Monday, May 27, 2013

Tennis Anyone?

No sport is more isolating than tennis. There are no teammates to rely on and no timeouts to halt your opponents momentum. You have no corner to retreat to and you are not allowed to consult with your coach during a match. It's just you and the person on the other side of the net. This is why so many tennis players go absolutely insane. Playing tennis in high school I would just live for the moment when I broke the person I was playing against. The minute they started slamming their racket on the ground in frustration and muttering to themselves I knew I had them. And nothing was worse when it happened to you.

Tennis is also a beautiful game to watch. I am fortunate enough to live near the Cincinnati ATP tournament so every year I get to watch the best players in the world. In the last three years I’ve seen Roger Federer vs. Mardi Fish, Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray, and Federer vs. Djokovic. It’s just amazing watching how good these guys are and you have to wonder how they became so skilled. The short answer is of course hours and hours and hours and hours of practice. Want to know the long answer? Here’s where to go.

Start with Some History:
I have two books that have "the Greatest Match Ever Played” in the title. The first, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played by L. Jon Wertheim intersperses a description of the 2008 Wimbledon finals between Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer (considered by many to be the best players of all timeWith Federer the clear #1. Yes Nadal owns an advantage in their one on one battles, but here’s the statistic that is mind blowing. The record for most consecutive Grand Slam finals appearances is Federer with 10. Second place? Federer with 8. The next highest? Nadal with 5. Nadal is the greatest on clay, but Fed is still the GOAT.) with biographical information about the two men. But despite the greatness of Federer and Nadal, and what a great tennis match the 2008 Wimbledon finals was it pales in comparison to the key match of the 1937 Davis Cup match between Don Budge (USA) and Baron Gottfried von Cramm (Germany), set on the eve of WWII with implications far greater than tennis. Marshall Jon Fisher describes the stakes of this match in his wonderful book A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, A World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played. The book does a great job demonstrating how the events of the day affected the men on the court and gives you a great lesson about the early days of tennis.And leaves you wondering just how many Grand Slams Don Budge could had won if professionals could have competed in them. Perhaps he would be in the GOAT discussion. And what about Big Bill Tilden? Seriously Brian Phillips, write the Book of Tennis already!

Then get into a Player’s Head:
I have read a bunch of sports autobiographies and most are fairly average. They meander in clich├ęs and mainly seem designed to further the athlete’s brand. Not so with Andre Agassi’s Open. From his bad boy image is everything Brooke Shields loving early years to the physical specimen workman of his later career Agassi is a fascinating person. Agassi is candid and his memoirs are engrossing. It was amazing how much he hated tennis and it was almost painful to read how much tough losses impacted him. After reading this book you get a sense of how unfair it is that the losses are always remembered more vividly than the wins. Despite the career grand slam, 8 slam titles, and Olympic gold Agassi probably wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking about those matches with Sampras he let get away. The book conveys just how hard it is to become great at tennis, and just how cruel the sport of tennis can be.

Then improve your own game:
If you play tennis you will eventually find yourself on the court with someone who is just flat out better than you. They will be able to do things with a tennis racket that you can only dream of. Fortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to lose. One of the best strategies to adopt in these situations is pushing: don’t try to hit winners, just minimize unforced errors, focus on hitting the ball back and try to extend the point. The idea is that hopefully, the guy you are playing against will get increasingly frustrated with how long the point is taking and will start taking more and more chances until he hits an unforced error. After repeating this process over and over sometimes you can get a player to snap and it’s game over. Obviously this won’t work against Roger Federer, but against that 4.5 player when you are a 3.5? It gives you a punchers chance. If you want a how-to guide for this strategy you can do no better than Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis--Lessons from a Master. In Gilbert’s playing days he was a master of finding and exploiting his opponent’s weaknesses and it was under his tutelage that Andre Agassi reached his full potential. In the book Gilbert provides some great lessons on how you too can use strategy to bring down better players.

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