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Coaching Tips - Mental

Say something positive!

People say I self-destruct. What can I do about it?

We're all inclined to reproach ourselves more readily than we praise ourselves. But how can we avoid self-reproach turning into self-destruction?

Missing a sitter can be frustrating and painful, but . . . come on, you're just human!

Self-reproach can be helpful if you have become lazy and unmotivated. Maybe a sharp reminder to move your feet or watch the ball might snap you back into a focused state of mind, but guard against overdoing it - your opponent might enjoy the spectacle of you berating yourself!

Say something positive when you win points, even if you win them "ugly"! The word "yes" will do! A simple exhortation such as "come on!" is also simple and very effective. Try it! If you feel uncomfortable yelling "Yes!! Come on!!!", don't yell it, just say it to yourself.

Final tip - read Brad Gilbert's book, 'Winning Ugly'.

Final final tip - don't invest all your self-esteem in your tennis!

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Forget McEnroe - play it cool!

How can I stop my bad temperament hurting my game?

Sorry, but I won't mince my words here. If you've got a problem with your temper and you want to improve your tennis, improve your temper! You can do it!

No question about it - losing control on the tennis court is BAD news. Really, really BAD news! I'm not kidding. No use telling me that it didn't do McEnroe any harm. McEnroe knew what he was doing. Sure, he used to get angry, but he didn't lose control. In fact, he used his anger to alter the ambience of a match when he didn't have the momentum going for him. Matches develop a certain psychology and McEnroe was able to alter that psychology by the use of disruptive tactics or by channeling his anger to motivate himself. It was unsporting and all the rest of it, but, consciously or subconsciously, he knew what he was doing. As for the rest of us, forget it - losing our temper is going to lose us the match!

Improving temperament is a big subject. It's one I can easily warm to. Nearly all players have failed to control their temper at times (myself included!). Here are some of the things that have helped me. I hope they work for you too!

Learn to recognise the triggers. Maybe the flashpoint is a one-off trigger like a bad line call. Maybe it's a build-up of frustration caused by minor triggers (repeatedly netting your backhand, for example). If you can recognise them, then do something about them! If it's an unforced error, try something different - compromise on the shot perhaps (just get it back in play). If it's a bad line call, have a routine ready to fall into - ask "are you sure?", straighten your strings, walk to the back of the court, resolve to work a bit harder to make your opponent suffer for it! That last bit of advice is one way you can channel your anger positively.

Rituals can be an excellent safety valve! Some players play with their strings. Some, like Andre Agassi and Greg Rusedski, towel down to calm down. Find a ritual that works for you.

Don't kid yourself - losing your temper is definitely detrimental to your game. But don't shrug your shoulders and say it's just the way you are - you can do something about it. I've been learning this myself. Just be cool and express yourself through your tennis. Good luck!

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You're always a winner if you give 100%!

I keep losing. How do you cope with a bad run of results?

"If you are going through hell, keep going." (Winston Churchill)

Yes, I know exactly how you feel. Sometimes it's really tough to keep a positive attitude when you're on a losing streak. It's easy to get discouraged or maybe play the fool to distract from the misery of your plight.

So what do you do in these circumstances? Well, I think a losing streak is an excellent opportunity to re-evaluate your game and your attitude to it.

It may help for a while to switch all your emphasis to effort, to working hard. If you can come off court genuinely convinced you gave 100%, then according to this criterion you're no loser, regardless of the score! You need to derive some benefit from playing and this should do it!

After a while, you'll feel better about yourself and able to approach things more constructively. Remember, nobody learns much from winning, but losing certainly focuses the mind. Take stock of exactly what you're doing well and what you need to improve, establish this as a baseline against which you evaluate your next matches and chart your progress.

If this doesn't work, you may have to drop a level and pick up some confidence that way. Andre Agassi did this successfully at one point in his career, so you're in good company. Besides, the more you lose, the more you appreciate winning!

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Abandon all hope!

How do you play the big points?

"Do, or do not. There is no 'try'." (Yoda in the film 'The Empire Strikes Back')

The tennis scoring system dictates that certain points are more important than others. It's a player's attitude to these points that determines the outcome in so many matches, and this particularly applies to close matches.

When a big point arrives, recreational players are inclined to hope that they win it (or they hope that the opponent loses it!). Well, they say hope burns eternal, but it'll burn a hole in your ambitions if you're serious about competing.

Instead of just hoping, you've got to make something happen on the big points. You could resolve to attack and go after the point. Or you could resolve to guts it out and just stay in the point longer than your opponent. Either way, you've got to be positive and have a clear objective.

If you're unsure whether to be aggressive or tenacious, make up your mind before the point starts. You might have to change tack during the rally, but you must have an initial mindset.

Your decision might depend on whether you're serving or receiving. If you're serving, you can resolve to get the serve in and keep applying pressure on your opponent by making him move. If you're receiving, perhaps you should resolve to get the ball back and give nothing away.

I hope you succeed. Cancel that! MAKE SURE you succeed!

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Stay out of the red for a smooth ride!

The harder I try the worse I get. How come?

I'm indebted to my son, Mark, for this tip:

The main use of a rev counter in your car is to tell you when it's time to change gear. If it's going into the red and you don't change gear, you may blow up your engine (or fly off the road or get arrested!).

Use an imaginary rev counter when you play tennis. Use it to measure your intensity level. When you're playing a match that is really important to you, whether it be in the first round of the club mixed-doubles tournament or the final of a satellite event, it's very easy to try TOO hard. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but all too often inexperienced players try so hard out there on the court that their weapons become liabilities, as they strive for more pace and go closer to the lines. And what do most players do to solve this problem? They try harder!!

Managing your intensity level can be a very important factor. Some players find it difficult to get "pumped up" and need an intensity boost. Others get so intense, they virtually self-destruct. Just like driving a sports car with the rev counter in the red, they're gambling.

On the tennis court there are so many different factors that can tip you one way or the other. A suitably high level of intensity can take you closer to optimum performance, but playing in the red is very risky. Lowering your intensity level too much and being laid-back is not the answer, however. For one thing, you can't perform if you don't care! In the words of Andre Agassiís coach Brad Gilbert, "if you donít really care about winning or losing, then donít keep score. It must be a sorry son-of-gun who doesnít feel any different with a victory than defeat."

Tennis is becoming such a physically and mentally demanding sport and it's vital that you're sharp and intense if you want to succeed.

So watch that rev counter and drive as close as you can to the red but donít trash your engine!

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Tennis players do nothing 80% of the time!

When the top pros talk about focusing well, what do they mean?

Statistics often show that, during a match, the ball is in play for just 20% of the time. Let's call that time "uptime".

The remaining 80% of the time is spent doing other stuff, like walking, sitting, standing around, bouncing the ball, adjusting strings, collecting balls, and so on. Let's call it "downtime".

When you're in uptime, you need to be totally absorbed in the dynamics of playing the rally. It's not the time to think about train times or what to have for dinner. More relevantly, it's not the time to indulge in excitement or anxiety about the implications of winning or losing the point.

Players can sometimes sustain that total absorption for long periods. They can keep it going through downtime as well as uptime. You'll hear them refer to it as being "in the zone". However, we usually have to settle for switching in and out, i.e. focusing narrowly on the ball and the relevant periphery during uptime, and then relaxing the concentration during downtime. It's a difficult technique and requires lots of practice. Actually, what it really requires is lots of matchplay, because the mind wanders out of focus much more seriously when we're under pressure - when we get excited about winning, when we get anxious about losing. Emotions such as excitement and anxiety should be kept well under control during downtime as well as uptime.

So what should you think about during downtime? Well, use it to evaluate and adjust tactics. For example, you might say to yourself: 'His backhand's breaking down - I must target it on the big points'. Use it also to remind yourself of something you might improve technically. For example, you might say to yourself: 'I must split-step when I move in to volley'.

As uptime approaches, you must narrow your focus. A useful technique for achieving this is visualisation, whereby you play an image in your mind of what you want to happen, i.e. imagine your serve or your return going where you want it to.

To simplify things, you might approach it like this:

downtime: work out what to do
uptime: in the words of the famous Nike slogan - 'Just do it!'

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Talk the talk, walk the walk

What should I look for in my opponent's body language?

Everybody's talking at me
I can't hear a word they're saying
Only the echoes of my mind
(Song by Fred Neil)

Players express themselves by means of bodily gestures, postures, and facial expressions. It's fascinating to watch, but actually understanding the language can be a frustratingly inexact science.

I'm not sure you should draw too much encouragement from your opponent's body language. It's too easy to misinterpret the signals and it's too easy to react inappropriately. If, for example, your opponent slumps his shoulders and gazes around in all directions, you might interpret this as a sign that he has become disinterested and passive and you might go for the kill inappropriately early in the rally. Anyway, if you get into the habit of reacting positively to an opponent's poor body language, you're probably going to react negatively when his body language is confident and aggressive.

It's probaby more useful to use your observations of body language to try and predict certain shots. Your opponent may set his shoulders a certain way when he's going to rip a backhand down the line. He may position himself wider to attempt a slice serve or arch his back more to apply topspin. These are cues that allow you to anticipate what's coming and plan your response.

I find it helps to assume my opponent is nervous whatever his body language suggests. If he looks nervous, he's nervous. If he looks confident, no problem - he's putting on an act - he's nervous. If he's 5-1 up, he's going to get nervous closing out the set. If it's 5-5, he's going to be nervous about all the big points coming up. If he's 5-1 down, I don't care if he's nervous or not!

But the really important thing about body language in tennis is to speak it well yourself. Good body language is like wearing nice clothes - it makes you feel good! Dress well, move well, look good, feel good!

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Don't say "don't"!

On big points, I tell myself not to double-fault. Then I always do! How can I cure this?

Happens to all of us. Usually on big points. You miss your first serve, prepare for your second serve and try to conquer your self-doubt by inwardly muttering "Don't double-fault!". And, of course, that's exactly what you do. It doesn't just apply to serves either.

Here's a simple experiment for you. Try not to think about playing a rally with a cube-shaped tennis ball. No, DON'T think about it! Difficult, isn't it? For some reason, the brain finds it difficult to process the "DON'T" part of the instruction which then becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fortunately, you can overcome this by training yourself to talk and think in positives instead of negatives. Keep self-doubt at bay with a positive thought. Just say to yourself: "This serve is going IN!" or "I really love my second serve!". Decide where to direct it (forehand/backhand/body), visualise it and do it.

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Pull over to the side of the court! Your engine's smoking!

My intensity level goes up and down when I play. How can I control it?

If you have a car, you may (or may not) know that the spark plugs transmit electrical energy required to ignite the air/fuel mixture. Too cold a plug causes loss of power and poor throttling. Too hot a plug also causes loss of power and poor throttling, but can also cause pre-ignition and detonation. The temperature has to be right.

And so it is with competitive sport. Every player has an optimal state of intensity (mental and emotional temperature) at which they perform best. Unfortunately, human sensibility does not enjoy the engineered reliability of a modern motor car and temperature fluctuations are commonplace.

Overheating can occur at peak pressure moments and, as with a car, can result in detonation in the form of temper outbursts and even self-destruction ("tanking"). It can also result in poor throttling in the form of tentative shots ("choking").

Dips in temperature can occur for all kinds of reasons. They often appear when the outcome of a match appears to be assured one way or another, i.e. because one of the players is winning easily. Loss of intensity can jeopardise the efforts of the player who's leading just as much as the one who's fallen behind.

To be a successful competitor, you have to learn how to maintain your optimal level of intensity.

When you're under pressure, this means eliminating anxiety and replacing it with positive thoughts and positive feelings. It means relishing the challenge and staying focused. It means saying to yourself: "Watch the ball!" or "Let's get these feet moving!" or whatever gets your mind focused on the 'here and now'. Above all, it means approaching the situation as a challenge and an opportunity.

Getting into the 'here and now' is equally important when you experience a dip in intensity. The old adage of playing "one point at a time" applies. Say to yourself: "This point! Just this point!" You should also try to trigger a greater emotional intensity, not by launching into a tirade against the umpire a la John McEnroe, but by using positive language such as Lleyton Hewitt's "Come on!" or by using positive body language such as pumping your fist.

Develop some triggers that will spark your performance when you need it, but also learn to recognise the symptoms of overheating - they vary from player to player - and think something neutral and practical like "Get the return back deep!" or "Serve to the body!"

It may even help to remember this motor car analogy when you're playing your matches. Learn how and when to accelerate and how and when to brake. Get that engine purring and you'll soon be on the road to success.

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Grow taller inside!

I never win if I lose the first set. How do you turn a match around?

When you go behind in a match, it's time to remind yourself that the scoring system allows the losing player plenty of opportunity to reverse the trend. If you become negative about your prospects, you can easily get caught up in a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Many people will tell you that being mentally tough is about being able to play each point completely unaffected by what's gone before. Sorry, but I don't buy that. Obviously, you don't want to play a point when you're emotionally out of control. But to play without emotion is not only difficult, it's a waste of a valuable resource. When your intensity level has dropped and you start playing over-casually, for example, it's very useful to get a bit angry with yourself and introduce a bit of urgency.

You need to react to the experience of past points, you need to respond promptly to fresh challenges and you need to be able to change your perception of the match to ensure you recognise key moments. You can possibly do all this while remaining emotionally neutral, but it's like driving a car that's stuck in one gear. If your emotional perception of the match doesn't change, it's a pretty safe bet that your intensity level won't either. It's no good waiting for your opponent to go off the boil. You need to get the momentum of the match to change - NOW!

I'm not advocating a John McEnroe approach to tennis. What I'm saying is your emotions can help you fine-tune your performance and can help you change the momentum of a match. And you can (and must!) do it without straying outside the laws and spirit of the game, and you can (and must!) do it without losing your self-control.

The third set of a best-of-three-sets match is generally regarded as the deciding one. But if you've just lost the opening set, you need to change your perception - you need to recognise that you're in a deciding set NOW (because if you lose this one, you're out!). But don't let that frighten you. Expect to succeed. There's a great chance that you could catch your opponent napping as he congratulates himself on winning the first set. Now's the time to start sending out the right signals. Now's the time to grow taller inside, turn the other cheek and show your opponent that you're undaunted.

Obviously, you need to do more than change your emotional perception of the match. You also need to re-evaluate the challenge in rational terms. That means working out how your opponent has been hurting you and how you've been hurting him. Make the adjustments to your game plan accordingly. Even if you only come up with one simple thing, you'll learn to enjoy the process - it makes competing more fun.

Develop a good work ethic. Most sports reward competitors who work harder than more talented ones, and tennis is no exception. I strongly recommend you try to emulate the kind of tenaciousness demonstrated by Lleyton Hewitt. Having a quality like that underpinning your game will help you beat people who are technically superior to you. Why? Because everyone produces their best tennis when they believe they deserve to win. If you work harder than your opponent, don't you deserve to win?

Tackle adversity in your matches by responding positively to the challenge. Do it emotionally by growing taller inside. Do it rationally by adjusting your game plan. If you still can't reverse the trend, pump your fist and work harder!

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Stumbling blocks and stepping stones

I want to be a champion, but am I setting my sights unrealistically high?

Fortunately, you don't have to win a grand slam to be a tennis achiever. You can win a competition at any level and call yourself a champion. Success is relative. It depends on your perspective. And you pretty much set the bar yourself. Set it too high and you'll risk disillusionment. Too low and you'll underachieve.

I would commend the sentiment expressed in this extract from a poem written by 19th century poet R. L. Sharpe:

    To each is given a bag of tools,
    A shapeless mass and a book of rules;
    And each must make, ere life is flown,
    A stumbling block, or a stepping stone.

Keep these words with you on your journey through tennis and bear in mind that you can acquire additional tools as you go along. Doubts and idleness are the stumbling blocks that prevent the fulfilment of most ambitions. The old adage applies: if you expect to fail, you will.

Create your stepping stones by setting challenging, realistic short-term goals. Construct an appropriate tournament plan and evaluate your performances by reference to your goals, not necessarily by reference to your results. If you've got a coach, involve him or her in the process. Push the envelope by training as hard as you can, but train smart. Training smart means making sure you enjoy what you're doing and don't risk injury.

Make sure your short-term goals are focused on providing you with precisely the tools you need to shape your longer-term progress. That way, you can continue to aim higher while keeping your feet on the ground!

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When the going gets easy, the tough get bored!

What's the secret to closing out matches?

It may sound strange but putting yourself in a winning situation can make you more vulnerable. You may start feeling too comfortable and less competitive when you win the first set or take a big lead in a set. That's understandable - but dangerous! Dropping your guard can result in a momentum switch.

Another vulnerability can arise when the winning post gets close. Nerves come into play, causing you to freeze or 'choke' on the brink of victory.

The best way to avoid losing a lead is to learn from the experience. The same goes for choking. Once you've been there and can recognise the dangers, you can start coming up with strategies to deal with them. That's why your most important lessons are your losses.

When you find yourself in a situation where you've lapsed into over-confidence in the past, such as winning the first set - recognise the danger, sharpen up your mind and get mean! Don't let your opponent get a sniff of a chance! Just remind yourself: when the going gets easy, the tough get bored - don't let it happen!

Choking is more difficult to anticipate. Sometimes it happens to you, sometimes it doesn't. When it does, try to recognise it as soon as possible. Are you praying your opponent will miss shots? Are you trying to play more carefully because you don't want to mess up? Are you anxious about your opponent because suddenly it looks like he's really up for it? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes", don't panic! It's perfectly normal to encounter these feelings. You're not chicken. You're not a failure. You're just human. Don't fight it - it may only make things worse. Smile! Yes, go on, smile! Think of a favourite saying or try putting a favourite tune in your head before you start the next point. Then switch off the tune, focus on your breathing, switch yourself into the present and get on with the job.

Try different methods of getting yourself into a positive frame of mind until you find one that does it for you. And when you find it, bottle it and keep it with you! You'll need it again.

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Keep to windward!

What can I do about big match nerves?

Feeling nervous before an important match is perfectly normal. You're in good company. The 2004 French Open singles finalists - Guillermo Coria, Gaston Gaudio, Elena Dementieva and Anastasia Myskina - were all quite clearly gripped by nerves and all consequently performed below their best at some point or other. Myskina acknowledged that some pre-match advice from her physiotherapist had helped her and she probably coped best out of the four.

What happens is that your brain gives your body the order to beat to quarters - you're about to go to battle - you feel shaky, nauseous, your heart rate goes up, your hands get clammy and your mouth gets dry. These are just symptoms caused by the release of adrenaline into your bloodstream. Donít fight it, loosen up and use it! You're going to need the energy it provides.

Perhaps one of the most damaging consequences of nervous tension is its effect on your appetite. You don't feel like eating. And if you force yourself to eat, your stomach gets upset because nervous tension increases the production of stomach acid. The trouble is, your body is going to need the fuel, so get some bland, easily-disgestible food down you - maybe some oatmeal or a banana or a carbohydrate drink. Don't over-eat and don't eat too close to your match, but don't starve yourself either.

Before the match, find somewhere quiet, close your eyes lightly and take some slow, deep breaths and feel the tension leave your body as you exhale. If you can't find somewhere quiet, stick on some headphones, so people will think you're just listening to music. Don't think about winning or losing. Remind yourself of your tactics and visualise some of the shots you intend to use.

If you were the captain of a sailing ship in battle, you'd lose maneuverability if you didn't keep the wind in your sails. So it is with playing tennis. If you start feeling nervous during the match itself, focus once again on your breathing. Keep it slow and deep. Breathe only through your nose for a while. Relaxing through deep breathing in this way should slow down your heart rate. Just set about playing your game as effectively as you can, one point at a time.

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If music be the food of successful tennis, play on!

How can I get into the right mood to play matches?

Have you noticed that you don't find jukeboxes in pubs any more? The days of being able to control the ambience while you sip your beer and pop some nuts have long gone. Even the staff aren't allowed to choose the music any more. They're probably playing specially encoded CDs. Ever since the pioneering days of Muzak in the 70s and 80s, retailers have used background music in more and more sophisticated ways to subliminally alter the behaviour of consumers.

Remember when Muzak was piped into factories to dictate the workrate? Sinister stuff. But it works. Music modifies behaviour at an involuntary level. The big retailers know it and exploit it for all its worth.

So why not use this technique to alter your state of mind before a tennis match? Make a tape (or burn a CD) containing half a dozen pieces of music that get you feeling the way you want to feel before a match. Maybe you want to feel happy and relaxed or maybe you want feel pumped up and confident - you decide. Ten minutes before you play, just stick on your headphones (or is it ear buds these days?) and trigger exactly the state of mind you need to produce your best performance!

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Wake up, the tortoise is coming!

How can I avoid lapses when I'm in front?

The sort of lapse you describe is very common. It's a loss of concentration or motivation that may be caused by complacency. Remember Aesop's fable about the race between the hare and the tortoise? The hare got off to a flying start, but became complacent near the finishing line and took a rest. Meanwhile, the tortoise plodded along, overtook the dozing hare and won the race. Sometimes, complacency sneaks up on us and control gets passed from our conscious to our subconscious mind. It's similar to when you're walking or, more worryingly, driving your car and you suddenly catch yourself and realise your autopilot had kicked in and you have no recollection of what you did or saw for a while.

Sometimes these lapses occur as the mind absorbs itself in speculation - "what if I lose this set?", "what if he breaks my serve?", "I wonder if I'll play Joe in the next round", "what will Mary think if I lose this?". Don't let your mind wander off into the future. Stay in the here and now.

You need to identify when you become susceptible to concentration lapses. At those times, e.g. after winning a set or taking a comfortable lead, you must re-focus, remind yourself that you've not won the match. Re-motivate yourself. Tell yourself to win THIS point, win THIS game. Remind yourself of a tactic that's been working for you and focus on executing it well. Pay attention to your opponent - what's his reaction to falling behind? Listen for that plodding sound!

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Never, never, never give up!

I'm keen but I'll never be better than average. Should I give up the tennis lessons?

This may be a rather oblique way to answer your question, but I hope it helps anyway.

Martin Luther King once said: "If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say: 'Here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well'". At first, that may sound like a blueprint for underachievement and reinforcing the status quo, but it's not. You do not underachieve if you strive to make the best of what you have. We may not all be blazing trails like Roger Federer or Serena Williams but we don't have to be stuck in a rut.

I've always been impressed with King's philosophy. It may sound trite. It may come over as preachy, homespun wisdom, but you should endeavour to hang in and do your best at all times at whatever you do. Don't let what you can't do get in the way of what you can do. Set yourself realistic, achievable goals and don't lose sight of them. You will then succeed or fail on your own terms. Think it, believe it, achieve it!

Be prepared to set bigger goals if the opportunity presents itself. It's a scaleable philosophy. It applies equally to the broadest ambitions and the nitty-gritty of particular game situations. A positive mindset is the only requirement. Mario Ancic illustrated this recently at the Hamburg Masters. The Croat was trailing by a set and 4-1 in his quarter-final encounter with Nikolay Davydenko. Undeterred, he went over to his coach and asked for a couple of rackets to be restrung! It was a great demonstration of his positive and resolute approach to playing tennis. You doubtless want to know whether he went on to win or lose the match, but the outcome isn't really the point. Truly, it's not the point!

Okay, okay. For the record, Ancic went on to win in three sets.

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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