I rose early to defrost my strokes against the hitting wall at the local public courts. I downed a high-protein power shake. I popped McFadden & Whitehead into the dash and motored to Lansdowne, desperately searching for an end to my losing streak.
The courts were maybe a mile from Philly’s city line, but seemed to be tucked into a remote corner of West Virginia. I pulled off the main strip and drove down a narrow stretch of crumbling asphalt, bordered on either side by a riot of greenery and wooden clapboard shacks set back from the road.
These pockets of urban Appalachia are surprisingly common in Philly. If you’re biking from Conshohocken into the city, for example, you seem to take a detour through the Smoky Mountains before alighting on Manayunk’s upscale Main Street.
My opponent hit the ball with violent topspin. His serve had a nasty kick. But I felt like I could hang with him. I was feeling good about my equipment, too. This season, I’ve been playing in an old pair of shoes–worn soles, tattered uppers. When my game starts to break down, I cast an accusing look at my footwear.
But I can never really convince myself that my shoes are the problem, and the proverbs invade my consciousness: “A bad carpenter blames his tools.” This week, I’d made sure to preempt the distracting mental chatter. I was wearing a new pair of kicks, dancing around the baseline like Federer.
I broke my opponent’s serve, then held to go up 2-0. At this point, the condition that has plagued me all season became crystal-clear: a debilitating fear of losing. Before I’d even had a chance to get loose, I tightened up, desperate to shepherd my two game lead to the set’s conclusion. My groundstrokes started landing in the middle of the court. My opponent loosened up. He ripped heavy topspin balls that fell deep in the corners and ran away from me as I tried to chase them down.
My first serve went AWOL. My opponent jumped on my second delivery, hammering unreturnable shots into the corners. The set got away from me in a hurry, 6-3.
My opponent was pumped. He was tap-dancing on the baseline as I prepared to serve. He was impatient to punish the ball. His energy got under my skin. It intimidated me. I fell behind 1-5.
And then the fear went into remission. I figured I’d already lost. I stopped worrying about the result and started seeing the ball. My body found a rhythm. I felt my legs, torso, and arm move in synchronicity as I drove the racket face through my forehand. My shots were landing deep, with the kind of topspin that moves through the court. I was pushing my opponent off the baseline. He started to float back defensive lobs. I put the ball in the corners and elicited some errors.
I served and came in. I punched a half volley into the backhand corner. My opponent chased it down. I closed the net, carved under his reply, and dropped the ball on the sideline of the deuce court. It was good for only one point, but prompted a half-hearted cheer from someone dozing on a nearby bench. The moment seemed to salvage the morning.
At 5-4, my opponent held his nerve. He went up 40-15, then closed out the match with an ace down the T. 6-3, 6-4. Another loss, but I left the court with a little less doubt. I can compete with these guys if I can just stop worrying about the outcome. But how?