I knew my opponent. I knew that his team had made it to the Philly Championships for the past two years, going as far as a sectional playoff against the best 4.0 teams from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. I also knew his strengths: physical fitness and mental strength, qualities that terrify me.
Why this guy? The question was an indulgence I couldn’t afford. It put me in the wrong frame of mind when my focus needed to be razor-sharp.
I served to open the set. I was tight and put a little extra muscle on the ball. I launched a missile at his backhand, the yellow ball dragging a tail of photons behind it. He hit it long. I relaxed. Maybe I could win this thing. We battled to deuce, but he eventually broke me to go up 0-1.
We traded breaks until he held to go up 4-2. It was just two games, one break, but the sun was bright, and the temperature was rising. The points were grueling–cross-court groundstroke exchanges punctuated by coy dropshots that brought us careening into the forecourt. If I lost the first set, would I have enough in the tank to come back?
I dropped serve to lose the set. “I’m surprised you’re hitting all these double-faults. You have such a nice fluid motion,” my opponent said at the changeover. In the right frame of mind, I could take this as a compliment. My serve was almost excellent. At the moment, however, what I heard was the incredulity of someone who was as baffled by my shortcomings as I was. Thanks, pal.
The first set had taken a lot out of me. I’d found myself on the losing end of too many long rallies, gasping for air, wiping sweat from my eyes, while my opponent stared at me Sphinx-like, ready to start the next point. I wasn’t going to beat this guy with my steady game. My fitness is probably up to the challenge, most of the time, but fear–the knowledge that this guy could run all day and that his head would never crack–was robbing me of energy. I was going to have to hit through the ball, risk some errors, and try to bully him off the court.
I felt oddly, irrationally, confident that this game plan would work. My opponent served first. I returned it deep down the middle. He gave me a forehand in the middle of the court. I stayed low, exploded up into the ball, and ripped a cold-blooded winner past his outstretched racket.
My opponent applauded my occasional SportsCenter highlight with equanimity, happily awaiting the inevitable rash of unforced errors. At 0-3, I told myself to fight. I was still in this. At the changeover, my opponent picked up his water bottle, leaned against the net post. “So Andy, where do you live?” Was this neighborly chit-chat or a devious attempt to grind the fragments of my focus into dust? The latter, no doubt.
I stuck with the high-risk game, and as the sun neared its peak and my fatigue intensified, the errors multiplied. Down 0-5 and 0-40 on my serve, I drove a forehand into the back fence. 3-6, 0-6.
I’m not upset by the loss. I lost to the better player. But I’m not happy with the way I competed. I’d conceded an edge to my opponent even before the first ball was struck. I forced myself to battle both my opponent’s strokes and an awesomely powerful bogeyman: the fear that he would be too tough to beat.