After retiring from the ATP Tour, Andre Agassi got hair implants, changed his identity, and moved to Pennsylvania to help the Chambermaids go deep in the post-season. Or so went the rumor on Philly’s 4.0 circuit. At the season’s midpoint, the Chambermaids were undefeated. They hadn’t lost once at singles.
Chris was a few inches shorter than Aggasi, a few pounds heavier, but they can do wonders with plastic surgery these days. I recognized the forehand. I’d seen Andre ride it to eight grand slam titles. The backhand was consistent, but Chris couldn’t hurt me with it.
Chris’ serve didn’t have overwhelming power or spin, but it had something much more important: reliability. Over the next two hours, Chris would hit just two double faults.
I broke Chris to open, then went up 40-love on my serve. I tend to get in trouble when the first few points come too easily. The gremlins seize control of my consciousness. “All you have to do is nothing,” they tell me. “Let him make the mistakes.” I tighten up. My groundstrokes start falling short. My edge disappears.
Chris won the next five points to even the set at 1-1. We traded breaks to 3-3. I was playing two or three feet behind the baseline, hoping Chris would make the first mistake. His forehand started to loosen up. When I gave him a short ball, he’d rip a cold-blooded winner.
Disorder on the court!
Chris and I were moonballing at 3-3. Some kindergartners and first graders were playing soccer on a field next to our courts. When the game ended, the kids and their parents marched noisily past our courts to the parking lot. A little boy threw a can of soda over the fence and on to the court where my teammate was playing first singles.
“Excuse me,” my teammate said to the boy. “You shouldn’t throw a soda can on to the court. You could hurt someone.” The boy said nothing. But his father did.
“You talk to me, not my son,” he barked.
Chris and I were still moonballing, our focus now bifurcated.
“I’m just telling him . . .”
“You got something to say, you say it to me.” The father walked on to the court and shoved my teammate, who had at least a foot and 40 pounds on the aggressor. My teammate shoved him back.
“Hey!” The Chambermaids’ coach and several adults rushed on to the court to separate the combatants. Chris and I were still moonballing, too distracted by the melee to finish the point. If a riot broke out, could I call a let?
A few more heated words, and the situation was diffused. Chris ended the rally with an inside-out cannon shot to my backhand. He took the game and the next two to wrap up the first set 6-3.
I dropped the first two games. My goal was no longer to win. It was to break free of the psychological rigging that had lashed me to this tentative, defensive game. I started to chip the ball to Chris’ backhand and come in. I won a few points at net, and my confidence rose. My movement improved. I started to get more pop on my groundstrokes.
We fought to 3-all. Chris went up a break, 5-3, but we were battling for every point. I was playing tennis the way I imagined I could. In the day’s ESPN highlight, Chris and I sledgehammered forehands cross-court. He gave me a short ball. I sliced it to his backhand. He rifled the ball right back at me. I volleyed down the middle. He ripped a forehand pass. I got low, opened the racket face, and angled a volley winner to the deuce court. A cheer erupted from the maintenance shack behind me. I broke back, 4-5. My serve.
It had been a good run. I’d played aggressively. I was embracing the challenge, not fearing that my opponent would keep the ball in play. But the magic vanished on my serve, always the most vulnerable part of my game.
I know what I need to do to serve consistently: stay loose, extend, hit up. But this motion feels risky and aggressive. A tight, controlled delivery, by contrast, feels safe, even though it’s almost sure to produce a rash of double faults. When I’m under pressure, I’m unable to negotiate this paradox.
I double-faulted twice to go down 6-3, 6-4, but I got a psychological boost from my assertive play in the second set. I’ll do what I can to bring it to my next throwdown.
The Aces lost 0-5. We enter the second half of the season locked in a three way battle for the bottom. But some of our matches have been close. Over the next five weeks, maybe the tight ones will go our way.