Thursday, March 31, 2011

The roads in Cobb County (GA) are a mess!

What does this have to do with tennis?  Have you ever tried to find a tennis facility or neighborhood – that you’ve never been to before – for an ALTA match (e.g.) on a Saturday morning?  Perhaps you got lost and your opponent was a stickler about the match default time.  Too bad for you!

I’ve lived in many different parts of the country – the ‘left’ coast, the Northeast, the Midwest and now the South – as well as in several different counties within the Greater Atlanta Metropolitan Area and, by far, the most confusing non-logical nonsensical road layouts can be found in Cobb County, Georgia.
Many (most?) of the names of the roads change as one crosses through a major intersection, which is not uncommon in other parts of the country.  Local governments try to preserve a road’s original name while at the same time they seek new ways to honor some politician (be they dead or alive) by naming part of a road after them.  This gives a motorist the opportunity to travel 5 miles – ostensibly on the same road – while its name might change three times (or more) over the distance.  For locals who know where they are going, this isn’t usually a problem but, for those that don’t or (heaven forbid) a non-resident, it can be trying, to say the least.  When giving someone else directions, it can be challenging.  Oftentimes I find myself saying:  “I know how to get there, but I don’t know how to tell you how to do it”.  To my doubles partner, I recently described the route to take to get to an away match, but looked in ‘horror’ at the street sign as I drove the directions myself that morning and learned that the name of the cross street – where he was to turn – had changed at a previous intersection.  I knew where to turn, but wasn’t sure until he arrived at the match (a short time later) if we’d have to forfeit our match.

But perhaps the best examples of the dysfunctional roadway system in Cobb County, GA are Burnt Hickory and Lower Roswell Roads.  The former is in West Cobb while the latter is in East Cobb.  Neither of these roads travels in the same general direction for very long.  It’s as if the horse buggies that originally carved the ruts which became the roads were fed grain that had fermented a bit too long.  At some point, each of these roads travel for long stretches in an east-to-west direction (or vice versa) while in other parts of the county they provide a north-to-south route.  In fact, if one looks at a map (North at the top), Lower Roswell Rd. traces a path that looks roughly like a cup that would hold water while Burnt Hickory Rd. looks like a flatter version of that same cup turned upside down.  Worst still is that Burnt Hickory dead ends into Due West Rd. (another misnomer) in two different places about a third of mile apart such that one has to travel on Due West Rd. to continue on it.  One can tell another that’s “in the know” on which section of Burnt Hickory a particular subdivision can be found; for the clueless, good luck!  Eastbound Lower Roswell actually dead ends into Terrill Mill Rd before continuing North!  I much prefer cities and counties whose roads are more grid-like.

Of course, GPS devices have simplified the problem greatly and good preparation – looking at MapQuest – is always advised the day before a match in any case, but trying to “wing it” by assuming that a road heading west will essentially get you near where you want to go, or at least to the next major north-south road (with which you may be more familiar), can be a fool’s errand in Cobb County.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Not all players can be leaders

At the close of the last ALTA season, I brought up the topic of our planned “changing of the guard” at the helm of our tennis team.  In order that no one person would get stuck performing the duties of captain for more than two consecutive seasons, we devised a policy whereby the current captain would take on an assistant during their second season in the role, that assistant would then become the new captain the following season, and so on.  However, upon speaking with someone whose opinion I value – her blunt comment was “that policy sucks” – and after further examination to understand this input, I’ve realized that I’ll either have to retain the captainship of our mixed doubles team for longer than I’d initially agreed, or find a more suitable replacement.

Not everyone can be a leader, which is something that someone with an MBA (like me) should have remembered.  While there are those that are willing to perform the duties of a leadership role – such as those that the captain of an ALTA team must do – not everyone can inspire others to follow them, which is the essence of what my trusted advisor said to me.  Make no mistake about it:  the captain of an ALTA team needs to be a leader if the team is to be successful, or at least a cohesive (even fun) group.  Until this past winter, it had been 5 full years since I’d been a tennis team captain and, the fact that I’ve been blessed by being on well-led teams as a player, I hadn’t given much thought to this obvious truth.  Perhaps I’ve taken my skills in this area for granted; I didn’t think my being our mixed doubles team’s captain made that much of a difference, especially since we didn’t make the playoffs.  But at our season ending party, I received something else that I’d only gotten twice previously in (those long ago) twenty consecutive seasons of captaining teams:  I was given a captain’s gift, a quite generous gift card to a local tennis store.

Why would I want to give up a ‘job’ that has such rewards?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

2011 ATC weeklong ticket packages go on sale April 11th

Ticket packages for the entire week’s 2011 Atlanta Tennis Championships event go on sale Monday, April 11.  Regular, individual session tickets can be purchased starting on Wednesday, June 1.

There will be three premium ticket packages available:
  • Champion Courtside Seats – $875 per ticket
    • Front row tickets to all eleven (11) sessions
    • Exclusive access to the private indoor, air-conditioned (!) Champion’s Club
    • A tournament program for each seat (including recognition in the program)
  • Platinum Seats – $525 per ticket
    • 2nd to 5th row seating (depending upon the section, and availability) to all 11 sessions
    • Access to a VIP seating section inside the Grand Slam Food Court
    • A tournament program for each seat (including recognition in the program)
  • Gold Seats – $475 per ticket
    • 5th to 8th row (South section) or 4th to 10th (East section) row seating to all 11 sessions
    • Access to a VIP seating section inside the Grand Slam Food Court
    • A tournament program for each seat (including recognition in the program)
For more information, see the Atlanta Tennis Championships website.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Watching tennis on TV can be infuriating

I just watched Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 to win the 2011 BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens, California, and the experience reminded me (and made me think) about the differences between watching our sport vs. other sports on television.

First the positives!  The event was televised and, unlike other sports, for the most part, tennis controls the timing and agenda.  In other words, the matches are held at times that make sense for the players, the local tournament and its fans; they aren’t scheduled for times that would be convenient for the television audience but inconvenient for players and fans.  Plus, during matches, the amount of time given players between games, sets and even serves are governed by the sport’s rules, not TV producers.  For example, when one attends an NFL or college football game, the time taken for commercial breaks can vary based upon how much advertising there is to sell; it can be very frustrating to be at a game and have to wait, in the hot sun or pouring rain, for the guy with the red sleeves to give the signal to resume play.  In tennis, the number of advertisements that can be squeezed in between breaks is more or less determined by the rules, which the referee ‘strictly’ enforces for the benefit of the players, but also for the fans that are attending the event.  Of course, watching tennis on TV sometimes means that one might miss the first point or two of some games – so that they can show that Michelle Obama ad for fitness for the twentieth time – which can frustrate the viewer watching at home.  At least the priorities in tennis are the players and the fans at the actual event, whereas in other sports (like football) the priority is the almighty advertiser.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because of the above listed positives, there are a lot of negatives associated with watching tennis on television.  Firstly, matches aren’t always shown live, especially when the event is halfway around the world.  In other words, a lot of tennis on television is shown tape-delayed, even the premier Grand Slam tournaments, and this is unconscionable.  Other than the Olympic Games, I can think of no other major sporting events that aren’t aired live; even golf’s Ryder Cup was aired live last fall from Newport, Wales!  Second, TV schedulers frequently misjudge the amount of air time to allocate to matches.  Yesterday, for example, ABC set aside only 4 hours for the women’s and men’s finals; since it took Caroline Wozniacki a little longer than anticipated to beat Marion Bartoli, they had to switch the men’s final from ABC to ESPN midway through the second set.  What if you didn’t have cable?  You’d have missed the drama of the second set, which ended with Djokovic’s hold after four straight breaks of serve and the decisive third set, which included the rarest of events:  a Nadal meltdown (he started to spray errors as his first serve vanished)!  Then, of course, ESPN producers gave priority to their precious SportsCenter by quickly cutting away after the match ended without showing the awards ceremony.  If you DVRed the final, oh well, guess you missed nearly half of the men’s final, and all of its best parts.  (I will assume that the freezes in the action that occurred at least twice during the match were anomalies).

Watching tennis on television can be infuriating since TV producers have priorities other than tennis fans, which makes one wonder why they bother to air the programming at all sometimes.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is your spouse a tennis widow (or tennis widower)?

Most are familiar with the term “golf widow”, which refers to a woman that never sees her husband on weekends because he plays golf every Saturday and Sunday.  Since a round of golf typically takes more than 4 hours, and there’s usually warm-up at the driving range and/or putting green beforehand (and perhaps the 19th hole bar afterward), the sport can take most of the day and weekend.  Left at home, a non-golfer spouse can effectively feel like an unmarried one, and that can be a problem.

Although playing three competitive sets of tennis can take upwards of 3 hours, our sport doesn’t usually consume the amount of time that golf does … unless one plays on more than one team per season and factors in practice(s).  If you play a lot of tennis each week, and your spouse does not, he or she could be considered a “tennis widow” or “tennis widower”.

Of course, one of the most frustrating aspects of being the sport-playing spouse is that your “better half” may be incapable or (worse) unwilling to join you.  Both golf and tennis have become so inclusive that even persons with physical limitations can play them.  In fact, with some effort, almost anyone is capable of participating in either sport, although not necessarily at the same level as their spouse.  If your spouse is physically capable of excelling at tennis – they’re athletic and possess good hand-eye coordination – but is unwilling to take up the sport, it may be worthwhile to figure out why?

In my case, my spouse doesn’t really like to participate in anything in which there is a winner or (to be more accurate) a loser.  Even friendly, social tennis can be competitive and she prefers not to participate in activities that have conflict.  It doesn’t help matters when I come home after a match and complain about a line call or some other incident that happened; my doing this has only reinforced her aversion to ALTA and tennis in general.

While I’ve become jaded about my own situation, I’m heartened by others that I’ve witnessed over the past year.  In one case, a husband that has played tennis for years encouraged his wife to try tennis and, in the other case, a tennis-playing wife has gotten her husband to start playing the sport.  In both cases, the new-to-tennis spouse has taken to our sport “like a fish to water” and, although these tennis newcomers have yet to reach the playing level of their more experienced spouses, both have come a long way in a very short time period.  Each has come to love tennis to the point of addiction, the way that many of us did when we first discovered the sport.

So I encourage you, if you are a tennis player and your spouse is not, to try (again) to introduce the sport to your spouse in a non-threatening way.  If you succeed, you’ll both be better for it (and so might your marriage).  Wish me luck!

Monday, March 14, 2011

How (not) to plan a round-robin tennis tournament

Yesterday we had our (winter) season ending tennis party, and it was (I believe) a great time for all.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do a very good job of planning the tennis part of the event.  My simple rotation of players from one court to the next (women clockwise, men counterclockwise) didn’t quite work, so I’ll have to rethink it before the next time.

I was looking for a simple, adaptable way to accommodate an ever changing number of mixed doubles tennis players such that everyone would get to play with everyone else, or at least a different partner every four games, against a different pairing each time.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  Problem #1 is that we weren’t going to have a set number of players, let alone and equal number of men and women, for the entire time.  Most of the draws, plans, gimmicks and/or algorithms that one finds to assist in this sort of activity assume a stable number for a given period of time (e.g. number of rotations).  Problem #2 stemmed from the fact that we didn’t have enough courts to accommodate everyone that eventually showed up, so many players sat for at least 15 and perhaps as long as 30 minutes waiting to rotate in.  Given that we started at 1 PM and (some of us) played until after 7 PM, I think that everyone got to play enough tennis to satisfy their ‘thirst’, but it could have gone smoother, sooner.

The next time I attempt to plan such an ambitious endeavor, I will definitely leave more time to do it; a few hours the day before the event is not enough time.  I did find (actually, a teammate found) a terrific website for round robin tournament scheduling which includes several links to alternative sites.  Apparently, round-robin events are common to other sports, and even games like chess, as well.  I also found a relatively new iPhone app – “there’s an app for that” – but since the free version didn’t work very well I decided not to buy the $9.99 version which claimed to have been able to greatly simplify the entire process.  Perhaps a more thorough investigation of these options will assist me (or you) in the future.

Fortunately, everyone brought lots of sumptuous food – some of our ladies were very creative – which makes up for almost anything.  Playing tennis with women and having great food week-to-week is what makes mixed doubles seasons my favorite during the year.  Now it's time to start the next season, as a player only.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Visualize success

You’ve probably read about visualization, how “seeing the future” in your mind before it happens can help to make it so.  Well, it works on the tennis court also.

The first anecdote I ever heard about the power of visualization involved sports.  In Denis Waitley’s The Psychology of Winning, he tells the story of an American soldier that was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.  To survive his predicament, the conditions and brutal treatment, the P.O.W. occupied his mind with thoughts of playing golf.  He was already a low handicap golfer and, in his mind, he played his home course – which he knew very well – over and over again in his mind.  He visualized everything in great detail, imagined the entire environment – the grounds, every tree, sand trap, cart paths etc.; he concentrated on each aspect of his swing, “saw” the ball travel from when it was first “hit” as it “flew” through the air, “bounced” and came to rest etc.  He pictured himself shooting a great round of golf.  Because of this, he survived and, after being released, the soldier returned home to play this course as well as he ever had on his first time out, having lost none of his game despite his increased age and decreased physical attributes.  You may have heard a much more exaggerated version, that he’d never golfed before or that he broke par for the first time ever despite having been a relative novice etc.  In any case, the true story is still quite remarkable.

From personal experience, I can tell you that visualization has helped my tennis game.  During a match, e.g. when it’s game point and I’m serving, I visualize hitting my first serve just inside the center line and deep in the box – as close to “the T” as possible – and even “see” my opponent scramble to get to the ball before it whizzes past their flailing racquet.  If I miss the first serve, instead of thinking “don’t double fault”, I try to picture my second serve – e.g. hitting the wide side line of the service box – in my mind before tossing the ball in the air and executing the shot.  Then, after every match, I replay the key points (particularly my winners) in my head.  This exercise helps me to remember what worked (or what didn’t) and may even help to “groove” my stroke for similar situations that arise in the future.  My mind knows that my body can execute a given shot because it has successfully done so in the past.  While it doesn’t work every time, I have noticed that visualization has helped me to become a more consistent player.

I encourage you to try visualization and believe that it can help you on and off the tennis court.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The “cons” of tennis: confidence and concentration

I have found that self confidence plays a large role in my ability to play my best on the tennis court.  In fact, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If I’m confident in my approach and ability to execute in a given situation, then I’ll likely make the shot.  This, in turn, gives me the confidence to execute the next shot … and so on and so forth.  Conversely, a lack of confidence in my ability (e.g.) to put my second serve deep in the service box to my opponent’s backhand can result in a failure to do just that, and might even result in a double-fault.  Henceforth, I might lose faith in my ability to hit this shot the next time and therefore might avoid trying it or, worse, have the same poor result.

While it’s certainly a challenge to will oneself into having a positive mental attitude all the time on the court, especially during the course of a three hour match, it’s worth the effort.  Although I haven’t mastered this ability, what I have learned to do is to distract myself enough to avoid negative thinking – what Zig Ziglar deems “stinkin’ thinkin’” – which can spiral out of control.  Negative thinking comes from fear and it can be debilitating on the tennis court.  It can keep you from moving your feet, from watching the ball, and/or from executing any of the other fundamentals necessary to successfully play the game.

If you look for it, it’s easy to see (and adopt) the techniques that professional tennis players use during their matches to distract themselves from the game/set/match score, their opponent’s gamesmanship, or the elements etc. in order to retain their focus and concentration for the next point.  Some pick at their racquet strings or walk to the back of the court for a brief meditation, while others bounce the ball until their head is (back) in the game and they’re ready to start the next point.

One of the things that I’ve struggled with the most is continuing to concentrate when I’m ahead in a match.  When my partner and I have won the first set easily and find ourselves up a break in the second, sometimes I'll see the finish line a bit too early.  My attention will then wane and I’ll miss an easy put away or allow an opponent to hit a winner past me that I would normally track down.  Of course, the result is that our opponents gain confidence while ‘we’ lose it.  This can become a self-perpetuating cycle:  the momentum changes sides, shifting in their favor.  Of late, I’ve been much better at recognizing these waning moments and have, quite literally, shaken my head (to clear it) in order to refocus on the immediate task at hand.

If you find yourself struggling with self-confidence on the court, try to “con” yourself into believing that you can do it.  Try to distract yourself from everything else that’s going on to focus on a single element that you can control:  breath, move your feet, “see the ball, hit the ball”.  Concentrate and just do it!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Off season retooling

When you’re playing in a tennis league – individual or team – it’s difficult to make adjustments in your game or you might simply be reluctant to ticker with anything because you don’t want to lose matches or let down your team etc.  Whereas at the end of a season, you might be tempted to relax and rest up, especially if you’ve had an injury, and waste valuable time you need to make changes that can help you play better once the next season begins.

Fortunately I live in a neighborhood and play on a team that loves to practice regularly, weekly, between seasons.  Because of this, last summer I was able to start practicing a stroke that I’ve always wanted but had “never had time” to implement previously.  Short of owning or renting a ball machine, which may or may not simulate ‘competitive’ conditions adequately, the best way to add shots to your game is while playing ‘fun’ matches; you keep score, but it doesn’t matter (to anyone there) who wins.  One of my teammates has a ‘killer’ drop shot, which is the stroke that I wanted to learn.  So between last summer and fall ALTA seasons, I learned by watching and then trying the shot until I was able to do it with some consistency.  Once the fall men’s season began, I continued to work on the shot during practice, but had virtually no success the few times that I tried it in a match.  However, I didn’t abandon it.  I continued to work on mastering the stroke between the fall and winter ALTA seasons during mixed doubles practice, and I’m happy to report that I was able to successfully execute the shot during several matches this past season.  Plus, I think that having a drop shot will help me tremendously if I start playing singles again.

Last season I took a risk that I normally wouldn’t take, I had my racquet restrung during the season.  I used to try to get my strings to last through the season because I feared that my unforced error count would increase until the new strings settled into my frame and their inherent slickness wore off.  As it turns out, my fears were largely unfounded.  While I did go out and hit in between matches, which isn’t always easy to do during the winter season, I primarily broke in my new strings in competitive matches, most of which resulted in wins for my partner and I.  Yes, I had to make adjustments, particularly to my serve, but it worked for me.  However, your results may vary so, at the end of the season, don’t forget to assess whether your strings will last through the end of the next season or not, and don’t forget to have your racquet restrung if they won’t.

I’m not a big workout or gym junkie kind of guy, but I do believe in keeping my cardiovascular health intact during the off season if possible.  Since we can pretty much play outdoor tennis year-round here in Atlanta, for me that means continuing to play/practice my tennis game between seasons.  As a captain, I’ve often been frustrated by those that brag about having not picked up a racquet since the end of last season, especially those guys that don’t play mixed doubles in between men’s seasons.  It usually takes them a while to get themselves and their strokes in game shape, and even longer to get their heads into competitive matches.  In the meantime, valuable team points are squandered on those earliest Saturdays of the season on the tennis court.

The best time to improve your game, add a stroke, upgrade or restring your racquet etc. is during the off season.  At the end of every season, don’t just toss your tennis bag in the closet and try to forget about your losses, think about the changes you want to make and get started on them … and stay in shape!