Tennis Week Article

The Comeback Kid
by Anne Smith Ph.D.

At age 46, with 10 Grand Slam championships on my resume, I am making a comeback to professional tennis. Why? Why now? My passion and love for the game are still there; and I do not want to look back ever and ask myself why I didn’t try.

Believe me, I do not like to lose. But the greatest loss of all is not trying. People have asked me, “Why don’t you just play doubles?” That’s what I am noted for, since I have won more than 30 WTA Tour doubles titles. Playing singles is a challenge and also helps my doubles game. Besides, my highest singles ranking was No. 12 in the world. This time, however, I am doing it differently. I have given up the idea that I have to be perfect. I now spend my time enjoying the game. Focusing on mistakes and what I’m not doing well reinforces and creates more mistakes. It becomes a vicious cycle. Focusing on what I am doing well helps create a winning mind-set and enhances my performance. It is also much more fun.

The game has changed significantly since I last played competitively in 1991. There is more of an emphasis on power, although Monica Seles, for example, could hit the ball as hard as any of the current players. But the game is so much more than hitting the ball. It’s also about the mental aspects. This is where I use what I learned studying for my Ph. D. in educational psychology and then put into practice as a school psychologist working with parents, teachers, and children. Players work on the physical part of the game, but rarely on the mental part. Most do not even realize that it is possible. As I have said to some of the players, “It’s just like practicing a backhand down the line.” Mental toughness can easily be learned.

When I first started out, I thought I could go in and win matches. I found out that that was not going to happen. I had been out of the game for 14 years, and there is no substitute for match play. Most of these young players had been playing on the USTA/ITF tour for several years and were match tough. So I went from focusing on winning matches to winning points. This change brought back thoughts and feelings form when I was on the tour. It made me realize that everything I had back then to make me a champion was still inside of me; I just needed to give it time to come out. There are no short cuts. So, eventually, I started winning points, then games, then sets, then matches and then a tournament.

There were times in the beginning, when I was losing badly in singles, that I was having second thoughts about my comeback. I decided to just keep working on my game, trying to improve every time I stepped on the court, and focusing on the love of the game rather than on winning and losing. I started having more fun and my game improved. Something else that kept me going was the player and fun reaction to me. The fans at all the circuit stops have been great. They don’t care if I win or lose; they just want to see me play. They say it gives them hope. The tour players have encouraged me to stay by saying, “You only need more match experience.” This made a huge difference for me. In nine tournaments, I have reached the semifinals in doubles four times and won my first doubles title in July in Southlake, Texas, with Tara Snyder.

When I first started on the USTA Pro Circuit in February. I had just resigned from a full-time position as the director of the Learning Center at Dean College in Franklin, Mass. I had not been able to train and practice as much as I had wanted and had no idea what to expect from my game or the other players. At first, I tried to play the “modern game,” hitting the ball hard and staying on the baseline. Then I realized that it was best for me if I played my own game. I have a slice backhand and I can hit off-pace with my forehand, and I discovered that the players didn’t like these shots. They like to hit hard balls that come waist high. So my “retro” game worked well. My game, combined with the tweaking of my court movement and more simplified training, has really helped my play come together. And women 20 years my junior were not only welcoming, they even wanted to hit and play doubles with me.

Having a supportive and empowering coach has also made a significant difference in my game and desire to play again at the professional level. Bev Raws has a style of coaching that has helped make the game fun for me. Together, we have developed a program based on the things that have helped me. Together, we have developed a program based on the things that have helped me in my comeback and that we use at the Boston Athletic Club when we work with junior players, adult club players and tour players. This program is based on empowering coaching and creates a winning mind-set and environment. It involves a combination of technique, martial arts, psychology, metaphysics and “cueing.” The same concepts that have helped me can be applied to any level of player. We have had great results and the concepts are simple and easy to teach.

I have committed to playing at least two more years on the women’s professional circuit. I will continue to play both singles and doubles, with my goal being to play on the WTA Tour again. My comeback has done so much for me on both an inner and personal gratification level. As I recently said in an interview, winning 10 Grand Slam tournament titles is incredible; getting a second chance to play the game I love….priceless!

September 27, 2005. Tennis Week, Sight Lines, 15 Elm Place, Rye. NY 10580 or