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!”
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.
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.
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.