Sunday, June 07, 2009

LEAGUE WATCH: Three reasons to hate tennis

Last Saturday, I found myself in a strange place during my team's league match.
As per the predetermined schedule, I was sitting for the match, and to be honest, I didn't really mind at first. I couldn't remember the last time I'd started a league season with two straight losses. OK, I can. But one good year has spoiled me, and I expect nothing but the best from myself.
Plus, my second loss was a 6-2, 6-2 beatdown by an old lady who "sliced and diced me to death" -- her words. My words for that match probably involve some language not suitable for a family blog. I spent about an hour in that match running after balls and wondering why I wasn't the one standing in the middle of the court dictating play.
So I needed a week off. In that time, I had been playing more singles, doubles and improving my serve. I was feeling good going into yesterday's match.
What really sweetened the pot for this match was the opposing team -- most of my friends from my home court over at Highland Park. I had also been asked to join this team when it was established this year, but had already committed to my team. So there was a little friendly rivalry.
In warming up with my opponent, I was grateful for two things. First, I didn't know her. I can never play well against my friends. Second, she was hitting the ball. My first two matches were against lobbers (who, I feel, have a special cubbyhole in hell) and while her pace was a bit tough, I still felt it was a matchup I could handle. I felt as though my mind was engaged -- a major departure from my first match.
I jumped out to a 5-2 lead, and found myself getting really tight. My opponent, meanwhile, had taken to hitting lobs. High, arcing, baseline-kissing lobs. And, I, in my supreme idiocy, began lobbing back, pushing the ball around, hoping she'd start missing balls again. I dropped the next two games, but tried to talk myself down. "All you have to do is win this game," I told myself. "No pressure."
In response to myself, I double faulted a couple times in my next service game and took the set to 5-all. Oh, and then I had to serve to get INTO A TIEBREAK FOR A SET IN WHICH I WAS UP 5-2. Oh, yes. That was also awesome.
OK, tiebreak. I build a 4-2 lead, and then make two unbelievably stupid mistakes, including an attempted drop-shot return at 4-3. Guess where that went. If you guessed the net, then you'd be right. And things got really tight after that. We switched sides at 6-6, and one point later, I was serving down 6-7. My second serve plopped right into the net.
To say I was a little, er, miffed, would be understating it. But as the second set began, a couple of my teammates were there to encourage me, telling me I was looking good and that it was all mine. It helped, as corny as it might sound. It also allowed me to relax enough to think about the debacle that had been the first set. I realized that the points toward the end had been far too short -- because I was ending them in errors. I felt I needed to keep the ball in play, go for winners inside the service line and use my burgeoning slice, which my opponent seemed to dump into the net. Speaking of the net, all my misses were landing there, and I encouraged myself to hit out, and if they were long, it was better than the net.
I made a special effort to move my feet (which always stop when I get nervous) and began to hit my shots. I waited for the ball to get to me and attacked the backhand side of my opponent, and put more on my serve. When the ball was short in the court, I moved in carefully and ran around my backhand to hit a better shot. The points were longer, but I was winning most of them, and the second set ended in my favor at 6-1.
The third set was more of the same. Until, that is, I went up 5-2. Now, at this point, there were two matches left -- my match and the other singles. All the doubles had ended, and our team had split 2-1. All we needed was one more match, and we would win. And we needed this win. We were 2-1 in overall standings, and although we have a playoff system, the goal is to keep the "L" column low. So, we needed this.
It's probably not the best thing that I was thinking all this while I was standing at the service line. I peeked over at the score in the other match, and we were up, but it was still close. My goal was to get all my serves in and to be careful. My opponent, meanwhile, hadn't hit a groundstroke since late in the second set, and was now opening her racquet face (the way you would to balance three balls on your racquet head) and pushing everything. Everything. She was remarkably good at this, keeping most balls deep and in corners. She wasn't missing much, except when she stumbled coming in or when she pushed one long. Anyway, I got anxious and went away from the plan. I went back to pushing with her, watching balls land short, but not pursing them because I was afraid I'd miss. And again, I found myself with a dwindling lead. 5-3. 5-4. 6-5. I lost every game. Meanwhile, the other singles match had ended, and I could tell my the cheers of the opposing them that it was all on me.
And I blinked.
One double-fault, a wayward forehand and a two-handed backhand volley that landed wide, and I was down 3-0. I got it to 4-2 with a running passing shot, but it was the last good contact I had with the ball. I tried to calm myself, convince myself to get back to the plan, when I stood to serve, down 3-6. I eased in a second serve and then hit a forehand while stumbling backwards. I knew it would be long.
Nearly three hours later, I had lost a match that I had multiple opportunities to win. And even now, it makes my stomach turn. This one's going to stay with me for some time, I think. I know why -- I've never thrown a match away before. Obviously, I've come out with my back to the wall and lost that. I've also been in real tussles with equal players, but never been unable to convert match points or match games when I had them. I felt I wasn't being outplayed -- my opponent played as scared as I did. If you have that many chances to win and come away with a loss, it's because of you. It's disappointing, because I had a great year last year, and thought I was past the yips. More painful is that I can visualize the points in hindsight where if I had done something else -- no drop shot return in the first set, not quitting on a point because I thought my shot was going out -- that would have made a huge difference. I choked, and that's hard to swallow.
So. It really sucked to have to write this. And as bad as I feel right now, I know the only thing that will make it go away is to play again, to win again. I have to get back on the horse. And there's no better way than to start at the beginning, with my goals for the season:
1. To make it back to Princeton -- and to win maybe two matches this time. (With this team loss, this one's almost completely out of our hands at this point -- everyone would need to lose twice for us to get back in the race. But ... you play to win the game, right, Herminator?)
2. To get moved up to the 4.0 level. (ri-ight)
3. To win (the rest of) my matches and utterly dominate all my opponents. (Stop laughing.)


Kim said...

I think you've already done the first and most painful thing you can do to get yourself on track again - analyze what made you lose that match. It's amazing how much of tennis is mental. Good luck - I'm sure you're going to be winning again.

yogahz said...

Been there.
Done that.

It sucks, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. (Also, just glad to be here, it's all about the team and I just put in the work.)

I think the biggest difference between 3.5 and 4.0 isn't the physical tennis it's the mental tennis. It's consistency and an ability to finish. You already have the game.

My Dad used to say he'd rather I hit it out than in the net - groundstrokes, serves, whatever. Hitting out like that (not "out", you know what I mean) also helps loosen up the "iron elbow" that nerves creates. Sometimes I just have to let a few fly in order to regroup. There's the added bonus that your opponent might try to hit one of those shots.

My team is headed to sectionals at Sunriver, Oregon in 2 weeks. Our season is entirely indoors but this will be outside at altitude so balls will be flying. I'm trying not to care too much, besides, if we win we'd have/get to go to Palm $prings for the next level.

Naf said...

Thanks, guys!
Kim, I'm always saying how mental tennis is, and it's so unfair! It's amazing how much you can work on your game, only to fail because of what's between your ears. Blows.
I think you're right about 3.5 v. 4.0, yogahz. When I play 4.0 people or better, I always am the first to make an error. I have a tournament match this week against a 4.0/4.5 player, and I'm determined to be stronger. I also think that if I'd continued to encourage myself to hit "out", I would have finished better. And if my team had won, I wouldn't feel as bad, either. And, hey, by the way, congratulations! I want to know what happens! Please don't forget to swing by here and tell me all about it. Just have fun and the rest will come.