Competing when you are weakened

Right now I have the challenge of competing while I’m not fully fit. I’m right handed and injured my wrist a few months ago. Typically for me, it happened just before my first competitive league. I’ve been playing several times a week for a few years and always managed to play and compete with my friends. Suddenly I have the chance to test myself at a higher level and something gets in the way. Frustrating is not the word.
It happened through overuse. Ramping up pace in my game at the same time as doing a lot of work in my garden. I realised far too late the damage I was causing. Previously I have recovered so quickly from injuries I have become blasé about their rehab.
However, I’m trying to see this as a positive life lesson. It’s been an experience that has helped me understand what the pros go through all the time. They work hard in the off season and their game really moves on. They also get a bunch of promotional work or whatever so they end up pushing too hard. Travelling so much and playing one too many tournaments. The result being that when the big tournaments come they get injured. That’s what happened to me. So what is my answer? I’m now pacing myself and figuring out how to juggle the pressures of competing with those of a job, young family and everything else.
This is a common problem isn’t it.
When I’m fit I’m used to being an attacking player. Like most attacking players my defence is relatively weak because I don’t generally need it. Typically I injured myself adding more attack. In reality I need more defence. I’ve spent the last year slowly being eclipsed by my good friend and nemesis because he has a much much better defence than me. He can absorb all my shots, pace, spin power. Tire me out then run me around.
It took me so long to realise this trend but I’ve finally accepted that I have to match his defence in order to beat him. I’m that stubborn I only started to notice this by analysing the types of matches I won against him. They all had one thing in common. I only won when I focused on building a solid base of defence right from the start. If I matched his defence then my attack would win. If I didn’t then his defence would.
So when I got injured everything got turned on its head. The great thing is that my mind and general tactics particularly defensive tactics were still relevant and my footwork and fitness helped a lot. It’s just that my standard of play left handed was nothing compared to my right. All my power had gone. Particularly my smash and serve. I couldn’t attack balls above the net like I used to. I suddenly became the defender instead of the attacker. 
At first I was positive because I didn’t expect to be injured for long. I’d been preparing for this scenario over the years. Injuries are part of life and I always thought I could play left handed if I worked at it. So I’m very glad I built a left handed game. It’s paying dividends now. Letting me feed my addiction to tennis and continue my dream of competing.
The frustration comes from knowing I could do so much better if I weren’t injured. Every shot is now the best I can do injured. Instead of simply the best I can do. I’m finding it hard to pick the right tactics because in reality I haven’t been playing left handed long at all. And you can tell. One shot lands right on the money. The next two, right in the next court. And not the same one. One to the left court the other to the right. So I end up aiming mid court because I have no real control. I’m basically a pusher and I’m used to being an attacker. The whole mindset is different.
It’s really got me down over these months because I’d improved so much. I’d just joined a new club because they have lots of competitions and another city-wide league has popped up as well. It’s everything I could wish for. But all I can think about is how I used to play. I try to be positive but I’m not free on the court anymore. I don’t recognise my game. I spend most of my time and energy trying to keep the ball in with some form of quality. So I have no time or energy left to observe my opponent and consider tactics.
Today though I think I may have turned the corner. It goes back to my need for defence. I’d learnt over the last year to play the all court game. The cornerstone for me is to never get pulled out of position. It’s much easier to play well if you’re in good position and you’re much harder to beat. So I’ve started to block shots back much more to stay in position instead of running further for an attacking shot but exposing space for my opponent to attack. 
That’s how my nemesis used to get to me. He forced me to push too hard. So I learnt to do that to him. He can’t attack as well as me. So, through my game, I said, you come at me. I can handle it. Suddenly he had to generate all the pace and angles. He kept getting out of position. I suddenly started getting opportunity after opportunity. All because I chose to wait for a better opportunity to attack. My body language said I could wait all day. Something that started getting in my opponents head. 
The biggest advantage I found was that this really saved my energy. Particularly my legs. So much so that one day we played five sets. Not only did I win but I wasn’t even sore later or the next day. Normally I’d be sore and weaker for a few days at least but I wasn’t. I was just fine. Unfortunately a week or so after discovering this new approach I got injured. So, as is often the case, this new approach got forgotten. Replaced by trying to keep the ball in play. The life of a pusher.
Today, I’m excited. I feel I’ve remembered what got me playing that style. So I’m hoping I might be able to use it with my left hand. I can’t play it as well but I need defence and that’s what it’s built on. I just finished my first match of the city league. I think I’m in the top group based on questions I answered when I joined along with the drubbing I just received. Of course there was no option when I joined to say I’m injured so please put me in the lower league so I have a fighting chance. So, just like I talked about on the tour. You have to get on with it. No one else knows or cares the challenges you’re facing. Sport is about finding a way. Not making excuses.
Well, today I think I found my way. It didn’t win me the match. I won’t be beating that level of opponent left handed any time soon. No. What it did is give me a fighting chance. I won a lot more points than I would have last week. I suddenly realised that I am now the opposite of what I’m use to being. I’m a defender looking for an attack. I used to be an attacker looking for a defence. My chance of winning is now all about how long I can keep the ball in play along with how well I can redirect the ball they give me. Re using what I’m given instead of generating everything myself. If you think about it it’s a perfect opportunity to develop my defensive game and my ability to use my opponents strength against them. To balance my game. Upgrade my defence to match my attack and become well rounded.
That’s what I found today. I lost 6-1,6-1 but as is common the score doesn’t reflect how close some games were. I got to deuce or break point in several games and broke his serve in the second set. I also generated lots of opportunities I just couldn’t finish them. Right handed I would have. 
The kicker is that what challenged him the most was my lack of pace. Not something you usually associate with making life difficult for your opponent. I’ve been adding pace to my left but it’s left it sore quite a lot. Fearing another injury I’ve rested a lot. Today I felt no soreness because I didn’t go for pace. I can make this new approach work because my footwork and fitness have come back and my reflexes with my left are good enough to reach his fast shots. I blocked most back to his feet or to the baseline. Another aspect of the all court game is how hard it is to hit winners from the baseline. Since I’m just blocking back anything good I don’t have to move that far to reach a shot. So I don’t have to recover far either. 
Today that changed everything. I won so many points through my opponents unforced errors. Just like you see with the pros. I didn’t have better shots but made him earn the win. He didn’t ace me. I got most of his serves back deep. He rarely started his serve on the advantage. We generally had to rally a little before he got the advantage. He often didn’t make it that far.
That really surprised me. I’ve always felt I have to be on top of my game to win. Always push as hard as I can. Today I just narrowed the court. Absorbed and redirected his pace and achieved better results than my best left handed attack could.
So I want to use the coming matches as opportunities to see what I can do as a defender. Learn how to really “win ugly”. My friend does it wonderfully. He gets in your head. I see the pros do it. I think I’ll be better for it. I keep reminding myself that I am lucky to still be playing. Any one else would have missed out. Now I feel positive about what I can get from this. I get nervous when I compete. Like anyone else. I have bad memories of serving for the set and choking when I first competed. I didn’t have a solid base of defence to fall back on. The ability to keep the rally going and find my rhythm again. So I just went into melt down. I didn’t win a game after that.
Today I could tell right from the knock up I was going to lose. It was just obvious. But that made it easier. I didn’t expect myself to win. Atleast not left handed. So I could be clear about my strategy. Defend and frustrate. Keep the rallies long enough and keep position. My motto is “Your win or you learn”. So I chose to See what I could learn. 
So what did I learn? He gets frustrated making unforced errors. That could be useful. Rally long enough and he makes a mistake. He mainly hits heavy topspin off both wings. Not happy with a ball too low or too high particularly when stretched. Those were the some of the things I noticed. Left handed I couldn’t take advantage. When my right hand is ready I will. I’ve beaten similar players before. But this time I’ll know the value of defending and pushing. His comment after the match. He struggles against people with no pace. I know I do. Now I know other people do too.
Exciting. Each match is now a lesson with my opponent as the coach. It’s for me to learn something from each opportunity. Can’t wait for my next lesson. It’s going to be fun. 🙂

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