The wind gusted as I stepped onto Court 17, but it couldn’t move the dark clouds that had hung over my head since my last match of the 2009 season. I’d finished the year 0-5, beset by troubling questions about just what the heck I was doing out there on the asphalt.
I sought answers in the bottle. Nothing there. Maybe I needed something stronger than Diet Pepsi.
I did a few laps around Court 17 to get the blood flowing. This was my chance at redemption, my chance to prove that my calamitous 2009 had been an anomaly, the result of sunspots or disturbances in the electromagnetic field. Nothing to do with my game.
We started the 10-minute warm-up. My opponent hit a good ball, with plenty of pace, depth, and spin.
We struggled to adjust to the wind and the light. The sun danced in and out of the clouds. My movements were jerky. The ball seemed to dart out of the shadows, catching me unawares. I held serve to go up 4-3, but then dropped the next two games. My opponent was up 5-4, serving for the set.
I exhorted myself to fight. I’d been playing tentative tennis, hoping to hang on by my fingernails until the set was within my grasp. Now it was slipping away. I crouched low, coiled my legs. I started to find my forehand. I was putting the ball deep in the corners or catching the sidelines with sharp angles and heavy topspin. I broke back, 5 all.
My serve. Even if I won the next game, we’d theoretically be tied, or “on serve.” That may be true on the pro tour, but not at the 4.0 level, where the serve is rarely a reliable weapon. If I could hold, I knew I’d win the set.
My shoulder tensed, but I managed to hit an awkward ball off the sideline for an ace, my first of the match. I fired the next ball into my opponent’s body. It ricocheted off his racket frame. 30-love. And then another ace, this time a laser down the T. My opponent shook his head. I had no idea what was going, either. I won the next point, and took the game. 6-5.
It wasn’t quite as easy to close out the set. We played to deuce. I got the ad, but nerves started to paralyze my limbs. My groundstrokes fell short. I was playing scared, hoping he’d give me the set so that I wouldn’t have to take it. It’s a horrible feeling, one of the reasons I hate the sport I love.
My opponent drilled a backhand deep in the corner. I tracked it down and got my racket under the ball. I floated back a lob, but it was short. He waited on the other side of the net, racket cocked. And then a breeze pushed the ball off course. My opponent swung, and planted the easy overhead into the net. I’d taken the first set, 7-5.
I jumped out to a 2-0 lead. “Wrap this up, quick,” I told myself. “Don’t give him any hope.” And then he found his game. He started ripping his groundstrokes, channeling his rage at the bungled overhead into the best two-handed backhand I’ve ever had the misfortune to face. He bullied me off the baseline, pulled me wide, then cracked cold-blooded winners into the open court. He went up 4-2.
I held serve once more, but that was it. He held to go up 5-3, then broke me at love as I slapped a forehand long. We were tied at one set a piece. Nothing I’d accomplished in the past hour and a half had put me any closer to the winner’s circle.
The level of play deteriorated. Both of us were out there on the court, but most of the points were being played by our fears and frustrations. Chicken-hearted chip shots, gingerly tapped second serves. The strategy can work, but when it doesn’t you lose both the point and your dignity. “Don’t worry about winning,” I told myself. “Just play tennis. It’s OK to lose, but go down swinging.”
This is the right mindset. And absolutely impossible to accept in the heat of battle. But I loosened up a little. My opponent’s forehand was giving him trouble, and I tried to break it down. As we traded groundstrokes, I coiled low, prepared to attack the ball. The more aggressive posture energized me, extinguished the burn in my thighs. I held serve to go up 4-3.
“Break this guy!” I shouted inside my head. I figured his emotions must be doing a number on him. He’d been in clear command during the second set, but now we could see the finish line, and he was a few steps behind. I had to attack while he was vulnerable. I put a little more on my returns, came to the net. If he was going to win this game, he’d have to pass me. Point after point after point.
I broke him to go up 5-3. I was serving for the match. I put the first ball in play, and won the point. I missed my next serve, and much to my shame, chicken-tapped the second. The wind caught it, brought it down short in the box. My opponent couldn’t reach it. I went up 30 love.
At 30-15, we traded groundstrokes from corner to corner, covering every square inch of the backcourt. I gave him a backhand. Big mistake. He ripped a thunderbolt down the line. There was no way I could track it down. But it kept sailing, and landed two inches long.
I put the next ball in play. He hit a deep return. I gave him a forehand slice, another chicken-hearted shot. He put it in the net. 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
I looked up. The dark clouds above my consciousness had lifted.