Eastern PromI live in Maine (reminder for my friends in California – Maine is a STATE – not part of Canada), and December days in Maine are typically reserved for brisk walks between warm-ups at the local coffee shops, shoveling snow off your driveway, and enjoying all four hours of daylight to their fullest.  Suddenly that has changed for me, my eyes have been opened, and my December days have so many more possibilities.  Global warming, you’re thinking?  Nope…my friend Dan.

Dan is from New York, and I think sometimes that coming from a warmer climate has confused his inner thermometer, so that he thinks that a day in December is meant to be spent OUTDOORS.  Silly friend.  However, Dan is also blessed with a certain contagious mania, so that when he gets excited about something it’s exceptionally easy to just jump up on the bandwagon with him.  He also happens to be my tennis partner.  So while you and I might look outside on a 35-degree day and think “can I safely turn my thermostat up to 80?”, Dan thinks “Wow, look how sunny it is! How about a game of tennis?”  I know how much I need the exercise, and his enthusiasm makes it easy to say ‘yes’.  Let’s just say that my heart says “yes”, my mind says “are you crazy there will be icicles hanging from the net?”, and I’ve learned over the past few years to listen to my heart first.

Lucky for us, the city of Portland has decided to leave ONE net up (among all the courts that I’ve seen city-wide), at the most gorgeous of spots, overlooking the ocean and the islands – which makes spur-the-moment tennis matches all the more enticing (note that the picture is actually of the basketball courts, which are right next to the tennis courts.  The photo that I found of the tennis courts had a port-a-john in the background).  Each day we go to play I’m half-expecting the net to be gone (and half-excited to find out it’s still there) – but it seems that there’s an as-yet-unspoken pact between the two of us that as long as the net’s there, and as long as the court is snow-free, we’ll be playing.

So yesterday, it was a balmy 45 degrees, with winds gusting from 20-40 mph, and there we found ourselves, on the court.  To make matters even better, the courts are not designed with the early-December arc of the sun in mind, which means that when your back is to the water the sun is, unavoidably, directly in your eyes.  Which also meant that when you switch to the other side it takes several points for your eyes to adjust to the totally opposite condition.  And don’t forget that gale-force wind!

There are a couple other things I should mention.  The first is that for us, the tennis season actually started sometime in October (I think).  It would have been much too EASY to play when it was actually warm outside (and much more difficult to procure court time) – so we decided to wait until the conditions were a bit more (un)favorable.  Don’t ask, it was a busy summer.  The other thing is that while I almost always enjoy the playing (even when I’m in danger of losing my extremities from frostbite), I have been, nearly every time, the one who loses our matches.  Yes, despite the years of my youth devoted to the game, in our hard-fought (and gradually less-and-less out of practice) struggles for victory on the asphalt, Dan has been the winner.

And generally I don’t mind.  In fact, my playing strategy almost assures defeat, for I have made the commitment to swing hard (and often), trying to get back to a forehand that sizzles low-and-fast over the net, the backhand that rips across the court, the serve that curves just out of reach of Dan’s outstretched racket.  This means that I frequently hit the ball way out, or into the net (not always – I do actually win SOME points/games) – but I have noticed a slow and steady improvement in the strokes as my body figures out what to do to get it right.  Trust your body (see upcoming article on unicycling).  So I don’t mind – but I have to admit that always being the loser can still be a bit demoralizing.

So it took yesterday, and our game in the some rather challenging conditions, to turn things around.  Sure, things started off predictably enough – I lost the first couple of games (even though Dan was staring straight into the sun for one of them), and started to get that feeling, the feeling of “oh well, chalk up another one to experience”.  As I headed for my extended turn on the sunny side, down 1 game to 2, and preceeded to lose another game, I cursed my fate.  Why did I have to be on the sunny side?  How could I possibly win a game when I couldn’t even SEE the ball coming toward me, much less take an accurate swing at it?

Suddenly it occured to me: we BOTH were going to be spending time on the sunny side.  In fact, Dan had even just won a game whilst on the (grumble grumble) sunny side.  Why should I be any different?  I could still do this!

Not only do I recognize that most of what we experience in our outer reality is created by our inner reality, I happened to have read “The Inner Game of Tennis” years ago (which kicked off a whole “Inner Game of…” series) – so I have some specific techniques up my sleeve for situations like this.  Before each point I repeated the score to myself as if I had just won that very point.  I visualized each serve going over the net and into the perfect spot.  I forgot about winning, and thought about arbitrary things, like the rubber curves on the ball or remembering to breathe as I was swinging.  Oh, and I even started throwing my racket and yelling when I felt frustrated from missing a shot (hey, it works for Dan!).  And, I got back in the game.

In fact, it was tied, all the way to 6-6.  Rather than play a tiebreaker we decided to play it Wimbledon-style (meaning first person to be ahead by two games wins, and because our matches have so much in common with those of McEnroe, Connors, Lendl, and Becker in Decembers of yore).  It was Dan’s idea, really, though I wasn’t so sure.  After all, I had just lost a game while playing on the Sunny Side, and I had one more sunny side game before the switch.  And it was Dan’s serve.  So, first-serve percentages aside, the odds were in Dan’s favor, that either he’d pull ahead and win, or more frighteningly, that he’d pull ahead and thus would ensue an endless match of “whoever’s on the non-sunny side wins two games, pulls ahead by one, only to lose the next two games from the sunny side, falling behind by one” – and on, and on.  Given that our endurance had already been tested – exhausted – not only from the game, but because we had to chase every stray ball as the wind blew it clear to the other side of the courts, I said “yes” – partly because I had lost most of my will-power, and partly because I just assumed that I’d choke and it’d all be over in a matter of minutes anyway.

So we played.  And I was on the sunny side.  And Dan was serving.  Only one last thing: I decided that I would forget about the fact that I was blinded by the sun, I would forget about the fact that I tend to always lose our matches, and I would forget about the fact that I was exhausted and the “odds were stacked against me”.  Because, in all reality, they weren’t.  The odds were, after all, what I made them to be.  And I don’t know about you, but when the oddsmakers are looking at my life, I want them to bet on my winning, not on my losing!  I don’t care if the odds are close, but I want those bookies to think “That Neil Sattin, he’s been down before, but he really knows how to pull it together when the pressure’s on.  He has, you know, those reserves, that will, that just comes out of nowhere – and somehow he always manages to pull it off.”  At least that’s what I want them to think until they start thinking “Oh, of course the odds favor Neil Sattin…he hasn’t been a long-shot since his late 20s!  Neil Sattin by a mile….” and on and on.

I won that game.  I was ahead 7-6, and (because you have to win by two), I was serving to win while Dan had to deal with the sun in his face.  I won three points in a row, so I was one last point away from winning the whole shebang with three points to spare.  Then Dan won 2 points, and suddenly I feared that I might choke after all. 

Now I should point out here how much I love my friends – Dan is no exception.   And standing there, with the wind blowing all around, I looked across the court and stared at my friend, who was squinting back at me in the sun, looking so helpless – I felt a little guilty.  In that moment, I realized what had been getting in the way all along.  So I served with everything I had – and with that shot put us both out of our exhaustion-induced misery.

Nevertheless, victory is sweet.  Until our next match, my friend!

The Inner Game of Tennis