I was serving to go up 4-3. A vent on the roof of the McDonald’s behind me discharged a greasy smog that settled on my weary frame. Four more points, and I’d lock my opponent in a stockade of self-doubt and desperation. The pressure of a two game deficit would immobilize his shoulder, giving me the set.
While my mind telescoped into the future, I double-faulted and put an easy forehand into the net. I pulled myself together, and fired a bullet out wide in the deuce court. He leaned to his right–no footwork, no preparation, nothing that in a just universe would be required to produce an effective shot.
The return floated high and deep. It bounced on the baseline, leapt at my backhand. I muscled it back over the net, consumed by frustration. He’d neutralized my best serve of the day with an awkward, off-balance flick of the racket.
He carved under a drop-shot. I sprinted forward, poked the ball up the line. He stretched, connected. I stepped into a volley–not with as much authority as I’d hoped, but surely enough to get the job done. The volley headed for his shoelaces. He was there, pure reflex. The ball floated over my head, landed a foot inside the baseline.
“Let’s go, Gangsta!” His teammates roared from the bleachers. I lost the next point and the lead.
Was I just unlucky? Maybe, but bad luck is the least of my on-court struggles. A few years ago, when I was winning more matches, I’d feel an intensity at crunch time, a certainty that I could beat my opponent (even when I couldn’t). I’d stand on the baseline, about to explode out of my shoes, as if I’d just been plugged into an electrical socket. Come hammer time, I was ready to swing.
I’ve lost that intensity. I try to manufacture it. I heave big ragged, breaths like a rhino ready to charge. But I’m faking it. Maybe it’s burnout, maybe just a loss of confidence. My opponent took the next two games and the set.
I inhaled a lungful of McDonald’s fry oil and tried to put the negativity aside. No reason I should have lost the first set. We traded service games to 3-all.
I was beating my opponent off the ground, but he was superior on the serve, and he could bring it big when it counted most. In almost every one of his service games, I was getting to deuce and usually securing a break point. But then he’d thwart me with a nasty kick-serve that bounced deep in my backhand corner and exploded above my shoulder.
The kick was the difference-maker. It got inside my head. Break point opportunities kept presenting themselves, but not in a form that I could capitalize on. I was dying of thirst, and my opponent was offering me ladles of steam.
“Let’s go, Gangsta!” He shut me down, 6-4, 6-3.