The ignominous end

I knew that I could take this guy. He didn’t strike the ball so much as bunt it. His basketball shorts and off-the-shelf racket with the manufacturer’s logo stenciled on the strings betrayed him as a weekend warrior who took the game just a little too casually.

I was already celebrating my victory, the end of a five-match losing streak. A tap on my shoulder. “What if you lose?” my demon asked. “Could your ego handle it? I mean, there’s no way you should lose to this guy!”

First set

Like all pushers, my opponent was better than he looked. He moved the ball from side to side. He gave me no pace. If you can’t borrow power from your opponent, you have to generate your own, which requires rock-solid technique and near-flawless mechanics. I lost the first three games.

As much as I despised his game, as much as I knew that a tit-for-tat contest of all-court pattycake put me at risk of a debilitating generalized anxiety disorder, I felt like I had no choice. I’d have to push the pusher.

I started dinking, drop-shotting, lobbing, carving under forehand slices, playing a style of tennis that mocked the countless hours I’d spent trying to develop sound strokes and a solid all-court game. I got us to a tiebreaker.

My nerves were frayed. My head was a smoking cauldron of self-disgust and exhaustion, just another Saturday morning of USTA tennis. I doubted I had the mental strength to seize the breaker. I needed him to give it to me. Then I could summon the focus and energy to steamroll him in the second. Just a few unforced errors. PLEASE!

If you find yourself begging the pusher for help, you’re dead. He took the breaker and the set.

Second set

At the start of the second set, I was that most dangerous of combattants, the man with nothing left to lose. I stashed caution and hope in my racket bag, and withdrew my broad axe. I would seize control of my fate. I would mount an all-out attack.

It was beautiful tennis. I was winning games with  precision strikes, no unnecessary expenditure of energy. I’d chip his second serve to his backhand, close on the net, and deflect his backhand to the open court. I’d put my serve on his body, handcuffing him, lope into the net, and knife the volley for a clean winner.

A well-executed assault is torture for the pusher. He’s off balance, no time to set up, no chance to float one back while you stand at the baseline, your feet glued to the asphalt by fear. You force him to create. As you storm the net, he starts to suffocate beneath your attack. My opponent started to curse. He knocked stray balls into the net. He was cracking.

I was up 4-0. A tap on my shoulder. “You know that approach shot down the line you’ve been hitting? That’s a tough shot.” My demon was back. “You’ve already got this in the bag. Why don’t you stay back? Let him give it to you? Save something for the third.”

I listened. I was trying to protect a victory I didn’t yet own. I stayed back. My opponent tied the set at 4-all. I held serve, got to deuce on his, and got a break point. We tapped the ball back and forth, neither of us willing to pull the trigger. He hit the ball high and deep to my backhand corner. I floated back a lob, buying time to scramble out of the corner and into a more neutral position. He moved in, took the ball out of the air with a backhand volley. He punched it wide. One set all.

Third set

I was tired, mentally more than physically, but the humid heat was taking a toll. My feet felt heavy. I couldn’t muster the will to keep attacking. After all, I’d won the last two games of the second set from the backcourt. And if I was tired, that guy must have been exhausted. He was bound to fold. WASN’T HE?!?!

At 2-all, I lost my serve. He held to go up 4-2. It was getting late early out there. I held once more, but I was done. He took the set, and the match, 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-3.

The loss was my most discouraging in a season full of beatdowns. I was a better player than my opponent, but not good enough to beat him. I had a lot more tools, in other words, but couldn’t sustain the confidence to use them.

So I end my 2010 campaign stranded somewhere between the knowledge of what I have to do and the courage to do it. I have about 10 months to get there.

–A. Clarke


The difference maker

I was serving to go up 4-3. A vent on the roof of the McDonald’s behind me discharged a greasy smog that settled on my weary frame. Four more points, and I’d lock my opponent in a stockade of self-doubt and desperation. The pressure of a two game deficit would immobilize his shoulder, giving me the set.

While my mind telescoped into the future, I double-faulted and put an easy forehand into the net. I pulled myself together, and fired a bullet out wide in the deuce court. He leaned to his right–no footwork, no preparation, nothing that in a just universe would be required to produce an effective shot.

The return floated high and deep. It bounced on the baseline, leapt at my backhand. I muscled it back over the net, consumed by frustration. He’d neutralized my best serve of the day with an awkward, off-balance flick of the racket.

He carved under a drop-shot. I sprinted forward, poked the ball up the line. He stretched, connected. I stepped into a volley–not with as much authority as I’d hoped, but surely enough to get the job done. The volley headed for his shoelaces. He was there, pure reflex. The ball floated over my head, landed a foot inside the baseline.

“Let’s go, Gangsta!” His teammates roared from the bleachers. I lost the next point and the lead.

Was I just unlucky? Maybe, but bad luck is the least of my on-court struggles. A few years ago, when I was winning more matches, I’d feel an intensity at crunch time, a certainty that I could beat my opponent (even when I couldn’t). I’d stand on the baseline, about to explode out of my shoes, as if I’d just been plugged into an electrical socket. Come hammer time, I was ready to swing.

I’ve lost that intensity. I try to manufacture it. I heave big ragged, breaths like a rhino ready to charge. But I’m faking it. Maybe it’s burnout, maybe just a loss of confidence. My opponent took the next two games and the set.

Second set

I inhaled a lungful of McDonald’s fry oil and tried to put the negativity aside. No reason I should have lost the first set. We traded service games to 3-all.

I was beating my opponent off the ground, but he was superior on the serve, and he could bring it big when it counted most. In almost every one of his service games, I was getting to deuce and usually securing a break point. But then he’d thwart me with a nasty kick-serve that bounced deep in my backhand corner and exploded above my shoulder.

The kick was the difference-maker. It got inside my head. Break point opportunities kept presenting themselves, but not in a form that I could capitalize on. I was dying of thirst, and my opponent was offering me ladles of steam.

“Let’s go, Gangsta!” He shut me down, 6-4, 6-3.

–A. Clarke

A Memorial Day respite

No matches this Memorial Day weekend. Teams typically have tough time pulling together a roster over the long weekend. This year, the league gave us a mid-to-late season break. My team has no shot at the title this year, but we have three more opportunities to declare ourselves as a team to watch for 2011. I have at least one more chance to repair my fragile self-regard.

Back next week, I hope. In the meantime, I’ll try to post some thoughts about the French Open this week. I’ve caught bits and pieces, including a distressingly familiar display of nerves in Wozniacki’s third-round victory over Pennetta.

–A. Clarke

Closer . . .

I ate two horse pills of Ibuprofen, and washed them down with 20 ounces of Starbucks. The skies were clear, the temperature mild. I felt good. Today, I’d break my losing streak.

First set

My opponent had maybe 15 years and a good six inches on me. His long limbs were Archimdean levers, transferring terrifying power into his groundstrokes. His serve was a monster, kicking high in the ad court and yanking me outside the lines. I was undaunted. I’d decided to play serve and volley. Last week, I declared that the attacking game was my game. I’d no longer stay on the baseline and trade groundstrokes until someone’s head exploded. I fell behind 0-4. I made a battlefield decision. Serve-and-volley was for the birds.

My forehand was feeling good. I was keeping the ball deep, moving it from side to side. He hit the ball hard, but I absorbed the body blows, and hammered his midsection with haymakers of my own. I won the next 3 games. It was 4-3, his serve. I knew I had to break him here.

He rifled a first serve deep into the corner of the ad court. I moved forward, caught it perfectly, and returned the shot with interest. He backpedaled, got the edge of his frame on the ball, and knocked it out of play. We traded points to multiple deuces. Neither one of us could land the knockout punch. He got the ad. He put the serve deep to my backhand. I returned it deep. We traded cross-court backhands, my best shot. It’s not a weapon, but unlike my forehand, it won’t break down.

Unfortunately, his was a bit better. He put a little something extra on his ball, and knocked me back on my heels. My reply was short, just inside the service box. He moved forward, his long legs covering the distance with two or three graceful strides. He hit a delicate dropshot winner, a stiletto through my ribcage.

I held serve to put the score at 4-5, his serve. This is tennis at its most excruciating, the margin for error so small, the consequence of any mistake so huge. The difference between losing and winning the set, between starting the next one with a millstone around your neck or a song in your heart, is one or two errant shots. He held easily to take the first set 6-4.

Second set

I put on a new wristband during the changeover. (A superstition: If I lose the first set, I’ve got to put on a new wristband.) I was certain that I’d win the second set, take it to a third, and record my second victory of the season.

The second set was aggressive baseline tennis at its finest, both of us staying low, exploding into the ball, and ripping our groundstrokes deep.

A highlight: My opponent served. I returned his forehand deep. We exchanged groundstrokes. I maneuvered him into the backhand corner, and ripped an approach shot to his forehand. I raced in. He deflected a lob. I scampered back, threw up another lob, repositioned myself in the middle of the baseline. He stepped in, used his height to hammer down on the ball, a bullet into the corner. He approached the net. I transferred the potential energy from my crouch into the accelerating racket head. My passing shot whistled past his outstretched racket. I turned, looked at my teammates who were seated in the bleachers. The captain gave me a thumbs-up.

Neither of us could break. We were tied at 5-5, my serve. If I could hold here, make him serve to stay in the set, I knew that his head would implode.

Unfortunately, my serve is horribly erratic. One game, I’m throwing down aces, the next I’m tightening up. My consciousness is screaming at my autonomic nervous system, berating it with every tip it has ever heard, as I try to put the ball in the box. I plead with myself to go Zen, be the ball, but the effort is futile.

At 5-5, I had a tight game. I lost at love. 6-5, his serve.  I tap-danced on the baseline, urging myself to fight. “Just get this to a breaker. Then you’ve got him,” I told myself. I won the first point, but lost the next four and the match, 4-6, 5-7.

The effort was solid. Victory was visible. But the USTA computer will record another loss. At the start of this season, I’d hoped to play .500 ball. But the season is almost over, and my ambitions are more modest. I just want to put another W on the scoreboard. I probably have two or three more chances. The pressure is rising.

–A. Clarke

Losing and learning

I double-faulted on the first point, but put the next ball deep in the box. It kicked high to my opponent’s backhand. I raced forward. He muscled the ball back over the net. It hung lazily in midair. I rose up, smashed it deep into his forehand corner, 15-15. I ended the next three points in similar fashion to even the score at 1-all.

I wouldn’t win another game until the middle of the second set. My opponent shut me down 6-1, 6-1, brutalizing me with a powerful two-handed backhand. He was driving it deep cross-court, ripping it down the line, and spinning it through every angle in between.

I continued to serve and volley until the bitter end. I hit too many double-faults and stoned some easy volleys, but my level of play wasn’t poor enough to explain the thrashing. The guy was just too darn good.

Even so, the match was a victory of sorts. I vanquished the mental gremlins. Maybe they took the day off when they realized that, short of kneecapping my opponent, I had no chance to win. But I think it was the serve-and-volley game that kept them out of my cortex, a strategy that I decided to adopt after last week’s loss.

The attacking game is instinctual. You’re always moving forward, trampling your anxieties into the asphalt like a stampeding elephant. I had no time for fear or doubt.

Unfortunately, serve-and-volley is also a difficult game. You rarely see it on the 4.0 circuit. (“I was surprised by the serve and volley. It’s like a lost art,” my opponent marveled after the match, as if I’d just finished a reading of Aramaic verse.) I’m not sure I have the skills to make it work, at least not yet, but it suits my head.

After my match, I watched the second singles court. Both players were pushing the ball. I got anxious just watching. Eventually, one of the players would try to bring the torment to an end, sometimes with a go-for-broke groundstroke, more often with an ugly failure of nerve–a dropshot that fluttered into the net or a no-pace, no-spin forehand that floated just beyond the baseline.

I was disappointed by my loss, but not as despondent as I would have been on Court 2 in this spectacle of nerves.

I felt the same way Sunday, when I watched Federer and Nadal in the second set tiebreak of the Madrid Masters 1000 Series. At 3-all in the tiebreak, Federer planted himself on the baseline, determined to trade groundstrokes with Nadal and wait for the error. He’d abandoned his all-court virtuosity.  Instead of Mozart, he was playing Chopsticks. It didn’t suit him.

As the rally extended, I could feel Federer’s anxiety emanating from the TV.  His forehand found the net. A few points later, Nadal won the tiebreak and the title.

I’ve been there. I won’t go back.

–A. Clarke

Reckless caution

My opponent was serving huge. We play each other throughout the winter. We’re a pretty even match. Sometimes his serve will desert him, which scrambles his head and gives me a chance to purloin a few games while he’s wrestling with his demons. But not yesterday.

I was never able to take control of his service games. He was missing some first serves, but he brought the second just a big. The shelling put pressure on my own serve, which broke down at enough critical moments to hand him a 6-3, 6-3 victory. I took consolation from the belief that I’d simply come up against a riddle I couldn’t solve.

Until we started chatting after the match. “Why’d you stop serving and volleying?” my opponent said. “Up until about March, you were smothering me with that game. But then you stopped.”

This past winter, I made a deliberate effort to stay back and develop greater shot tolerance–the ability to trade groundstrokes from the back court until an opportunity presents itself. At 4.0, this kind of cautious game usually comes out on top. The barons of the backcourt can rally all day long, feeling no anxiety or desperation as the stroke count climbs. They know that, eventually, the other guy will break.

Unfortunately, that other guy is me. Despite months of practice, I don’t have faith that the long rallies will break my way. Maybe the cautious game doesn’t suit my on-court personality. At some point, as yet another neutral backhand floats back over the net, I crack. I try to rip a winner from three feet behind the baseline, forgetting that I’m not Juan Martin del Potro.

Serve-and-volley might be the answer. At the net, the ball’s immediacy gives you no time to ruminate, no time for a long rally to wring panic from your amygdala. But I can’t fool myself. Serve-and-volley is high-risk. You’re going to get passed. You’re going to stone some volleys into the net. To win, you have to seize victory. You’ve forsaken the possibility of waiting for your opponent to give it to you. You’re all in.

Those odds make me nervous. But I may not be emotionally capable of playing steady tennis from the backcourt. As the season unfolds, the cautious  game is looking increasingly risky.

–A. Clarke


Before the first ball was struck

I knew my opponent. I knew that his team had made it to the Philly Championships for the past two years, going as far as a sectional playoff against the best 4.0 teams from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. I also knew his strengths: physical fitness and mental strength, qualities that terrify me.

Why this guy? The question was an indulgence I couldn’t afford. It put me in the wrong frame of mind when  my focus needed to be razor-sharp.

First set

I served to open the set. I was tight and put a little extra muscle on the ball. I launched a missile at his backhand, the yellow ball dragging a tail of photons behind it. He hit it long. I relaxed. Maybe I could win this thing. We battled to deuce, but he eventually broke me to go up 0-1.

We traded breaks until he held to go up 4-2. It was just two games, one break, but the sun was bright, and the temperature was rising. The points were grueling–cross-court groundstroke exchanges punctuated by coy dropshots that brought us careening into the forecourt. If I lost the first set, would I have enough in the tank to come back?

I dropped serve to lose the set. “I’m surprised you’re hitting all these double-faults. You have such a nice fluid motion,” my opponent said at the changeover. In the right frame of mind, I could take this as a compliment. My serve was almost excellent. At the moment, however, what I heard was the incredulity of someone who was as baffled by my shortcomings as I was. Thanks, pal.

Second set

The first set had taken a lot out of me. I’d found myself on the losing end of too many long rallies, gasping for air, wiping sweat from my eyes, while my opponent stared at me Sphinx-like, ready to start the next point. I wasn’t going to beat this guy with my steady game. My fitness is probably up to the challenge, most of the time, but fear–the knowledge that this guy could run all day and that his head would never crack–was robbing me of energy. I was going to have to hit through the ball, risk some errors, and try to bully him off the court.

I felt oddly, irrationally, confident that this game plan would work. My opponent served first. I returned it deep down the middle. He gave me a forehand in the middle of the court. I stayed low, exploded up into the ball, and ripped a cold-blooded winner past his outstretched racket.

My opponent applauded my occasional SportsCenter highlight with equanimity, happily awaiting the inevitable rash of unforced errors. At 0-3, I told myself to fight. I was still in this. At the changeover, my opponent picked up his water bottle, leaned against the net post. “So Andy, where do you live?” Was this neighborly chit-chat or a devious attempt to grind the fragments of my focus into dust? The latter, no doubt.

I stuck with the high-risk game, and as the sun neared its peak and my fatigue intensified, the errors multiplied. Down 0-5 and 0-40 on my serve, I drove a forehand into the back fence. 3-6, 0-6.

I’m not upset by the loss. I lost to the better player. But I’m not happy with the way I competed. I’d conceded an edge to my opponent even before the first ball was struck. I forced myself to battle both my opponent’s strokes and an awesomely powerful bogeyman: the fear that he would be too tough to beat.