In early May, the USTA’s Philadelphia District marks the end of the indoor season with the venerable Englund’s Main Line Classic, a last throwdown before we move outside into the rainy Philadelphia spring.
The Classic includes a USTA-sanctioned open draw and a variety of “B” draws for the sub-5.0 players. I registered for the B singles. I’d played the tournament twice before, both times exiting in the first round. My modest ambition this year was to break that streak. The draw was small. I started in the quarterfinals.
I took the court still stinging from my two losses in league play. I’d worked hard over the winter. I’d added some variety to my game. I’d enhanced my strengths. And I was losing. Maybe I shouldn’t be playing at 4.0.
That doubt remains, but in the quarters, I convinced myself that I’ve graduated from 3.5, the level of my first-round opponent. I played an attacking game. I served and volleyed, and put pressure on his serve, generally taking the net on his second delivery. I won points with volleys that fail to get the job done at 4.0. I smothered him, 6-0, 6-0.
The warm-ups made me nervous. My opponent was hitting looping, topspin balls that pushed me behind the baseline, keeping me in a neutral-to-defensive position. The longer it takes me to get into an offensive position, the tighter I get.
As the match began, however, nerves took some of the sting out of my opponent’s groundstrokes. He was having trouble with his serve, too. I went up 5-3. Then, in a pattern that has become distressingly familiar, I let him back into the match.
I held serve to go up 6-5. He had loosened up. His topspin was pushing me off the baseline. When he saw that I was on my back foot, almost off balance, he’d come in and put me under pressure with a serviceble, if not invincible, net game. We went to deuce. We traded ads.
The demons clutched at my windpipe. I’d been up 5-3! I returned the ball deep to his backhand, my legs like sacks of flour. He raked the racket’s string bed up the back of the ball, hitting a sharply angled topspin backhand that landed near the sideline and kicked toward the cinderblock wall. I lunged, stuck out my racket, and floated up a lob. He was waiting for it mid-court. He lined up his forehand. I was sprinting back to the center of the court. He pounded the yellow orb into the net. I took the first set 7-5.
He’d had his chance. Now he was deflated. I jumped to a 5-2 lead. I started to wonder whether I should get a sandwich at WaWa or just eat some leftovers. Wasn’t it nice to have won in two sets? I knew I had to be at work early the next morning for a meeting. Did I have a clean shirt? He smashed an overhead winner, shocking me back into the present. The score was 5-4. It was happening again.
My serve is a source of agony. It’s the part of my game that I have worked on most over the past few years. And it never fails to let me down. I don’t trust the stroke. The fluid motion, the loose arm, the effortless snap through the ball . . . these are desperately coveted abstractions beyond my reality. I stiff-armed the ball into the box. He misjudged it, hit it into the net. I loosened up and put a decent ball to his backhand. We traded groundstrokes. I won the point, then took the next to go up 40-love.
I had three match points. “Why not try to close this out with an ace?” I told myself. “You can afford the risk.” I double-faulted. “No worries, but maybe you should be a little more careful.” The demons had my attention. “Put some enervating tension in your rotator’s cuff just to make sure that you don’t hit a serve with any pace or placement.” Another double falut. 40-30.
I managed to hit a weak slice into his body. He had time to run around it, line up his forehand. He drove the ball into the curtain behind me. 7-5, 6-4.
My opponent was the same person who’d beaten me in league play a couple of weeks earlier. I couldn’t let him start to torment me with that moonball backhand. I’d have to attack. The strategy was my best chance, but as was the case in our earlier match, I just wasn’t solid enough in the forecourt to pull it off. Rather than using approach shots and volleys as a disarming thrust, followed by a stiletto to my adversary’s exposed midsection, I played crazy kamikaze tennis, missing my target and destroying myself.
I lost 6-1, 6-4. I got a crystal vase for my troubles. I exceeded my goal for the tournament, but left with the beginnings of a potentially debilitating fear of the deep topspin game.