The Idle Hour Tennis Club sits at the edge of Drexel Hill’s commercial district, 14 immaculately groomed har-tru and four U.S. Open-blue hard courts on the far side of a ramshackle clubhouse tucked behind a beer distributor. You’re always excited to play there, one of suburban Philly’s hidden gems. You just hope your game is good enough to honor the facility.
I was hitting the ball cleanly. I felt strong, light on my feet. But anxiety gnawed at the edge of my consciousness. I needed a W to help counterbalance the three losses immortalized on the USTA’s computer.
My opponent, a lefty, seemed to have a complete game. He hit his forehand with a lot of power. His backhand was a soft-but hard-to-handle slice. Good touch at net. Corkscrew spins and blazing heat on his serve.
I broke him to go up 3-1. “Hold here, and the set is more or less finished,” I told myself. As my mind telescoped into the future, I tightened up. I knew that I was sabotaging myself, trying to protect a win that I didn’t yet own. The dynamic is distressingly familiar. How do I stop it? What if I can’t cultivate a Tibetan Buddhist’s ability to stay perpetually in the present? Is the Dalai Lama a good tennis player?
I tried to keep the ball deep. But topspin groundstrokes require a swing freedom that my demons had revoked. I’d put too much racket on the ball and drive it long. If I managed to keep it inside the court, my opponent would chip a short backhand that would catch me flatfooted. I’d race in, off-balance, and pound my usually reliable backhand against the back fence.
He tied it up at 3-3. We traded serves for the rest of the set. The quality of the tennis deteriorated. Our anxiety increased, each of us hitting tit-for-tat dinks as we tried to pick the first set from the other’s pocket. At 6-6, I exhaled. In the past, I’ve been solid in tiebreakers. The sight of the finish line gives me enough energy for one last charge. But not today. I couldn’t shake a feeling of resignation. I struggled to manufacture some intensity.
I was a point away from the first set. He was serving, down 5-6. He hit a soft, but high-bouncing ball to my backhand. I danced around it, stepped into the alley, and ripped a forehand down the line, a play that had won me two points earlier in the breaker. The ball rattled against the back fence. My opponent took the next point to go up 7-6. My serve.
An invisible malefactor attached a vise to my rotator’s cuff. My arm was nearly immobilized. I punched my first serve into the net. My second delivery was a soft, spinny ball, more a prayer than a tennis stroke. My opponent stepped inside the service box. He lined up his forehand, and drilled a winner into the corner. He took the first set, 7-6 (6).
The first set’s enervating closeness behind us, we loosened up. Both of us started swinging out, putting more stick on the ball and playing with more guts and variety. As our games broke free of their shackles, however, it became clear that he was the better player. Rather than chipping the backhand, he started to come over the ball, driving it deep into the corners. Unless I camped back there, I usually didn’t have much chance of tracking it down. I tried to pull him into the net, then lob over his head. I had some success, but his overhead started to click. With each winner he pounded, his teammates cheered, pumping him up and making me regret having given him the opportunity to win a point in such a definitive fashion.
I had some positives. As my arm loosened up, I started drilling my serve into his body, eliciting a few errors and a few balls that I could put away with an easy volley. But it wasn’t enough. He took the second set, and the match, 6-2.
The losing streak is wearing on me, but it happens. I heard Nadal had a tough weekend, too.