Tennis: Lessons of Weight Loss and Wimbledon

It all looked so easy in the Wimbledon final. Rafael Nadal's power and control; Roger Federer's almost waltzlike moves. But the nail-biting match also showed just how much psychological and physical toughness players need. Tennis is a lot like chess--it requires skills of perception, calculation and assessing the next move even before the ball has left the strings of your opponent's racket.

I'm certainly not a Wimbledon-level player. In fact, I have spent most of my life running away from sports fields. While my two brothers loved nothing more than watching endless basketball games, I pursued more genteel hobbies like shopping and gossiping. But as I strayed into my mid-30s and my weight climbed, I knew I had to do something to get back in shape. I tried running (boring), yoga (yawn) and even boxing (yuck--sweaty gloves). Then I remembered I had liked playing tennis as a kid. I joined a local club in London, never expecting it to become more than a hobby. But as that little yellow ball whispered in my ear, I was hooked. The psychology and subtle techniques of tennis appealed to me, and I made it my New Year's resolution to play in my first tennis tournament in July.
 
I also signed up to go to tennis camp at Spain's La Manga resort, considered the best place in Europe for adults trying to improve their game. At the same time, I sought advice from coaches at my club. Over the last few months, Ana Camargos (the former No. 1 junior girls' player in Brazil) and Graeme Darlington (a former pro player who had been No. 2 in Scotland) became integral to my daily life. I even started keeping a tennis diary. My life started to consist of thrice-weekly lessons, plus playing on a squad--all of which took up eight hours of my week. I also began going to tournaments, watching the players' every move. Obsessed you say? Damn straight, I had a tournament to prepare for.
 
In my five days at La Manga, I spent 20 hours on the hot clay courts doing drill after drill and playing several round robins. Since I was paying $470 for the academy (and taking a few $90 lessons, as well) I wanted to get my money's worth. (One of my entries for the week: "My feet hurt, I have a sunburn and I am questioning my tennis skills. I am more than a little disheartened as I do not think I can figure out doubles--when do I go for the volley, I am better at the base line and I HATE when people poach my shots. This is supposed to be fun but I am taking things way too seriously!!") We also spent a lot of time reassessing our strokes--my backhand was improving, my volleys were getting better but my serve was terribly weak. I was shown that the best way to serve was to use a continental or chopper grip.

My fellow campers weren't quite as obsessed. Mostly, they were middle-aged British couples who wanted to bat around the ball before going off for a swim. There was the mother in my group whose kids started whining right as we were in the middle of the point. Then there was the older man from Somerset who kept poaching my shots when we played mixed doubles and had the gall to tell me I should practice more before I competed in round robins. Duh, wasn't practicing the whole point of my being here. Best was the Kensington housewife who cried after being placed in our group because she thought she was better than we were. She wasn't--and our group loved nothing more than watching her struggle the rest of the week in the group ahead of us. But my biggest lesson of all that week was that I was too dependent on drills. "You need to rally more with your coaches, with other players," the Spanish pro, Jorge, told me after he restrung my racket on my last day. "Technically you have it all down--actually beautiful technique--but it's a matter of putting it together on court." Great, chalk up yet another thing I needed to work on.
 
When I got back to London I had another conversation with Ana and Graeme. Graeme got me moving in and out more for shots--I had so far lost 25 pounds and was also running on the treadmill a few times a week, so that helped too--and was also having me focus more on my left arm, watching in the periphery so that both arms were moving in tandem when I hit a forehand. With my serve, he showed me to point my racquet toward my opponent, scoop the racquet down near my knees (as opposed to throwing my weight backward and doing what he dubbed my "weird ballet move") and flicking my wrist just as I connected. Meanwhile Ana got me thinking about strategy, telling me I needed to construct my points better by moving my opponent around the court and then going in for the winning shot. I even got in touch with Brad Stine, who used to coach both Jim Courier and Sebastian Grosjean. "The average point lasts about six seconds on club level, yet in between points you have about 30 seconds--use that time to re-establish focus," he told me. "Do things like turn away from the baseline, walk toward the fence, take a deep breath and slowly exhale." He also told me to try and remain positive and that if I lost a point to forget about it and focus on the next point instead. "Tennis and golf are two sports that test our mettle as people and players," he said. "Unlike in team sports, there is no one else to blame and that is an enormous challenge, because in the end you are in many ways competing with yourself."
 
Stine also told me that to regain focus in the middle of a match I needed to set myself what he called "mindless tasks" like repeatedly bouncing the ball before serving or, as Nadal does, sitting down between changeovers. At Wimbledon earlier this month, I asked Mario Ancic, who lost to Federer in the quarterfinals, what techniques he would recommend to a player about to participate in her first tournament. "Well, when I am in changeover, as routine I put a towel over my head to focus," he told me. "You have to stay positive and try to play each shot like it is the most important shot of the match." Svetlana Kuznetsova, the Russian who is ranked No. 4 on the women's tour, wasn't so helpful. "You should ask a psychologist, not me, how to best mentally prepare." Thanks for that, Sveta. However she did agree with Stine that it was important to do something to regain focus and strategize between points. "Play with your strings or grab a towel and wipe your face down, just have a routine that you can use to calm yourself." OK, that helps.
 
I wish I could say in the end that I won the tournament in northern Michigan, but … I choked. I ended up going down 2-6, 4-6--in the first round--against a lean teenager from Mississippi. During the match I tried to channel Ana and Graeme, thinking what I needed to do to amp up my game. But somehow playing for points just messed me up. I felt defeated afterward and understood why Marat Safin, the former world No. 1 men's player, hung up his racket for awhile and trekked the mountains of Nepal last year to clear his head. But he made a comeback this year at Wimbledon, making it to the semifinals. So I guess all is not lost for me either. And in some ways I feel I have won--I have lost 35 pounds, I feel like I have become an athlete and have gained confidence that I know what I am doing on a court. And I have a vast appreciation for the game of kings. When your racket connects with the ball, the topspin takes your ball flying and your opponent slaps the shot into the net. There's no better feeling than that.