Here in the Allegheny Mountain district, when the word "Princeton" is uttered at the beginning of a USTA season, we know what it means. For the uninitiated, it means you want to book a spot in the regional championships in August. If you want to do that, you have to turn in a solid season. Then you have to beat the best in your division in the playoffs.
Because there are 21 teams in the 3.5 division in our district, we are divided into two groups. One group plays during the week, and ours plays on weekends. The top two teams from each group advance to the playoffs. I don't really want to brag, but my team finished first in our group. That's bragging, I guess, but it doesn't mean much at the end of the season. The last team standing at the end of playoffs – not the top seeds – would represent our district at regionals.
Anyway, I was really jacked. Until I found out when our playoffs were.
OK, this is a recreational league, right? Why, then, would anyone want to play at 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday? I grinned, (sort of) though, and bore it (kind of). I've never won anything in my entire life. Except tickets to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So, I was definitely looking for something more.
On Saturday, I was awake at 6:10 a.m., calculating how much more sleep I could get without being late. About ten minutes later, my personal MVP, my husband, was awake, too. I told him he didn't have to come (even though I really, really wanted him to), but he groggily insisted. (I'm not sure he even remembers waking up and coming to see my match.)
God bless my teammates. Really. But I couldn't understand why no one else looked as tired as I felt. Everyone was up and at 'em, and urging me onto the court to warm up. You should have seen them, all alert and everything. (Incidentally, I recognized for the first time that they were all wearing red and white, which must have been our team colors all season. Hunh.)
Our semifinal match pitted us against the second-best team in the day flight. The worst thing about this matchup is that I didn't know what to expect. I knew my likely opponent was good, having dropped just two matches out of 10 or 11 all season. As we warmed up, I noted that she sliced down on every ball she hit, and I thought if I kept the ball deep, it’d give her less time to go through her motion. And, that, friends, was the last coherent thought I had all that morning.
We started out evenly, but when we had to get a USTA official to help us with the score (even though I say it before every point), I knew I was officially in a fog. My next service game was literally over before I knew it. I couldn’t keep a thought in my head, couldn’t come up with a consistent plan to keep my shots from landing a foot long or wide. Especially in the first set, I’d set things up to get into the net, only to make huge volley errors. Even though I started out with a 2-0 lead in the second set, it was a struggle to stay focused. Sometime in the second set, I looked up and down at the other matches. To my left, my teammate had dropped the first set of her match, while my team had already won one of three doubles matches. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like we were losing the other two as well.
I tried to let this motivate me to dig in, but I couldn’t stop making mistakes. I’d have two or three solid points, then nothing for two games. Soon, I was shaking hands as the loser, and hoping my eyes were deceiving me on the other courts.
And they were. The other singles match had swung dramatically, and now my teammate was up 5-1 in a third-set tiebreaker. A couple minutes after that, she’d wrapped up a win, and we were up, two matches to one.
We headed up to the upper level to watch the other matches. The opposing team took the second court of doubles, which meant that whoever won the third doubles match would advance to the final match. Our team was up in the match, 6-4, 5-4, and 40-0 on the opponent’s serve, but perhaps sensing the importance of the match, all four players got extremely tight. How tight? OK, server serves. Net people back up to the baseline, and all four players are poking the ball back and forth to each other. I am not kidding – those rallies were going on for about thirty or forty strokes! All of us spectators stood up there, begging our teammates to hit a ball! Please, put away a sitter! SOMEONE!!
Well, about fifteen minutes (and only five points) later, my teammates watched the last ball float wide, and we were in the final! Wooooo! We went to lunch to celebrate while the other semifinal opponents took the court. By the time we returned, we knew who we were facing, and it was a surprise: the top team in the day division -- and in the opinion of most-- the toughest team of the four, had lost. This was good news, because we knew our opponents. We had already beaten them this season. Unfortunately, it had been a close one. We didn’t know what they’d do with their lineup, but we decided over lunch to play them straight up -- no stacking -- and we were confident we’d do well.
I was also determined to do better than I had that morning, regardless of who I played. Just before our match, I realized the girl I’d played the first time around would be my opponent again. I was confident, but I started off the match the way I ended the last one – chok’ full o’ mistakes. Fortunately, my opponent was also good for about three errors a game. I shored up my game long enough to grab the first set, and started the second pretty well. I’d decided to swing out, especially on my backhand, the side I’ve been sort of worried about lately. The strategy worked well, and after the first game, my opponent began to spray ball everywhere. About fifteen minutes later, it was over, and walking off the court, I shook my index finger at a cheering teammate. One win down. Minutes later, our first court doubles team wrapped up our second win. One more, and we were going to Princeton!
We wouldn’t have to wait for long. My other teammate on the singles court (who claims to hate singles) scored our third win, and we went a little nutso. Our “message” got out to our teammates still on court, and they were beaming as they finished up their matches. We didn’t lose one match in the final, and only lost one set! We were going to Princeton!
I didn’t grow up playing a lot of sports, and so I suppose I’d been a bit detached from the meaning of the word “team”. I’ve watched NBA, NFL and even team tennis teams celebrate, and it always looks nice. But I really understood the meaning of the word this weekend. Whether you lose or win individually, it’s an unbelievable feeling to have supportive teams ready to celebrate with you, no matter what. I’m not just saying this because WE’RE GOING TO PRINCETON!!!, but having a fun group of people to compete with really makes the team experience what it is. At the end of that long day, I wasn’t (too) upset about losing a match that day. I was happy that WE came out on top.
Plus, I’ve finally won something I don’t have to be embarrassed about. No offense, Trans-Siberian Orchestra.