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Engaging in mind games on the court

Doctor trains players how to prepare mentally

By CHRIS UMPIERRE

No matter how hard he tried, Andy Magnes couldn't control his temper on the tennis court.

Magnes would miss a shot and he'd rattle off so many obscenities that mothers watching nearby sprinted to cover their children's ears.

He'd lose a set and Magnes would take it out on his racket, slamming it down on the pavement over and over.

Magnes, 17, couldn't understand it. He had the talent, his coaches said, to be one of the best junior players in the country but his temper didn't allow him to realize it.

Struggling at a tournament last year, the Short Hills, N.J., native approached Dr. Jorge Valverde, who travels the, world training tennis' best on the mental side of the game.

Using Valverde's "Tennis Mental Preparation Program," Magnes slowly controlled his temper and began to see results. A year later, Magnes - who will compete in this week's Bush Florida Open in Fort Myers - is ranked No. 12 in the eastern United States.

Valverde, who earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Kansas and has worked with pros such as Luke Jensen and Megan Shaughnessy, said physical ability will only take you so far in tennis. As players get older, tennis becomes more and more mental.

"Once you get to a point where everybody has the same physical abilities, the mental side of it becomes a big factor," Valverde said.

"When you get to the pros, it's 99 percent (mental) because everybody has a great" serve: Everybody has the strokes. What's different? The mental preparation."

Magnes feels he's playing with an unfair advantage.

"It's sort of like two, people walking in a tunnel and one person is blindfolded and the other person can see," Magnes said. "Technically, both people can reach the 'end of the tunnel but one person has such an advantage over the other person."

I feel a lot of players are blind when they're on the court. They have no clue about the mental game."

Valverde first became interested in tennis' mental game at Kansas.

Watching the Jayhawk men's And women's tennis teams, Valverde wondered why some players excelled and others didn't when their talent level wasn't considerably different.

For eight years he followed the Jayhawks, interviewing players in the middle of matches. "What were you thinking before you hit that ace?" Valverde asked. "What was going on in your mind when you double-faulted?"

Then he approached Arthur Ashe, one of the best to ever play the game, and Raul Ramirez, who won nine Grand Slam singles titles in the 1970s.

Valverde interviewed Ashe, the only black man to win a Grand Slam tournament, on two occasions for a total of five hours. He grilled the legend on how he mentally prepared for major tournaments.

When he looked at his scribbled ยท notepad, one idea kept recurring. " The way players mentally prepare for matches can mean the difference between victory and defeat, the difference between becoming a star and failing.

Players, Valverde deciphered, must use a precise language in order to condition their mind for success. For instance, they should- n't say, "I'll try to make this serve." They should say, "I'm putting this serve in."

The moment you say 'I am,' it's creating images in your mind," Valverde said. "When you say, 'I'll try,' the mind goes into standby mode with great uncertainty and doubt, creating the wrong kind of images in your mind."

The exercises range from writing tasks that ask students to describe themselves playing their best tennis to listening to CDs that use light and sound to condition the mind.

When students do the latter, they put on sunglasses lined with a lighting system. A calm voice tells the student to close their eyes, relax and put all stresses out of their mind.

The lights then flash, putting students into a state of mind called theta. "In theta, our mind becomes like a sponge," Valverde said.

The voice then trains students on confidence (it's an inside-out process not an outside-in process) and concentration (one can't let outside distractions affect them on the court).

When Liberty Sveke, an elite 16 year-old junior player from Sarasota who will play in the Bush Open, first heard of Valverde's program, she laughed.

"No," Liberty told her mother. "I don't need that."

After being upset at a major tournament, Liberty decided she needed it. A year after starting Valverde's program, she is the No.' 8-ranked 16-year-old in the country.

Liberty said her increased mental acumen is the reason for her success.

"You obviously have. to have some physical base," she said. "But in order to use it, it's all mental. The mental side is what separates the higher-ranked players from those below."

Magnes agrees. He said Valverde's program has changed his life.

Not only is he doing better on the court, he's doing better in the classroom. Magnes, applying Valverde's teachings to school, got straight A's at Newark Academy last semester.

"I have so much faith in the program now that if Jorge said to jump off a bridge and you'll become a better tennis player, I probably would right now," Magnes said. "Because everything he's said, so far, has proven right."

Oh, you remember that temper. Magnes said he hasn't smashed a racket in more than a year.

The only thing he has smashed is his competition.