Clarke guts out a W; Aces down Tennis Addiction

I’d played Andrew three times. He led the head-to-head 2-1. All our matches had been close, remarkable for the poor quality of the tennis. We seem to be so evenly matched, in fact, that we tense up, aware that we’re in for a long, grinding ordeal, with victory just beyond the grasp of whoever’s unlucky that day.

Both of us had gotten bumped up to 4.0 at the end of 2007. When I saw Andrew’s name on Tennis Addiction’s roster, I prayed that we wouldn’t be playing each other. I didn’t want to begin my 4.0 career with anxious tennis. “You’re second singles,” my coach said. I exhaled. I’d seen Tennis Addiction’s other singles player warming up. He didn’t look that strong. I figured that Andrew would be battling my teammate, Matt, at first singles.

“You again,” I said when Andrew showed up on my court.

Game plan

Andrew is an athlete–6 feet-plus, powerfully built, a former D-I baseball player. He hits a monster serve. His one-handed backhand is rock-solid. His volleys are sharp. He’s exceptionally quick for a big guy. But his forehand is a weakness. If you feed him pace, help him establish a rhythm, he can hit you off the court. If you mix up your paces, spins, and depths, the stroke will break down.

First set

I won the spin and elected to serve. I lost at love. I was tight already. But so was he. I broke back. We both held serve, the set tied at 2-2, most of the points decided by double-faults or service winners. I had to loosen up, get a rally going so that I could hammer his forehand.

I won my service game, then bunted some of his deliveries back into play. I started to move, burning through the nerves that had immobilized my legs. I kept feeding balls to his forehand. The stroke was imploding.

Suddenly, I was up 5-2, his serve. Could it really be this easy? Our matches had always been explorations of agony, bracing immersions in our shortcomings on the court. I broke and took the first set 6-2.

Second set

I was feeling good, like I’d just about wrapped this thing up. A few more minutes, I figured, and I could go tell our coach to put me down for a W. I fell behind 0-30 on my serve. I kicked my next delivery into the box. Andrew pounded a forehand deep. I replied with a short backhand. He rolled in and hammered it down the line.

“Out!” I shouted.

“Really?” he asked in disbelief.

I was certain the ball had been a couple of inches long. But he was staring at me as if I’d just told him that grass is purple. “You thought it was in?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “Love-40.” Andrew took the next point and the game. The moment had got to me. He thought I was trying to cheat? Doesn’t he know I’m the most honest, integrity-laden competitor in the history of sport . . . if I do say so myself?

I lost focus. Maybe Andrew just started playing a lot better. I was trying to trade pace with him, and he stopped missing his forehand. His serve was finding the corners. At 5-0, he secured the second set with a service bomb that caught two lines.

Third set

I lost my serve to open the third set, but broke back two games later. At this point, the tennis turned ugly. I started to tap the ball to Andrew’s forehand. He’d bang them into the net or three feet beyond the baseline. Sometimes I’d float the ball long, risking nothing and losing everything.

The double faults started to haunt us. In the second set, Andrew had been rifling the ball around the service box, eating me alive with a terrifying mix of spins. Now he was giving me two double-faults a game. On my service games, I was the tin man after a heavy rain, stiff-arming the ball long or into the net.

Andrew served for the match at 5-4. My 4.0 debut would probably be a loss, but I bore down. Andrew doubled once or twice, and I managed to get his good serves back in play. We battled to deuce. My ad. I hit a deep, heavily topspun ball to his forehand. He cracked a line drive cross court–a great shot, but six inches wide.

I held serve easily, handcuffing his backhand with the nastiest kicker I’d hit all spring. I was up 6-5. His serve. His pressure. He went up 30-15. “If this goes to a breaker,” I told myself, “you’ll win.” But I wasn’t about to let it get there. I felt oddly serene.

He double-faulted. I swung through my forehand. He cracked it long, and I had the ad. I returned his serve deep. He stepped into it with his backhand and pushed me off the baseline. I returned the ball. He framed it. The ball went straight up. It was going to land on my side of the net, the kind of deceptively easy sitter that I make a habit of drilling through the fence.

I took it with my backhand and drove it into the corner.

6-2, 0-6, 7-5. The UMLY Aces won our first match 3-2.


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