"Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you're not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. 'Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That's just the way it is. "
Clint Eastwood, The Outlaw Josey Wales, 1976
For those of us whose tennis days live and die on the whims of the weather, it's league time. If you're a real die-hard, you've been working on your game, rain or shine, on public courts, because you refuse to pay to play tennis for one measly hour. If you're truly obsessed, you'll travel to faraway lands to play in tournaments, taking your chances against all manner of competition.
Color me obsessed. My husband and I decided to mix in a tennis tournament with our vacation recently, and traveled to foreign Spartanburg, South Carolina. We did our research on the USTA Web site and gathered that things looked good for us. We'd been fine-tuning our games, and couldn't wait to unload it on a bunch of unsuspecting Southerners. I was also buoyed by (shameless plug) my recent publication in Tennis magazine (tennis.com) and privately fantasized about being recognized.
We drove into Spartanburg the same day we were due to play our singles matches, and made it in plenty of time to hit. But for the first time since I started playing, I couldn't keep a ball in court, and neither could Jerry. I looked at my watch. One hour to game time. This was not part of the plan.
Five-thirty found us still trying to hit straight, and our opponents drawing near. The woman I was set to play shook my hand as we walked over to our court. "Didn't you have a story in Tennis magazine?" she asked. When I nodded, she gestured to her husband. "This is the girl!" she said.
That felt nice. Real nice. But any chance I had of letting it get to my head faded when I found myself down 0-3 in the first set. I glanced over to Jerry, who was on the court next to me, and looked equally exasperated. I tried using drop shots to make my opponent run, which seemed to make her miserable, but I missed one. When I did, I felt myself lose confidence in the strategy, although it had gotten me a game, and I lost my way. The remainder of the match consisted of flailing around in my arsenal, but finding nothing to truly hurt my opponent, least of all consistency.
At the end of the drubbing, she approached me at the net, shaking her head and smiling regretfully. "The wind was the third player," she said. "And your serve let you down."
I smiled back. "Thanks," my mouth said. Bitch, my mind thought.
Fortunately, there were free libations available. My husband and I moped while we drank and mingled. As much as I had looked forward to this tournament, league play, this whole season, I now felt like I should be have been playing another sport. I briefly considered breaking the color barrier in curling, but concluded that that was the champagne.
The next day, we were pissed, and resolved that we had to win our mixed doubles match, and the trophy. After all, it was our wedding anniversary, right? Right. We lost 6-4, 6-4.
A point in the final game of that match felt to me like a microcosm of our South Carolina experience. Jerry hit a shot that appeared to (definitely) hit the baseline. The man on the other team called the ball out. We looked at each other doubtfully, then to the man. "I thought it was gonna be good, too. The wind must've carried it out."
"Yeah," I said loudly, as we took position for the next point. I made sure my next words were layered in sarcasm. "Must've been the wind."
I swung wildly at the next ball, and hit it right into the net. Soon, we were put out of our misery.
Later that day, when we arrived in Asheville, N.C., our next destination, that point, and its aftermath kept replaying in my head.
I held no reservations about the status of Jerry's ball. I knew it was good, and that guy had robbed us. My reaction was to get mad. I realized that I should have gotten mean, stingy.
Anger can flare up anytime, and unless your name is McEnroe, it does a player no good on court. But meanness can take you a long way. Anger is an emotion; meanness is an attitude. If you can step out on the court with the intention to be mean, to give nothing to your opponent, to take everything away from them when a weakness is exposed, you're mean. Plumb, mad-dog mean.
Good luck, league warrior.