Pressing

“I was pressing.”

Your interlocutor nods. It’s a respectable excuse. You pushed a little too hard, drove your game just a bit beyond its limits, and dropped a match that should have been yours. If only you hadn’t pressed.

“Against great players I rise to the challenge,” writes Andre Agassi in his autobiography Open. “Against bad players I press, which is the tennis term for not letting things flow. Pressing is one of the deadliest things you can do in tennis.”

A tendency to press may be the one thing I thing that Agassi and I share in common. A critical difference: He presses from a position of strength. I press from a position of weakness.

This morning, I was battling someone with a flat, powerful forehand. Give him a short ball, even a mid-court ball, and the point is over. The bazooka whistles past you, though the open court, skips off the asphalt, then explodes into the curtain. His backhand isn’t a weapon, but he doesn’t miss. He’ll rally from behind the baseline until your mind shatters, and you feed him a forehand. His point.

I was serving well. I was hitting my groundstrokes crisply. And I was losing every game. So I started to press.

Unlike Agassi, I wasn’t trying to brush away an inferior opponent with a barrage of knock-out blows. I was fighting for my life, battling a heavyweight with my bantam-weight game.

I tried for more depth on my backhand. I put a little more topspin on the ball, tried to drop it a couple of inches inside the baseline. Every once in a while, it worked. Too often, I hit the ball long or, in through a misguided application of topspin on the ball, left it in the middle of the court. My opponent lined up his forehand. His point.

Clearly, I was outmatched off the ground. So I felt like I needed to do more damage with my serve. I hit some beauties, including two aces down the  T. But, predictably, I threw in a lot of doubles. The harder I pressed, the more quickly the match slipped from my grasp. I blinked, and it was over. 6-2, 6-1.

When I press, I lose, just like Agassi. But maybe what I’m doing is not pressing, at least not as Agassi understands it. I’m just trying to compete against a superior opponent, a player I can’t beat. At least not yet.

–A. Clarke

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