Federer and Fear

A friend of Marc VanDam’s shared this tennis experience on “playing with fear,” which I thought interesting and insightful.

“I don’t know how many of you saw the Australian Open tennis final recently, but it was particularly interesting to me on a number of levels. The first of course being the obvious “clash of titans” factor that comes into play whenever Federer and Nadal face off on a court. The quality of tennis these two players are capable of is mind-boggling. However another factor I was equally interested in, was whether or not Federer was going to play his normal carefree, artistic game, or whether he was going to tighten up and get conservative. Obviously, for those of you who saw it and are familiar with Federer’s game, it was a shame to see him take the latter approach. No doubt in my mind if he plays Nadal with the same mental approach he used in his match with Andy Roddick in the semifinal, he wins. But, he didn’t. Now why is that? Well, I could get all philosophical here and give a million of my opinions, but rather than that — I thought I’d share something that happened to me yesterday to illustrate just how limiting fear can be.

After many years away from playing the game, I’ve recently taken up tennis again. I’ve been taking lessons, hitting balls a few times a week with friends, and even hitting balls against a wall and drop hitting to work on fundamentals. And, this practice is showing up in my casual hitting sessions with the above-mentioned friends — I’m hitting the ball more consistently, with greater control and power, and progressing quite well — or so I thought. Yesterday, after hitting well with one particular friend, I decide to ask “hey, want to play a set?”. I thought this would be a good measure of how much I’ve improved, and how my game had progressed when put under the pressure of keeping score.

So what happened? I got demolished. I lost the set 0-6. That’s right, 0-6 — I didn’t even win a single game. And I’ve never failed to take at least 2 games in a set against this particular player.

Now why did this happen? One word: fear. I was afraid to lose because in my mind, I felt I had improved enough to potentially win a set against this person and I really wanted to make it happen. And it’s a perfect demonstration of why you want to eliminate this emotion from your life as much as you can. Rather than hitting the ball and focusing on hitting good sound shots like I’d been doing in the warm-up session, I began to attempt to “steer” and “guide” all of my shots. Of course, all this did was cause an unbelievable number of bad shots and mis-hits, the very thing I was trying to avoid.

So, I was trying “not to lose”, and as a result — I ended up not only losing, but losing in an embarassing manner.

So what’s the lesson I learned here (again)? Ditch the fear. It acts as a magnet, and the more you wallow in it, the more it attracts the very thing you are afraid of. Next time I play this guy, and it’s going to be soon, I’m going to rush the net every chance I get and swing out on every shot I get a clean look at. I may not win a set off him yet, but I can pretty much guarantee I won’t go down again like I did the other day.

This lesson can be applied to pretty much any area of life, no?”

3 thoughts on “Federer and Fear

  1. This is an excellent analysis of how fear can invade a game and cause one to lose. I had a similar, but not so dramatic, experience yesterday afternoon.

    The local indoor club has a round robin doubles group that meets Sunday afternoons on three courts. Usually there are 12 players, we play for 2 hours total, and we mix up the matches (based on who won and who lost) at the end of each half hour. So, everybody gets to play about 4 sets of tennis, more or less, with different partners and different opponents. The average level is about 4.0, but there are two players — myself and a young guy named Paul — who play a bit higer than that.

    I have faced Paul a number of times in doubles and he has huge strokes. He is young and lightening fast and hits enormous topspin off both sides. His two handed backhand is a real weapon. And he can hit about a 120-125 serve when he wants. But he mostly just kicks it to get it in. If there is one area where Paul is a little weak, it is his volleys — he sometimes hits them short, or too long and doesnt’ have the right amount of “stick” on the ball. But his reaction time is so quick and his foot speed is so fast that he makes up for this shortcoming in technique with sheer speed.

    Usually, I am on the winning team in doubles whenever Paul and I play against each other. Although his groundies are very intimidating to most guys that I partner with, I have many, many more years of doubles experience under my belt and my volleys are a lot better. So, I just keep my eye on the ball, lumber my way into net whenever I can, and I can usually put away enough points to keep my team in the match. I focus on holding my serve and helping my partner, whoever it may be, hold his serve and breaking the serve of Paul’s partner. It usally works.

    Yesterday, there were only 10 guys on the court and so we had to play a set of singles for one of the half hour sessions. The Pro who organizes the round robln aske me to play a set against Paul. I was leery because I knew I was quite a bit older than him and not nearly as fast. I probably also outweigh Paul by a good 40 pounds and he is about my height.

    Anyway, the set started out well. I held and then broke to go up 2-0. Then I was also up 40-15 on my serve when, suddenly, the dreaded FEAR hit me. I realized that the score was not consistent with my mental image of Paul. He was younger, faster, and more nimble than me — or so I imagined — and he also hit HUGE groundies. I let the fear get the best of me and blew my big lead to get broken in the third game. In the fourth game, I decided to fight back and attacked the net off of every return of serve that Paul hit, whether first serves or second serves. The game went to 12 deuces and ads. Finally, I was just exhausted, my chest was pumping as hard as it every has, my legs felt like mush, my temples felt like they were bursting, and my face was flush and red. I started to genuinely FEAR that I might suffer a heart attack right there on the court and, so, I kind of let up and Paul won the game after the 12th deuce and ad in his favor.

    In the fifth game, I got pissed at myself and figured I could no longer run to keep up with this youngster. I also felt like I could hardly stand up at the baseline. So I just went for every good serve that I have in my arsenal. I aced him wide in the deuce court. I kicked him wide in the ad court, and drew an error return. I served him hard and flat down the middle in the deuce court drew an error when he framed the return. And then I also aced him with a heavy slice up the middle in the ad court. Four serves, a love game, and I was back up at 2 serving 3.

    In the sixth game, he returned the favor. Four HUGE serves that I literally could not see, including 2 aces, and the score was tied 3-3. And that’s all she wrote. I got beaten at love in the next game, which was our last before the Pro called the end of the half hour session. In that final game, I just gave up. I was so afraid of losing but mostly also afraid of collapsing on the court and dying from a stroke that I just pushed the ball back and Paul hit one huge topspin winner after another off the ground.

    When it was all over, I asked Paul just how old he is. He said 22. In my near exhaustion stupor (I have never been good at math) I pointed out that I gave up 25 years to him. However, one of the other guys reminded me that I actuall gave up 35 years to Paul, as I am 57.

    The moral of the story is that, I have no doubt that, physical conditioning and youth versus age aside, I am still a better tennis player than Paul. But fear got the best of me. Fear can creep up and get you in so many ways.

    I plan to start going to the gym and dieting to drop some of those pounds. I never, ever want to be afraid of dropping dead on the tennis court like that again. Paul will still be faster than me and his groundies will always be much bigger than mine. But if I can get my physical conditioning to the point of not having any more fear, I think that I can take him the next time we play.

    – Marty

  2. Marty – I remember at camp, when the DID take you off to the hospital for trying too hard!

    Coincidentally, on Saturday in some hot and humid Florida weather, i played in a Pro-Am exhibition match (in front of about 100 spectators) and pushed myself as hard as i could to keep up with the three other guys on the court (age 51, 41, and 30). Was exhausted and cramped up after the match…. but it was fun!

  3. Actually, George, that was Michael Lazarus who got rushed to the hospital — and not once but twice, in successive years for heat exhaustion. He took a lot of kidding, if you will recall, but I remember he told me that he had been diagnosed a while later with some kind of treatable condition that caused him to be susceptible to heat exhaustion. Apparently he had not known about it until those two episodes.

    I did once get rushed to the hospital playing tennis in New Jersey years ago when I slipped on the painted service T playing doubles and inverted myself as I came crashing down to the court. It was at an indoor club and, in a cost cutting move, they had failed to vacuum the accumulation of ball fuzz from the court for a while. Of course, being indoors, there was no rain to wash away the ball fuzz and it got very spillery, especially on the lines. My doubles partner said that when my head hit the court it sounded like someone dropped a watermelon. Anyway, I came away from that one with a medium grade concussion.

    Come to think of it there is a guy that I used to play against in a singles league who actually killed two guys playing against them in singles some years back in New Jersey. (Sort of.) This guy was a real master of the drop shot/ lob technique. He was quite a bit older than me at the time and used to still give me a hard time with that combination — his drop shot was on a par with Manolo Santana’s, it was that good. And his lob would give Roy Emerson a run for the money.

    Anyway, he was playing in a senior singles league outdoors on a really hot and sticky day when his opponent just keeled over from a heart attack and died. It was very unfortunate, and nobody really blamed the drop shot guy because everybody knew the fellow who died had some health issues. In fact, some people used to even kid the drop shot guy about it — although to his credit he never seemed to find the jokes all that amusing.

    Anyway, almost exactly a year later, playing in the same senior singles league on another hot and sticky day, a second opponent of the drop shot guy also keeled over and died from a heart attack. This time, it was just plain spooky. It obviously was just a really bad coincidence, but even still…… I recall actually dodging the drop shot guy’s invitations to play singles from that point afterward, although I think I did play him one more time on a nice cool and dry autumn day.

    If I remember correctly, the drop shot guy moved to Florida — I think the Naples area. If you ever come across a guy named McCarthy (I cannot remember his first name anymore) perhaps you should reconsider playing singles. LOL

    – Marty

    Marty – sorry to have confused with the hospital visit.  I guess your tennis friend has a “real killer drop shot.”  george

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