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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: April 8, 2009

4/8/2009 1:25:00 PM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

April 8, 2009

No racquet-smashing Roger Federer this week. Or Miami conquering Andy Murray or Victoria Azarenka. No crashing and burning James Blake or Patty Schnyder. Not even darn-near-hope-inducing American Madison Keys, who won her first tour level match this week at the ripe old age of 14. No, this week it's just little old me. Pardon the indulgence. I'll name drop to keep you awake, don't worry.

Picture it. Bradenton, summer of '07. I'm in the middle of a dream. I find myself the proud papa of a week-long stay at the Nick Bollettieri (aka IMG) Tennis Academy in Florida, home of just about any tennis player who's ever won anything. The world is full of promise. Promise that the coaches here will turn my horrid volleys, strictly functional forehand and bipolar serve (big first, dinky second and never the twain shall meet) into Agassi-like weapons of mass destruction.

Have you seen me lately?

I don't get Agassi's hitting coach, I get Tatiana Golovin's, but she still hits way bigger than I ever will so I take it and run. And run. And run. That's all you do at Nick's. That and hit the skin off the ball from 8 a.m. until you drop (which one lady actually does, in the 100 degree heat and humidity). But I'm strong like bull (or just a kid in a candy store), so you have to drag me off the court with a hook every sundown.

Day after day of this takes its toll and, upon returning to real life, I experience something insane that I would eventually learn is called "throwing your back out." The Academy didn't cause it, they're all about warming up and stretching and all that time wasting stuff. And I'd already had back problems in the past. But nothing like this.

At first I tried to act like it was just another injury. To be a jock and play through the pain. Anyone with disk issues is wincing as they read this. I just made it worse and set off a chain of events that basically left me with the body of a geriatric. And not those peppy Cocoon geriatrics. The "help papa put on his socks" kind you eventually stop visiting because they're too much work. I had to give tennis a rest.

During my forced hiatus, I found myself writing a lot of articles about injuries. It seemed anyone who ever so much as stubbed a toe on court, I was shoving a handheld microphone in their faces. Dmitry Tursunov, Amelie Mauresmo, Nadia Petrova (dropping names, dropping names). I was obsessed, looking for some kind of something to make sense of this. Empathy. People to be miserable with, I don't know. As I sat slumped over with Brother-of-the-Disk--- Juan Martin Del Potro, I joked about our bad posture, but his English left him staring at me blankly. I was nearly peeling onions under Bethanie Mattek-Sands' eyes as I asked her about her harrowing time off from the tour, and she gingerly told me it allowed her to hang out with her family playing board games.

I even segued over to viruses with Sam Stosur and Nicole Vaidisova. Yeah, as time dragged on, I was seriously hitting the emotional skids. To lift my spirits, my mother sent me an article she'd clipped from the newspaper about a guy still playing tennis at 100. All I could think was, this man who predates radio can play tennis and I can't. Not good times.

They'd get worse this past January when, after throwing my back out again on a court in Hawaii, I was told by my doctor that I shouldn't play ever again. Ever? Like, ever ever? Ever.

When I say this put me into a tailspin, it put me into a tailspin. Taylor Dent can have his spine sawed in two and take Tommy Robredo out in straight sets but I was S.O.L.? I'm only 34. Still shellshocked, I bumped into a physical therapist who I'd worked with before by the name of Kristy. I told her what the doctor said and she shook her head. No no no, she would not have that. To tell someone they could never do something was unacceptable to her. Come see her, she told me.

I have a tendency to just go with the person who says what I want to hear. So needless to say, I was riding shotgun with Kristy. I had high hopes, but I kept my expectations in check. Like I said, I'd been down the PT route before. Kristy went over my history, and me, from head to toe. She put me on a much more specialized regimen that, frankly, put the grind of Bollettieri to shame. I never worked so hard in my life. Sweat, tears, maybe blood. But the truth was, the other option just wasn't acceptable to me either.

I'm happy to report that, as I wind down my time with Kristy two months later, I'm back on the court. And killing it.

I wish I could say I wouldn't trade this experience for anything, that it all taught me so much about myself and it's a lesson you can't put a price on, but I'd be serving up a steaming pile of BS. It sucked. And it'll suck again if I stop doing my training. But I did learn one valuable lesson that I thought was worth passing on. A good PT is better than a crappy doctor. No wait, make that two lessons. Desire goes a long way. Look how far it's taken Del Potro. And Petrova, and Mattek-Sands. And Stosur and Mauresmo. And now me.

So next time you see a guy out there hitting with Tatiana Golovin's backhand, remember: good genes go a long way. But willpower can bring you home.