I played two matches this week, a make-up against Tennis Addiction and a regularly scheduled match against the Drunken Fools.
On Wednesday night, I faced off against Andrew. Earlier this season, I’d beaten him in three sets–anxious, tentative tennis that did neither of us proud. This time, I was determined to go for my shots, win or lose.
Before the match, I’d looked in the mirror. I didn’t see Pete Sampras. I couldn’t expect to serve winners. I just wanted to make sure my serve wasn’t the liability it has been for much of the season. Bend the knees, keep the arm loose, hit up. Put a high percentage of first serves in play.
I met these modest expectations. I kept the ball on Andrew’s backhand, his weaker return. I was hitting the ball cleanly, keeping it deep, and capitalizing on anything short. We traded service games to 3-all. I secured a break with a rifle-shot to Andrew’s backhand. He stuck out his racket. I rolled in and volleyed a winner to the open court.
I held, then broke again to take the first set 6-3.
I felt in command in a way that I haven’t all season. Maybe it was the pre-match injunction to myself: Embrace the challenge! Don’t fear that he’ll keep the ball in play. Expect it! Welcome it!
Andrew’s forehand, which is prone to breakdowns, began to betray him. I also got lucky. He was serving well, but I got a lot of balls back in play, often off the frame of my racket. The mishits imparted a trajectory and spin that would have confounded Copernicus. My freak shots elicited an error or a weak reply that I was able to punish.
We traded serves to four all. I broke to go up 5-4, and then prepared to serve out the match. This is usually the occasion when I start racking up the double faults. This time, I maintained my calm. The arm stayed loose. I went up 40-15. I put the next ball in play. We traded groundstrokes. I put the ball deep to his forehand. He drove it long.
6-3, 6-4. We have yet to make up all our matches against Tennis Addiction, but a victory seems assured. We’re up 2-0 with three matches left to play.
I’d played my opponent Jeff in a practice match last year. I remembered that he had a mostly defensive, one-handed backhand. My plan was to put pressure on that wing. A few seconds into the warm-up, I realized that he had a two-handed backhand, and it was his better stroke.
This reality didn’t cause me to change my game plan. It merely fried my mental circuits, which were already overheating. At match time, the mercury approached 90 degrees. On the asphalt hard courts, according to my estimates, the temperature was nearing Fahrenheit 400.
Jeff took the first four games. The difference was his serve, a reliable combination of pace and spin. I was struggling to put first serves in play, a big disappointment after my encouraging outing on Wednesday. I wasn’t hitting a lot of double faults, but I was tapping in my second deliveries, which immediately put me on the defensive.
In a weird psychological calculus, I decided that I wasn’t going to win the first set, but that I’d give Jeff something to think about. I took the next three games. At the changeover, he remarked, “So, it’s going to be one of these streaky matches.”
“At least it’s not hot,” I joked. I was working myself into a lather just unscrewing my water bottle.
I extended the rallies, hitting the ball deeper and cleaner. But Jeff was tracking everything down. And his rally ball posed a challenge. At the 3.5 level, you face a lot of “pushers” who simply punch everything back. But I’d never faced a player like Jeff, who was able to get everything back deep, with a lot of topspin. I was hitting everything off my back foot and around my shoulder, unable to produce much offense.
Jeff took the next two games and the first set, 6-3.
I won the first two games, but the elements were taking a toll. My legs felt hollow. I tried to muster some intensity. I tried to want it! I was able to maintain the edge for a point or so, but then I’d start to think about the heat, lose focus, wonder what neurosis compelled me to battle on the molten macadam. Was this any way to spend the hours outside my cubicle?
Jeff evened the score. The casual observer might have concluded that I was winning. I was finishing points at net (a tactic I should have used more often). I was forcing the action. But these displays were interludes. The main act was still baseline play, and Jeff’s deep, heavy topspin was too much for me. He took the second set–and the match–6-3, 6-2.
The Drunken Fools prevailed 2-3. Our probable victory against Tennis Addiciton will keep us out of last place. If we can beat Healthplex–we have a chance–we could finish the season in the middle of the standings.