I knew that when I decided to appeal my rating from 4.0 to 3.5, I would get more opportunities to play league matches, and like Elizabeth Warren, I had a plan for that. I wanted to start playing singles again and in case you didn't know, making yourself available for singles will make you the most popular player in said league. When my appeal was granted, I made it onto a team and just like that, I was about to play my first league singles match in *checks Tennislink* FIVE YEARS.
It's like riding a bike, I told myself. You know how to do it, so just jump right on. My first opponent was someone I'd never met, but from the time we started hitting, I knew this was going to be a tough match. At least I thought so. My opponent was consistent on both sides, decent mover, okay serve while warming up, but once the match started, I was facing little resistance. I wasn't happy with my own play, though. I was hitting a lot of framed shots that stayed in and I felt uncomfortable even after winning the first set. I worried that if she raised her level and I kept framing everything, it wouldn't end well for me.
What do you call it when you're a negative psychic, when you can only predict the bad things about to happen to you? Because, yeah, she raised her level and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't raise mine. And just as quickly as I won the first set, she won the second. Unfortunately, in Florida, that means a third-set tiebreaker.
I hate third-set tiebreakers. Why have a tiebreaker in place of a set when you can have a quick round of "Rock/Paper/Scissors?" Maybe a round of "What Number am I Thinking Of?" Not only are these tiebreaks dumb, but I do not do well with them. Need I remind you of my second stint at sectionals during a rain-delayed weekend? I'm sure the fact that they're dumb and that I don't fare well in them are not related, by the way. Not. At. All.
So, anyway, we get into this tiebreaker and I'm trying to convince myself that I love third-set tiebreakers, live for 'em, even. I didn't have to worry too much -- my opponent started with a double-fault and a few quick errors. I thought she might have been nervous, so I committed to hitting low-risk topspin deep into the court. But of course, she came back to tighten the situation and by now, all our teams are standing around watching us because we were one of the last matches. Still, I hung on somehow and won the match. It felt good. It was hot and it had been a physical match and I was glad to know I was still able to do this.
I won my second match, too, and then that just about did it for me in my region. The captain didn't play me until halfway through the season and I couldn't play the last two matches. Central Florida is just not it for league junkies like me. I knew that if I wanted to keep playing, I'd have to travel. Fortunately, I'm located smack dab in the middle of Tampa and Orlando, so, at maximum, we're talking about an hour both ways. And who doesn't love podcasts?
I found a team which featured a lot of the people I've played with before and I told the captain I wanted to play singles. Oh, did I mention that this was an 18-and-over team and that I'm quite far from 18? My first opponent, though? I would have carded her if I could. She was also accompanied by her coach or dad who sat courtside and who I had to see at each changeover. Later, he was joined by a spectator who had a glass of wine. Yeah, it was that kind of club.
Anyway, I jumped out to a 2-0 lead and was serving well, I thought. I felt pretty good for about 10 minutes. Then I began spraying errors all over the court. And I can even tell you when it started -- the stinkin' drop shot. I do not have a reliable drop shot. I just can't gauge the distance well and it ends up on my side of the net or it's a lob that lands just inside the service line. And I told myself to stop hitting them, but I noticed my opponent wasn't a great mover, and when I'd pull her wide, the dropper would be the smart move IF I WERE CAPABLE OF HITTING THEM. And so that problem just threw my whole game into a tailspin. Oh, also, these courts were har-tru (that's basically everything out here) and they were the worst -- dry, dusty and almost impossible to move through. I'm not making excuses.
I lost in the longest, most-agonizing pair of 6-3 sets I have ever played, and when it was over, I was very tired, and the next day, I was quite sore.
I didn't like losing, but I thought I had better stuff in me and told myself that I just needed to get the errors down. And in my second singles match, I did -- at the beginning. I was playing another young, fit player and my groundstrokes were working well. I was hitting my shots and I thought she seemed resigned that she wouldn't be able to track everything down. I won the first set and then in the second, things got complicated. It wasn't that complicated. My opponent just stopped hitting the ball -- she began poking everything in, and instead of coming in to the net like a smart person would, I just sat at the baseline, keeping these points going. I don't have a lot of confidence at the net, although in singles, you don't need to be super-precise. Which is something I probably should have told myself in that night as I was losing the second set. In the match tiebreak, I never could get on top -- I think I threw in a double fault early, and I never really recovered. Losing that one made me think that maybe I couldn't keep up with these young'uns. Until I woke up the next morning and felt ... nothing. No pain, no creaking. That made me feel good -- I thought that the only thing that I needed to worry about was my head. Well, that's easy, I told myself.
The next match was against the type of player I'd normally like, hard hitter, nice serve, lots of pace. I was able to run and retrieve a lot, but when the last shot of the rally came, it was always to her advantage. In both sets, she lost her service game to win the set and both times, I failed to put pressure on her with my serve. I couldn't see in the match what I was doing wrong or how to fix it, but on the drive home, I asked myself how many times she was able to monopolize on my short returns. A lot. What I needed was not just the energy to cope with these players, but also the ability to think through strategy on the court. And I used to be able to do this. At least I thought I was.
After an unsuccessful foray into doubles (although again, it felt as if my game was locking into place), I got another chance at singles. My opponent was another ball poker and I told myself, "That's it -- you're getting into the net and you're not going to stop." And yet, when the set got tight, where was I? Yup, at the baseline, hitting bad-idea drop shots. After she won the first set, I got mad and I told myself -- verbally this time, and loudly -- to press into the court and end these points. And to my own surprise, I did. I won the second set 6-2 and then came my absolute favorite tiebreaker! Yay. Something weird happened during this tiebreak, though. I could sense myself getting nervous and I tried to talk myself down, and to simply breathe. But as soon as the point started, I committed myself to the strategy, to press into the court and to not stop, even if I missed a shot and before I knew it, the tiebreak was over and I had won it.
I wasn't overly joyful about the win because I felt it should have never gotten to the tiebreak situation. But it meant something to pull out ahead in a situation like that. Maybe it's the beginning of a reversal of fortune, the beginning of me settling down into singles again. But one lesson I've definitely learned is that you can be nervous in competition. You have to recognize it and cast it aside to do what you need to do to win.
Easy, right. Yeah. OK.