I double-faulted on the first point, but put the next ball deep in the box. It kicked high to my opponent’s backhand. I raced forward. He muscled the ball back over the net. It hung lazily in midair. I rose up, smashed it deep into his forehand corner, 15-15. I ended the next three points in similar fashion to even the score at 1-all.
I wouldn’t win another game until the middle of the second set. My opponent shut me down 6-1, 6-1, brutalizing me with a powerful two-handed backhand. He was driving it deep cross-court, ripping it down the line, and spinning it through every angle in between.
I continued to serve and volley until the bitter end. I hit too many double-faults and stoned some easy volleys, but my level of play wasn’t poor enough to explain the thrashing. The guy was just too darn good.
Even so, the match was a victory of sorts. I vanquished the mental gremlins. Maybe they took the day off when they realized that, short of kneecapping my opponent, I had no chance to win. But I think it was the serve-and-volley game that kept them out of my cortex, a strategy that I decided to adopt after last week’s loss.
The attacking game is instinctual. You’re always moving forward, trampling your anxieties into the asphalt like a stampeding elephant. I had no time for fear or doubt.
Unfortunately, serve-and-volley is also a difficult game. You rarely see it on the 4.0 circuit. (“I was surprised by the serve and volley. It’s like a lost art,” my opponent marveled after the match, as if I’d just finished a reading of Aramaic verse.) I’m not sure I have the skills to make it work, at least not yet, but it suits my head.
After my match, I watched the second singles court. Both players were pushing the ball. I got anxious just watching. Eventually, one of the players would try to bring the torment to an end, sometimes with a go-for-broke groundstroke, more often with an ugly failure of nerve–a dropshot that fluttered into the net or a no-pace, no-spin forehand that floated just beyond the baseline.
I was disappointed by my loss, but not as despondent as I would have been on Court 2 in this spectacle of nerves.
I felt the same way Sunday, when I watched Federer and Nadal in the second set tiebreak of the Madrid Masters 1000 Series. At 3-all in the tiebreak, Federer planted himself on the baseline, determined to trade groundstrokes with Nadal and wait for the error. He’d abandoned his all-court virtuosity. Instead of Mozart, he was playing Chopsticks. It didn’t suit him.
As the rally extended, I could feel Federer’s anxiety emanating from the TV. His forehand found the net. A few points later, Nadal won the tiebreak and the title.
I’ve been there. I won’t go back.