The Point

Trey’s head is hot and his feet hurt. His toes are wet and mushed together in his shoe, stinging where the blister has ripped loose on his left big toe. He’s afraid of changing out of his socks, soaked with three hours of sweat, because if he removes them he might rip away the puffy shell of blistered skin that’s delicately hanging on, the last line of defense protecting the raw skin beneath. Trey bounces the tennis ball three times. He catches it and holds it against his racket for a moment before he serves. He’s one point away from winning the Boys 18 and Under division at the Southern Open. He wants it to be over.

He considers going for a big serve and ending the match with an ace. Nagging voices inside his head persuade him to reconsider. Coach: Why go for the lowest percentage serve on the biggest point of your life? Mom: This is what we’ve been talking about. You can’t lose your focus on big points. Dad: What was going on inside your head? Mom: At least you learned something from your mistake. Dad: He never seems to learn. Coach: Eliminate thinking errors. Mom: Why do you complicate things, Trey? Coach: Keep your thoughts simple.

Standing just outside the fence with his arms folded across his chest, his coach hides his facial expressions in the shadow cast by the large straw hat atop his head. Trey’s parents are seated on a Carnival Cruise beach towel draped over a row of the aluminum bleachers on the side of the court. Trey didn’t go on that cruise. He was training for this tournament, for this moment, a moment that has left him confounded.

It’s his right quadriceps, which has been twitching, ready to seize up on him with a painful cramp, that convinces him to hit a safe, energy efficient spin serve to his opponent’s backhand. Just get the point started.

His opponent blocks the return back to Trey’s side of the court. Trey jerks his racket back and scrambles into position. His swing is no longer fluid but is now a disjointed abbreviation of the looping stroke he and his coach have been working on for the past four months in their weekly lessons. At least he strikes the ball cleanly, sending it safely across the net to the middle of the court.

Every point has been like this for the last thirty minutes. Neither player aggressive. Both terrified of making a mistake because an error would mean precious energy had been wasted, and after three hours of slugging balls back and forth, neither of them has energy to spare. Trey is aware of the obvious paradox. Because he and his opponent are playing safe, the points have become much longer and more grueling, but both still refuse to take a chance with an aggressive shot. It has become more of a demonstration of will power than skill. Trey hopes his opponent will take a rip at the ball and put an end to this torture. In the meantime, they continue lofting heavy topspin forehands, each shot comfortably clearing the net by several feet.

Trey has never made it this far in the tournament. The finals. His parents and coaches have long insisted that his game is there, telling him that he should be making it to the finals and winning tournaments. He’s not sure if this assertion is meant to be an encouragement of his abilities or an indictment on his failures. His mom has told him it’s just a mental thing. You have to want it. He doesn’t want it. He just doesn’t want to lose. He doesn’t want to come close, tease his parents with success only to fall short yet again. All the money they’ve spent. Lessons, clinics, hotels, rackets, strings, shoes…

All that he wants, all that he deep down really wants, is for this third set tiebreaker to be over so he can retreat to the bench and hide his burning face in the little rectangle of shade from the lamp head hanging high over the court. But right now he’s fighting harder than he’s ever fought for something he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want to lose.

In the humidity the ball has become shaggy and heavy, its black print nearly worn off. He watches it spinning at him through the air, a giant, yellow furball. He considers the color and texture of this ball so carefully that it becomes a blur. His next shot shanks off the frame of his racket, sending a painful jolt through his tired arm. He hears his mom gasp in disgust, or at least he senses it.

The ball zig-zags in the air like a knuckleball. It’s headed beyond the baseline. The score will be even again. All this effort will have been wasted and instead of walking away the champion, now he’ll have to win two more points in a row to win. He’s not sure if he wants to go through this again.

Somehow—maybe a gust of wind—the ball changes trajectory and falls straight down, clipping the baseline. Trey can tell his opponent wants to call the ball out, but the shot is too slow. All six people standing outside the court have a clear view of the line and  know the ball landed in. It’s not a good opportunity to cheat. Still, Trey expects his opponent’s index finger to shoot up in the air, indicating a call of out. A shot that ugly should have gone out. As his opponent stumbles backward to make a last second recovery, his left hand rises into the air ambiguously. Instead of extending his finger, he launches a high, defensive forehand back towards Trey.

In a way, Trey actually regrets that his opponent had not called the ball out. It would have released all the tension, relieved all the pressure. Sure, he would have dropped his racket on the ground, clasped the top of his skull in disbelief, and charged the net yelling, “No way! That was so in.” Because there are no line judges on the court, there wouldn’t be anything he could do to reverse the call, and Trey would look back to the sidelines at his parents who would share in his anger, his dad probably muttering something about what a big cheater the other boy was. But it would have been a relief, this outcome. A win-win. If he had ended up losing, he’d have an excuse, an asterisk next to his opponent’s victory. Trey would have the moral high ground. His opponent only won because he had cheated, he’d tell people. And he would believe it and sleep easier at night knowing this. But the bastard called it in. The point continues.

Trey is even more careful now, his shots landing shorter in the court while his opponent has gone on the attack. He senses his opponent is frustrated, anxious. Trey would be too if he were him. The point should have been over after that horrible mishit. Perhaps pressure has been relieved on the other side of the court. Now, if his opponent should lose the match, he could claim that Trey had only won because he’d been lucky. That’s one thing Trey has learned. Rarely are there both winners and losers in tennis. Mostly, it seems, there are those who won and those who claim they should have won. Defeat is difficult to accept and those who do toil at the bottom of the rankings until they’re so discouraged by their lack of achievement they eventually give up.

Out of the corner of his eye, Trey sees his opponent’s parents shaking their heads, gesturing with their hands, and mouthing over and over, “That was out.” They actually want to believe that Trey’s ball had been out. They had wanted their son to cheat, and they would have accepted it. Wow.

Trey is now sprinting from corner to corner, chasing down balls, trying to hit at least one defensive shot good enough so that the attack stops. He finally hits his first decent shot in the last thirty minutes, a sharp crosscourt forehand that sends his opponent scurrying towards the sideline. The shot has taken just about everything out of Trey. If his opponent hits it back, he’s done.

His opponent does get it back, a slow, loopy shot down the line to Trey’s backhand, just enough within reach that Trey has to waddle over to it. This is it. He attempts an ill-advised, poorly executed drop shot that lands barely over the net but bounces too high, giving his opponent ample time to retrieve it. His opponent races to the net and drives a backhand into the opposite corner. Trey doesn’t make a move towards it. The ball lands squarely on the sideline. In. Trey puts up his left finger and says, “out.” It’s over. He’s won.

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What’s Happened to Roger Federer

lossIt was no surprise that Roger Federer breezed through the first three rounds of the 2013 US Open.  Even though his ranking has faltered, dropping now to number seven after his amazing resurgence in 2012 that saw him briefly regain the number one ranking, we still expect him to win.  He’s Roger Federer.  Watching Federer is, as David Foster Wallace described, a religious experience.  After his loss to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open and his early exit at Wimbledon, we are now wondering, what’s happened to Roger?

Is Age Catching Up to Him?

The logical answer is that he is simply getting old.  Age eventually brings down our greatest sports icons.  Yet Federer is only 32.  Michael Jordan was just beginning his second run of domination at 32.  Watching Federer against Robredo, it appeared that Federer was the better player.  His grace on the court is still evident.  His agility is there as his incredible shot making ability.  He still shows that he is the most technically proficient tennis player in the history of tennis.  So where is the drop off?

Is it Something Physical?

Physical concerns are always an issue with age, especially with tennis players.  The game is violent on the joints.  Think of this.  A tennis player goes from a near sprint to a complete stop, applying an enormous amount of pressure on the knees, hips, and back.  It’s one thing to do this on grass or clay where the softer surface provides more give, but on the hard courts, the body takes a beating.  Every tennis player is eventually going to limp off the court.

But Federer has avoided most of these physical ailments.  He has never missed an extended amount of playing time.  Why?  Probably because he is the most relaxed tennis player we’ve ever seen.  Compare a still shot of Federer striking a ball with one of Nadal.
495035-roger-federer Australian Open TennisTension causes more injuries than athletes tend to realize.  Federer has remained healthy because of his ability to relax. I’m sure he’s employed some form of autogenic training along with meditation to achieve this level of calmness on the court. Despite a sore back in the early summer, Federer went into the US Open claiming to be completely healthy.  He certainly looked physically healthy.

So why is Roger losing?

I’ve always argued that the difference between the number 1 player in the world and the number 100 is actually quite small.  Let’s look first at why Roger was winning.  When he was at his peak, he was about 1 point per game better than the lower ranked opponents.  1 point per game doesn’t seem like that much separation, but it will get you results like 6-2, 6-1.  Why was Roger better?  Of course there’s his technical proficiency.  Secondly, he had superior shot making ability from defensive positions (i.e. his squash shot).

Thirdly, for ten years he has been mentally dominant.  This is where he gained separation from the top players.  Against top 40 players, he was probably about 0.5 points better per game and against top ten players, a little less than that.  Compared to the top tier of players who all had similar technical proficiency and shot making ability, Federer maintained a consistent edge because he believed he had an edge and because he did everything in his power to ensure that his opponents would not have the belief.  This is mental dominance.

It reminds me of a scene in Orson Card’s Ender’s Game when Ender explains why he continued to beat up a bully even after he’d knocked him down.

“Knocking him down won the first fight.  I wanted to win all the next ones, too.”

Federer had to win just about all his matches to maintain his aura of invincibility and plant a seed in every opponent’s mind that they could not beat him.  With the exception of Nadal, he succeeded in this.  There was no saving it for just the big tournaments.  He brought it every tournament, playing with the fear that if lost just once to somebody, maybe, just maybe they might begin to believe they could beat him. One of the most dangerous weapons an opponent can have is belief.

Then Nadal beat him on grass.  Then Djokovic and Murray, which shouldn’t have been that farfetched because in ability they were equals.  The only thing that had previously prevented them from beating Federer was the lack of belief they could beat Federer.

With others knowing he could be beaten, he lost the mental edge he had held over his  opponents for so many years.

But losing to Robredo?  And then Igor Stakhovsky?  How could this happen?  Federer blamed his losses on confidence, but this is only part of the bigger picture.

Where has he slipped?

I remember a comment Pete Sampras made shortly after he retired from tennis.  He said that the biggest deterioration with age is not physical.  It’s mental.

It’s mentally exhausting being the best.  Physically, Federer feels fine which is why it’s so hard for him to understand why he’s losing and why he legitimately seems baffled when he does lose.  He still strikes the ball as solidly as he ever has.  He has not lost a step as some analysts maintain.  He just gives up a few more free points than he used to.  Tiny slips in concentration.  A fraction worse than before.  But when the margins are so small, especially with the top players, wins turn to losses.

Mental slippage?  Really?

As brutal as tennis is on the body, it may be more brutal on the mind, at least for people blessed/cursed with the compulsive desire to be the best.  Training the mind to concentrate for extended periods of time takes practice.  An interesting bi-product of this intense concentration is the seemingly absurd but true anomaly that when a top competitive tennis player comes off the court, he can recall every point in a match.  They’re not consciously memorizing points; it’s just their level of focus is so high and they are so in tune with what’s going on that this notion becomes possible.

Thanks to mental toughness pioneers such as Dr. Jim Loehr, the techniques for staying focused and relaxed has advanced in tennis as much as the technology in equipment and the understanding of biomechanics.  Free points are harder to come by and top players no longer have the luxury of being able to slip in and out of focus like McEnroe and Connors did when they had their outbursts or interactions with the crowd.  It used to be that “being in the zone” was a rare achievement.  Now, it’s a daily necessity.  There are those who argue that tennis has become more boring because the personalities have become much more subdued.  But I prefer watching the mental giants like Federer because simply because it’s incredible what they’re doing out there, sustaining excellence point after point.  Mental giants can be intimidating in a quiet way.

A male tennis player has to sustain focus for three to four hours (sometimes even more) in a closely contested three-out-of-five set match.  The normal amount of time the human mind can maintain uninterrupted concentration is about two hours.  (However, with the vast number of diversions available to us, we are probably evolving—or devolving—to the point where even two hours is a stretch.)  This is why movies typically do not run much longer than two hours and when they do, the audience begins to feel fatigued.  This is why professional poker players immediately stop playing when they feel mentally fatigued.

In competition, or when the stakes really matter (in a war zone perhaps), we can push our minds to do a little more.  But pushing the mind like this is impossible to sustain forever.  Even chess players retire.  Federer has done this week in and week out for over ten years, not just staying atop the rankings, but pummeling his opponents.  Because of his success, he has played more matches than anyone else.  But now the mental strain is beginning to show even before the physical deterioration.  During his fourth round loss against Robredo, the shots were there, but there were a few more loose points than we would expect to see from Federer.

What to Expect from Federer Looking Forward

There’s no doubt Federer continues to have the competitive desire to be the best, and I disagree completely with those who suggest Federer should retire or that he’s even lost a step.  Physically, he should be able to compete with the best for the next three or for years.  If he rests and refreshes mentally, he should be able to put together a run like he did to end the 2012 season.  But the days of dominating day after day, week after week, year after year are over.  Unfortunately, the human mind can be pushed only so far.