My opponent was serving huge. We play each other throughout the winter. We’re a pretty even match. Sometimes his serve will desert him, which scrambles his head and gives me a chance to purloin a few games while he’s wrestling with his demons. But not yesterday.
I was never able to take control of his service games. He was missing some first serves, but he brought the second just a big. The shelling put pressure on my own serve, which broke down at enough critical moments to hand him a 6-3, 6-3 victory. I took consolation from the belief that I’d simply come up against a riddle I couldn’t solve.
Until we started chatting after the match. “Why’d you stop serving and volleying?” my opponent said. “Up until about March, you were smothering me with that game. But then you stopped.”
This past winter, I made a deliberate effort to stay back and develop greater shot tolerance–the ability to trade groundstrokes from the back court until an opportunity presents itself. At 4.0, this kind of cautious game usually comes out on top. The barons of the backcourt can rally all day long, feeling no anxiety or desperation as the stroke count climbs. They know that, eventually, the other guy will break.
Unfortunately, that other guy is me. Despite months of practice, I don’t have faith that the long rallies will break my way. Maybe the cautious game doesn’t suit my on-court personality. At some point, as yet another neutral backhand floats back over the net, I crack. I try to rip a winner from three feet behind the baseline, forgetting that I’m not Juan Martin del Potro.
Serve-and-volley might be the answer. At the net, the ball’s immediacy gives you no time to ruminate, no time for a long rally to wring panic from your amygdala. But I can’t fool myself. Serve-and-volley is high-risk. You’re going to get passed. You’re going to stone some volleys into the net. To win, you have to seize victory. You’ve forsaken the possibility of waiting for your opponent to give it to you. You’re all in.
Those odds make me nervous. But I may not be emotionally capable of playing steady tennis from the backcourt. As the season unfolds, the cautious game is looking increasingly risky.