“You Schmuck” my father’s voice bellowed as I hit a backhand that hit the back fence. My dad was referring to me using my head, but I thought image was everything. Hey, that’s what Agassi said, right? And besides, I liked hitting winners, when they went in. It was fun. I had played tennis since I was ten-years old and found very limited success as a junior but was the captain of the Beverly Hills High School tennis team, so at least I had that going for me. However, I was not destined for greatness, at least not on the court.
After leaving the game for thirty years to become a writer, producer and director in Hollywood, I once again fell in love with tennis in my early 50’s. This was mostly because I was looking for an escape from a bad marriage and what I call, my lost decade. Tennis became my escape. As much as I thought I was still a kid, my body said I wasn’t. Unlike the Six Million Dollar Man, I was neither faster nor stronger and no one could rebuild me either. It was at that time that I met Dave Sivertson, a former college player, who played back in the 70’s, but made his name as a director of tennis at several high-end clubs including Braemar Country Club in Tarzana California and Mission Hills Country Club in Palm Desert California. He has been designated a Master Pro by The United States Professional Tennis Association. This means, he’s really super good. Dave remade my game and taught me how to win at the USTA league and club level. After struggling to play tennis well and after the three-decade layoff, Dave helped me get to a point where I reached my goal and became a 4.5 player and began to win almost all of my matches. And, just for fun, I got my USPTA professional certification. For me, that was really cool. I wished my dad were alive to see that. Finally, I was using my head and as for image, let’s just say we left that at the door.
Six months ago Dave called and told me that he would be playing for the U.S. Super Seniors men’s 65 and over team in the ITF (International Tennis Federation) World Championships. This was a significant honor as the United States Tennis Association selects the top 4 players in the country based on performance of wins at the national level. Last year the event was held in Croatia and this year it was held at The U.S. National Tennis Campus, in Lake Nona, Florida… “The Home of U.S. Tennis.” This was something I had to see, so I booked my flight and headed off to Orlando, home of Mickey Mouse, humidity and unmarked toll roads.
The National Tennis Campus is a phenomenal facility. Beautifully landscaped, and set on 64 acres, it is the home of U.S. player development and boasts a hundred courts, some pretty good food and beautiful views. It is also on the landing approach path to Orlando International Airport, which I think was planned to prepare future U.S. stars to play at the U.S. Open. That venue is also on the landing path for JFK. The planes are so low, I am quite sure John Isner could hit a ball inside the wheel well of one of those big birds descending out of the south.
One hundred and twenty-three teams from thirty-one countries competed this year in nine divisions of the Super Seniors World Championships, and it was remarkable tennis. Tennis fans today are fixated on the pro-tour, however, for anyone at the club and recreational level who is serious about playing tennis to win, it’s important to seek out high level senior tournaments because that is the game you need to see in order to make your game better. Federer, Williams and Nadal are great entertainment, but senior tennis is the type of game the club and recreational player needs to watch. The game is slowed down, but the quality isn’t.
We have all seen the club player try to whip a forehand up the line clearing the net by a nano-inch only to stumble across the doubles line and off the court. If they are incredibly lucky, the ball goes in the court but they are as out of position as Nick Kyrgios would be in a synchronized swimming competition. This is the twenty-year old self-talking to us. It’s the part of us that tells us no matter how old we are and how creaky our bodies are, we can still do it. Sorry Charlie, but we can’t. Why not just toss up a lob and reset the point? Why, because it’s boring. However, if you want to win, patience and tactics trump winners.
Several years back, Dave Sivertson adopted a philosophy on winning that involves a few very basic ideas. These are common sense concepts but yet most club players never do them. Winners are overrated, risk must be assessed on every point and patience and percentage tennis are paramount to winning. This philosophy translates down to from the 5.0 levels to the 2.0 levels. Even if you look at the data from the top tour players, you will find that over time the players with the least unforced errors win more matches than those with the most winners. This data explodes exponentially at the club level, which means, winners may be fun, but they are not the way to win.
While other players at the top levels of senior tennis may not articulate this philosophy, they seem to intuitively do it. Jimmy Parker, who played in the Men’s 70 and over division has a record 131 gold balls. Tina Karwasky, the number one woman player in the world in the 65’s and former top 100 tour player has 121 gold balls and also uses this philosophy to win. In many ways she is a mirror to Sivertson. Both players and their teams won gold medals this year. The women’s team beat Australia and the men’s team defeated Austria. In fact seven American teams were in the finals with six taking gold medals.
This is not a game of power, it’s a game of tactics and strategy…a game of who makes the fewest errors, and who has the most patience. You won’t see a lot of winners, but you will see remarkable tennis. The elegance of performance is evident in almost every match.
And so my journey to Lake Nona came to an end as I celebrated with Dave and his team of Larry Turville, Len Wofford, and Paul Wolf, all stupendous players, I came away with one thought. This was a lot of fun and despite their age, these guys define what a champion is both in the way they play and the way they comport themselves on the court. This trip was definitely a winner for me. And as they say, “Tennis is the sport of a lifetime.”