The Game of Kings, Kipling, and Ritual: Strange Bedfellows

What struck Charlie as he dug deeper into the extensive philosophical and metaphysical systems that were created by Plato and even more so by Aristotle was an abandonment of the faith based mythological traditions of their predecessors in lieu of the power of the human mind, in its essential form of reason and logic.  The dawn of civilization in the Mediterranean was marked by trade and cultural exchange no doubt, this theme of cultural borrowing that Professor Lumina was so intrigued by.  But it was marked as well by the domestication of animals, the creation of language and writing which allowed for the creation of more abstract forms of thought and exchange, the creation of monumental structures such as the Pyramids of the Egyptians and the great temples of the Greeks, the invention of agriculture that provided the sustenance to support larger populations and the creation of urban centers which further facilitated exchange and places of learning, the invention of advanced forms of weaponry ship building to facilitate warfare and territorial expansion, and the building of roads and means of transportation that fueled the advance of civilization that so marked the populations of the Western world in the first millennium BCE.

All of these technical advancements must have led to mankind’s belief in the powers of their own mind, their own creative (and destructive) powers, the development of mathematics and building that fueled these societies all must have lent credence to the belief that it was man that was the great creator, and that the mind of man, reason itself, was the potent force behind it, and that in turn the gods that they had believed in for so long and the underlying myths that gave these gods life, as well as the rituals that were the means to supplicate these gods, must be mere fabrications of the mind, creations for a people who did not truly understand the nature of the world around them.  The seeds of Reason had been sown, and as they bore fruit they replaced the gardens of mythology with more sound analytical thinking and philosophical systems that simply made more “sense” than the mythology and ritualistic based belief systems that had supported mankind through their hunter-gatherer roots in the Stone Age and Paleolithic eras that preceded it.

These Greek philosophical systems questioned these age old belief systems, and in turn replaced them with more robust intellectual frameworks that were based upon the powers of the mind, on reason and logic, induction and deduction, on mathematics and astronomy.  And it was the questioning of faith that struck Charlie as the guiding force which drove these developments.  Were these age old stories, these myths told by the great poets of society true?  Should they believe these stories just because their ancestors had believed them for so many generations?  What in fact should the criteria for truth be?  What was knowledge?  What was the essence of existence itself and what were its constituents?

The Greeks were the first to start the ask these questions seriously, and it was the proliferation and beauty of their language which allowed them to construct the abstract systems of thought necessary to support these new systems of belief, alongside the development of their liberal and “democratic” society which permitted these systems of belief to flourish and permitted the questioning of the belief systems of their ancestors, and to question authority itself really which rested on the authority of these old gods and goddesses, and the fear of not supplicating to them in a manner that pleased them.

This question of faith, and the idea and relevance of the rituals that underpinned faith, reminded Charlie an awful lot of some of the main philosophical principles that he had learned as a tennis player, ironically enough things he’d learned to try and stimulate peak performance during match play, the “mental” aspect of the game that had gotten him into yoga in the first place.  The zone.

 

“What do you mean we’re going on tonight?”  Charlie spoke in broken Spanish.  He hadn’t learned Spanish in school so much, but he’d picked up a lot of it while living in Spain.  Traveling around in a caravan with two Spanish guys that don’t speak a word in English for eight weeks is the best way to pick up Spanish, let me assure you.  They learned around a dozen words in English and Charlie learned how to stay alive in Spain.  That skill required a few hundred words at least.  His accent was not bad though, even the locals gave him that.

“You’re the next match on court one.”  Marcelo, the tournament director, spoke to me without looking up from the draw.  Marcelo worked for the International Tennis Federation (ITF), but he was Spanish.  The ITF ran some of the smaller professional events, and certainly within a given region you saw some of the same tournament directors around.  Let’s just say that it was important to be nice to Marcelo.

Marcelo’s English was good however.  He was able to communicate with the other English speaking players that knew no Spanish, nor cared to learn.  He was a young man, probably in his late twenties.  His hair was short, military style.  He and Charlie had grown to know each other over the past few months.  Charlie had played a few Satellites[1] in Spain over the prior few months, and Marcelo ran pretty much the whole Spanish Satellite circuit.  This was business though, and it was getting late.  It was eight-thirty, and the moon was already glowing in the night sky.  Night match in Malaga, Spain in May.  One of 4 foreign players in a qualifying draw of 128.  Sweet, Chalrie had been waiting all day and now he was basically the last match on.

The match on court one was in the third set.  The matches on the other courts were coming to an end.  Charlie couldn’t believe that he was going to put me on at nine o’clock at night.  That was unheard of.  It was even against ITF rules.  But that was okay, because they didn’t play by the rules in Spain anyway.  Charlie had learned at least that much in his time in Spain.  And he certainly knew better than to start quoting the ITF rule book to the tournament director.  He wasn’t that stupid.

Charlie tried the soft approach.  “Don’t you think it’s getting a little late Marcelo?”  He tried not to sound sarcastic.  It was basically night time.  No one else was going on at that hour.  Send on the lone American way after anyone could possibly be interested in watching some tennis.

There were four foreigners in the draw out of a qualifying draw of some 250 players – an Aussie, a Brit, Niels the South African, and Charlie the New Yorker.

Although Niels was South African, he was really a British at heart, the British culture being instilled in him from his youth even though he grew up in Cape Town.  He was not affected by Apartheid per se, but the aura of Apartheid surrounded him culturally and sociologically and to this end he was a product of Apartheid.  Niels wasn’t white but he wasn’t black either.  He was a hybrid of sorts, and apparently South Africa had a classification of society, a social stratification as it were, based on the color/darkness of your skin, part of the system of apartheid really as far as Charlie could gather.  The blacker you were, the more far down the rung you were.  So Niels wasn’t at the bottom of the social rung, but he wasn’t at the top either.  And even though he had grown up somewhat privileged, spending most of his youth on the tennis court or travelling to tennis tournaments with his parents, he still ran up against discrimination every once and a while.  Just enough to show him that there was some basic injustice in the world, and many times there wasn’t a thing you could do about it.  But Niels was the product of a British colony, like the Aussies in that respect, and he had that regal adorable South African accent – an accent which only the well-traveled could place to South Africa, as opposed to Australia or Great Britain.

So the four foreigners had spent some good hours together over the prior two weeks, the tournament in Malaga being the third leg of the four week Satellite event.  And over those two weeks, their matches had started to develop an “us against them” sort of tone.  The Spanish satellites were Spanish.  That much was clear.  The ITF sponsored the tournaments, that’s where the money came from, but Charlie had begun to realize why there were so few foreigners, estranjeros as the Spanish referred to them, in these tournaments.

So Charlie sat by the tournament desk and waited.  There was no use arguing with Marcelo.  He was going to do whatever he wanted and there was nothing Charlie was going to be able to do about it.  Charlie could bark all night, but he was still going to be the next match on court one.  So Charlie just buckled himself in and tried to save his energy for the match.  A few minutes later his name was called.  He couldn’t remember the name of his opponent, but he’d never forget that match.  That was for sure.

They headed out on court and started warming up.  It was the legitimately night time.  It was dark and there was a cool, crisp air that came up from the sea.  The courts weren’t on the sea, but they were close.  Malaga was a tourist destination for those visiting Spain when the weather was good.  Many of the Spanish had summer homes there.  But it was too early in the season for it to be crowded just yet, hence the reason why the facility was available for two hundred young men to come together to fight for a hand full of ATP points.

The match started like any other – racquet toss, a few early holds of serve.  There weren’t too many people watching, just a few guys who were interested in the two competitors.  But Charlie’s friends were there – the Aussie, the Brit and the South African.  He noticed that.  And most of all Charlie noticed Niels, sitting right in the front row of the bleachers, just behind where Charlie’s chair was that he sat on during changeovers.  Those guys didn’t need to be there, it was late and some of them had matches to play the next day, but they were there.  And over the course of the match it was their presence, silent as they may have been at times, that carried Charlie through that match.

So Charlie’s “team” was there, perched in the bleachers with nothing else to do on a Sunday night in what you could definitely call the middle of nowhere.  And of course Charlie’s opponent’s friends.  He had a lot of them, Charlie thought.  It was his home country, so that seemed far enough at the outset.  The bleachers could fit a lot more people though, it was court one after all, the main court in the facility.  They hosted some bigger tournaments there throughout the year, so it was a legitimate venue.  But this was a smaller event.  And it was the qualifying.  So the bleachers were all but empty relative to how many people they could hold.  An odd sprinkling of people set to watch a last round qualifying match with two unseeded players, in Malaga, Spain.  I mean who really cared.  Really.

And then some typical competitive nonsense began to unfold.  The Spanish had a nasty habit of coaching during play.  One of the unique aspects of the game of tennis, at all levels, was that there was no coaching permitted, not during the match at all and not during change overs or even in between sets.  It was one of the aspects of tennis, part of its history, that made the game special and unique in the arena of sports.  It was mono y mono out there.  A mentally draining affair where you had no one to rely on but yourself, all the way through from beginning to end.  That was one of the reasons why the mental aspect of the game was so important, because if you weren’t there mentally, you were done.  There were no teammates to lean on, no break on the sidelines while someone lese picked up the slack.  No coach to give you guidance or pick up your spirits if things started going out of hand.  Just you.  And if you couldn’t handle yourself, if you couldn’t take the pressure, then the unfoldment of your mind, the breaking of your spirit, was out there in the open for everyone to see.

But in Charlie’s experience in Spain, players would constantly be taking direction from their coaches throughout the match.  Their coach would perch themselves behind the court and whisper/bark/gesture instructions to their players throughout the match.  Charlie was used to it.  But it was late.  It was a big match for him, the winner made it to the main draw, and there was the opportunity to win some ATP points if he could get through this match.  It was late, a big match, and Charlie was cranky.

 

There was a relationship between the mind and body that Charlie had become very aware of in his travels on the professional tennis circuit.  Tennis coaches and psychologists talked about the importance of eating right, of training properly, or hydrating yourself well before and during a match.  But the element of the complex relationship between mind and body had been underemphasized, at least in his training as a junior player and at the college level.  It was this ‘state of mind’ thing, a question of mental focus and concentration that was clearly integral to peak performance.  The game was mental as well as physical and when one aspect of this symbiotic relationship began to break down, performance suffered considerably, this much was clear to Charlie, hence his interest in yoga and its mental aspects that spoke specifically to the role of concentration and focus in meditation practice and mind/body balance.

It was clear for example, that when Charlie was relaxed, well rested, and felt physically strong (i.e. not injured) that was when he played his best.  And reproducing this state of mind, especially during the big points of the match, was the core essence of what you tried to achieve with your training.  But the emotional side of the game, the psychological side, the production of the state of mind which supported, and in fact was a requirement for, peak performance Charlie believed thought was not really expounded enough or taught enough by the teachers and coaches of the game.

At some level it came down to your support system.  Your friends, your family, your girlfriend.  All of these subtle elements of your life that gave you balance, or imbalance, emotionally were just as important as the physical aspect of your training.  These were prerequisites as it were to ensuring that your body, your mind, was ready from battle and could be pushed to its limits with limited amount of damage – damage both physically and mentally.  And in fact, focusing on this balance, and how important it was to success in any endeavor, was something Charlie didn’t really master until much later in his life.  When his days of gladiating were well behind him.  But certainly during this match, and in his professional playing days in general, he realized quite clearly how this emotional stability factor and this mental concentration factor were cornerstones to his success as an athlete.

But on this night, Charlie had his friends at least.  His temporal friends.  His “team” as it were.  His friends he had traveled with, slept with, ate with, trained with, and talked with over the last few weeks.  A bond much stronger than you would think could develop over a short time, but a strong bond nonetheless.  They wouldn’t be on those bleachers if it wasn’t.  That was clear.  And their presence there and their support gave him strength.

Over time, Charlie lost touch with the Aussie and the Brit, their names fading into the recesses of his memory.  But he remembered their faces.  And their games of course.  But Niels and Charlie always remained close, as indicated by their correspondence after he had left the game of gladiating behind, and their continued dialogue and echange of the ideas of the mind, and the spirit, and their exploration of the idea of what it was that was “real” and “true” and what systems of belief could be trusted and believed in and which could not.  This frank exchange of ideas and strong bond they had developed together in moments like these, when your physical and mental skills were tested to the limits, and when all you had was a few friends on the sidelines who watched while you battled on court for those ATP points.  And the match that unfolded late that evening in southern Spain, and Niels’s role in keeping Charlie present and focused, and protected and safe at some level, when all around him seemed to be falling into chaos, was perhaps one of the reasons they remained close many years after their traveling days were behind them.

 

At a certain point Charlie had had enough.  Again it was late and he was cranky and the match was close, and it had great significance for both players.  Finally he broke his silence, and his stoic presence changed when he finally blurted out, “Coaching is not permitted here gents.”  Charlie stated bluntly to his opponent, piecing together a few Spanish words that got his point across.  His opponent ignored him of course.

It was a tight first set now, the tension on court rising as the two played deeper into the first set.  His opponent was clearly receiving verbal cues from his coach when he went to the far side of the court, direct instruction that seemed to not only be words of instruction but also specific commands about where to hit the ball and when.  They might as well have been having a cup of tea together.  They didn’t make much of an attempt to hide the fact that they were having an open dialogue.  They were daring Charlie to do something about it and Charlie had had enough.

“You can’t coach!”  This time Charlie said it directly to his opponent’s coach that was sitting just behind the baseline on one side of the court.  He said it in English and he said it loudly enough where not only the kid’s coach could here but that everyone in the stands watching could hear.  The guy knew exactly what had been said to him.  Exactly.  A look of death is what Charlie got in return.  ‘This was going to be fun’, Charlie thought to himself.

So Charlie found himself on court against a local Spaniard, battling to get into the main draw of this event and get some of those ATP points he had been fighting for so long over in Europe the past year, and he has to play against not only his opponent but also his coach, which was a direct violation of not only the spirit of the game, but a very clear and direct breach of the rules.  And Charlie needed this match.  Badly.  He had worked very hard to get himself into this position.  He’d only reached the main draw of an ATP event one other time in his brief professional tennis career, and now he had a great opportunity.  This guy was beatable.  He had beaten two seeds in the qualifying tournament just as Charlie had.  And there they were, two unseeded competitors, one match away from the main draw of the event.  One match away from being in a position to win some of those valuable ATP points.  BIG.  Charlie needed this win.  Everything he had trained for, had prepared for, in his playing days as a junior, in his college career, and now in his journeys on the professional circuit, all led him up to this moment.  Charlie could see that as clearly as he could see the moon above him as it rose and shone brightly on the far side of the court, high up in the heavens.

Many sports fans have a hard time understanding why coaching is not allowed in tennis.  It seems strange.  Coaching is permitted in virtually every other sport – soccer, basketball, football, the list goes on.  But tennis, steeped in tradition, does not permit coaching on the professional ATP tour.  But this rule, this golden rule, speaks to the importance and respect that the tennis world, steeped in its centuries of tradition[2], has for the mental aspect of the game.  The unique aspect of the game that pits two mind/body systems against each other on a court drawn up of lines, played with yellow fuzzy balls and a racquet with strings in it.  For tennis, more so than any other sport, pit the minds of two opponents against each other, and forced the competitors to face their demons in a way like no other sport could.  You were out there alone.  You had to battle your own thoughts as much as the performance of the opponent.

And it was your own thoughts, your own fears and psychoses that could stand in between you and peak performance like nothing else your opponent could throw out at you.  The battle against your opponent combined with the battle of your own personal demons and faith and belief in yourself.  A battle that was the microcosm of the battle of life, the subject of the great epic poem the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna inspired Arjuna the great warrior on the eve of battle to fight, and to fulfill his duty as a warrior and to his people despite the moral dilemma he faced with the death that surely awaited him, for either his or his brothers and sisters that he was to fight against.  In the words of the great champion Andre Agassi, the Zen Master of tennis:

 

It’s no accident, I think, that #tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice…[3]

 

 

And yet Charlie’s opponent, in arguably the biggest match of his professional tennis career up to that point, had a coach, a direct support system for his mind that gave him an unclear advantage, an unfair and unjust advantage.  He had a psychological safety net that was clearly in violation of the rules, rules that were steeped in tradition for centuries.  And tennis had another rule, one that was even more subtle and nuanced than the no coaching rule.  One that was rarely enforced and a rule that was nonetheless part of the fundamental principles of the game.  The rule was that the receiver must play at the pace of the server.  From the ITF rulebook, the rule states: ‘The server shall not serve until the receiver is ready. However, the receiver shall play to the reasonable pace of the server and shall be ready to receive within a reasonable time of the server being ready.’[4]

Kind of a soft rule, and yet part of the game nonetheless.  It was a rule that in modern times began to be enforced more and more given the amount of time that the pros were beginning to take in between points.  Every player had his own place.  The rhythm within which his peak performance tended to manifest most naturally.  Part of the game in turn, was to not only find your optimal rhythm, but also to break the rhythm of the opponent.  John McEnroe, one of the other legends of the game, was a master at this.  If John felt the rhythm, the momentum of the match was swaying in his opponent’s favor, if he felt the match getting out of hand, he would invariably cause a scene, question a line call, berate a spectator, do anything to disrupt the flow of the match and break his opponent’s rhythm.  John could take over the court and the arena like no other champion before, or after, him.  This was where his tantrums and outbursts came from.  His desperate need to control the events as they unfolded around him.  Nothing was more frustrating to Johnny Mac than a tennis match that was not under his control and no one was a master at dictating the rhythm, the pace, the flow of a match like Johnny Mac.  This was his great strength and source of greatness, and his great Achilles heel at the same time as he was berated and cajoled in the media for his tantrums late in his career.

To drive this sense of rhythm, to “tune in” so to speak to that rhythm that made you most comfortable and freed your mind to execute a serve as well as possible, every player had a number of bounces that they took before hitting a serve.  Charlie liked to think of it as every player having a “number”.  He categorized the player, assigned him a number, equivalent to the number of bounces they needed and wanted prior to hitting a serve.  And if the number changed, it was a reflection of a change in the state of mind of your opponent.  It could mean he was taking more time, trying to achieve greater concentration.  Or it could mean that he was rushing, taking less time and his mind was starting to break down and the match was beginning to take its toll on him mentally.

Charlie was a three bouncer, he liked a fairly quick pace.  He didn’t like to think too much out there.  To Charlie his mind could be his enemy, if he thought too much he tightened up and that affected his shot execution.  Agassi was the same way, he was a one or two bouncer, played at a very quick pace.  In the modern game, there was a tendency to take even more time before the serve, one of the reasons why the rules were changed to give players just 25 seconds between points rather than the 30 that had been part of the game so long, because players were abusing the time limits between points and disrupting the flow of the game, which in the end was hurting the game at large and its popularity because matches were taking longer and spectators were losing patience.

Nowadays there were ten bouncers out there, fifteen bouncers even.  Novak Djokovic, one of the great champions of modern times with 6 grand slams to his name[5], redefined the bouncer limits.  He was like a twelve or fifteen bouncer.  But his bouncer number increased with the importance of the point.  Break point down, 5-6 in the third set.  Twenty bounces.  Maybe twenty-two.  But it was a symptom of the mental pressure he was under, the more pressure the more bounces he took.  It was like a mental disorder.  And the more bounces he took before he served invariable the tighter his body was during his service motion and the less effective his serve was.  This was something he greatly improved upon later in his career, especially in his runs that led to his grand slam titles, and his he gained greater control of his mind, found a place of peace and tranquility prior to his serve that facilitated better execution of the serve itself, the most important shot of the game no doubt, the number of bounces he took before serving decreased.  He had gained control of his mind, and in so doing the manifestation of his psychosis that was the source of all those bounces and all that extra time to prepare for his serve, to “control” his nerves, had dissipated and improved and the effect on his overall game and performance was significant, and it showed up quite clearly in his results on court.

The number of bounces you used to drop into your ritual of beginning a point, that defined your rhythm.  It defined the pace with which the points within your service game were played.  On grass Charlie was a one bouncer.  But on clay and hard courts he was a three bouncer.  Three bounces for sure.  One, two, three, strike.  And he didn’t take too much time between points either.  He liked moving at a good pace.  He liked the rhythm of it.  He had picked it up from watching Agassi, or at least so he liked to believe.  Agassi played faster when he got older.  Like he just couldn’t wait to get on with it.  To force the events to unfold at a dizzying pace.  To lose yourself in the rhythm.  The ‘Zen Master’, the nickname that Barbara Streisand gave to Agassi, a nickname that stuck in no small measure due to its accuracy – and you can’t argue with Barbara Streisand.  There is a special place in hell reserved for those that disagree with Barbara Streisand, and they don’t serve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

But what Charlie didn’t know then, but what he learned about more and more as he studied the ancient traditions of the east, was that this bouncing of the ball, the rhythm and peace that it created in your mind, was simply a practice of ritual, a ritual that was designed to relax the mind and the senses, and a ritual intended with a specific result, namely perfect execution of the shot at hand, just as the rituals of the ancients were designed to effect a specific result, the result dependent on the specific ritual being performed.

But Charlie still needed to find a way through this match, despite the fact that this Spaniard was clearly taking advantage of the fact that he was playing in his home country and bending and stretching the rules as much as possible in his favor, that Charlie was an estrangero and could barely speak the native tongue.

 

Matches in the qualifying rounds of these small pro tournaments never had dedicated umpires.  There were roaming umpires, so if you had a problem on court you could go grab one and he’d help the players work out the situation, and of course occasionally call foot-faults on you from three courts away, but no one was roaming at this hour.  They were the last match on court and everyone at the tournament was now waiting for them to finish so they could all go home for the night.  This had put a few more butts in the seats actually, because there was no one else to watch.  But no roaming umpires available.  Sorry.

Furthermore, cheating was pretty rampant at this level.  Players got away with anything they could basically, and there was a lot of bullying and “shortening of the court”, as the players used to call it.  And this Spaniard wasn’t doing Charlie any favors in that department either.  It was clear at this point Charlie needed an umpire, things were getting kind of out of hand and part of being a pro is recognizing when things were getting out of hand, when the flow or rhythm of the match was not in your favor, and doing something about it.  The tension was definitely rising on court, Charlie was getting crankier, and he wasn’t getting through to either his opponent or his opponent’s coach that coaching shouldn’t be going on.  And he needed this match, and he needed to level the playing field.

Enter Marcelo.  Charlie ran off court and got him.  Just what Marcelo wanted, to sit in the chair for some meaningless match at the end of the night between some cocky American and one of the local Spanish talent.  Once Charlie made this move the dynamics of the match definitely changed though, and that’s what Charlie had intended.  The stakes were now higher.  The tension now rose.  Clearly any sense of trust between Charlie and his opponent, a relationship that was tenuous at best in any match at the pro level, was completely eradicated.  Now that there was an umpire, calls were being questioned more often, not less.  The Spaniard dropped a little further from the baseline to make sure his feet didn’t cross the baseline prior to his serve, the dreaded foot-fault.  Charlie did the same.  You could feel the electricity in the air.

Charlie could sense the electricity in the air, it was palpable and everyone around them who was watching the match could feel it as well.  That old expression that you could cut the tension with a knife seemed appropriate.  Charlie didn’t know it them but a moment of what the Tibetan Buddhists referred to as bardo, or opportunity, had now arisen[6].  A moment where the flow of life, an opportunity for awakening (or in this case for winning or lose an important match) had arisen given all of the factors and elements that were now crescendoing as this match unfolded.  Charlie could sense it as any professional athlete could, and in the words of the great Robert Horry, the end of game three point NBA championship master who had hit so many big shots in his career, game ending shots in huge moments over and over again, “pressure can burst a pipe, or pressure can make a diamond”.  This was clearly one of those moments.

The good news was that the coaching stopped.  And this player that was so used to receiving instructions from behind the court from his coach started to flounder a little bit when this channel was cut off.  Charlie was hoping that was going to happen, and he began to see the web of the Spaniard start to unravel, to see the opening in his mind, the splinter which Charlie could exploit.

Breaking your opponent.  Breaking him physically and mentally.  Chipping away at his armor until he was wounded and on the ground kicking and screaming.  If you didn’t take joy in the process, relish in the physical and mental game of chess that tennis truly was, then you had no business competing, certainly not at this level.  Because it was only through love of the game, love of the unique mix of mental and physical opponents that challenged you during every match, that you could somehow make peace with it.  And deal with the dizzying heights that came from victory, along with the depths of despair that came from defeat.  That you could play the game to win, with all your energy, and yet at the same time accept the pain of a loss and wake up the morning after, lick your wounds, and prepare to put yourself out there one more time.  Against another opponent, in another city on another surface.  Accept the game in all its rawness, in all its glory which meant dealing quite directly with the world of opposites, the yin and yang of the east that played out on a court of lines and with yellow fuzzy balls, a court and game designed by monks ironically enough, played out in the courtyards in the 17th and 18th century in what now called “real tennis”, or “court tennis” and was the game upon which modern day tennis was developed.

Only in an individual sport like tennis, did losses present themselves so clearly.  If you didn’t win, you came in second in a game of two players.  There was no one else to blame but yourself.  You could whine and moan about the conditions, about the speed of the court, about the balls, about some injury or another.  But any tennis player, professional or otherwise, knows implicitly that the conditions are the same for both competitors, and it is the victor who is able to overcome the challenges of the conditions, the game of the opponent, and the psychological battle that rages within one’s mind as the match unfolds, that produces a winner on court and ultimately a champion.

This rawness of losing was very difficult to stomach sometimes, and you truly needed to love the game in order to pick yourself back up and compete again after a devastating loss, losses which invariably came, came to every player that played the game no matter what level.  Charlie loved the game, at least he thought he did.  Otherwise what the hell was he doing in the middle of nowhere playing a match against some unknown player in front of just a hand full of people, most of which could be categorized as strangers, chasing after some silly ATP points.

One of the other unique aspects of the game of tennis is the prevalence of losing.  Every competitor had to deal with it.  And it was this shared experience that Charlie thought brought tennis players together.  This shared rawness of putting yourself out there, and exposing yourself to the challenges of your mind, along with your opponent, that Charlie thought brought all players of the game together.  For in every tournament, there is only one player, just one, that doesn’t lose.  Every single other player in the draw loses.  They could lose early, in the qualifying rounds even, or get all the way to the final and lose there.  But everyone, except the winner who held up the tournament trophy at the end of the week, lost somewhere along the way.  In a draw of 128 players for example, the size of the main draw for grand slam events, every single player left the tournament a loser except for one, the guy (or girl) who held up the trophy at the end of the tournament .  That was the nature of the beast.  Even the top players lost half their matches over the course of the year, only the very very top, the top 10 or 20 in the world, ending up the season with winning records.  And it was the losses, much more so than the victories, and how the player dealt with and evolved after those losses, which defined the player.

Charlie had heard a story once, one of the many myths of the game that were part of the tradition, that after Boris Becker, another of the legends of the game, the winner of the Wimbledon title at the age of 17, the youngest ever, the winner of 6 grand slam singles titles as well, that after one of his losses in the finals of Wimbledon one year he was so distraught, do devastated, that he didn’t leave his apartment for a full week after the match.  Charlie didn’t know if it was a true story or not, but he certainly could relate and it certainly wouldn’t surprise him if it was true.

Was it love of the game, or a fascination of the journey of the of the depths of his being that pushed him to compete week after week, despite how difficult and unforgiving the challenge of rising in the rank and file of the tennis world was?  Was it some psychosis that drove him?  Some very basic elemental desire to prove himself that kept him coming back again and again to the game that seemed to be the source of such great emotional strain and suffering?  Was it the dizzying heights of victory that he was pursuing?  It was probably a bit of everything, Charlie mused.

But at that moment on court, Charlie was focused on trying to win.  Nothing else.  Every atom of his being was focused on trying to choke the life out of his opponent, while he had the chance, while he saw the chink in the armor, while he saw the opening, and while the opportunity was clearly present before him to put some points, some games, and some sets between him and his opponent.  For if Charlie had learned nothing in his tenure as a professional tennis player, going all the way back to his days competing as a junior at 10 and 11 years old, was that opportunities present themselves in a match typically only once.  And when they do, you must pounce on them.  For if you don’t capitalize on these opportunities, you will invariably be plaqued by regret and remorse for not having done so.  It was these moments of bardo, moments of opportunity, that needed to be seized upon.  And step one was you needed to be aware they were present, and step two was you needed to capitalize.  Sometimes, if you didn’t capitalize on those moments and you ended up losing the match, the mental anguish of the loss could pursue you for years after, even decades.  Just ask Johnny Mac about his loss to Lendl in the finals of the French Open, a title he never won, where he squandered a two sets to love lead and up a break in the third set.  That won left a mark that’s for sure.  It was this fear of regret of a potential loss when he saw this window of opportunity, this opening, so clearly, that perhaps more than anything else drove Charlie on that night.  What pushed him to squeeze victory out of a very precarious situation, when the stars arguably were not lined up in his favor.

The good news for Charlie is that once he brought Marcelo on court, despite Marcelo’s Spanish roots, the pace of play on Charlie’s serve started to level out, and the Spaniard no longer had access to his coach.  His coach, in fact, was asked to move from beyond the baseline into the bleacher seats along with the rest of the spectators.  And the Spaniard was so accustomed to receiving direct instruction from his coach, sometimes even during points while they were being played, that when Charlie cut off that source of instruction from him, the poor bastard started to crumble.  His rhythm was broken, a rift in his mental state had been created.  Charlie had found the key that unlocked the room where the source of the Spaniard’s competitive spirit dwelt.  And Charlie charged right into that room, and made himself right at home, disrupting the Spaniard’s rhythm, getting into his head quite literally, and in turn disrupting his ability to play at his best, disrupting his peak performance.  It was almost painful to watch actually, even as his opponent.  To see such great play and competitive spirit turn into an error strewn display of frustration and anger.  Ok maybe it wasn’t so painful to watch.

Charlie started to gain momentum, the Spaniard started to make errors and get frustrated, and just like that Charlie saw a window to pulling out the match.  Up a set and a break.  Here we go.  The end is near.  And as the end of the match started to unfold on court, Charlie noticed that the bleachers had a few more bodies in them.  He wasn’t sure where they came from, but he was pretty sure that he had found himself right in the middle of a pretty good spectacle.  One with a villain, and a fallen hero.  Charlie was on the wrong side of this tale though.  At least on the wrong side from the spectator’s perspective.  From a won and loss perspective of course, Charlie very much liked the side he was on, the villain part he could deal with.

 

Charlie couldn’t help thinking though, even in the heat of battle, that this game was truly a test of the human spirit, a test of mental as well as physical strength and a test of skill and training, all wrapped up into one contest.  And the end result, the winner and loser, so illustrative of life itself on many levels, just as Agassi so elegantly put it, was the perfect example of the cold, heartless reality of a competitive game of tennis and in turn life.  Of one competitor doing everything in his power to break his opponent to achieve victory.  And there was a beauty in that, no question.  A beauty in the stark reality of it, in the test of the limits of the man’s competitive spirit.  But there was a harshness in it too.  A sense of brutal reality that one might find on the plains of the Serengeti where a lion stalks and hunts down the weakest of the gazelle so that she can feed her cubs.  Where there must be death in order to support life.  The whole circle of life thing as cliché as it was.

And Charlie had been here before, many times before.  And this training kicked in as he tried to navigate through points, and in turn games to create an opening for a victory.  And in the chaos of the moment, as Charlie started to create some separation between him and the Spaniard in that second set, he heard the echoes of that Kipling poem, in all its beauty and grace and power.

 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son![7]

 

The words passed through his mind like shadows as the match started to unfold before him, in his favor this time around thankfully.  He knew the poem not from school, but because the lines ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’ were inscribed on the wall of the player’s entrance to Center Court at Wimbledon.  The holiest of holy places in the game of tennis.  The place that made, and destroyed champions.  Where all of the legends of the game had passed through and made their mark.  For if you didn’t make your mark at Wimbledon, well then, you hadn’t really made an indelible mark on the game, or so the legend went.

That was it wasn’t it?  All captured in those two lines by Kipling.  Tennis wasn’t a game of kings, it was a game of gladiators, exploring the depths of the human soul and spirit in a fantastic array of athletic talent, endurance, strength, mental toughness and insight, and agility, all played out on this court with white lines and boxes on it, with a net in the middle, and this yellow fuzzy ball that you struck with a round shaped racquet with strings in it.  Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  A silly little exercise of chasing a yellow fuzzy ball around the court against an opponent within which all of the mysteries of life could be revealed.

And in order to achieve peak performance, to hit what athletes called “the Zone” when you really needed it, you needed an understanding of the art of ritual and how it was the railing that you held onto when all felt lost for you on court, even if you didn’t call it ritual it was those small ticks, those small little habits and exercises you did between points, that either prepared you for the next point properly, or failed to do.  For when the desperation for winning, or in many cases simply the core drive to avoid the prospect of failure, started to overcome you and take over your mind and lock you up physically, it was these small little rituals, these little patterns and behaviors that could calm your mind, bring you peace and set yourself in the moment, that could make all the difference.  And it was the same pressure, the same tension, that same inner struggle that all tennis players felt and had to overcome, no matter what the level, and that was in some respect the beauty of the game, the mental struggle to achieve peak performance, to achieve victory, to avoid the anguish of defeat, that everyone who played the game could relate to.

And of course at Wimbledon, that was where they held the key.  The source of the game’s strength and longevity.  The reason why champions were made there.  The Kipling quote wasn’t out there on Center Court for everyone to see, it wasn’t outside the locker room for all the press to view and snap photos of.  It was inside the walkway to center court, underlining and underscoring the momentous event that was about to unfold before you.  And to remind you.  To tell you quite clearly as you walked on court, that the game was bigger than you, that the game was about the inner struggle for perfection yes, and about winning no doubt, but it was about the definition of your character, the illustration of the depth of your soul for all the world to see.  ‘Treat those two imposters just the same’.  Nothing harder to learn, nothing more difficult to comprehend, nothing more difficult to achieve, no question about that in Charlie’s mind even after all these years of playing and competing, and yet when you find it, when you truly understand the depth of meaning that Kipling so eloquently described, then you had won already then hadn’t you?  Won at the game of life in fact.

 

Once tennis fans figured out that there was an interesting match unfolding, one with a little dispute that added some spice and story line, people started to assemble.  Charlie saw that so many times.  Where the people came from he didn’t know.  But they assembled when the tension rose, when a battle unfolded and two great competitors challenged each other.

So the bleachers started to fill up a bit.  Charlie could clearly tell by the applause between points that he had not ingratiated himself to the “fans” so much.  He was playing the role of the villain well.  He didn’t care really.  He just wanted that damned W.  The bodies in the bleachers were blatantly rooting for the Spaniard to come back.  Even Charlie’s camp, the other three foreigners in the draw, the English speakers, was very quiet.  They didn’t want to say a word.  They knew when to keep their mouths shut.  But they were there.  They stayed.  They had Charlie’s back.  And that was important.  Charlie wouldn’t forget that.  Especially Niels of course, with whom he had developed a bond that would last well beyond his playing days.

But Charlie was up a set and a break.  He was getting close to closing out the match.  He could smell the end, taste it.  He was so close.  His opponent was starting to get even more frustrated, making more errors.  The Spaniard was crumbling now.  Charlie could sense it like a lion senses weakness in a pack of antelope.  Charlie’s fist pumping didn’t stop though, he was getting a little carried away in the moment as well.  And the closer Charlie got to match ball in his favor, the more vigorous and buoyant were his fist pumping and shouts of encouragement which he levied upon himself.  “Vamos!” was one of his favorite epithets and that one escaped his lips in fervor many times as he attempted to close out that match, and its Spanish origins no doubt even further irritated the Spanish spectators that were hoping and praying that this Spaniard would somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat and beat this arrogant American and send him home packing with his tail between his legs.

None of this behavior ingratiated Charlie to his mostly Spanish audience.  They wanted their local boy to win, no question about that.  But they also clearly perceived Charlie’s behavior to be unsportsmanlike and ungentlemanly.  Charlie needed to fire himself up to make sure he closed out the match without letting his nerves get to him, but from the spectators view it was Charlie stepping on the throat of an opponent who was wounded and gasping for air.  But that’s what Charlie need to do, squeeze every ounce of fight out of his opponent until he had no more fight left in him.  Charlie was looking to finish the gladiatorial spectacle off with murderous precision and cold heartedness, and he didn’t give a damned what the Spanish thought of him.

As Charlie mind bounced from that epic poem, back onto the court, he started to capitalize on the hole in the Spaniard’s defenses that he had opened up.  He saw the path to the W.  He saw his opponent on the ropes.  He got more aggressive.  He knew how to close out a match.  That was something innate in him.  Something you couldn’t teach, his coaches had told him.  And he saw it now before him, and he pounced on the Spaniard and broke through his defenses.  Getting more and more fired up along the way.  Lots of fist pumping.  A few more, “Vamos!” thrown in for good measure and assert his on court presence and dominance over the flailing Spaniard.

And all the while he heard Niels’s small quiet voice, almost hidden within the backdrop of the Spanish din, that cheered him on.  That gave him words of encouragement and support, when he needed it most.  Niels’s cheering was not the loud, boisterous kind that was coming from the Spanish, it was the subtle more grave kind, one that understood the mountain that Charlie was climbing, and inserting just the right words of encouragement, or the clapping and cheering that was not accompanied by words, that kept Charlie going through that night.

 

Tennis is a dance.  It’s a dance of adversaries, where the ballroom is the court and the dancers are not intertwined physically necessarily but most certainly connected.  When Charlie played tennis, particularly when he was plugged in, in the zone, you were integrally connected to you opponent.  Connected in a way that you could anticipate his movements.  You could see where he was going to hit his next shot.

You had angles, Johnny Mac was so good at knowing the angles, the percentages.  And the percentages told you about probabilities really, what was the probability that your opponent would hit the ball crosscourt?  Down the line?  What was the score?  Was it a time for him to play conservatively or be aggressive because he had a few points to play with.  The tighter you kept the score, the bigger and more important that the points were, the easier it was to anticipate where their next ball would go.

Speed and quickness in turn, is measured not be how fast you actually move from point A to point B, but also how well you anticipate the next shot.  For any athlete knows, as clearly and plainly as the sun that shines before them, that there is no substitute for that first step.  The proverbial jump you get on a ball.

So speed is deceiving somewhat. Because it depends on your court position, your ability to anticipate, as well as your actually speed – how fast your legs can actually move the body/mind system that must be in position for the next shot in order to strike it, move it back to your opponent, with just the right spin, just the right velocity, such that your opponent’s next shot was as difficult as you could possibly make it for him.

And you always had to keep in mind the angles and percentages that you had to cope with when you struck the ball.  And the better position you were in, the more solid your physical foundation when you struck the ball, the more opportunities and better percentages you had to work with.  That was why movement was so important, so key.  On all shots except the serve of course.

The serve was a different beast altogether.  It was the only shot where you weren’t moving, in flight.  You had basically all the time you needed (actually 25 seconds between points) and yet it was the most technically complicated of all of the shots.  You controlled where the ball was, where you tossed it, how far out in front it was.  And yet on the serve, you had all the physical forces of your body at work – the hips, the shoulders, the legs and calves, the elbow and wrist – and the all had to work in perfect fluidity and synchronicity.  To strike that yellow fuzzy ball some ten to twelve feet above the ground behind the baseline, some 99 feet across a net that was three feet above the ground at its center, and place the ball with the perfect spin and at the perfect angle within a few square inches of your desired location, preferably just where your opponent was least expecting it or at the very least just where your opponent least wanted to see it. The best servers had the most fluid and smooth motions, but their fluidity hid the complexity of the stroke, they made it look easy but it was far from easy and it was an art form that took years and years to master, and some never did.  But the ones that did were the ones that achieved greatness, the likes of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer to name probably the best servers of all time, and the ones of course with the most fluid and beautiful motions, works of art really and art forms that took decades to perfect.

And of course it was the serve, and how a player serves under pressure, that in almost every tight match has the most impact on the actual outcome.  For tennis is a mental game, no doubt.  It is a battle of wills and minds, an attempt by the adversaries that have the net and court between them to break their opponent down, to find their weakness and exploit it as much as possible.  An exploitation that leads to frustration, that leads to pressing and lack of fluidity, which in turn leads to more pressing and in the end defeat.

You physically needed the game, the tools, to compete at the highest level though, there was no question about this.  You needed weapons.  Big weapons.  You needed a bomb of a serve.  A bomb that could be slipped and placed into every corner and every crevasse in the service box on the other side of the court.  You needed precision, as well as power.  And you needed to be able to vary speed and spin, ball velocity.  And you needed to be able to hold your serve.  Not hold in the sense as win your service games, but hold the ball on your serve such that you opponent could not see where the ball was going to be targeted until after the ball left your racquet.  The hold.  This holding, this deception, was such a subtle nuance of the game, especially on the serve, that it was overlooked even by the best of commentators and spectators.

If you look at the serves of Pete Sampras or Roger Federer, look at their ball toss, the quickness with which they snap their hips, shoulders and arm into the shot, and at the same time recognize that it’s not until their opponent sees their racquet face strike the ball, that they know where that serve is headed.  Sampras was perhaps the best at this, you couldn’t tell where he his serve was going until after it left his racquet and in many cases this was just too late.  And this was their secret, their great gift.  And this subtlety depended upon the balance and fluidity of the entire service motion, and the softness of their hands to push and stretch that ball into different corners of that service box with as similar a motion every time they serve as possible.  The same could be said of baseball pitchers really, how to make a curve look like a fastball or a changeup, such that the hitter couldn’t tell which one it was until after the ball was released from the pitchers hand and it was too late to change the momentum of your swing.

 

And there it was.  The match before him.  On his own racquet as they say.  Charlie dropped into his pre-service ritual.  Walking back steadily to the fence to pick up all the balls.  Spinning the balls in his hand to pick out the ones he wanted to use.  Catching his breath.  Breathing deeply through his nose to try and relax his nerves, his mind, his body.

Match ball.  The slider out wide on the ad side of the court.  That’s where Charlie wanted to go.  That was his bread and butter, his set up shot.  His “go to” play when he needed a point on that side of the court.  His opponent knew it was coming.  He had ridden that play all night long.  The courts were slick.  The balls were bald, all the hair torn off them as the two gladiators had beat them into submission over the course of three grueling hours of battle.  That made the balls slide even more.  So slider it was.  Charlie was committed.

Charlie rolled the balls around in his hands once more prior to serve.  The last part of his pre-serve ritual.  He selected the one he wanted to use for the first serve slider he could see so clearly in his mind’s eye.  It was the one with the least amount of ‘fuzziness’, the baldest one that would slide off the court the most.  The ball that would catapult him into the main draw and put him one step closer to that ATP point that he had been chasing all around the world.

Match ball.  Charlie served out wide, a slider, and came in behind it.  Charlie was a lefty and that slider out wide on the ad side if hit well could set up either a baseline winner to the open court, or sometimes he’d come in behind it and cut off the volley into the open court.  He came in behind this one.  The serve was hit well.  He got a flailing reply, a nice easy floating ball up the line.  Charlie cut off the volley and carved it into the open court.  One last fist pump and he was off to the net to shake hands with his opponent.  It was done.  Victory.

Then the fun started.  The Spanish seemed to coagulate and congregate outside the court.  As Charlie stepped off the court after shaking his opponent’s hands, and Marcelo’s hand.  He walked right into a fray of people and noise.  Charlie was still really wired, he had just pulled the victory out a few seconds prior and was totally tuned into the match.  He now had to make that transition back to no-tennis playing reality.  That usually took a few hours.   After a big match like this that could sometimes take up to half a day in fact.

And he stepped into the chaos.  Charlie was shocked to see the energy and anger of the Spanish as he stepped off the court.  There must have been 4 or 5 of them still left watching the end of the match.  It was late, well past midnight, before they finished.

And Charlie for sure didn’t see the arms and fists that came at him from behind.  He just felt them on his back.  And just as Charlie turned to face his new adversary, in a setting that he was altogether unaccustomed for (Charlie had been in just one fight in his life, with a pal from school when he was in 4th or 5th grade.  Charlie had won that battle as it turns out but it was quite tame, two private school kids in blazers wrestling around for a few minutes basically, not altogether good preparation for a cock fight in Malaga Spain), he saw Niels fly past his peripheral vision, and straight on top of the chap that had his hands and fists buried in Charlie’s back and kidneys.  Niels to the rescue, how fitting actually.

By the time it was over and Charlie and Niels were back in their hotel room ready to shut it down for the night, Charlie looked over at Niels and said, “nice work tonight my friend.  Not quite sure what I would have done without you, on or off court”.

“You probably would have gotten your ass kicked.  On both fronts my man”.  Charlie could see the wry smile on his face as he said this even though Charlie was on the other side of the room getting ready for bed.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”  Charlie responded.  Damn straight he was right.  A kinship that would last a life time, sown in the seeds of battle.  Rare indeed.


[1] The “minors” of the tennis tour, akin the triple A baseball league before the pros.  The Satellite events were four week events, typically under USD 20,000 in prize money.  Each of the four week long events would be hosted at different tennis facilities in the same general region, all in Southern Spain for example.  The best 32 players (in some cases just 16) qualified for the final week of the satellite, where all the ATP points were handed out depending upon performance.  The next level of the professional tennis tour were Challenger events which were in the neighborhood of USD 50,000, had smaller draws and were typically closed, i.e. there was no open qualifying rounds and you had to have a high enough ranking – 300 in the world or so – to qualify.  Satellites have since been replaced with what is called Futures, one week events as opposed to the four week Satellite tours.

[2] Tennis, or ‘Lawn Tennis’, had its root in Court Tennis, or Real Tennis, whose origins date back to the 17th century.  For a nice piece on the history of Court Tennis, see http://www.uscourttennis.org/index.php?id=48.

[3] Andre Agassi Facebook post, Dec 19th, 2013

[4] From Rules of Tennis, official rules of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), of which the United

States Tennis Association (USTA) is a member.

[5] As of Jan 2014 Djokovic had won four Australian Open titles, one Wimbledon title and one US Open.

[6] “The Tibetan word Bardo means literally “intermediate state” – also translated as “transitional state” or “in-between state” or “liminal state”. In Sanskrit the concept has the name antarabhāva. It is a concept which arose soon after the Buddha’s passing, with a number of earlier Buddhist groups accepting the existence of such an intermediate state, while other schools rejected it.  Used loosely, the term “bardo” refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one’s previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth. The term bardo can also be used metaphorically to describe times when our usual way of life becomes suspended, as, for example, during a period of illness or during a meditation retreat. Such times can prove fruitful for spiritual progress because external constraints diminish. However, they can also present challenges because our less skillful impulses may come to the foreground, just as in the sidpa bardo.”  Quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bardo

[7] Rudyard Kipling, “If….”

About snowconenyc
Author and computer scientist with expertise in scalable and secure SaaS solutions and cyber security solutions as well as the mythology and philosophy in Eurasian antiquity.

3 Responses to The Game of Kings, Kipling, and Ritual: Strange Bedfellows

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