Down and out in South Philly

I was back in league play this weekend at second singles. My head was in a precarious state. I’d now dropped two matches to a guy without a lot of weapons, but who was able to beat me with consistent, deep topspin. If I couldn’t figure out how to beat this kind of player, did I really belong out here?

I interpreted my lack of success against the consistent topspinner as a rebuke against the vanity of trying to develop a game with more variety. Who the heck did I think I was? Roger Federer? Why not acknowledge my limitations? Put my ego on the shelf and buy a 120-square-inch, 9 ounce frame that would play the points for me.

First set

As I stepped onto the court in South Philly, the Linc and Citizen’s Park visible on the other side of Broad Street, I was thinking about how a win today would turn my season around, perhaps repair some of the structural damage to my once-solid mental game.

Bad news. My opponent was another topspin impressario. He’d get low, then hurl himself into the ball, grunting as if he’d just dead-lifted a Hummer. This is where the topspin game kills me. I see the effort. I hear the exertion. And I expect the product to be a hard-hit ball, the kind that helps me establish a rhythm. But all the energy goes into the spin. The ball floats over the net, giving me plenty of time to worry, then hits the court and pushes me back behind the baseline. I’m forced to hit backhands off my back foot. I can’t manufacture any offense.

I knew the attacking game was my best gambit, but I’d tried this twice recently, and lost. I wavered. Should I be aggressive? Or just trade moonballs and see who blinks first? The uncertainty undermined my attempts at both strategies. I dropped the first set 6-3.

Second set

I served to open the second set. I was up 30-love. We were trading cross-court groundstrokes, my backhand to his forehand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my son, who’d come with me this morning, ambling onto the court.

“Hey kid! We’re playing a match here!” It was a player on the next court, a little more anger and menace in his voice than I thought appropriate. Yes, I could understand. We were weekend warriors, to a man deluded about what was at stake on the South Philly asphalt. But still. My brain circuitry started to overheat as I tried to negotiate annoyance at my son and anger at the player who was rudely upbraiding him.

“What are you doing?” I asked my son.

“I’m putting my DS in your bag.”

His video game. “You can’t walk on the court while people are playing.” Why couldn’t he just sit quietly on the bench for five or six hours, as I’d asked him to?

I dropped the first game. The topspin was breaking my spirit. It was also wearing me down physically, bullying me off the court, each stroke putting me farther out of position. I kept one eye on my son. He was chasing after bugs with a plastic cup. I lost the match 6-3, 6-0.


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