The Mental Game

Play It Smart

By Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace
Sadly, Mike Wallace passed away on April 7, 2012, at age 93. He had been a tennis player for nearly 80 years of his life. See his "60 Minutes" homage to tennis here.

I've played tennis for more than 70 years, since my early teens growing up in Brookline, Mass. Of course, the game is a wonderfully satisfying form of physical exercise, but as I've gotten older I've found that it can serve to sharpen your wits as well. It has to if you're to survive, for when you're an old guy like me you have to depend on your smarts to get you through matches. I am, I dare say,  a much cannier player now than I was as a raw, inexperienced youth.

"Smarts" in tennis means picking your opponents carefully and then looking for ways to get under the other guy's skin. For instance, when my opponent's just about to serve, I'm not loath, sometimes, to cough out loud. Or I'll call footfaults from across the net, anything to get him a little off-balance.

As a wise philosopher once said: In the absence of other weapons, a little guile will do.

My friends Art Buchwald and Harry Reasoner once produced a film of me making bad line calls. It was hideous but inaccurate, of course. They were simply jealous because I totally dominated the two of them, separately and together.

© Getty Images

Now don't get me wrong: Of course I believe tennis is more fun when you win, but most of all I play for the sheer, satisfying pleasure of this great way to mix friendship and sweat. I find tennis to be the most challenging, invigorating, joyful pastime known to man...or woman.

During the summer months on Martha's Vineyard, there is simply nothing more glorious to look forward to than to bounce out of bed on a bright, sunny day, gulp down a fast breakfast, then head off to the clay courts. When you're on your game, and you're sweating and, yes, winning, you're peculiarly alive. And when you're through playing, you feel like you're ready to take on the world after your shower.

For more than 30 years one of my favorite singles rivals was a gentleman by the name of Bob Brustein. We were good friends, but once the match began, it was kill-kill-kill. As a Harvard English and drama professor, Bob figured that the best way for him to play me was to hunker down at the baseline and just bat back one ball after another endlessly. Fact is our styles were quite similar; I may be a journalistic net-rusher, but in tennis I'm primarily a baseliner. Except that with Bob I waited for the chance to fool him with my infallible drop shot. Rally for a while, then hit the drop shot when he least expected it, and if he managed somehow to get it back, lob it over his head, over and over.

My mentor for the "mental" aspect of tennis was Bobby Riggs, who I had the chance to play with occasionally back in the 1950s. Bobby wasn't just an entertainer; he was wise about understanding how to teach me to use every inch of the court, an incredible lesson for me that greatly enriched my appreciation for various players and their strategies.

But most of all, tennis has taught me a principle I've applied since adolescence. You can be down two sets to love and 3-5, with your opponent serving, and by God you can pull it out. It's astonishing, but it happens. It happens in life, too. Not often, but enough to remind you to keep on keeping on.

Which is why I intend to keep on playing tennis 'til my toes turn up.

Television journalist Mike Wallace was the co-editor of CBS' 60 Minutes for over 35 years.