I ate two horse pills of Ibuprofen, and washed them down with 20 ounces of Starbucks. The skies were clear, the temperature mild. I felt good. Today, I’d break my losing streak.
My opponent had maybe 15 years and a good six inches on me. His long limbs were Archimdean levers, transferring terrifying power into his groundstrokes. His serve was a monster, kicking high in the ad court and yanking me outside the lines. I was undaunted. I’d decided to play serve and volley. Last week, I declared that the attacking game was my game. I’d no longer stay on the baseline and trade groundstrokes until someone’s head exploded. I fell behind 0-4. I made a battlefield decision. Serve-and-volley was for the birds.
My forehand was feeling good. I was keeping the ball deep, moving it from side to side. He hit the ball hard, but I absorbed the body blows, and hammered his midsection with haymakers of my own. I won the next 3 games. It was 4-3, his serve. I knew I had to break him here.
He rifled a first serve deep into the corner of the ad court. I moved forward, caught it perfectly, and returned the shot with interest. He backpedaled, got the edge of his frame on the ball, and knocked it out of play. We traded points to multiple deuces. Neither one of us could land the knockout punch. He got the ad. He put the serve deep to my backhand. I returned it deep. We traded cross-court backhands, my best shot. It’s not a weapon, but unlike my forehand, it won’t break down.
Unfortunately, his was a bit better. He put a little something extra on his ball, and knocked me back on my heels. My reply was short, just inside the service box. He moved forward, his long legs covering the distance with two or three graceful strides. He hit a delicate dropshot winner, a stiletto through my ribcage.
I held serve to put the score at 4-5, his serve. This is tennis at its most excruciating, the margin for error so small, the consequence of any mistake so huge. The difference between losing and winning the set, between starting the next one with a millstone around your neck or a song in your heart, is one or two errant shots. He held easily to take the first set 6-4.
I put on a new wristband during the changeover. (A superstition: If I lose the first set, I’ve got to put on a new wristband.) I was certain that I’d win the second set, take it to a third, and record my second victory of the season.
The second set was aggressive baseline tennis at its finest, both of us staying low, exploding into the ball, and ripping our groundstrokes deep.
A highlight: My opponent served. I returned his forehand deep. We exchanged groundstrokes. I maneuvered him into the backhand corner, and ripped an approach shot to his forehand. I raced in. He deflected a lob. I scampered back, threw up another lob, repositioned myself in the middle of the baseline. He stepped in, used his height to hammer down on the ball, a bullet into the corner. He approached the net. I transferred the potential energy from my crouch into the accelerating racket head. My passing shot whistled past his outstretched racket. I turned, looked at my teammates who were seated in the bleachers. The captain gave me a thumbs-up.
Neither of us could break. We were tied at 5-5, my serve. If I could hold here, make him serve to stay in the set, I knew that his head would implode.
Unfortunately, my serve is horribly erratic. One game, I’m throwing down aces, the next I’m tightening up. My consciousness is screaming at my autonomic nervous system, berating it with every tip it has ever heard, as I try to put the ball in the box. I plead with myself to go Zen, be the ball, but the effort is futile.
At 5-5, I had a tight game. I lost at love. 6-5, his serve. I tap-danced on the baseline, urging myself to fight. “Just get this to a breaker. Then you’ve got him,” I told myself. I won the first point, but lost the next four and the match, 4-6, 5-7.
The effort was solid. Victory was visible. But the USTA computer will record another loss. At the start of this season, I’d hoped to play .500 ball. But the season is almost over, and my ambitions are more modest. I just want to put another W on the scoreboard. I probably have two or three more chances. The pressure is rising.