We played our second league match yesterday. I was slotted for second singles. I put in my ususal pre-match prep–devise a game plan for my expected opponent, rise early to defrost my strokes against the wall, try to manufacture some emotional intensity.
As I walked on to the court, I learned that our opponents were playing an alternative lineup. I’d be facing off against a former teammate, a guy with a game that gives me fits–rock-solid consistency and unmatched mental fortitude. He can track down almost anything, and he can rally all day, waiting until anxiety compels you to go for something ill-advised.
The book on this player is that you’ve got to be aggressive. Don’t let him get comfortable. Try to end the points early at net.
The warm-ups confirmed my fears. My opponent was hitting, deep, off-pace balls with lots of spin. He doesn’t miss that shot. I can hit this shot for a while, and physically I’m capable of hitting it all day, but I see these exchanges as a kind of baseline purgatory. I demand resolution, which means both opportunity and risk.
This terrifying, quasi-spirtual calculus dominated my consciousness as we prepared for battle.
But I came out smoking. I was driving my forehand deep to the backhand corner, following it into net, and generally finishing the point on the first or second volley. My opponent was on his heels. I think he expected that I’d give him a couple of games to find a rhythm. He made a few uncharacteristic errors. At 3-2, my serve, I loosened up and started to put a lot more heat on my delivery. I got one ace, then one service winner. I lost a point, but took the next two and the game.
I willed myself to stay aggressive. I broke him to go up 5-2. I figured I had it in the bag. I could dial back the intensity a bit, save some mental energy for an all-out assault at the beginning of the second set. In the meantime, I’d play on autopilot. Just let him give me the first set. The pressure was all on his shoulders, after all. As long as I kept the ball in play, I knew I could count on him to come up with the errors.
Big mistake. As soon as I eased my foot off his windpipe, my opponent rallied. He broke my serve, held, then broke me again to tie the set at 5. I tried to stay calm. Just hold, then break him again. No big deal. But the demons were already berating me at the back of my brain. I dropped the first set 5-7.
I had squandered a golden opportunity. I’d been within a game of winning the first set with relative ease, leaving plenty in the tank for a second set dogfight. And then it had gotten away from me. Now, my opponent was playing with more confidence. When I tried to put pressure on his backhand and take the net, a play that had put me near the finish line in the first set, he ripped frozen-rope passing shots.
Did I throw in the towel? I hope not. After blowing the first set, however, I don’t think I ever believed that I could win. I went through the motions. I stayed aggressive, trying to convince myself that this meant I was still fighting. But the fire had died.
The wound is still raw. It’s hard to see anything good coming from this loss. But maybe the mental collapse, and the bitter self-recrimination that followed, is part of the process that will make me a better player. For God’s sake, let’s hope so.