Kevin ambled on to the court with the loose-limbed gait of an athlete. He snapped through his groundstrokes, driving the ball deep with a tight spin. His backhand volley was a study in virtuosity. On serve, he’d launch his lean, 6-feet-plus frame skyward and throw heavily topspun deliveries deep in the box.
Wasn’t the ATP Tour supposed to be in Europe, battling on the red clay of Rome? What was this guy doing on a Chester County hard court?
I knew that I couldn’t outhit a Power Broker like Kevin. My best shot was to keep the ball in play, move him from side to side, and hope that fitness or frustration would become a factor.
I won the toss and elected to serve. I felt looser than on my last outing, even though (or perhaps because) Kevin was probably the best player I’d yet faced in League play.
My strategy of keeping the ball in play seemed to be the right approach. After three or four exchanges, I’d mix up my paces and spins, often eliciting an error. I had a lot of success with a short slice to his forehand. We traded service games to 4-3. I then broke Kevin to go up 5-3. He smashed the ball into the asphalt. “What is wrong with you?” he bellowed.
“Do it here,” I told myself. Kevin served and came in. I returned the ball high to his forehand, an easy putaway. He dumped it into the net. “You stink!” he screamed, and swatted the ball against the back fence. He double-faulted. I put the next serve back in play. We rallied from the back court. I drove a topspin backhand cross-court. The ball landed short. He lined up his two-handed backhand, ready to drive it down the line. He hammered in into the back fence.
“Fudge!!!!” The ambient noise ceased, nature shocked into silence, as Kevin’s shriek reverberated through the fields and forests behind our court. A cricket chirped. The planet resumed its rotation.
Kevin served. I blocked it back down the middle. We traded groundstrokes. Kevin got low, stepped into the ball, and drove a hard forehand deep to my backhand corner. He raced netward.
I tracked it down, stuck out my racket, and threw up a weak lob. It was too short. Kevin was waiting. But he crushed the overhead two feet long.
“Your overheads are pathetic!!!” he screamed. I took the first set 6-3, bearing witness to the psychic collapse of a fellow human being.
Kevin wasn’t going to let this match be decided from the baseline. He started to serve and volley. He chipped and charged on my second serve. I felt the pressure and tightened up. My second serves started landing shorter, giving him more opportunities to approach.
I evened the set at 2-all, but I was playing every point from behind. I was trapped in that defensive posture that can lead to hopelessness. You serve. Your opponent immediately takes control, making you come up with heroics just to stay in the point. You sprint Carl Lewis-style to the sideline, track down an unreturnable ball, then taste the futility as your opponent lounges at the net waiting to tap your miraculous get into the open court.
Kevin took the second set 6-2.
Kevin held to open the third set, then broke me to go up 2-0. It wasn’t going to be my day. I’d held my own against a superior opponent. Maybe that was enough. Should we just call the match here? The gremlins had settled into their box seats at the front of my cerebral cortex.
The defeatism suddenly gave way to fierce determination. (Where does it come from? Why can’t I summon it at will?) I felt like someone had plugged me into a nuclear power plant. I was on my toes, legs coiled. I was stepping into the ball, putting a little more sting on my groundstrokes. I loosened up on my serve, putting more first balls in play.
I went up 4-2. Kevin was starting to lose some air. He was tight and maybe tired. He’d put away his attacking game. We were back to playing from the baseline. I had to maintain the intensity.
I broke Kevin to go up 5-2. He returned the favor, then served at 5-3. I drove the ball deep to his forehand. He cracked it long. He threw in a double-fault. I took the next point. Three match points.
I hit the backhand return cross-court. Kevin replied with a deep down-the-middle forehand. My limbs tightened up. I carved under the ball, the kind of chicken-hearted stroke that had nearly destroyed me in the second set. Kevin put it in the net. 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.
The Aces lost to the Drunken Fools 2 courts to 3. We’ve been competitive in each match. We’ll need a couple of lucky breaks to get a few more Ws.