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Steve Flink: Allen Fox's Book Is Required Reading

3/15/2011 4:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

I can’t think of a single person in the tennis world—male or female, young or old, obstinate or open minded— for whom I have more respect than Allen Fox. The power of his ideas, the clarity of his mind, the originality of his thinking, the fundamental decency of the man—all of those traits and other attributes have made him one of the sport’s treasures, and a singularly far reaching authority on the game. Over the course of his productive and admirable life, Fox has achieved in tennis on almost every conceivable level. During the 1960’s, he won the NCAA Championships while at UCLA and spent no fewer than five years among the top ten players in the United States, rising to a peak of No. 4 in 1962. He represented the American Davis Cup team in that era. Fox established a stellar reputation for himself as a master strategist, even a tactical genius of sorts.

When his playing days were shortened by an injury in his late twenties, Fox found other avenues to exploit his agile mind. In the mid-1970’s, he promoted some special eight man events, developing a remarkable business acumen in the process. Thereafter, Fox began a distinguished coaching stint at Pepperdine University, remaining in that prestigious post from the late seventies into the mid-nineties, guiding his squads to top five status for ten consecutive years at one stage. Since then, Fox has consulted and coached a wide range of players at all levels of the game, and is currently working with the Russian Igor Kunitsyn on the ATP World Tour.

Fox’s supreme knowledge of the game really knows no bounds. The author of two previous books on tennis (“If I’m the Better Player, Why Can’t I Win”, and “Think to Win”), Fox has just released his most important work yet. His brand new book is entitled “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match”. The title of the book is self explanatory, but you must know that this is the brilliant culmination of a man’s life journey. Dr. Fox garnered a Ph.D in psychology at UCLA, and that background has set him apart from so many others in his field. No one in modern times has conveyed more layers of insight about not only how the sport should physically be played, but why it is so critical for players to find ways to deal with the rigorous demands of the mental game.  Fox crossed into some uncharted territory in his two other books, but in this one he has moved beyond himself to another level, producing what is indisputably the best book yet in his field. Serious players especially will not only read it once and make inevitable gains with their games; they will return to it frequently for refreshment and enlightenment.

And yet, before getting to a closer examination of “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match”, I would like you to have a better sense of the man himself. I spoke with Fox on the phone last week for over an hour-and-a-half, and enjoyed every minute of it. I wanted to know if Fox believes his strategic acumen was the key to his success. He responded, “It was for sure. I was a medium but not a great athlete. As a player I was quite good but not great, just under the top level. My top U.S. ranking was No. 4 and making the quarterfinals of Wimbledon [in 1965], playing on the Davis Cup team—that pretty much represented how good I was. I was not winning Wimbledon or playing in the Davis Cup Challenge Round. I was dangerous from time to time: let’s put it that way. I was relatively consistent at my level but then I could have my hot streaks where I could actually beat anybody on a faster court generally.  I didn’t have enough power to blow through the best players on clay and I wasn’t steady enough to out steady them. But on concrete I could get through the best players.”

That led us inescapably to the moment of all moments in Fox’s career: the 1966 Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles. In an astonishing sequence of events, Fox accounted for all four Grand Slam singles champions from that season. After narrowly averting a loss to Great Britain’s Graham Stilwell in the second round, Fox ousted Wimbledon champion Manuel Santana, French Championships victor Tony Roche, U.S. Champions titlist Fred Stolle, and Australian Championships winner Roy Emerson to capture the most prestigious crown of his career. Remarkably, Fox toppled all four of those illustrious competitors in straight sets, and that clearly was no mean feat.

As Fox recollects, “That match with Emerson and winning the tournament was really the high point of my career because it was in my hometown, with standing room only on the Center Court at the L.A. Tennis Club, which to me was the Mecca of tennis. At the time, the Pacific Southwest was the second biggest tournament in the country, and I think eight of the top ten players were there. That had to be the highlight of my career, with making the quarters of Wimbledon second best, and winning the National Hard Courts [in 1961] third.”

Fox took me through every victory he recorded against those prodigious Grand Slam tournament champions, and his analysis was fascinating. “Santana was not at his best on concrete,” he said with characteristic modesty, downplaying his win over the Spanish maestro. “He was a spin meister who didn’t have a lot of power. The court we played on was quick and the balls were fast and I could just attack the net. It was also a smoggy Los Angeles day and hot, and once Santana lost that first set 10-8, he lost will and sort of deteriorated. I think the smog got to him.”

Following that 10-8, 6-2 triumph over Santana, Fox collided with Roche. At 4-4 in the opening set, Fox got to break point on the left-hander’s serve. As he explains, “I hit a running down the line backhand passing shot that was the best shot I had hit in years, and then I broke him and won the set 6-4. Roche was a great guy. I was particularly keen to win because I knew the semifinals would be on television the next day and I wanted to get on television. I was up two breaks at 4-1 in the second set and I won the first point. Roche tried a backhand down the line passing shot on the dead run that was way out, but the linesman missed the call. I appealed to the umpire who said he could not overrule. I was so uptight about that point because I didn’t want there to be any chance for Roche to come back into the match. Roche knew his shot had been out, so he came up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, Foxie, I will throw the next point.’ And he did. That was the sort of class players had in those days. We were all friends and with a few exceptions like Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac, everyone was damned honest. I went on to beat Tony 6-4, 6-1.”

Next up was Stolle. Fox dispatched the congenial Aussie 8-6, 6-4 without being at his best. As he recalls, “When I played Fred I felt like I could beat him. He was a better player than me for sure, but for whatever reasons I had a good game to play against him. For example, Fred had a great serve return but did not have a great running passing shot. He returned well against me but I was serving-and-volleying on both serves like I always did, and I could control the low volley very well and sort of move Fred off the court, and he would have to try those tough running passing shots. I labored through that match because I thought I would win it and I was conservative. I really thought the match was mine and I didn’t want to lose it. I remember being down a break in the first set and somehow weaseled back. It was a grind but I managed to squeak through.”

That win set up his title round appointment with the redoubtable Emerson, the man Fox most revered among his fellow competitors. “I figured I was going to lose to Emmo,” he reflects. “To me he was a God, the greatest guy of them all among a lot of great guys. I had nothing but admiration for the guy as a player and an athlete. Unlike Stolle, he was very fast about the court. I had been told by some people that you have to hit your returns hard against Emerson because once he gets into the net he is so quick. They said you can’t dink returns against Emmo. You’ve got to hurt him. But I went ahead and chipped my returns and it worked out fine. I was serving-and-volleying the whole time like usual. I won the first set relatively easily and was up 5-3 in the second set with Emmo serving.

“I didn’t want to have to serve it out against Emmo so I was getting a little nervous. He saved one match point and then I got another and had the easiest shot in the world—a forehand from about three quarter court. I had all day to hit it and I remember thinking, ‘I will never get an easier shot to win this tournament.’ Bad thought. But I swung hard with a monster amount of topspin and Roy barely got a racket on it. It never entered my mind that I had beaten the four Grand Slam title holders. I didn’t really think about it then and no one focused on it immediately after the match. I was not even asked about it until later.”

In those years, Fox faced a diverse cast of top players, toppling the likes of the young Arthur Ashe, John Newcombe on clay, and even the emerging Jimmy Connors, when Fox was past his prime. “I was dangerous against those guys but not as good as them. But I was actually better than Arthur in his early years. I beat him many times. Arthur was a shot maker with a great first serve but a very bad second serve. He wasn’t a great volleyer and wasn’t that quick so if he missed his first serve I felt I had the edge in the point. But Arthur was a slasher on his returns and passing shots and he would screw your timing up. He was the kind of guy who made you hold yourself together. You had to ignore the flashy winners that he hit.”

Fox was nearly 31 when he beat the 17-year-old Connors 7-5, 10-8 in the quarterfinals of the 1970 Southern California Championship at Los Angeles. As he recalls, “I had quit the tour and was in my early thirties and Jimmy was about 18. He didn’t hit the ball that hard yet. He was cunning but could be overpowered. I had strained a thigh muscle and couldn’t run too fast, so I had to stay back on my serve. But I beat him from the baseline. I never thought he’s make it as a player because his serve was relatively weak and he didn’t volley too well. He wasn’t nearly as good as Dennis Ralston at the same age. But two years later I went out to practice with Jimmy and he was hitting the ball so hard I had to quit in the middle of the first set because I was so tired. I had never played against anything like it.”

But as Fox looks back on his prime and his battles with leading fellow Americans, he singles out Stan Smith as the toughest man for him to beat. “I killed Stan when he was younger after he had won the National 18s. But Stan kicked my butt a lot. I hated playing him because I liked it when my opponents chipped their backhand returns. Stan didn’t do that. He hit over the backhand return and so if you couldn’t blow through him he would get a swat at your serve. He was the worst guy of all for me to play.”

The conversation shifted to Fox’s run to the 1965 Wimbledon quarterfinals, and his dominance of the 1961 NCAA Championships. Let’s start with Wimbledon. “I beat all good players that year at Wimbledon,” says Fox. “I beat Tom Edlefsen in the first round and then I won against Jan-Erik Lundquist, who was the third seed.  I got confident after beating Lundquist and then I beat Gene Scott easily. Gene was good on grass and had beaten me several times before. Then I beat Pietrangeli, who was the last European left. He wasn’t at his peak but he was still damned good. And then I lost to Cliff Drysdale.”

What happened? “That was the stupidest match I played,” responds Fox. “I was totally confident going in. I thought for sure I was going to beat Drysdale. I didn’t think Cliff was that good. He didn’t have a big serve but he had that two-handed backhand, which I didn’t understand well enough. It was a hot day and we split the first two sets. I was spinning my second serve into Cliff’s backhand and he had a hell of a return off the backhand. My theory was that I could do that because I could dig out anything on the volley. I was serving for the third set and had at least three set points. On one of them he had pushed me away from the net and we traded ground strokes, but then I came in on an inside out sliced backhand and I couldn’t believe the forehand passing shot he made down the line. The forehand was his weaker side. He broke me but then I had him down 0-40 in the next game but he weaseled out of it and outplayed me.  At 5-6 he broke me again for the set. I broke right away in the fourth and served for it at 5-4, but he stiffened up and got really tough to break me again. He won that set 7-5 to close out the match. If I had been smarter and served to his forehand on the second serve it might have made a difference.”

Shifting to his 1961 NCAA Championships title run, Fox explains, “It was one of those tournaments where I was never nervous in the slightest. I was seeded first and there were three players in the tournament I was afraid could beat me: Rafe Osuna, Larry Nagler and Ramsey Earnhardt. I didn’t end up playing any of them, which is why I wasn’t nervous at all. I played Ray Senkowski in the final. I had lost two dual matches in my whole college career—one to Chuck McKinley and the other to Osuna. When I played the NCAA’s I was never close to losing a set to any of my opponents. But I remember before the final my coach JD Morgan was worried because the whole team title relied on me winning the final against Senkowski. There was no separate Team Championship back then. We were tied with USC so JD was really nervous. He was worried about what I was eating and I remember telling him to relax. I told him Senkowski had no chance whatsoever. He had the perfect game for me to play against and I won easily.”

Be that as it may, Fox had to figure out game plans that would work beyond the confines of the court. During his undergraduate years at UCLA, Fox had believed he wanted to be a physicist. As a boy he had wanted to be an astronaut.  But he found the field of physics to be more arduous than he had anticipated. His average as an undergraduate was only slightly higher than a B. He decided physics was simply too difficult for him to pursue in graduate school. And so, he says, “I wanted to get a doctorate anyway in some science so I picked psychology, just randomly. I wasn’t terribly interested but I just picked psychology because I thought it was easy. They let me into the Grad School in psychology. Psychology at UCLA was trying to become a more rigorous, more disciplined science so they wanted people with big math backgrounds or physics backgrounds and that is why they let me in. Psychology is inherently easier than physics. At the same time, my basic interest was tennis and I liked playing tennis and liked the tournaments. I was just sort of grinding through psychology because I could, and I wanted to get my doctorate, so that was it.”

That accident of fate was a turning point in the life of Dr. Allen Fox. At the time he had a “vague” notion that he might teach psychology. But he could not get the kind of job he wanted as a teacher in psychology, at either UCLA or USC, and he did not want to settle for a weaker school. Fox landed in the investment world of the stock market. “That is where all the money was being made,” he recalls of that move in 1969. “A lot of tennis players were stock brokers. And I figured I knew a lot of wealthy people in LA so I could sell stock and play tennis and become friendly with the people with money.”

Fox remained in the financial arena, and eventually did some other ventures like building apartment buildings and starting a cattle company. But in 1975 he went into a partnership with Charlie Pasarell and they put together eight player tennis events in eight different American cities, attracting players like Emerson, Stolle, Bob Lutz, Smith, Roscoe Tanner, Rod Laver and Vijay Amritraj. “I worked out a format,” recollects Fox, “that was somewhat clever where we had these eight man deals that I conceptualized differently. I thought tournaments had been conceived of improperly with the object being to see who is going to win the event. As a promoter my object was entertainment so to me the idea of having thirty or forty matches played off where guys are getting eliminated on some back court was uneconomic. Why would I want to eliminate my talent? With these eight player fields, I worked out a format where we played two matches each session, starting on a Thursday afternoon, with afternoon and evening sessions. We played all of the matches on the Stadium. I wanted to get the best bang for our buck. Naturally the ATP didn’t like it but we weren’t doing it within the confines of the ATP so it didn’t matter. But we lost money on all of the events. We started too late and didn’t have sponsors. We didn’t have time to promote it strongly. I understood the business so I tried to get an overall sponsor and couldn’t get one in a reasonable time. So I decided I was not going to do it again without a circuit sponsor, and that was that.”

Within a few years, Fox was stationed at Pepperdine. When he started, “They had no tennis reputation at Pepperdine but some pretty good players. It was a good thing for them and for me. Within a year of the time I started in 1977, we were ranked I think seventh in the country with the same players. From there I started recruiting and liked it. The coaching was quite a learning experience for me. I worked hard and we got some good players and I didn’t like losing. We did well, but we were always under-gunned against UCLA or USC or Stanford in terms of the best Americans.”

One of his prized players at Pepperdine was none other than Brad Gilbert, who remains a stalwart supporter to this day. As Fox reflects, “Brad had a funny career in college. He had been kicked off the team at Arizona State and didn’t get along with the coach there. He spent two years in junior college with a great man named Tom Chivington as his coach. Brad is a different kind of cat. By the time he came to Pepperdine, Chivington had straightened him out a lot. Brad wasn’t recruited by the other schools because they were a little afraid of him. We had a team meeting and the guys thought he had a shaky reputation but knew he was a good player so the feeling was to bring him on. It turned out Brad was a great guy and a great team guy. He had a heart of gold and he is loyal to an extent that is very unusual. I think I did do some positive things for him, like teaching him how to volley. He thinks very similarly to the way I do and I found him very easy to coach. Some guys are uptight when you are coaching them on the court but Brad was the easiest that way. He would always tell me to give him whatever advice I had and promised not to blame me if it didn’t work. He was totally lucid, the most lucid guy I ever saw at the changeovers.”

Fox did much to shape the thinking and playing capabilities of others as well, including Marty Laurendeau, the current captain of the Canadian Davis Cup team. “Marty was a walk on at Pepperdine,” says Fox. “He was not good enough to get a scholarship and not a great junior player. But I taught him the forehand and the volley from scratch and worked on tactics and the mental side of the game and he ended up reaching the round of 16 at the U.S. Open.”

Looking back on those salad days as a coach at Pepperdine, Fox admits, “I didn’t realize at first how much of coaching was dealing with the psychology stuff. I felt I was very good technically on the game and I basically taught myself to play, taught myself to volley and how to do everything. I believed I was very shrewd about it so I thought I could teach my players at Pepperdine how to play. But I didn’t realize 85% of it is the psychological stuff. First you have to get control of them and get control of the emotions, get them to listen to you. That is not an easy task. At first I thought they would just automatically listen to me because I was a better player than they were, but that isn’t the case. You end up dealing with the emotional issues. I was good at that but didn’t realize how important that was. I didn’t realize my psychology was more important than my tennis background. That was the first upside down thing I learned. And then I saw that the greatest task of any coach is to control the players. That is your No. 1 objective and it is almost like parenting. Who makes the decisions: you as the parent, or your kids?”

By 1995 when he decided to leave a post he had handled with aplomb, Fox realized he had lost some of his desire to maintain that essential control of his squad—at least to the extent that he had once done so masterfully. As he puts it, “I was still legitimately a good teacher but wasn’t in it deeply enough anymore to have the moral strength to come down on people the way I should have. I wasn’t controlling the team the way I once had. I had just lost that edge as a coach at the end and that was why I stopped.”

Since then, Fox has created a good business in consulting with tennis players and coaching. He has enjoyed his association with Kunitsyn. It is a great tribute to the enduring tactical acuity of Fox that at 71 he remains young, highly relevant, and sought after by men playing tennis for a living who are in their twenties. He has moved ably with the times, sensing trends, recognizing changes in technique and playing methodology, still learning no matter how much knowledge he has stored inside his considerable brain.

“I have coached Igor for three years,” says Fox. “We talk mainly on the phone about the game and psychology. I started off with him on the psychology but then he split with his coach at the time so I started to coach him. He was a baseliner who had stagnated around 120 in the world so it was getting discouraging for him. He was 26 going on 27 at the time. So he asked me for help on his volley and I got to know him better and could see that to move inside the top 100 he needed to have some serious offense of some sort. You have to be able to put the ball away to break inside the top 100 and climb higher. He was hitting the ball as hard as he could but couldn’t put the ball away so he needed a better transition game to use his speed to go forward. He moved up from about 120 and eventually got to 35 after he won the tournament in Moscow over Safin in 2008, finishing that year at No. 44. The model I used for Igor was Santoro, whose game relied so much on that transitioning to the net.”

And so we had covered all of the ground, and gone through every stage of Fox’s extraordinary life. Now it was time to get his take on his new book, to find out about his impetus for writing “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.” He quickly clarified, “All of the consulting I have done the last ten years has given me a great overview of the issues as to what is happening on the court. I understood the game up to a certain point but I didn’t have it as deeply as I do now. The depth is different, and this book reflects a different depth and leads to some conclusions by looking at the problems players face more broadly. When I look at it more broadly, in essence I conclude that the issues are emotional issues. Counterproductive emotions in a tennis match are what do people in… The levels of stress out there on the court are high. Prolonged stress is something we are programmed to try to avoid. It is not healthy. So players try to avoid stress in various ways that are not productive….. Evolved emotions are telling us to do things. They drive the logic, and the logic then comes up with ways to satisfy the emotions, and one of those ways is to reduce the stress in a long tennis match. People are just not aware that their logic system is being warped by urges to escape stress.”

Fox’s new book is supremely well organized, composed of 14 well lit chapters, including “Reducing Stress”, “Why We want to Win”, “The Problems of Finishing”, and “Maintaining Mental Effectiveness in the Heat of Battle”. One particularly compelling chapter—at least the way I see it—is “The Value of Optimism”. In that chapter, Fox writes, “Happiness and optimism are first cousins. Happy people are not always optimistic, and vice versa, but they are certainly related, and happy people are more likely to be optimists.” He highly recommends that players walk on court with immense gratitude that they are able to play tennis because maybe one day that will not be the case.

In any case, I asked Fox in our interview if he felt that the chapter on choking (“Choking—Its Causes and How to Minimize Its Effects”) is the most crucial one in the book. Unhesitatingly, he replied, “Yes, because choking is the hardest one to fix. You can’t fix it. It is one of those problems that is impossible to solve so you are going to deal with it always. You can get to the point where you don’t get angry. You can get to the point where you don’t tank. But you don’t get to the point where you don’t get nervous and choke. That doesn’t happen. Choking is more complicated than a lot of the other problems players face. Choking creeps up on you. So I believe it is a crucial chapter in my book because it happens to everybody at all levels of the game, and it never goes away. That is why choking is the most important chapter I wrote.”

Fox elaborates, “For those who take the game seriously, choking is such a disgraceful way in their mind to lose a match. It hurts more than losing any other way. When you are up and you have a chance to win and then you choke, that is really devastating. It ruins your day. To this day, it ruins my day. When I lost matches and had match points, I didn’t want to show my face anywhere. So in the book I am trying to get to players and take some of the pain out of the loss, to help them get through the choking so it doesn’t devastate them so much, and they can then shoulder on and they don’t have to feel like losers. When you have faltered and your apparent weakness of some sort was your undoing, that is very painful. I deal with that in depth in the book.”

As we concluded our conversation, Fox spoke candidly and forthrightly about his view of the book, and what he was trying to achieve with it. “This will be my last book on tennis psychology. It has gone as far as I believe one can go, and at least as far as I can go. I think it will last because there is truth in it. The essence of it is laid out and I don’t think the human brain is going to change. I put together everything I know from everything I have learned. If I hadn’t had been a player I could not have done this, even if I lived to 100. It was painful to write. There is not one sentence in the book that I did not have to write four times over. There is blood in between those lines, and it is mine. It is a painful process, but I am proud of the book and I think it will be useful to tennis players as long as there are tennis players.”

I can attest to everything Fox alluded to in the previous paragraph. “ Tennis: Winning The Mental Match” is a unique piece of work, a book that could only have been conceived and executed by one man, and a gift for anyone who wants to gain a larger understanding of why tennis is simultaneously an exhilarating and exasperating experience for those who play it. I always knew that Allen Fox was one of the authentic masterminds of our tennis universe, but this book has reinforced for me why I have always held him in the highest regard.

To purchase Allen Fox's book " Tennis: Winning The Mental Match" visit allenfoxtennis.net.


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