For the second time in two weeks—and the second time in a year, or ever—I defeated my friend Bill, a four-day-a-week, multi-decade tennis player.

Most satisfying was not just that I won 10-8 after an hour and a half for one set, and right after playing two hours of doubles. Nor that I won though he served first, and I was under pressure each time I served… because I was only ahead once at 9-8. Nor even that I won after losing breaking opportunities the first two times he served, when I had him love-30 and lost, and then love-40 and lost. No, the major achievement was that I was dejected with my early missed chances, then broken to 2-5, sure I was headed for our familiar year-long pattern, where I lose 2-6, or maybe 3-6…and then I came back from the pit, held on, and actually won the set!

It takes a lot to stay focused and not accept predictable defeat. I would talk to myself softly, saying “you can do it…don’t give up…dig deeper…watch the ball.” Last week, I played a tough opponent, and it was close. I was serving at 5-5, after coming back from 3-4 or 3-5. Suddenly I missed one shot in a long rally, and I was down love-30…and I knew I had lost the set. I just felt it. I dug deep that day, but into a hole I thought was 100 feet deep, and I was at the bottom of it and couldn’t see any way to climb out. So my vision came true, and I lost 5-7.

What the hell was that about? How could I be so negative, so sure of losing, so wimpy about fighting. There were no inner resources to call upon. I hated it. I became a “loser.” That’s not who I want to be. If I can’t be a “killer” on the court, at least I can be an “optimist” or a “hopeful.” But not that day. It was impossible.

In 1962 when I was hitchhiking around the country for five months, I visited my oldest cousin. Her roommate’s boy friend, I was told, was a hit man for the Chicago mafia. A nice enough guy who bought us take-out pizza. Sitting around the kitchen table, being shown the mink underwear top and bottom that this killer had bought for his girl friend, he told me that when he was born, he was so angry that he came out with both fists already clenched. He was a fighter from birth.

I’ll bet he would have been a deadly opponent on a tennis court!

This fellow Jure Robic, the endurance cyclist I just wrote about, became a totally different persona when competing. His friend said “he was very polite and nice when he was not on the bike, but absolutely the most unpleasant person you could imagine in a race…We discovered (he was) someone we were absolutely afraid of.”

I sure would like to be tougher, more aggressive and ornery when I am playing tennis. If I can’t BE a killer, if I can’t walk out on the court eager to obliterate the enemy, with my fists clenched and my mouth snarling, can’t I at least PRETEND that I want to decimate and destroy my opponents? IMAGINE that I am a rough, tough, macho meany. Maybe I have to scrunch up my face in the mirror, spit into the sink, and smash a grapefruit with my bare hands. That might fire up my juices. What do you think? What do you do when you are competing and really want to win?

And of course all these thoughts and actions can apply to other parts of your life beyond sports…but you already realized that, didn’t you?