Lately, all my matches have followed a similar theme. I start out well in the first set, sometimes even winning it, then "take a personal set" and then - at just when I used to need to talk myself down - I think. At the tightest points I've been playing lately, and sometimes in the middle of a point, I just breathe. Then I do what I need to do by going back to the strategy and just making it happen.
I guess the best example of this was my team's last USTA match of the season. It was a pretty big deal. We win and we are in. As in, in the division playoffs. We get a spot in a four-team, one-day competition for a spot in Princeton for sectionals. We lose, and we're done for the season. So, although the team we were up against wasn't the toughest, the scenario might make a few racquets a bit heavier.
I had to admit to a few nerves, but I swear, every time I get nervous, I think of the last time I got nervous and choked away a match, and I toughen right up. I was back at singles, and my opponent was a solid-enough player, and really liked to crush balls midcourt. So, simple plan. Keep the ball deep.
I was feeling pretty comfortable at the beginning, and peeked down to check on everyone else. Down the line, all our teams were up. Yes! So I win the first set, 6-2, (amid my opponent's annoying "habit". Every time I had a sitter that was mine to put away, she would start squeaking her shoes, just as I was about to swing. "Oh, but Naf, she's just a noisy runner. Can't help that." Yeah, but she wasn't going anywhere! She's just standing in place, and obviously following this line of reasoning: "Well, damn it. I just messed up and gave her an easy ball, which was a mistake on my part. I've already effed up my shot, but if I try to distract her while she's hitting, it'll stop her from making the shot, and then I'll win the point anyway. It'd be nice if I could win on my skill, but since I can't, might as well use my sneakers. My, that IS annoying!")and checked in on my team again. Well, my teammate in singles had also won the first set, but was now down a break, and farther down, our first doubles team was struggling. Same with the third. But, the second dubs was looking solid. Anyway, I got back to business and built a modest lead. A few minutes later, our second doubles team walked off with a win. One down, two to go to win the match. Oop, one. Somehow, my teammate on the other singles court had turned it around and come back in the second set to win 6-4.
Back to it. I'm up in the second against Squeaky, and I look up to find our first court doubles were finished. But did they win? I looked up at the spectators from our team for a sign, and got nothing, so I kept playing. At the changeover, I was up 3-2, and I looked up at my team. They gave the thumbs-up. WOO! WE ARE IN!!
Which rendered my match meaningless. And I was fine with that. More than fine. I saw my teammates busting out the margarita bucket, and I wanted to stop! I was so relieved that my team had won that at the next changeover, I noticed that the score of my match was now 3-4. Don't ask me how, but now I was down in the second set and had put myself in an interesting spot. I wanted to hurry up and get off the court and celebrate, but now, I'd increased my chances of playing three sets. Sigh. Back to it.
It wasn't really that tough - keep the ball team, ignore the squeaking and run her all over the place. (Have you ever looked at your opponent in a match and seen a beet-red face and heavy breathing and thought: "Hell, yeah!") But here was the cool part: So, we're at deuce at 4-all, and we're both running back and forth during a point. In the middle of the point, I thought to myself, "Well, what's the hurry. Just take it easy and set up the point." And I did it - adjusted in the middle of a rally, and I stayed on course for a straight-set win. And a MARGARITA!
So, all told, we won the match, 5-0, which earned us a spot in the divisional playoffs on Sunday. As followers of League Watch know, that was not the road we started on as a team. We started out struggling, but steadied ourselves just in time and ran the tables. We went from middle of the pack to blasting our way into the playoffs. Sweet. But.
There are two open spots in our flight. One of the teams in our flight had gone undefeated for most of the season and all of us had just assumed they'd get the first spot. While we were making our push, the undefeated team lost their last two matches, which dropped them into a four-way tie for first place with us, among others. However, the next tiebreaker is matches won, and the previously undefeated team came up with the third-most matches, which cost them a spot in the playoffs. (Yeah, that'll leave a mark.) The team with the most matches won? That'd be us! Not only did come back from a slow start to make the playoffs, we finished first in our flight!
So that was unexpected. And awesome. You know what they say. It's not how you start, it's how you finish. We'll find out on Sunday how we finish, but I swear, I can smell Jersey from here. And believe me, I'd know that smell anywhere.