I’m supposed to be writing, but I play tennis too. The Australian Open is on, and with two Australians making the fourth round, there’s a bit to watch.
An old hero is back – Ivan Lendl is coaching Andy Murray. Do you remember Ivan? People said he was robotic and boring. He hit the ball hard on both sides. Fantastic. I caught a glimpse from the entry to a packed Margaret Court Arena, and saw him strike a forehand. The ball boomed through the air before topspin took hold and the fluffy green ball dove for the baseline. He won three consecutive US Open finals and played in eight consecutive US Open finals. He trained obsessively day after day. Every hour of his professional life was scripted, from the hours spent on physical training, to practice, to what he ate. Despite not being the most gifted tennis player, through his physical and mental regime, he remains third in number of tournaments won.
Lendl leads me to think of the scruffy Miroslav Mecir, nicknamed ‘The Big Cat’ because of his court movement, and the ‘Swede Killer’ because he kept beating the endless array of Swedes that followed Bjorn Borg. At University, with an unshaven look, one of my tennis playing friends honoured me with the nickname ‘The Big Cat’, unfortunately, not because I could play like Mecir. Have a look on youtube. He was deft, loving the angles on the court, and balls seemed to accelerate away from his racquet. Impossible, but it comes from the timing and the effortlessness of the shots. His talent was inspiring when it was on display. He won Gold in the Seoul Olympics.
And then youtube sucks you in. You can watch Rosewall playing Laver. If you’re my age, or younger, you probably haven’t seen either of them play much. I saw Rosewall play on grass at Kooyong when he was about 40 years of age, sliding backhands down the line and volleys finding corners of the court. There’s an argument for Rosewall being the best player ever, but his peak occurred when he played professional tennis and was ineligible to play in the Grand Slams. He had the most wonderful slice backhand.
I still remember when Madeleine, my first daughter, played an outstanding backhand in competition. She served out wide to a boy’s forehand, he scrabbled it back to the middle of the court, and she leaned into her double-handed backhand and banged it to the other side of the court. The boy had no chance. I can’t play that shot.
John Newcombe is commentating now on the Nadal / Lopez match. He spoke of how Tony Roche coaches children, and asks them to hit balls as hard as they can into the corner. They hit them well for the first four or five shots and then slip away in standard. Tony stops them and says, Rafa practices that shot one hundred times.
I didn’t have a playing or practice partner in my late teens, so I trudged to the tennis courts, alone, with a bucket of balls and a target to position in the backhand corner of each service box. To this day, I can serve to your backhand every time. If I had practiced serving to the other side I might manufacture an ace or two. Still, the logic remains sound – at my level – the backhand is always weaker.
At Rod Laver’s level too. He sported a set of left arm much larger than his right, used to whip his topspin forehand around the court. For a right-hander, that forehand springs up and away from your backhand, a very uncomfortable position. Much practice builds up muscles, and there’s the parallel with writing – it too is about practice, and the more you write, the stronger your writing muscle.
So it’s ok to take a break from writing, to learn lessons from other activities. Just as well, because one of my highlights of 2011 was the tennis tournament at Kerang with the family. Four days and fourteen matches left me a broken but happy man, and I played doubles with Shelley and Madeleine, and with Siena in her first ever competitive match. Siena has now played a full season of competitive tennis - undefeated in seven singles matches! I can’t wait to get back to Kerang in 2012 and I might start training soon.
Meanwhile, I’d best get back to writing. The leaders of my favourite sport demonstrate the commitment required to get to the top. If you want to sell a million copies and reap the rewards, the lessons are there.