I remember when I first started playing league tennis. My sister-in-law played on a team that's something of a powerhouse in our region, and she returned from her first trip to Princeton with stories of drinking heavily and playing with hangovers.
Having said that, it's going to sound really odd that her tales made me want to go to USTA regionals. I'm not a lush, I swear. Really, it was the camaraderie that made me want to go, but it was always one of those things I never thought I'd actually get to do. I never thought I'd be good enough, and therefore thought no team that was good enough would pick me up.
This season, everything managed to click for me. I found a team full of ladies who had the combination I've always looked for: they had a great time on court and they wanted to win. Look, the bottom line is this: If you find a team that grills hot dogs after every match, um, you've found your team. Hello!
Anyway, it was great to achieve the "impossible" with the best team ever. (Hot dogs! Hello!) Before we left town, we got a message from our captain featuring the weather forecast and an organized list of who was bringing what. Yes, the weather forecast.
Now what was missing from that weather forecast was that although it's only 85 degrees, the sun apparently is two hundred times hotter. Within an hour, I had darkened by two shades -- and that was before I started playing.
And here's something else I didn't envision. See, I figured that any facility hosting the USTA regionals would be near-perfect. So I didn't expect to warm up(Intermission! Oh, my gosh. Does anyone else gag when they see Andy Roddick volley? No pro has ever made me feel so good about any part of my game.) on a court with no net, and pastures growing through the cracks. But I did, for 20 minutes. That just didn't scream Princeton to me. But enough of the snobbery.
I felt pretty calm when we were called to the tournament desk to start our first round-robin match. Pretty calm when her team cheered wildly for her when her name was called. Pretty calm ignoring her while listening to the soundtrack to "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" on my mp3. (Don't hate.) When I grabbed my racquet and walked to the backcourt to warm up, my heart skipped a beat. And then another one. My hand? Shaking. My legs? Stuck.
I started the match already trying to talk myself down -- and unable to serve. Or hit groundstrokes. Or concentrate. Fortunately for me, my opponent was having the same problem. Neither of us could establish a hold on the first set. Oh, yeah, until I served for the first set at 5-4. And at 6-5. That didn't go very well. So, my first set at Princeton went to a tiebreaker. Right away, I found myself down 5-3, and staged a mini-comeback. We traded set points until my opponent made her move, and won the set.
The bad news was I lost the set. The good news is that my nerves were gone. Or so I thought. Hindsight being 20/20 and all, I realize that my inability to stay focused was a sign of nervousness. I felt I would play better in the second set, and the exact opposite happened. I lost the second set, 6-3.
Obviously, I wasn't happy. One of my concerns this season, despite my success, was that I couldn't win matches against people who were at my level. Not above, mind you, but someone who I was on par with. This opponent definitely fit that description. She wasn't better than me, and I felt I should have won, or at least played better. Worse, I didn't know why I lost. And even worse than that, I had allowed my husband to convince me to wear my Wonder Woman shirt to my first match. Not a bad fashion statement, but it doesn't really work when you lose.
Anyway, we were on a two-match-a-day schedule, and I had to shake it off to prepare for my next match. And for an idea of my mental state, I warmed up for five minutes with my next opponent and played a game with her before I realized she was the pusher.
The dreaded pusher. I believe I've documented my problems with pushers at TWA in the past. I'm going to take it a little further. No offense to pushers (whenever someone starts with "no offense" ... get ready to be offended, right?), but pushers shouldn't play tennis. Because that's not tennis. It's tapping the ball, hoping not to eff things up enough to lose. Not tennis at all. And I'm not buying the idea that it takes a certain amount of savvy to play that style. If you can hold a racquet, you can be a pusher. No skill required. Being a pusher should be an instant default in a match.
Anyway, back to the Princeton pusher. Once I picked up on her pushiness, I decided to be aggressive. I charged the net whenever I got the chance, and, especially in the first set, had plenty of opportunity to put away winners at the net. I missed just about every one of them. Overheads, volleys, short putaways. I missed them all, and had no idea I could miss so much. Unbelievable. To help in matters, this woman's husband is right behind us, and cheering every shot I botched. Thanks, jackass. (Boy, the crap you notice when you're losing a match.)
I lost the first set, 6-1, but again, I felt good. I thought I was doing the right thing by staying with the idea of net charging. I had opportunities, and thought it impossible that I'd continue to miss my shots. Ha ha. Oh, possible. Very possible.
Second verse -- same as first. I was so angry at myself for losing to another pusher that I didn't even wait for her after the match. (You and your opponent must report the score together and sign off on the score. Oh, and by the way, if you need to do something humiliating, you should do this after you've gotten your ass kicked, 6-1, 6-1 to a pusher.)
I tossed and turned a lot overnight. I was thinking about how horrible I was, and also worried about being late for the morning match. For some stupid reason, they schedule matches for 8:30 a.m. (you have to report a half-hour before match time, on top of that), and I was paranoid my alarm clock wouldn't go off. Because I didn't sleep much, that wasn't a problem. I was up way before the alarm. We left the hotel with not too much time to spare, which turned out to be another problem.
We missed our exit to the courts, and soon found ourselves driving up to a toll in Trenton. For the uninitiated, that's the wrong damn way. I finally had to call my team and tell them I had no idea where I was going, and I wasn't sure if I could make it, which was a low point. I could hear their disappointment, but they told me to hurry up, because they were holding the court. The organizer decided she wouldn't default anyone. Instead, when I finally did show up at around 9:15, my lateness had cost me the loss of toss and three games. In case you thought I was mentally tough enough to overcome my morning tour of the Princeton ghetto, and a 3-0 deficit, you were wrong. I lost 6-2, 6-3, and again, completely unable to hold a thought in my head.
After the match, I pretty much tried to skulk away from my teammates, but they wouldn't let me, although when they went to lunch, I felt too guilty to join them. I figured I'd be pulled from the lineup in favor of someone who could show up to their matches on time, but I wasn't. A couple hours later, it was time for the next match, and although my team was down 0-3 so far, we kept our heads up. OK, they kept their heads up. Never mind getting lost, I couldn't believe I was playing so poorly. By the time match 4 began, I had no confidence. So, I decided to swing out and go for broke.
Until my match started, that is. My opponent was hitting just as hard as I was, on both sides, and before I knew it, I was down 0-2. And then, I had my first coherent thought all weekend:
"Wow, she plays like me. Hits hard. Oh, wait. If she's like me, she makes a lot of mistakes."
I am not exaggerating. That was my revelation. Instead of slugging with her, I decided to get the ball back, deep, and just like that, we were tied at 2. Also, as the first set progressed, I noted she was looking winded.
I got the service yips at 4-5 and lost the first set, but again, I felt good. First off, she looked like she was about to cramp up or pass out. And I knew that the longer the match went on, the better things were for me. Even the long rallies I eventually lost gave me confidence -- more than I've had in some time. For a change, I was right, and I won the second set, 6-1. At this tournament, a 10-point stupid tiebreaker decides the match. I jumped out to a 7-3 lead, and had some more serve yips. Before I knew it, it was 7-6. And I wasn't about to lose again, not in a match where I was so close. And I didn't. I stepped up and put away the short balls, and buried the urge to double-fault. And a couple minutes later, I had won. Finally.
So reporting match scores and signing your name to it when you've won is actually a better feeling. Looking over the scorecard, I noticed my team had lost two of the best-of-five matches, and I had delivered the first win. I ran over just in time to watch our #1 doubles team go to a tiebreaker. Then, while we sought out the #3 doubles match, we found our teammates bounding toward us. Win number 2. We were at 2-all, with our hopes of leaving with a face-saving win on a 10-point breaker. It was pretty nip-tuck, until my teammates watched the last shot sail out. We won!!
The next day, we had one last match, and my captain gave me the day off, which meant I was able to leave Princeton with a victory. Before I left the facility for the last time, I ran into one of my friends on the 4.0 men's team. He asked me how I did, and I told him I'd won, but that I wished I'd played better. He told me that he had come to Princeton for the first time last year, and played nervously, and said that this year, he was much calmer. "It's a learning experience, the first time," he said, and that's what I got to leave Princeton with.
I've heard a lot of people go negative about USTA league tennis. "Too time-consuming..." "Too catty ..." "Blah blah blah ..."
No offense, but none of those people have ever been to their regionals. Because the feeling of taking on the best of the best is the best. Win or lose, you walk in -- and out -- knowing that not everyone gets to compete here. You work for it, and damn it, you work some more to go back. Next year, utter world domination!
And, I don't know ... maybe next time, a Supergirl shirt?