Our match with Healthplex was a battle to stay out of the league’s basement. I knew there was a good chance that I’d be playing Terry, the human backboard. I also knew there was no way I could beat him from the backcourt. I’d tried that already. I’d have to play high-risk, old-school tennis–serve and volley, chip and charge.
Terry can’t hurt you with his strokes. His weapons are speed, consistency, and unlimited reserves of energy. You’ll get no free points. You’ll espy no signs of weariness after a grueling rally, no signs of discouragement when he falls behind.
The Xs and Os (not that they’re the issue against Terry) are pretty simple. His forehand is more versatile, capable of the occasional winner. His backhand is a rally shot, very attackable. His serve is unremarkable, but immune to double-faults.
Terry served to open the set and held. We were playing indoors, at the Healthplex Sports Club. The conditions suggested a plan for U.S. energy independence: Use Mid-Atlantic indoor tennis clubs as heat sinks. Capture the BTUs during the summer, then recycle them to heat every home in North America during the winter. One game into the match, and I was already on my second water bottle.
We traded service games to 4-all. I won the first three points on Terry’s serve. He got the next two, but I still had a break point and a chance to serve for the first set. He put his first serve into the net. His second was a lollipop to my forehand. I sliced it low to his backhand and approached. He floated the ball cross-court. I punched a backhand volley that looked to be curving wide. It caught the line; 5-4, my serve.
I stepped to the service line and greeted my good friends the mental gremlins: Should I keep serving and volleying? I’ve almost got the set. Maybe I should just play it safe. Terry got the break back, 5-all.
I stayed aggressive on the return and won another chance to serve out the set. I came in behind my first serve, punched a volley to Terry’s backhand. He lobbed me. I skittered backwards and snapped through the overhead. 15-love. I kicked the next serve high to Terry’s backhand, rolled in, and volleyed a winner to the open court. 30-love.
I got the next point. The set was on my racket. I missed my first serve and decided to stay back on my second. I put the ball in play. Terry returned it deep. We exchanged neutral rally shots. I loaded a little extra topspin onto my forehand and put it in Terry’s backhand corner. He ran around the ball to hit a forehand, and made an uncharacteristic error. I took the first set 7-5.
The effort had cost me. A lot. I like to think that I’m fit. Maybe I am. But I was feeling the first set. Terry, meanwhile, was bounding around the court. His high-energy, up-tempo manner started to irritate me. Even worse, it intimidated me. Forget the strokes. If a guy doesn’t miss, doesn’t tire, and betrays no sign of discouragement, he puts enormous psychological pressure on his opponent.
The second set proceeded pretty much as the first had. I attacked, Terry counterpunched, and we traded service games to 4-all. Terry held to go up 5-4. I didn’t feel confident. I just didn’t seem to be able to take control of the match. Sure, Terry could have said the same thing, but I was acting and he was reacting. I was calling the tune; Terry was simply deciding whether to play it on bagpipes or ukelele. At this level, where our control over our weapons (such as they may be) is suspect, I think the aggressor is more susceptible to pressure. Terry took the second set 6-4.
You don’t want to get into a test of endurance with an ironman, but that’s where I found myself. We split the first two games. I kept attacking, but the strategy had devolved into kamikaze tennis. I was coming in behind everything, too often behind ineffectual approaches that Terry put at my feet or lobbed beyond my reach. He reeled off four games to go up 5-1. I got the next one, but lost my serve when Terry lobbed me on a weak approach to his backhand. 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.
We fell to Healthplex, 2-3, most likely finishing the season in last place. Next week is our final match, but I’m not on the roster. If someone can’t make it, I’ll play. Otherwise, my season is over.
I’ll be back next week to report the scores from the Aces’ final match and reflect on lessons learned during my first season on the 4.0 circuit.