What happened when a recreational tennis player entered a pro tournament.
I have this daydream about practicing with Federer…
I strike a forehand that’s just out of his reach. ”Too good” he says. I look over at Paul Annacone, who winks at me in approval. Mirka lowers her $2500 sunglasses.
What would really happen if I played an ATP pro? How many games could I win? How many points could I win? Just how big is the gap between a playing professional and an average NTRP 4.0 tournament player?
I sign up for the largest open tournament in my state of Oregon…the Nike Open.
The Nike Open is Oregon’s Super Bowl of tennis: a week-long tournament with an Open, NTRP, and Seniors draw at three separate facilities. Pros from GA, TX, WA, OR, CA, and Canada have entered; I live just 2 miles from the main facility where the Open is being played–8 outdoor and 6 indoor courts.
There are several players with ATP worldwide rankings in the top 1500 in singles and top 500 in doubles. Then there is me, who just months ago, on these very same courts, double faulted an entire service game in the company of sweaty balding men.
My first opponent: my tennis coach.
Matt Kershaw teaches at Tualatin Hills Tennis Center, where I play most of my tennis. I have taken lessons from him. He’s in his early 20s, relatively quiet (for a tennis instructor), and has an exceptional grasp of serve mechanics. He’s my favorite pro at the center, as he has the energy hit with his students. You can book a lesson with him here.
As we take the court, a kid asks him who he’s playing and when he responds “one of my students” the kid laughs, thinking it was a joke.
People are staring at me.
My match is placed directly at the entrance to the main facility, right in from of the tournament desk. There isn’t a more public this…court 12. Why did they have to put me and my silly experiment…on the featured court? People will stare at my large greasy nose. I could lose 0 and 0 in 30 minutes. Then I’d have to walk past those same people–give them a closer look at my large greasy nose–and report my double bagel as I turn in three virtually new tennis balls.
Simply listening to the sounds of (really) good tennis makes me uneasy. Racquets make a different “pop” in the hands of 5.0+ players: deeper and crisper. And their shoes…they squeek more. Lots of quick chirps as they make all those small adjustments my coaches beg of me. I’m trying to fit the part, and pretend to be a really good player, but I just look like an average player pretending to be a really good player.
The balls are coming too fast, too high, too low. The first three games quickly go to Matt. ”Chirp, chirp, chirp.” Those damned shoes. They mock me.
I go up 5-3 in the first set.
On the 0-3 changeover I take in some cold water and collect my thoughts. I recall my friend Bob saying that when a match got away from him he would focus only on footwork: take extra, short steps between strokes. He said that the upper body will do what comes naturally…if you are in position to hit the ball. The tactic works: I keep enough balls in to win my first game…there will be no double bagel on court 12 today. With a chant of “footwork…footwork..feet…footwork” in my head, I’m getting to balls earlier and striking them with control. Matt is extremely tight. He’s playing a student, at the place he works, in front of his coworkers at the tournament desk. I’m counting balls (one…two…three…four…) in my head and he can rarely get the fifth one back. His mistakes, and the game score, start to pile up quickly. I’m now leading 5-3 and serving to win a set in the Nike Open.
A collapse, then a foot fault on set point.
I’ve done my best to ignore the spectators, players on neighboring courts, and the general circumstance of playing in the deep end of the Tennis pool. But that score…5-3…it alerts me of the thing that ensured my failure. I realize that I’m 4 points (4 points!) from actually winning a set. If I can win a set…why not the match? I’d get to play Andy Gerst, ranked 1375 in the world. What a delightful story that would make…for my blog, for my children, for my grandchildren…for recorded history! And thus I replace the “footwork footwork footwork” chorus in my head with “four points…four points…just four points.” I’m going to strangle these four points from Matt: tense my muscles, crush the handle of my racquet, and never miss another shot until I claim set 1 as mine. But I’m late to the balls now…lunging, swatting, and missing. ”Four points, four points. Play it safe and he’ll give them to you.” I’m thinking about 4 points when I should be thinking about the next ball. I’ve focused on a target 20 feet away as my opponent shoots at me from arm’s length.
Three games slip away. I’m serving at 30-40, 5-6…set point. If I can win this point, it could go to deuce. If I can win there, it goes to a tiebreaker where I could get lucky and steal the set despite my slip. The first serve is long. I toss the second serve to my right a bit and briefly think of catching the ball and restarting my serve, but instead step over with my right foot a bit to adjust my stance. I strike it with spin. It lands in and…”Foot fault!” On set point? What? I don’t foot fault! I ask the judge if it was over the baseline or over the center mark, and with absolute certainty he points to the center hash mark. I review the video later that afternoon, and he’s clearly wrong (see video below).
Another failed strategy.
There’s a nasty brew in my mind: a blown lead, a foot fault, spectators…this blog. The electricity in my legs is dimming, as I’ve sprinted to a lot of balls just to see Matt dink them into the open court. I decide that this set I’ll just “play loose” and hit freely. I keep repeating… demanding of myself…that I ”be loose, relax, and just let it happen.” But you can’t can’t ask yourself to be loose, now can you? The very request is monopolizes your attention. And that attention should be…solely…focused…on the ball.
Matt is playing more confidently. He identifies my worst habit: I float slice backhands short in the court. He keeps the ball in play, waits for the inevitable floater, hits deep approach shots that force weak replies. Matt taps them into the open court at smart angles. This is the theme of the final 6 games of the match. Final score: 5-7, 0-6.
Videos from Match 1:
Opponent #2: A speedy junior.
I’m matched in the consolation draw with a 16 year-old named Ben. He was undefeated in singles during his Sophomore year at a Portland high school and hopes to secure a scholarship at a lower-tier D1 university. Ben is short (but still growing), quick, and has the technique of a kid who’s benefited from $1000s in proper lessons. Interestingly, he has a one-hand backhand. Just 10% of juniors are willing to cough up ranking points to learn the 1HBH. When Federer retires, this may fall to 2%.
Ben’s a very polite kid. And that’s what I see in most tennis kids. They typically come from wealthy homes, live in the best school districts, and are in the top 20% of their class. Tennis is an elegant, classic sport that challenges them intellectually, mentally, and physically. It complements a college application nicely and the odds of a major injury are slim. Though tennis is developing the best qualities in our children, there’s one critical thing that I see missing in most juniors: swagger.
A brief note about posture.
When you’re watching live tennis, the ball is actually rarely in play. 85% of your time is spent observing two people walking around in a rectangular cage doing the “housework” of playing tennis: picking up balls, walking to the baseline for the next point, standing and waiting for a serve, walking to the bench on changeovers, etc. This poses a great challenge to television producers. They have to keep their audience engaged with slo-mo replays, stats, close-ups of girlfriends, Mary “Captain Obvious” Carillo, etc. as the players meander. But live, you’re stuck staring at these people, and you inevitably make judgments about them with the information available to you: their appearance.
I’ve found that I can usually identify the player losing a match by simply observing body language. Common clues: hanging head, slow walking pace, and slumping shoulders. This drags down the game of the losing player, slowing his foot speed and causing a laxness in technique and form. Even worse, a clear signal of vulnerability is sent to his opponent who gains confidence from learning his rival’s weakening state of mind. Poor body language is particularly obvious among juniors. They’re naturally more expressive than adults. Maybe this explains the streakiness of junior tennis–so many 6-0 sets. I don’t see this mental surrender in other junior sports like football and basketball. There’s a machismo to the culture that won’t permit it. This attitude–a gritty, street-tough determination that you won’t be caught looking weak–is rare in junior tennis. But when your family has money and a comfortable white collar life is a certainty, do you ever have to fight–like an animal–for anything?
Why I’m a pusher.
I win most of my 4.0 singles matches, and I win them for 2 reasons: most 4.0 players can’t get 5 consecutive shots in play and almost all of them have horrible backhands. My tactic is to simply keep the ball in play (to the backhand when possible) using compact strokes with short back swings. I’m young enough to have sufficient speed and fitness to execute this “workman’s” strategy. It’s ugly tennis, for sure. I try like mad to develop an offensive game, but forever fight a critical flaw: slow reflexes. The ball moves faster than my mind. It usually reaches my side of the court before I can identify it and choose a stroke. Playing defensively is my only option–much like gang banging was Eazy-E’s destiny. As he famously said: ”I didn’t choose the street…the street chose me.”
A pusher dismantled.
Everything that works at 4.0–targeting the backhand, soft and safe groundstrokes, running down every ball–gets stuffed in my face. His backhand is firm and reliable; he doesn’t run around it excessively. On short balls, he steps in, hits a deep shot to either wing and sprints to the net. I throw up a variety of lobs but his overhead is solid–even the occasional ones I get to his backhand overhead come back. Ben’s style is risky: his shots are deep, close to the sidelines, and with pace. I’ve seen this before at 4.0. My opponent will play 20 minutes of inspired, offensive tennis. Inevitably, he cools off and, after making a string of errors, abandons a sound strategy because it temporarily failed him. Indeed, Ben makes plenty of mistakes–sometimes enough to lose a game. But he doesn’t back off his commitment to hit through my weak shots. In an hour, he wraps up a 6-2 6-2 win. I am officially out of the Nike Open. There’s no prize money waiting at the tournament desk, but I did keep the balls when they didn’t ask for them.
I didn’t get my match against a genuine play-for-money tennis professional. If I get that opportunity, I’ll be sure to let you know. But I did take the court with two very solid 4.5/5.0 players that under no circumstances would agree to play me outside of a tournament. They exposed the weaknesses I bury at 4.0. The matches at the Nike Open, and reviewing them in this blog have helped me identify problems I’ll be working to correct this summer. I return to average tennis, better than ever.
Special thanks to: Bob Menees, Nick, Marc, Kevin, and Superfan Jay.