Flaco? Was there an underlying agenda that Mrs. Flaco should be worried about? Is La Infiel setting up her next victim? Time will tell, no? In the meantime, I keep having this urge to do a Whoopi and say: Mrs. Flaco, you in danger girl.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Psychology of Cheating

Tennis has long had a reputation for being a genteel sport in which honesty, deportment and courtesy are central features. The lasting influence of this perspective can be seen in the readiness with which fans criticize the bad behavior of some of the pros. In any other sport, Andy Roddick might be called passionate when he argues with the Chair and becomes bitingly sarcastic in interviews. In tennis he is called grotesque and a boor. Or maybe those are just the names I call him.

Part of tennis' genteel and polite historical legacy is the expectation that players will not cheat. We expect tennis players to raise their hand in apology for winning a point on a net call. We expect them to call their own lines honestly, like Magnus Norman once famously did in a match against Guga, conceding the loss. (Hence the outrage against Henin and Handgate). We shake hands at the net regardless of the intensity of the passion just displayed on the court. We applaud our opponent’s moments of unusually excellent play – even in the midst of a heated contest. And we expect tennis pros to be humble in interviews, not show up crowing about being the best in the world.

I am fascinated by this aspect of tennis’ lasting cultural mores. But I am even more intrigued by the fact that so many folks have the guts to challenge them. And I include in this group the liars/cheats who don’t give a crap about seeming uncouth – they just want to win. Yet we wonder why Junior tennis has such a sickening reputation when it comes to lying and cheating. With role models like these, what are the younger players to do?

The psychology of cheating has become the lifework of David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston. DeSteno believes that the decision to cheat is often based on a gauging of short-term (e.g., winning) vs. long-term (e.g., destroying club relationships) gains. He believes that many people struggle with making the more virtuous choice vs. the less virtuous one. And he believes that outside factors often sway the pendulum from one direction to another. Like say maybe a shiny trophy?

Interestingly, DeSteno suggests that low-level cheating may be both natural and even productive in certain situations, based as it is on the brain’s proclivity for finding simple and practical shortcuts. He believes that some everyday forms of cheating are often not done with conscious deliberation. For example, the decision to use an envelope from your workplace to mail a personal letter is the kind of parsimonious quickie solution that your brain may allow, with no conscious thought that doing so is actually an act of theft.

However such commonplace petty thievery does not naturally lead to gross fraudulent behavior. On the contrary, deliberate dishonesty is a conscious strategy, often committed for personal and emotional gains. In other words, Bernie Madoff did not start his thieving career by stealing an envelope. He was a con man, plain and simple, and his thieving was done with conscious intent. Same for those who colluded with him.

The decision to cheat on such a large scale is a conscious and deliberate choice, with motives that are often both personal and emotional. For example, some people cheat because they resent having to obey a particular regulation, e.g., people who continue to text while driving. Such individuals are fully aware that they are breaking the law. They just don’t think it should apply to them and will rebel for as long as they can get away with doing so. Never mind the consequences for the rest of us on the road.

Psychologists believe that the deepest motivation to cheat stems from the perception that others are being unfair and have given you a raw deal. With such beliefs, cheaters justify their own behavior and even project it onto others. Such individuals convince themselves that their success is due not to the fact they bent and twisted the rules to suit themselves, but to their own superior abilities. Once they buy into this belief, there may be no turning back.

To apply this to tennis, as cheaters like my opponents gain more and more success, they increasingly manage to convince themselves of their own superior skills. They’re winning not because they are playing at the wrong NTRP level, but because they are the best. This belief then gets reinforced with each additional success. Their pride in their accomplishment further reinforces the cheating behavior.

When it comes to tennis, I think there may be an alternative explanation for the lying about NTRP ratings that DeSteno has not considered. Maybe some of these liars/cheats are just cowards who are not brave enough to face real competition. They play against lower level teams because they don’t have the cojones to face their true peers. Or maybe I’m just pissed that they keep kicking my ass.
(Part 2 of 2)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why do players lie about their NTRP ratings?

My mixed doubles match got canceled over the weekend due to inclement weather. To be honest, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was not looking forward to playing against the 8.5 combined team who were masquerading as 7.0s.

It’s a disgusting habit in tennis – this business of pretending that you are rated lower then you really are, just so you can beat up on the little people and win a pointless trophy. In fact, for a sport that rides on its reputation for decency and courtesy, tennis can be as dirty as gambling in an unlit back alley.

The tournament in question is a 7.0 event, meaning that the combined NTRP ratings of both partners must add up to 7.0. For the uninformed, NTRP ratings refers to the National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) which is the official system for determining the levels of competition for USTA-registered leagues. NTRP ratings vary dynamically by age and tennis ability, and range from 2.5 (beginners) to 7.5 (Rafael Nadal). In mixed doubles matches, the combined NTRP ratings of both players will determine which level of tournament they can enter.

My partner and I enrolled in this 7.0 non-USTA event because we are both solid 3.5s. We know this because we share a highly ethical coach who said so. We also play singles against each other and generally take turns winning although he always has the power edge. But against him I hold my own. And yes I used to be a 4.0 for a minute back in the day, but that was years ago and besides the wench has since gained weight.

Our opponents however are flat out lying. The man in their partnership says that he is a 4.0 and the woman claims to be a 3.0. Both lies. For the record, despite supposedly being rated higher than her, I have never beaten her in singles. Not once. In fact, I’m lucky to win a few games. She is quick, plays well on both sides, is consistent, has all the shots, has a monster of a kickserve that sails over my head, and has strategy to burn. In other words, she is easily a 4.0 player. I know – I used to be one.

Her partner says that he is a 4.0. But he is the best player in our group and beats up on every one. He is at least a 4.5 player, perhaps even stronger. So what’s with the slumming?

It’s actually a disgustingly commonplace practice in club tennis. Players deliberately register for matches or leagues that are lower than their actual ratings, this way guaranteeing a win. Winning is more important than being honest. (Where's John Lovitz when you need him?)

This is inconsistent with the popular notion of tennis as a genteel well-behaved sport in which people start out at love. It’s also inconsistent with tennis’ governing body’s official regulations. According to the USTA guidelines on ratings, “in an effort to avoid disqualification when players are rating themselves and they question which level they should play, they should place themselves in the higher level of play.”

I have news for the USTA. This is so not happening. And to be fair, there is little that they can do to regulate the thousands of leagues that exist all over the country. Because for every player registered in a USTA league, there are probably 10 others who are not. One estimate I recently read claimed that only 3% of tennis players in the US play on USTA leagues. The remaining 97% are on private or public courts doing their own thing.

It comes down therefore to a question of self-regulation, a feature that some say used to exist in the old days when tennis was the sport of nobility, and supposedly based on well-entrenched protocols of courtesy and fair play. Today, not so much.

(Part 1 of 2)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Oudin, McHale, Huber and King = Not a Team

I watched every moment of the doubles match between Liezel Huber and Vania King representing the US, vs. Julia Goerges and Anna-Lena Groenefeld playing for Germany. The result was already a foregone conclusion. In the absence of the Williams sisters and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the US was unable to avoid being kicked out of World Group. We are no longer in the top tier of the Federation Cup.

So I watched this last match keenly – not because it would change any aspect of the outcome, but because I hoped that the US would at least redeem some last minute glory by winning a point. For a minute there was hope as the team of King and Huber gamely won the first set. But I’ve mentioned before that Julia Georges is a plucky player. And she brought all of her positive energy to her partnership with the talented Groenefeld. They won the last two sets, closing out the match by breaking Vania King.

No doubt this disaster of a failure will drum up a slew of criticism about the length and rigor of the pro tennis schedule. Mind you, the length of the season is the same for both winners and losers. In my opinion, this loss has nothing to do with the demandingness of the tennis schedule. It has something to do with the fact that in the absence of the Williams sisters and Mattek-Sands, the US Fed Cup team could not deliver. And it has everything to do with the fact that the US players never really looked like a team.

I think that it was very clever of Venus Williams to make herself a part of the group going to Stuttgart, although she was unable to play due to injury. Had she not gone, no doubt she would once again be criticized for not adequately supporting Fed Cup. But Venus was often caught on camera looking at her cell-phone. She never really seemed to be a part of the team. Perhaps the only thing her physical presence might accomplish then is some silencing of the critics.

In the meantime, Serena has continued parading herself in bikinis up and down Miami beaches, looking very much to me as if she has had breast reduction surgery. Compare photos of her from a year or so ago with her current Miami appearances (see photo below), and her breasts look remarkably smaller (to my eyes). Now I’m finally getting why there have been whispers. And I probably have egg all over my face for defending her. lol

The unavailability of the Williams sisters resulted in a team that was destroyed by their opponents, 5-0. And I’m not intending to dismiss the effort of both Oudin and McHale. In fact, I felt that Oudin would have a chance of beating Georges because of her recent win against her in Miami. But both McHale and Oudin found themselves simply outplayed. At the very least, the experience should be a good one for McHale, giving her an idea of what is expected at the pro level and hopefully inspiring her to do what she needs to do to play at this level.

However, I believe that the biggest difference between the Germans and the Americans was neither talent nor ability. Both teams were young and the Americans had the edge in doubles experience. Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges, Sabine Lisicki, and Anna-Lena Groenefeld each have only one WTA singles title to their name. Julia Goerges leads that group with three WTA doubles titles.

But Vania King has 12 doubles titles in addition to her one WTA singles trophy. And Liezel Huber boasts a mind-boggling total of 44 doubles titles, is a finalist on every Slam surface with two mixed doubles Slam wins, and is a former #1 doubles player (currently ranked # 3). With this team, Mary Jo Fernandez had every reason to feel optimistic. But Mary Jo does not seem to radiate optimism. Her body language always seems to broadcast worry and concern. That frown on her face is at risk of becoming a permanent wrinkle.

Compare this with the German team coach, Barbara Rittner, (herself a former Fed Cup player who with Steffi Graf helped Germany win the title in 1987 and 1992), whose body language remained positive, proud, and encouraging. About her team, Rittner would later say, “We have a lot of quality in the team and they all encourage each other”. In other words, the German women seemed to genuinely like each other. They seemed truly bonded together as a team. The Americans, not so much.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Family Circle 2011 Doubles Wrap-Up

Early Saturday evening, I strolled over in the direction of Murphy Jensen’s straining voice. He seemed to be working really hard to entertain the audience, part of the extra-curricular buzz that surrounds most tennis tournaments. By the time I got there, a teenager was in the middle of performing what she called a Justin Bieber parody. Since I didn’t know the original song, I had no idea if the parody was witty or lame. But the kids in the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves well enough. She seemed really into singing. I wondered if she also played tennis.

I left before she finished because I noticed some movement towards the smaller secondary tennis court named after Althea Gibson. I meant to look to see if there was something representing Althea in this space but I totally forgot in my haste to secure a decent seat from which I could take pictures. We did not have to wait long. Peng Shuai and her partner Zheng Jie soon walked onto the court, followed closely by Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina.

One of the ironies of this match is that it would have been better for the scheduling if the Chinese women had won. Had Peng and Zheng managed to pull out a win, they would have faced Mattek-Sands and Shaughnessy in the finals the following day. A win by Vesnina and Mirza would mean that Vesnina would have to play in both the singles and doubles finals. In the end, this is exactly what transpired. And it made a slight mess of the schedule as doubles was then played after the singles’ finals, instead of before it as is tradition. (Since the timing of the singles finals was not affected in any way, and since she won the match in straights, I did not really understand why Wozniacki was unable to do a proper post-match interview. Getting big for our shoes are we?)

But back to the doubles where I had seen Mattek-Sands and Shaughnessy defeat Peschke and Srebotnik earlier that morning. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed in their play. Mattek-Sands is a flashy player in every sense of the word. Between the orange socks, under eye black stripes, and non-tennis sneakers, girlfriend is clearly no introvert. Her tennis can be erratic at times as she goes for big shots even sometimes when she is not in a position to pull them off. But she does seem to have a solid understanding of doubles play.

I was surprised however to discover that Shaughnessy’s main strategy seemed to be to go down the line hard. Because between them Shaughnessy is the far more experienced doubles player, I expected more of her performance at the net. And I’m not saying that she did not contribute anything to this win – to be fair, she slapped some returns so hard you had to wonder how someone so frail-looking could produce such zing. But if she played anything effectively at the net, I must have missed it.

But back to Saturday evening, where I discovered that Zheng Jie may also have been having an off-day. With 12 WTA doubles titles under her belt, Zheng Jie knows how to play doubles tennis. But on Saturday evening, the only thing she seemed to be good at was jumping around like a crab at the net, making fake moves as if she is going for the poach when the truth was that she was exerting a lot of energy but accomplishing nothing. In the meantime poor Peng who had played a thrilling three-setter against Mirza just that morning, had to turn around and do the yeoman’s work of trying to defeat the combination of Vesnina and Mirza. It was not to be.

I don’t know how much energy Vesnina really exerted in trying to beat Wozniacki in singles on Sunday morning. When you play an opponent like Wozniacki whose principal strategy is to keep the ball in play, you have to end up hitting a crapload of balls in order to win a single point. Caroline wins matches not because she is blasting anyone off the court a la Serena, but because no matter what you play her, she will get the ball back.

I can remember only two moments in the match against Vesnina when Caroline gave up the point and elected not to chase down a ball. The excellent points that Vesnina constructed clearly came from her doubles experience. But to keep up that strategy would have meant losing the element of surprise after a while. Yes, Wozniacki is that competitive and persistent.

The doubles finals against Mattek-Sands and Shaughnessy was a strange match. In both sets, Vesnina and Mirza took a strong lead, only to see it erased by the Americans performing in front of a partisan crowd. But fresh off their victory at Indian Wells a few weeks ago, Mirza and Vesnina never lost confidence. Between Mirza’s powerful forehand, Vesnina’s spicy backhand, and both of their courage at net, the eventual win was inevitable. I commented to a woman next to me that the crowd seemed far more vocal and excited than they had been during the preceding singles match. Frankly, it was nice to see doubles actually ruling the day.

Althea Gibson Club Court, photo courtesy Charlie Cowins

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Has Jelena lost the passion?

This is not a new question for me. I’ve been wondering this for quite some time. But it’s the first time I’ve elected to write about it. Maybe it was watching her play against Caroline Wozniacki today and observing the way she defeated herself far more than she was defeated by her opponent. (Yes Wozniacki is a decent player, but Jankovic made her look way better than she actually is).

Maybe it was her lack of energy, not to mention a forehand, or a net strategy. Maybe it was during the post-match interview when she admitted that she knew that no matter what she threw at Caroline, the ball was going to come back. Maybe it was her frank admission that sometimes you need some luck to win a match. The great ones don’t rely on luck when they are confident that their skills will do. Luck to them is nothing but a sweet bonus, not something they ever count on.

Mainly I got the impression today that Jankovic was just going through the motions. She had a match to play and she was going to fulfill her contractual obligation by showing up for said match. Apparently expecting her to bring along some passion was asking too much. Her manner remained desultory, lacking, absent. Unlike yesterday when her chat with Pavel seemed to energize her for a bit, today she just remained flat. Really, she seemed entirely disinterested. 

I am not without sympathy for how difficult it must be to have to gear up to play tennis day in day out. Despite how much these players are catered to -- and is there a better symbol of that than the red carpet that is unfurled as they walk out of the tunnel leading onto the main court? -- but despite the lengths that the WTA must undoubtedly go to to keep their stars happy, surely it must all get old at some point. The best of us would become jaded if our lives consisted only of the same experiences day in and day out, no matter how enjoyable those experiences may initially be. My point being that I am not lacking in empathy for Jankovic if this is indeed what may be going on for her.

But part of being a highly paid professional is that you have the means as well as access to the best psychologists and other professionals who can help you get your groove back. Like Stella, sometimes all you need is some time off. Visit a Caribbean island, have sex with a beach rasta. Of course you have to make sure that you don’t lose your damn mind and marry him. Next thing you know you’re divorcing a gay man who expects to get half.

I find that it helps to think of your profession as a marriage. It’s a long-term commitment between you and the career you've chosen. Like most commitments, things are usually heated and excited at the start. But with the passage of time, passions inevitably cool. But there are certain tricks that can help re-ignite those feelings. If you loved something once, it's going to be easy to love it again, with a little effort and dedication on your part.

For a start, as in a marriage, it is important not to take your sport for granted. You have to keep nurturing your game. It’s cliched to say this but the truth is that anything that is not improving is probably getting worse. When it comes to a sport, there’s no such thing as status quo. And as in a marriage, there’s always some kind of outside threat that you may need to defend against during those times when things become a bit lackluster. There’s always going to be parasites like LeAnn Rimes who, despite claims of Christianity, would not lose sleep over invading and then killing off your relationship.

The tennis equivalent are those newbies who would get a kick out of thrashing you. Just because you got to the top does not mean that you will naturally stay there. Getting there is only part of the work. Staying there is far more difficult. And staying there involves never taking it for granted that you will always be there. But former #1 Jelena Jankovic surely knows this better than most?

Another way to keep the passion alive is by never making it only about you. It's crucial to avoid feeding into the kind of narcissism that afflicts some people after they’ve achieved -- be it a ring on their wedding finger or some WTA wins. The minute you become deluded enough to believe that you’re entitled to the things you have, is the minute the loss of passion may begin to set in. Passion thrives on mutuality and sharing. It’s important to give back to tennis as much or more than you take from it.

Sometimes also, passion begins to wane when you stop trying new things. I’m not referring here to the kinds of rituals (and superstitions) that players often engage in. For instance, before Wozniacki serves (on clay), she often cleans the baseline with her feet, knocks the clay out of her shoes, bounces the ball three times to the right, three times to the front, and then serves. She should probably never change this ritual. She’s probably no longer even conscious of sometimes doing this. But it is part of her stimulus control, her body's preparation for winning.

Trying something new and exciting means simply tweaking your game, adding always to the arsenal of shots that you have mastered and that you can call upon when needed. If your entire game remains serving big and hitting ground-strokes from the baseline, the loss of passion for the sport is probably inevitable. It’s important to keep adding some some spice and variety, not only because that will make you a more formidable opponent, but also because this will help you to retain your passion for the sport.

Finally, sometimes you just have to fake it 'til you feel it. Is there a woman out there who has not faked an orgasm? It's a myth that women only do this to satisfy mens' egos. In fact, we do this also because sometimes in the middle of faking it, you catch a moment and next thing you know, you’re truly getting off. It’s no different with tennis. Get out there and pump yourself up. Break a racket or two. Yell at your box. Anything you need to do to actually feel something, to get yourself out of your torpor.

Of course if all else fails, you should probably just get a divorce. You’re of no use to yourself or to the sport if you’re just going to show up, go through the motions, and collect a pay check. Tennis is fully deserving of your passion, and if you can’t (or don’t want to) rekindle it, well then just fire yourself and give some other newbie a chance to make her mark.

Family Circle QFs: Where pluck lost out to patience

There were four interesting quarterfinal match-ups at the Family Circle Cup yesterday: Wozniacki vs. Wickmayer, Jankovic vs. McHale, Peng vs. Mirza, and Vesnina vs. Georges. And in every single instance, the plucky player who came out zinging ended up losing to the player who kept her cool and simply played the reliable, patient, persistent tennis that got her to where she was in the first place.

First up was Caroline Wozniacki vs. the Belgian, Yanina Wickmayer. It was my first time seeing Wickmayer playing up close. I like what I saw. (OK maybe I'm biased -- I always favor players who wear practical shorts over the latest fashion statement). Yanina is a lanky young woman who hits the ball way harder than you'd expect given her slight frame. Indeed none of the players on the court yesterday were big women. And all of them hit the ball so fiercely that it was proof that you don't have to be a muscled behemoth to spank the crap out of a tennis ball. Power in tennis comes as much from timing as it does from the proper use of the legs, not the arms. But I digress.

Wickmayer is a talented player and in the first set, she gave Caroline more than she could handle. Caro had to run to daddy on several occasions in order to be told what to do. The disadvantage of being a live spectator is that you are not privy to his advice, not that I speak Polish anyway. But the interesting thing with Caroline is that I never really saw any change in her game after these consultations. After a few aggressive rallies, she would retreat to defensive retrieving and would play out the rest of the point by patiently getting the ball back, keeping it in play, and making intelligent placements instead of always going for sheer power. This is how she won that match. This is how she wins every match.

Next up was Peng vs. Mirza. After the white girls left the court, so did most of the audience. The few remaining clearly did not have a bitch in this fight and simply applauded good tennis. The interesting thing with the audience though -- not just this one but every tennis audience everywhere -- is that plucky shots get more applause than intelligent persistence. So when Mirza came out painting the lines and playing her aggressive, non-varying tennis, the audience lapped it up.

Sania Mirza barely looks like a tennis player, by which I mean that she seems to have so little muscle tone that you really wonder how the heck she is able to play so aggressively. Her single unvarying strategy is to hit the ball hard. She does nothing else. Peng on the other hand, simply waited her out. Her patience and persistence eventually paid off. She won the match.

Next up were Jelena Jankovic vs. Christina McHale. No surprise -- the crowd returned for this match. McHale is a plucky player. I hate being repetitive but this is the best word to describe her. She's had some of her best tennis results to date at this event. It's hard to believe that she is the contemporary of seemingly promising players like Asia Muhammed. Remember her?

McHale is a fearless player who, like most of the current crop of newbies, is very comfortable at the baseline. But play her a drop-shot, as Jankovic did, time after time, and she has no idea what to do. That tells you something about how players are being coached today. They can all hit massive shots from the baseline. They can serve like demons. And there is nothing else.

The remarkable thing about Jankovic was how little energy she brought to the first set. She was downright subdued. I wasn't sure if she was just untroubled by her opponent or whether this whole tennis thing is becoming a bit of a drag for her. (During the post-match interview she said that she was getting the hunger back which was an admission that she had lost it).

I was however surprised when Jankovic asked for coaching consultation during the set break. After all, she was clearly going to win this match. Pluck did not have a chance. I don't know what her new coach, Andrei Pavel, told her during their chat, but Jankovic came out playing much more aggressively. She shut the plucky one entirely out of the second set.

Finally, the last singles match of the day featured the feisty German, Julia Georges, against the patient and more experienced Russian, Elena Vesnina. The latter was wearing a high left thigh brace. So when Georges came out hitting zinging shots down the line, for a minute I started composing a different article in my head. I wondered if I would have to go instead with: "Pluck 1, Patience 3".

I should not have wavered. Pluck may win the occasional tournament like Azarenka's big trophy in Miami. But the players who know how to dig deep and grind it out when they need to, who know how to combine power with intelligent placement, who understand when and how to implement finesse (drop-shots, lobs, slices, sweet angles) -- these players will always have the better careers. Which is why Vesnina came back and won the two remaining sets. And this is how I ended up not having to change the title of this entry.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Should I fire my tennis-loving dentist?

Some of my favorite tennis conversations have involved random chats in the oddest of places. Like when you’re on a plane sandwiched between two strangers because you delayed booking your flight, and one of the slices of bread turns out to be a tennis lover. Next thing you know, you forget completely that you’re pissed at being stuck in the middle. The two of you chat each others ears off all the way to California while the third wheel on the left falls asleep in utter boredom. Good times!

I thoroughly enjoy such moments of randomness. They’re not the same as the random connections you form with strangers at tennis events. Those are also great of course, but in a sense, they are entirely to be expected. After all, you’re all there because you share a common obsession with the same sport.

I prefer those moments when you’re minding your own business and just like that, bam! You run into a fellow tennis lover. Like at a company event (true story) when you meet for the first time the spouse of someone you’ve barely ever spoken to because you and she have nothing in common (and in fact you know that she doesn’t like you). And then her husband turns out to be as raving mad about tennis as you are. And the two of you want to talk to each other all night. Except that now he has to recalibrate all of the crappy things he has heard about you. And you have to figure out a way to sneak in a convo about Nadal that’s going to easily last three hours, without pissing off his wife. Like I said, good times!

But then there are moments when tennis conversations become a bit more challenging. Like when you’re trying to tell your non-interested daughter why someone named Milos Raonic is such a promising talent. And next thing you know you’re going on and on, forgetting for a moment that you’re not sandwiched on a plane, until you eventually notice her eyes glazing over. And then you stop, and save it for the next random moment when you happen to run into a real tennis fan.

For a while there, I coped by using tennis message boards for tennis conversation. But despite the best intentions of moderators, tennis boards often quickly become very ugly, as fans of the one player line up to attack fans of the other. After a while, it just stops being enjoyable. Of course ironically, the more polite the board, the less enjoyable the tennis conversation. Because let’s face it, talking tennis properly requires the expression of passion.

So when I made an appt. with this dentist, I was at first pleasantly surprised to discover that he was a tennis fan. I did not discover this right away. I was having an implant procedure with several stages that in all lasted over the course of an entire year. In fact I’m still not finished. But now I dread the follow-ups.

For the first few visits, he was sweet and gentle, with the element of professionalism that makes the best dentists great. And because the procedure I was having was not covered by my health insurance, I went to pains to find a dentist with whom I felt very comfortable. I thought I had found him.

Until the day I sauntered in wearing a tennis outfit. The match against a moon-baller had gone on forever and the only thing I had to change into was just more tennis clothing. His eyes lit up when he saw me. For a moment I was vain enough to think that I was making him hot. But that swiftly passed as he excitedly asked if I played tennis. All I managed to say was “Yes” before he launched into “Me too!”, and then proceeded to regale me with a blow by blow report of his latest match.

This then has become the pattern of our appointments. I show up. I sit in the chair. He presses the button at the bottom so that I am lying prone looking up at him. He towers over me while wearing blue gloves and the thing that looks like a jeweler’s visor light on his forehead. And then he proceeds to drone on and on about his latest match. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. Always he is boring.

I smile politely and even venture a question or two. I can’t help that I was raised to be polite, even when I’m being short-changed. I suppose because his time is my money, he has never once asked me about my game. Indeed, since discovering that I am a tennischick, he no longer asks me about myself period. He doesn’t even ask about my mouth. I have ceased to exist. I am nothing but the repository for his monthly game reports.

The experience has made me realize that part of the joy of those special random moments that I cherish is the mutuality of the experience. It’s two tennis lovers bonding for a moment over a sport they love. Who cares if this discovery happens to occur in the bathroom of a Ruth Chris Steakhouse? Unfortunately for me, it is so not happening at the dentist’s office.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Positive self-talk and a calm mind (III)

There are moments when Djokovic can be seen mumbling to himself during a match. These moments generally occur after he misses a shot. Of course many players do this as well. And for some players you can see the negativity of the self-chatter. You can detect the intensity with which they start berating themselves for having erred. But studies on the impact of self-talk on performance have reliably shown that kind that of negative self-talk can be very destructive of one’s self-confidence. Positive self-talk, on the other hand, actually enhances performance.
Much of this research is based on the work of Albert Bandura whose theory of self-efficacy has been translated into the notion of sport confidence. Self-efficacy refers to your belief in your personal capability. Self-efficacy beliefs influence how we think, feel, and act; these internal beliefs have a profound effect on our motivation and confidence. Individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy will take on challenges – such as beating the #1 player in the world twice in a row – which they will remain motivated to master.
Like others with a strong sense of self-efficacy, in those moments when Djokovic can be seen muttering to himself, he is likely not putting himself down at all, but reminding himself that he knows exactly what to do. In the early stages of her career during moments when matches got difficult, Serena Williams could be seen reading her personal cheat sheets – positive messages to herself about her abilities.
Self-talk is a specific type of confidence building technique. It involves the use of certain cognitive strategies (e.g., Serena’s positive cue words or Rafa’s knack for mental re-framing) to help athletes to think more positively and focus on the task at hand. It is a psychological tool that has been shown to have a strong effect on performance.
Arousal control is the final psychological skill that great athletes master. Arousal control has to do with the management of your energy level. Decades of research have shown that there is an optimal arousal level that results in great performance. Too hyped-up or too relaxed and your performance will suffer. There is, in other words, a Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF). That zone may differ from one person to another, but what the great athletes have in common is that they tend to be skilled energy managers.
Because each individual has his or her unique optimal zone, PST psychologists will work with athletes to help them find their own Individual Affective Performance Zone (IAPZ). This is the zone in which the athlete’s level of personal arousal is calibrated to match her anxiety level and her emotional preferences. This is one of the reasons why, while I cannot bear listening to it, I understand that Maria Sharapova needs to scream.
It is also one of the reasons why there can be an emotional mismatch between a coach and an athlete. I adore Todd Martin but his influence on Novak Djokovic was nothing short of disastrous. Todd Martin had one of the best serves in men’s tennis, but he was not the right person to tinker with Djokovic’s serving motion.
From the perspective of PST, their problems may not only have been mechanical but also emotional. There has to be an emotional fit between coach and student such that the coach can be a part of the positive energy management system that the student needs. When the athlete looks to his box – and Djokovic probably leads everyone else in the frequency with which he does this – the emotional feedback must be both soothing and confidence-boosting.
Some coaches include the use of techniques of biofeedback or neurofeedback to help their athletes learn how to regulate their energy. But learning techniques of breathing retraining and the like is easy in a psychologist’s office. The real test comes when you’re on court at Delray Beach, in front of thousands of screaming fans, playing a tie-break in the third set, with the score at 6-4, and you’re serving for the match a second time, knowing that if you miss this point it will be 6-5 and your opponent’s turn to serve.
And when your opponent has the intensity and aggressiveness of a Rafael Nadal, you know that you have to win this point, this match, right now. So you dig deep, give yourself some positive reminders of how well you can serve, visualize where you intend to place the ball, plan out the play if it is returned, breathe deeply, and execute.
(Part 3 of 3)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Setting your sight on greatness (II)

A friend asked me if I would still develop this mini-series of articles if Djokovic ended up losing in Miami. My response was that of course I would. The fact of a loss does not detract from the greatness of a player. Or, as I responded to her, chica, into every life some loss must eventually fall. Even the best have an off-day.
But what the great ones have in common is that they deliberately, consciously, and intentionally set their sights on being the best. And then they go about accomplishing this. I’m speaking of goal-setting of course. And it’s a necessary psychological skill in the pursuit of greatness.
The research on goal-setting is not plentiful, but what data exists suggests that goal-setting is the most effective mental training tool in sport psychology. Research also shows that certain types of goals work best in certain situations. The best goals are those that are task as well as process-related, moderately difficult, and specific to the anticipated outcome. Let me explain.
To clarify, the best goals are ones where the focus is not only on getting there but also on the process of getting there. Not just the end-point but also the journey. Second, it’s also important not to bite off more than you can chew. Effective goal-setting for a tennis player will involve not deciding the minute you turn pro that you want to be the #1 player in the world. Like Raonic, it may make more sense to aspire to be Top 50. Once that goal is achieved, you set your sights on being Top 25. And so on. And finally, it is critical that your efforts bear some relation to your desired outcome (e.g., practicing split steps for 30 minutes a day will make more sense than bench-pressing 500 pounds in the gym if your goal is to become an excellent tennis player).
The great ones also know how to use effective mental visualization in order to achieve their defined goals. There have been over 200 studies conducted on the effects of using imagery in sport. The majority of these studies show that effective imagers perform significantly better than their counterparts. In other words, imagery has a positive effect on performance.
I believe that I’ve written before about a former coach whom I observed teaching his young students to visualize every aspect of their form. He only allowed them to hit the topspin forehand when they could visually see themselves doing so. When they lost a match, he would have them visually reconstruct where they may have gone wrong.
But one of the big debates in this area is whether imagery is any more effective than simple physical practice, modeling, or other concrete methods of learning. The response is that you need to do all of the above. It is the combination of imagery with physical practice as well as observing the masters, that produces the best tennis results. In other words, being able to use mental imagery will enhance performance when combined with observation and practice. Some sport psychologists believe that this use of imagery is an effective neuroscientific tool.
So, do I have any evidence that Djokovic is an effective goal-setter or visualizer? No I don’t. I’m simply arguing for my belief that there is no way he could get to where he is today without being able to effectively use both of these psychological tools.
In addition, I’d like to believe that Djokovic perhaps simply got tired of being shut out of the conversation about tennis dominance. For several years almost all of the focus has been on Federer and Nadal. Djokovic found himself treated like a third wheel, a performer who was not really invited to the party. 

It did not help his situation when, some years ago, he and his mother started crowing about the death of the king when he finally managed to beat Federer. That was a serious misstep. Not only did Fed succeed in crushing him after that, but Nadal also made him his petting boy. I suspect that Djokovic’s inspiration for his current greatness may have had its roots in that experience of being completely overlooked. 
(Part 2 of 3)