In spite of my injured right arm and shoulder, I have continued to play tennis and practice squash. In the last two months, my game steadily deteriorated to terrible, and then recently it became (for me) sensational. I am ecstatic today, after playing the best tennis of my life. How did this happen? Here is a little account of my journey from awful to fantastic.

I was doing real well in July, until I injured myself I believe in the gym. That month I played and practiced tennis 14 times and squash once.

August was busy and sore, although I played/practiced tennis 10 times and hit squash balls (no games yet) with a friend twice. September has seen me on the tennis court 12 times and the squash court three.

My tennis game had suffered enormously, and I was very discouraged. I guess the injury had some influence, but I didn’t feel any aching while playing (just after for a bit) and wasn’t aware that it was affecting my performance. But I constantly hit the tennis balls long or into the net. My serve was weak, and I had a negative attitude. My team lost more sets than I could accept easily. As relaxed as I am about losing, I was really fed up.

Then a number of things changed, so that in the last week, I have played the best tennis ever. My team has won six out of seven sets: 6-1, 6-0, 6-1, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. I must confess that I have had three different partners in those three matches. But my playing has been superior…for me, and compared to my previous results.

My net game is vastly improved and the backhand volleys are often powerful instead of dinky. Many of my volleys are gentle, finessed at side angles that are impossible to return. My forehand strokes are harder and IN THE COURT. I was always hitting the ball too long, over and over. And my backhands are better, although there is still plenty of room to add power.

So what happened? I need to figure it out, to understand how this transformation occurred. Here is what I was noticing and doing…or not doing:

1. I watched the US Open a lot and saw how Federer continued to stare at the ball until AFTER it was off the racket. Only then did he look to see where the ball was going. There were many photographs and super slow motion videos examining this technique. When I played, I was immediately looking to the place the ball was supposed to go BEFORE I hit the ball…so I flubbed it over and over.

2. I saw how Djokovich rotated his body after he hit a forehand, and I knew that I also had to turn my body or hip into the stroke to have any power. I had often been using just my arm and hitting loads of moonballs that frequently went way past the base line or were easy for my opponent to smash back at me for a winner.

3. I was having trouble with my tennis grip—the racket was rotating as I hit the ball, which often went into the net. Or I rotated my grip intentionally and incorrectly for a backhand, and then the racket was in such a position relative to the net that it was impossible to hit the ball over the net. So I had one grip for the forehand, and another for the backhand. I never had this problem with a squash racket—I could use the same grip for forehand and backhand.

4. I discovered accidentally that one grip for serving was working better—when the end of the racket was inside my closed fist. This gives me lots of whip and more power. But I saw at the Champions Cup tournament in Newport that Todd Martin played with his hand more forward, towards the racket face, and that the butt of the racket came out past his closed fist. So I began using two different grips: one for serve and the other for ground strokes. I also saw all the pros at the Open serving by bending their knees a lot in anticipation of springing up high and putting that energy and power into the serve.

5. The biggest frustration with my game was that I knew all these things I was supposed to do, wanted to do, and just couldn’t do them. When waiting to receive a serve, I would tell myself, “watch the ball, watch the ball.” One second later the ball was in front of me, and I didn’t watch it…and out of the court it flew—then I watched it, with much annoyance, embarrassment and disgust.

6. I knew that I wanted to hit the forehand at the same time that I stepped on my left foot, which would then allow me to follow through by rotating my right hip and landing on my right foot. Couldn’t do it.

7. I knew that I wanted to follow through my forehands by bringing the racket up toward my left shoulder and grabbing it with my left hand at the throat of the racket. Couldn’t do it.

So on September 22nd, when my team had just lost to the two old guys 1-6 and 1-6, and I was really upset and feeling sorry for myself, I went to the court in the afternoon with maybe 100 balls and a ball machine and focused like crazy on hitting only forehands, then only backhands, then volleying correctly at the net. I only wanted to watch the ball until after I hit it. I only wanted to volley by taking the correct steps for power. I used the same grip for backhand as forehand—made myself not change it. I practiced springing up to hit a serve. I hit from the base line and from closer to the service box with the main goal of watching the ball and getting the damn thing inside the court across the net.

Over and over I practiced these simple lessons. I hardly took breaks for rest or water. I hit for about 90 minutes, and gradually the balls were staying inside, were going where I aimed, were much more powerful.

In the movies this kind of progress usually takes weeks or months and is accompanied by dynamic music. For me something clicked that allowed me to upgrade my performance in just one brief practice session. Some tipping point was overcome that permitted me to integrate these skills into the muscles enough to be able to do a thousand times better in the next three contests.

Okay, I am still a little giddy from playing the best tennis in my life today. Maybe I only improved my game by a factor of 100…or 10, instead of 1000 times. Maybe I gained confidence and that compounded my progress. But I did enhance my skill dramatically, and I will continue to think about what caused this gain in such a short time.

Aikido master Richard Strozzi Heckler says that you have to practice a physical skill 3000 times to do it automatically. 300 times just isn’t enough. I was thinking of his words as I worked out on the court last week. Something made a difference. Check out his advice at https://www.irasabs.com/?p=1653