From the outset, I must confess that I feel a little foolish writing a column called, Turbo Tennis and writing a piece entitled, "Patience is a Virtue." Those of you who know the genesis of Turbo Tennis realize that in learning to play this wonderful game of ours at a later age (39), I was frustrated by the myriad instructional books, videos and teaching pros at that time who did not teach the "modern game." I literally had to start from scratch to find methods that would allow me to play competitively without needing a decade to achieve this goal.
My first year of competition, I played 22 matches and lost everyone! Indeed, I won only two sets during the entire year. 4 years later, I was ranked fourth in Men's 5.0 by the USTA's New England Section for two consecutive years... I did spend much time working on my game during these four years, but had I followed conventional methods, I suspect the time needed to reach these rankings would have taken much longer.
So, it is safe to say that I, like most tennis players, am inherently impatient when it comes to results!
Fortunately, the "modern game" is now the norm, and traditional methods have been either altered or abandoned. For example, I don't know of any academy, teaching pro or instructional book that advocates the use of the continental forehand grip when striking groundstrokes.
Still, this is a game that requires patience regardless of what methods are employed. The simple fact is that it takes lots of practice to get a little better. I believe that one can greatly accelerate this learning process, but this notwithstanding, playing competitive tennis takes some time.
Now, those of us who live north of the Equator are beginning to move into the colder months. The amount of time we are probably able to dedicate to playing tennis has either been significantly reduced, or in many cases, not viable at all. This is certainly one way in which tennis requires some patience.
Well this month, I want to address the various ways in which tennis requires our patience. Indeed, this is more of a "philosophical" piece, but I assure the reader that there are some clear and practical benefits to these "realizations."
In the game of tennis, patience and forgiveness are at times synonymous. Whether we are simply practicing or competing, we are bound to have "good" and "bad" days. No one is perfect... including the pros. Each of us invariably will find times that we seemingly just can't make any of our otherwise solid shots.
Generally in these situations, our "fight or flight" instincts kick in. We get angry with ourselves and literally "fight" to recapture our strokes or another common reaction can be to simply give up hope. Usually referred to as "tanking," this is really the "flight" response. We really want to flee the discomfort of losing, and thus, simply give up trying to win.
True competitors have a particular kind of patience that is spawned from forgiveness. As soon as one forgives himself/herself for being less than perfect, a certain relaxation sets in. We become more patient with ourselves, and as such, there is a greater likelihood that we can resurrect our game. When things are going really wrong, it is imperative that a player forgive herself/himself as soon as is possible. This process becomes much easier when one recognizes that we are never perfect in any endeavor.
I recall when Brad Gilbert was coaching Andre Agassi, Andre had fallen in ranking to a level somewhere in the neighborhood of 105 in the world. I am sure that Andre was frustrated, and Brad is not one to encourage complacency. What did Andre do? He swallowed his pride (a form of humbling forgiveness) and spent some time competing in Challenger level events. In time, he regained his game (this required patience), and went on to win additional tournaments including Grand Slams. He didn't fight nor did he engage in flight. Rather, he accepted realities, forgave himself for his failings, and had the patience to begin again... really starting from the beginning.
Even within a typical match, there is a level of patience required of the successful player. Unless you are very fortunate or playing a much inferior opponent, you will need patience to win a match. If you lose the first set, you need to be patient enough to find a way to come back and win the next two sets. If you win the first set, you need to be patient and realize that the battle is not over until the last point is played. Rushing one's game physically and/or emotionally is rarely beneficial. When I compete, I frequently mentally remind myself of the old adage, "Good things come to those who wait." By being patient, I am less likely to change the rhythm of a winning game, and more likely to change the momentum of a losing game.
This reality is in part why you see pros repeating well-defined rituals in between points. Maria Sharapova walks to the screen behind her and pauses while fiddling with her strings after each point. When she is mentally ready, she approaches the baseline to either serve or receive serve. In my mind, this ritual helps her to be patient before engaging in the next point.
The successful player is patient in realizing his/her victory. Rituals are one way to encourage and enhance this kind of patience.
When playing points, players become impatient. When was the last time you played a point that resulted in a rally where more than six combined strokes were struck? Generally, we are all too eager to "pull the trigger." If the ball has passed over the net twice, we are looking to end the point with a winning shot.
Now at times, this is possible and even desirable. But more often than not, winning points are a result of patient, consistent hitting. Buying time until the right reply from your opponent comes along is critically important. In that the modern game is based primarily on groundstrokes, this is even truer today than in the past.
On one extreme, I have even seen players who are trying to win every point off the return of serve. Unless you are Jimmy Connors or Andre Agassi (both had outstanding returns of serves), the likelihood of hitting a winner when returning serve are extremely low.
When I compete, I always count the number of strokes I hit during points. I don't do this for every point, but at the beginning of matches and periodically throughout a match. With respect to the latter situation, counting becomes particularly likely if I have lost a few consecutive points. Almost without fail, I find that I must hit at least three shots before the point ends, if I am to start winning points again.
Even how we stroke the ball requires patience. Generally, we perceive that we have less time than we really do to setup and hit a stroke. This is particularly true when waiting to hit a volley. We sense that the ball is coming at us extremely quickly, and that we must instantly respond to the opponent's shot.
As I mentioned in an earlier column, I learned how untrue this is when I was training with Oscar Wegner the author of Play Better Tennis in Two Hours. When I was forced to wait through a count of 3, 4 or even 5 before attempting to strike a shot (including volleys), I discovered that I was never late in making contact with the ball. Even with big bangers, we have more time to setup to make our strokes than we normally perceived to be the case.
It has been my experience that we tend to "rush" our shots when we are under extreme pressure and/or are fearful of losing. This lack of patience in stroke production coupled with the likely muscle constriction we experience under stress can significantly deteriorate our abilities on the court.
Whenever I find myself rushing my shots (and it happens to everyone at some point), I slow myself down in between points. I focus on my breathing. I inhale deeply through my nose and exhale slowly through my mouth. During the exhale, I make certain to try and relax all the muscles in my body. I take my time going through my pre-point rituals... whether I am serving or returning serve.
When playing points, I make a concerted effort to "freeze" or "quiet" my head through the entire stroke and for a fraction of a second after I have made contact with the ball. Indeed, I make certain that I do not look at where my ball has gone until my follow through is complete... and then some.
Truly, freezing one's head should be the norm in every stroke produced. But when things are going south, it is easy to lift the head early to see the results of your stroke.
I think Oscar Wegner has it absolutely correct. We have far more time to hit each shot than we imagine. The only exceptions may be when we are stretching and straining to hit a shot that moves us severely.
Good stroke production requires patience when competing. One needs to be patient and wait on the ball. Seeing the ball clearly, and freezing one's head during the entire stroke are essential components in facilitating this kind of patience.
Once again borrowing from Oscar, we usually have more time to get to each shot than we imagine. Oscar likes to use the concept of "stalking" the ball. It is a great metaphor for the type of movement needed on the court.
Now, I grant you that on the pro tours, there is far less time to stalk than in intermediate and recreational competition. But, pros compensate for this by having great anticipation. They play each other frequently. They have full-time coaches who analyze opponent's patterns of play. Thus, they are able to know in advance where an opponent is likely to go with her/his shot. But for most of us, this kind of anticipation is not feasible. Fortunately unless you are playing at the highest levels of the game, you have more time than you imagine to get to each shot.
So, I feel safe in stating that we need to be a bit more patient when we track down our opponent's shots. Ironically, I have found that when I take this approach, my movement is naturally more relaxed. As a result, I am actually moving more quickly to the ball than if I make a desperate "charge."
Tennis is such a wonderful game in part because there is always more to learn and always areas for improvement.
Here again, the concept of patience is critically important.
When we are rank beginners, we experience spurts of rapid development. Granted, no one learns this game fully in two hours, but we can learn basics and actually hit balls fairly well in a relatively short period of time.
This rapid improvement makes us all the more eager to continue to play this wonderful game.
However as we improve, improvement takes a bit more time to be fully realized. I happen to see James Blake play as a high school student from Fairfield, CT. At that time, he had his great forehand, but his one-handed backhand was really only effective when he was hitting slice. As he turned pro, he made a concerted effort to develop driving flat and topspin backhands. He has made significant progress in these areas despite his recent fall from the better rankings. I assure you that James had to have much patience as he improved his game in this manner.
Each of us has weaknesses in our games. We recognize these weaknesses, and if we are serious about our tennis, we set out to lessen their impact. This process requires patience!
It is probably safe to say that a significant change in a stroke takes at least six months of work to be fully programmed into our tennis software.
The tennis player is always looking for the quick fix. In some instances, there are quick fixes. This is particularly true when examining the strokes of recreational and lower NTPR rated players. Generally, this is not the case for the intermediate or advanced player.
Unfortunately, injuries are a part of this great game of ours. I have rehabilitated tennis elbow, severe ankle sprains, back strains, a torn rotator cuff, and at present, I am attempting to get my right knee to cooperate. Truthfully, the latter injury is preventing me from playing competitively. My options are limited. Knee replacement will take me away from really being able to play this game that I love.
I am presently using injections of a synthetic lubricant to help the situation. It makes me able to move, but not well.
My orthopedist tells me to be careful and patient. New resurfacing procedures are beginning to be realized that may enable my knee to be brought back to 80 or 90 percent. Believe me, this whole knee experience is challenging my patience.
Everyone who is injured, regardless of the sport, needs patience to allow the body to heal. Fortunately, I can still hit on the court and give lessons. However not being able to track down many shots is frustrating to say the least.
Philosophically, I view my situation as being more positive. After all, I am still able to get out and hit balls, give lessons, and on occasion, play a legitimate set or two. When I took up this game at age 39, I did so because it was called a game for a lifetime. For me, this will be true whether my body allows me to play or not. I can always coach, and writing this column for you very supportive readers provides lots of satisfaction.
As a full-time professor of Communications, I often times hear my students say to one another, "Chill." By this of course, they mean relax and take it easy. If you think about it, these are attributes that are integral to what we call patience.
Imagine that every time you practiced or competed in tennis that you "chilled." Wouldn't your game be better? Wouldn't the experience be more fun? Wouldn't you be more likely to want to play or compete again?
So, the old adage, patience is a virtue, is extremely valid when applied to the game of tennis.
If you can gain patience with respect to your strokes, strategies, progress, changes and injury recoveries; I assure you that you will soon become a