Thursday, June 23, 2011

Zen Tennis

Can tennis be a meditative experience?  I think so.

Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis and Inner Tennis: Playing the Inner Game were very successful in their day.  They helped me for a time.  I was a nightmare on the court 99.99% of my competitive career.  The 0.01% of the time when I wasn't a nightmare I owe to Tim Gallwey.  I had some of my best results during the 0.01% of the time I was under his spell.

During my last summer in junior tennis I read Timothy Gallwey's Inner Game of Tennis.  The book got me to relax and just play the game, accept what happened.  Before and after that summer, I was a terror on the court.  I was fiercely competitive.   I was extremely hard on myself.  I would do anything (short of cheating, which luckily I outgrew before I discovered tennis) to not lose a match.  If I lost I was furious.  Points.  Games. Matches.  Any loss, any poorly struck shot, drove me into a blind rage.  I made Nastase, Connors, and McEnroe look like altar boys.   But the summer I read Gallwey's Inner Game I became calm.  I mean really calm.  No fits of rage.  No tournament directors wishing I'd die a painful death.  I even recall some officials in St. Louis that summer saying how great I was to have in their tournament (I lost in the feed-in consolation finals to my friend, Isaac Menda, a much better clay court player than I was).  Boy was that rare.  I digress.

So, can tennis be a meditative game?  I think it can.  I think my experience shows it can.  I finally achieved some national success the summer I wasn't a nut.  I think Bjorn Borg's success shows it's possible.  Borg wasn't some barefoot, zen wack-job, but he wasn't a rager, either.  He didn't complicate the game.  He just tried to get the ball back one more time than his opponent.  He ralaxed in the rallies.  He tried like hell to win.  He ran down every damn ball with everything he had.  He'd play a point all day if he had to.  But he accepted what happened to him.  At least that's how he seemed to those of us who watched him play.  He walked away from the game when he no longer wanted to play.  Amazing.

I've always thought of tennis as boxing without the blood.  Two men enter the cage and one man comes out.  The other guy goes home.  I loved that about tennis.  But there's another way to think about it.  The zen way.

Can the zen way work?  Borg's career indicates it can.  At lower levels, I know it can.  At lower levels, players lack the skill to win many points.  Most points are lost.  By lower levels, I'm talking about levels of tennis below the upper echelon's of men's Division I college tennis.  Players on top 50 teams can win points.  They win matches.  But below that level of skill, vastly more points and matches are lost than won.  That means a player that simply relaxes into the rallies, tracks balls down and gets them back in play, is going to "win" many more matches than he (or she) loses.  What's the best mindset to play this sort of tennis?  The zen mindset.  Just relax and let the points happen.

The key to rallying the ball is a quiet mind.  If you feel the need to press the issue, to force your opponent into errors or to hit winners yourself, you'd better be damned skilled if you want to win.  If you want to "win" matches by letting your opponent lose, you'd better be able to quiet your mind and be patient in a rally.  You'd better be accepting of your opponent's winners.  Most competent players can hit a lot of winners.  They just can't hit enough of them to beat a competent opponent.  Not below the upper levels of men's D1 tennis, or below the very best junior players in the world.

I don't know if zen tennis is the most exciting hobby in the world, but relishing in the act of running down shots and sending them arcing back over the net can be fun and relaxing.  It can also be very successful, I think.

Give it a try and see if you aren't way more successful than you think you'll be.  It's worked for me and I think it worked for Borg.  It can work for you.

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