Bryan is thinking about how he is going to perform in his 6th U.S. Open. This prestigious tennis competition, and one of the four Grand Slam tournaments in the world, brings in all of the top ranked tennis players in the entire planet. Only the best of the best are able to compete on the acrylic hard courts at the iconic USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York City. In recent years making it into the men’s quarter finals or better at this world class facility has been a superhuman feat left to the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and a handful of other top notch gladiators that compete worldwide at a level of tennis that only the mere mortal can dream of.
As for Bryan, he feels fortunate to have been able to make it into the draw. He knows that making it into the quarter finals will be an absolute coup although he feels he is a wiser more focused player than when he started playing the pro circuit a few years earlier as a younger version of himself.
The anticipation of walking into the massive complex that the National Tennis Center is, the crowds, the autograph seekers, the huge locker room area and showers, sometimes keeps him awake at nights. He recalls his first U.S. Open when he was blown away on the first round and went home to Florida with his tail between his legs. How he blamed it, not so much on the fierce competition he faced, but more on the awesomeness and overwhelming nature of the entire competition.
Today, he is convinced he lost because he over-tried. He wasn’t relaxed enough or focused enough to concentrate on his game. He did not allow his body to go through the unnatural contortions a tennis player must execute in order to hit a forehand, a backhand or a serve in a smooth and unthinking way. He knows you can’t think about your strokes. You have to let your muscle memory take over and swing through the ball instinctively. If you allow external factors to distract you, if you allow the sheer size of the Open complex to overwhelm you, if you allow your opponents to intimidate you, if you over-try in anyway, you will suffer an early exit from the competition.
As his car makes a left hand turn onto University Drive his cell phone rings. The voice on the other side says; “Hey Bryan, this is Lauren. Boris wants you to stop by his office when you get in. He wants to go through last month’s sales numbers with you”. Bryan’s mind snapped back to alertness. “Yeah, OK. Tell him I’ll be in the office in about 15 minutes and I’ll stop by to see him.” He said in the quick and self-assured fashioned he has trained himself to speak when he finds himself within the circle of business people and co-workers he normally operates in.
You see, Bryan is a modern-day Walter Mitty of sorts. He often finds himself daydreaming, especially when he is driving his Honda Civic through the lazy streets of the small town he calls his home. Not much concentration is needed when you drive in a town such as this one. Southern hospitality and southern patience. Nobody is in a hurry. People greet you even when they don’t know you. And most of all, people drive slowly. Perfect environment for Bryan to let his mind go. Let his mind wonder. Explore the possibilities that will never be. The what-ifs. Those grandiose moments he can only experience within the confines of his mind. Maybe in a parallel universe his doppelgänger is enjoying these moments of glory. However, here on the other side of the cosmos’ divide, he can only attain these splendorous moments of brilliance through these sweet little daydreams in which he often indulges.
Tonight, though, is the big match. Every Tuesday and Thursday night the tennis club to which he belongs organizes a mixed-doubles and regular doubles match among the members and other non-member invitees. Besides those that belong to the club, other man and women from Gainesville and surrounding towns come to participate in the matches and in the conversations that ensue around the picnic tables of the club after the games are over. These Chautauquas oftentimes enhanced, perhaps even bolstered by the beer and wine imbibed by the players, is as much of why people gravitate to the club as the matches themselves.
Bryan has been having a hard time with his serve in recent weeks. He blames his troubles on his inability to relax and then to focus. When he tosses the ball in the air as he cocks his arm behind him before uncoiling forward, his fingers of his left hand, the hand he uses to toss the ball, do strange things. They either grab the ball a little too tight or perhaps they twitch a little throwing the ball either too far to the left or the right, away from the imaginary plain just in front of him that allows him to be in line with the target he wants to hit on the other side of the net.
When it goes to tennis, players have opponents on both sides of the net, your rivals, and your worst enemy of them all; yourself. All tennis players know they play against their opponents but most importantly, they play against themselves. Tennis is an introspective and self-absorbed game in which repetition often times spells perfection. A tennis stroke is personal. It tells everything about your personality. About you in general. It is like your fingerprint. But when done right it is a thing of beauty. It is ballet. It is like a classical music orchestra playing a perfect symphony between your muscles, the racket and the ball. Like Billie Jean King once said “when you hit a perfect tennis shot, it feels like mind, body and soul are integrated for a perfect moment.”
Bryan understands this perfectly. He has been battling the demons inside of his head since he started playing tennis at the age of 31. Now that he is 47 years of age, when you would figure he is calmer, more matured and with 16 years of tennis experience under his belt, his jitteriness and self-doubts still plague him. They plague him as much as ever, especially when he is playing a match.
You see, being mentally relaxed and mentally focused are two conditions that are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot focus unless you relax your mind. Once you focus, you forget about other distractions, and that in itself helps you relax. Bryan is totally on-board with this. The problem is how does he accomplish a relaxed state?
He has tried every trick in the book. Just before tossing the ball, he takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly as he counts to eight. This seems to relax his body somewhat. Of course as he tosses the ball, one of these weird little finger-twitches that have been plaguing him emerge. A quick flip of the ball way to the right of his body immediately puts his relaxation scheme into doubt. You don’t want doubt in tennis. The more doubt, the more tenuous your strokes are.
Bryan’s constant fight with his demons exemplifies his search for that perfect stroke. That perfect moment when his body, mind, soul, racket, and ball come together to create that fleeting perfect ecstasy, that if done correctly over and over again will spell victory on the courts.
But alas, the future bodes well for Bryan. Tonight he will win. Everything will come together for him. The perfect doubles partner. His serving demons under control. His forehand a perfect expression of his flexibility. But best of all his positioning on the court will be flawless. He will read and anticipate every ball coming from the opposing team. He will for once be able to sit with pride at the large picnic table where all the men and women warriors of that Thursday night will sit to either commiserate or boast about their exploits. Tonight is his night.
Tomorrow. Well tomorrow, Bryan the U.S. Open quarterfinals hopeful, will be driving his Honda Civic on his way to work while trying to figure out in his mind how he will perform during his first round tennis match at the Open.
Oh, those sweet little daydreams.