The game is 33% + 33% + 33% + 1%, yet the average player thinks it only consists of the first 33%, and the club coach reinforces this delusion by teaching only that which the average player demands.

After several years of retirement, and after dabbling in many fun but short-lived interests, I have returned to the one sport I used to love the most in my teens and early twenties. This time, however, with a more mature body counterbalanced (I hope) by a more contemplative mind.

Also, I’m making a conscious effort to leave ego at home and do everything I can to apply the principles of deliberate practice while on the court. For one, I hired two exceptional coaches who are passionate about the sport. One of them is a former WTA pro.

It’s been three months since I picked up my classic Pro Staff 6.1 90s. The first eight weeks were focused on the technical aspect of the game. Re-learning how to hit the basic shots.

Note to self 1: don’t use the court as feedback mechanism

For the first few sessions, I thought I was hitting cleanly because I felt light on the court and my balls were going in.

Then I filmed myself and was horrified to see unacceptable technique for both forehand and backhand.

I asked my coach to stop saying “good ball” when the ball was in, and focus only on my technique.

The improvement was almost instantaneous.

Videoing and an attentive coach are key.

Note to self 2: technique is only 33% of the game

A month later, I visited Lima and lined up three matches with my old crowd. We grew up playing tennis together, and they never stopped. I thought I had remastered the game because a) I had a coach, b) I knew what deliberate practice was and they didn’t, and c)  I was, in general fitness terms, way ahead of them.

I was destroyed: 6/2, 6/1; 6/0, 6/2; 6/1, 6/2.

Of course there still was a technical gap, I needed to get used to a fast game again. The glaring realization was, however, of a different kind: I didn’t know how to win a point. I had forgotten the geometry of the court and was running three times as much as my opponents.

To make things worse, upon my return to the U.S., I set up a match with a guy who is the equivalent of Fabrice Santoro. I was confident I would cruise through the encounter. But I was shamefully defeated 6/2, 6/1.

Why?

I talked to my coach Iris. She said that one encounters all types of players in the circuit, all kinds of junk thrown at one. And we have to learn how to be patient and win. That is the second 33%: point strategy.

Iris and I focus on point strategy these days. It’s a different way of training, like moving from bodybuilding to OCR training. It’s functional.

Here are two videos of Fabrice Santoro on clay. He is one of the ultimate “throw junk at you” players. His record against Marat Safin is 7 wins and 2 losses, and one of those losses was due to injury. Who would’ve thought that Santoro had any chance against one of the most fun and lethal players? The videos below, however, are against two similar opponents. Both are aggressive players that attack from the baseline, yet one of them is playing smarter tennis against Santoro.

See how Agassi struggles in every single point. He does not want to come to the net. He looks miserable. And see how Rios does not stop attacking the net, even if he misses a few shots. The results speak for themselves.

Agassi vs. Santoro
Agassi vs. Santoro (Hamburg, 2001)
Rios vs. Santoro
Rios vs. Santoro (Montecarlo, 2002)

Note to self 3: the third 33% is mental toughness

I played my Santoroesque friend again after a strategy session with Iris. It was day and night compared to my previous encounter. I won 6/2 the first set without any issues and was serving 2-2 40/30 on the second set.

And then and there my brain intervened.

It told me that this fifth game was crucial (it was not). It told me that if I lost the game, I could/would lose the match (not true). And I instantly began to flounder.

We must dedicate ourselves, dear friends, to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of brain, and to make gentle the life of this world.

Note to self 4: the last 1% is luck

Last 1% = RAND (0,1), where 0 is you lose, and 1 is you win.

–End

Clean forehand
Warming up in Oak Park, CA