Tuesday, July 22, 2008

San Diego District Tennis Championships

A goodly portion of my sports-related free time is, as you have probably guessed, devoted to tennis. Watching, reading, writing, and most of all playing the game are just about the best ways I can think of to have some fun and get exercise. Over the past few years, I've been playing more and more, and have decided to throw my hat (or racket, as it were) into the competitive ring next month.
The 80th annual San Diego District Tennis Championships kick off August 22 at Balboa Park, and I just submitted my entry to play in the NTRP 5.0 singles tourney. This is a single-elimination format, USTA sanctioned event, and should be quite a challenge.
I spent my early teen years playing in local and USTA tournament, and despite always having a steadily improving game, never had the most auspicious results. The game was there, but the performance in the crunch was frustratingly missing. Time after time I'd over-think the big points, doubt my abilities, think negative thoughts, and time after time, those thoughts would come true. My old coach always told me that my problem was my head, that I was too smart to be a tennis player, that you have to be dumb on the tennis court and trust your ability.
Despite that comment always really annoying me, there is a vein of truth in it. I disagree that a good player should be dumb on the tennis court; this is a game that requires active stratigizing and problems-solving, but at some point, you have to release the negativity and self-doubt and just play.
I always loved the preparation for tournaments and the atmosphere on the day. That feeling of nervous anticipation, meeting a new player, getting a free t-shirt, the coaches all milling about, just a fantastic feeling. When I would get on the court; however, I would have progressively less and less fun as I got more and more nervous, frustrated and doubtful. I would even experience the dreaded "choking". The double fault on set point, the flubbed volley into the open court, surrendering the big lead in a tiebreak. Oh my God, so frustrating!
My tourney play slowed down after a knee surgery when I was 17, and I stuck with high school tennis, which was fun for the camaraderie and the fact that our team was awesome, but our coach was a pain who liked to set up conflict and anger between members of the team. In college and beyond, the game was purely recreational, and as my knee started troubling me again, faded into the background.
I tried to come back strong after a second knee surgery and effective rehab, but found the old mental goblins still up to their old tricks when I played in the Fallbrook Open 3 years ago. Truth be told, I had no business being in that tournament, I wasn't match fit and it was 110 degrees on the court. I got out there anyway, only to face the most irritatingly effective opponent in tennis, the player known as "the backboard." This dude got to everything. EVERYTHING! No pace, no winners, but tireless running and hardly any unforced errors. For a player like me who thrives on pace and had issues staying focused, he was an absolute nightmare to play.
Oh yeah, and I double-faulted on my only set point in the second set and lost 6-4, 7-5. Sucked.
Worse, my knee was really hurting afterwards and I had to shut things down for several months afterward. A disheartening return to tournament tennis, that's for sure.
Having put aside tournament tennis again, and having started taking lessons from Simon the Great at Pacific Beach Tennis Club (if anyone reading this has any interest in taking lessons, Simon is your man. Doesn't matter your level, he is just a fantastic coach. Let me know and I'll give you his info) tennis has been more fun than ever over the past years. I still battle old demons when I play competitively, though, and am determined to find a way through it.
Thus my entry into the SDDTC next month, and this time I'm trying a new approach. Of course I want to train hard and play lots of tennis to get ready, but now I want to start putting to rest these doubts and nerves that have plagued my game for so long. Easy? No. This is stuff that pervades the game, with numerous bestsellers written and gurus giving lectures designed to help players work through the mental game of tennis.
So here's my approach:
-when I play, try to keep the negative comments out
-practice focusing during matches with the oldest trick in the books, looking at my strings between points. Watch any match and you'll see nearly every player do this. It's not that I don't, it's that I don't do it consistently and my mind starts to wander
-try to get a bit more fitness under my belt
-look towards the progress I'm making, instead of the match result
-match play, match play, match play
I'm really excited about this and am hopeful this will introduce a new phase of enjoyment in my game. I'm one month away, so here we go!

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