My scouts told me that Terry hits the ball softly, with unerring consistency. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to face him. I can counterpunch, but when I face my equal (or better) in the backcourt game, I can come unglued. If I wind up on the losing end of too many 10-ball rallies, the physical fatigue leads to mental fatigue. I start to despair.
Terry showed up on my court, tall and whippet-thin, comporting himself in a high-energy, mildly aggressive manner. He was protecting his backhand, setting up in the outer half of the ad court. I figured I’d try to go to his forehand, open up the court, and then hammer his backhand.
His first serve was strong, his second serve a tap. I planned to slice through his second deliveries and take the net.
Terry won the toss and elected to serve. His missed his first serve. I sliced through the second, came in, and punched a volley winner. The three spectators seated at the maintenance shack behind me cheered.
I shanked the next two service returns. On the next point, we rallied crosscourt. Terry was cheating to his backhand side. I drilled a forehand deep to the deuce court. He chased it down. Man, Terry was fast! I rolled in and volleyed a winner to the ad court.
We’d played four points, and already I felt like the match was in my hands. The game went to deuce. Terry eventually squeaked it out. “That’s OK,” I told myself, “you don’t need to win every game. At least, you showed him that he’s going to have to work hard to hold serve.”
I surrendered just one point on my serve. My confidence rose. I was making Terry work like a dog on his serve, casually snapping through winners on mine. But I didn’t win another game in the first set.
The next five games were an odyssey of mental and physical endurance. All but one went to deuce. Most points were decided after 10-to-15 ball exchanges, with me going for a little too much in hopes of ending the agony.
We’d played for more than an hour. I felt as though I’d just run an ultramarathon through the Gobi Desert. And I had one game to show for it. Terry was The Man Who Wouldn’t Miss. He pumped his fist. His captain gave him the thumbs-up. He bounded to the sidelines, ready for more.
Maybe it was my preparation. Yesterday, when I should have been carbo-loading, my wife and I dined at Le Bec Fin, using a gift certificate we’d won at a school fundraiser. Instead of pre-match pasta, I was masticating roasted organic duck with morel mushroom and fava bean fricassee.
Le Bec Fin is a landmark in Philly’s culinary history. When the French restaurant opened on Walnut Street in 1970, Philly cuisine was cheesesteaks and scrapple (don’t ask!). Le Bec Fin won world renown. It also set the stage for a restaurant renaissance that has made Philly a destination among wandering gourmets. I don’t include myself in their number. I was there for the experience, not the food.
I dropped serve to open the second set. I was spent. I knew that I wouldn’t beat Terry from the backcourt. I decided to dust off my attacking game.
I took the net at every opportunity, breaking Terry to even the score. I served and volleyed. It was the right tactic, but I was the wrong player. My volleys weren’t crisp enough. Terry was too fast. Too often, I’d roll in and hit the volley, but give Terry the opportunity to hit a second and third ball. He’d pass me or I’d punch the volley long. His energy was rising. Mine was fading as my system tried to make sense of yesterday’s pan-seared tuna filet with pea puree and honey vinegar and hibiscus flower sauce.
Terry took the second set 6-3. The Aces dropped the other singles courts and one doubles court to go down 2-3.
I may face Terry again this season. I’ll spend the interim practicing with one of my teammates who plays a Terry-style game. Next time, I’ll be ready.