Tennis Prose



A match I will never forget

A tennis coach-friend has a kid named Josh who is a very good player. We’ve been playing off and on almost four years now. Recently, we played our first match after a year’s hiatus (coach said his progress was struggling, but he got over the hump and had an excellent summer in USTA tournaments) and it was one of those kinds of hard-fought battles you will never forget. So close, so well-played, so competitive, every step of the way.

We played two sets last Thursday on a hard court at Argonne Park in Teaneck. Josh, from Secaucus, is 16 now and has an Eastern ranking. I was expecting a few unforced errors each game and another routine but not easy win. Boy, was I wrong. Josh used to make one or two errors a game but he one or two a set now. He seems much quicker to the ball now, gets to everything, he’s more consistent. More composed, doesn’t get upset and throw his racquet any more. He’s athletic. His defense is fantastic. Everything about his game is better now. Somehow I hang on and take the 5-4 lead with a break but he stormed back and won the set.

I love these courts which are surrounded by a forest (with deer) on one side and a grassy green park on the other. But this time of year the sun is in your eyes in the afternoon. I was bothered by the sun and shade from the trees on the one side of the court and had trouble seeing the ball out of the background when the sun was glaring off the brown/green grass. But minor excuses aside, he played tremendous tennis to come back and win the set. No denying that.

That was the first set he ever won against me. His confidence and body language swelled, telling me that he expected to win. “I got you now, I finally know how to beat you.” He wasn’t in-your-face at all but he was acting nonchalant between points and most importantly, playing excellent, hard-hitting, topspin, attacking tennis. His serve was better too, hitting aces on break points twice. I was in trouble. Like Big trouble.

He took a 2-0 lead in the second and the thought entered my head, that my dominance could be over. Maybe it’s time to pass the torch to the kid and admit he’s the superior player. But I battled. Somehow I battled back and kept it close. Because he wasn’t making mistakes any more, I had to do something special to win a point. Every good, offensive ball I struck would come back and ask to be hit again. Time to up my game.

I analyzed in my mind. His backhand slice approach was working well. It made me realize my only slices were directed to his backhand – Try to hit some down the line to his forehand. That forced a couple of errors. A ITF ranked junior once told me John McEnroe told him when you are losing a match and you plan a point and execute it and win it, it can turn around your confidence and turn the match around. One, single point can do that.

Maybe that was the turning point. Because I went up 5-3. Not that it was easy, every game, every point was a war, but I was serving to level the match at 6-3. Up 40-30 (set point) I hit an approach to his forehand and had the semi-high backhand volley lined up to win the set. But I lazily took it for granted and somehow missed it long by about a foot!

Disastrous, terrible miss. Josh got it back to 5-5. We went to a tiebreaker and he took command 6-3. THREE match points! I saved one when I ripped a backhand from the corner down the middle which he misplayed with a backhand volley just wide by two inches. The rest is a blur, until I finally won the breaker 10-8. I still can’t believe it. He didn’t choke, I just upped my game and played some amazing tennis.

This match was just competitive tennis at it’s best, three hours of full speed, big shots, variety, amazing volleys, two lions going at it, one young, one older. After the match, Josh was nice and polite, saying without any emotion that he wanted to finish it next week.

As expected, they called and we met again on Tuesday (yesterday) to finish the classic. Josh is good kid but he doesn’t engage in friendly tennis banter anymore like we used to. He wants to take me down, pure and simple. The kid wants to conquer me once and for all. I respect that – but it pumps me up too.

Going into our new set, I feel better. I know what to expect now, I’m mentally ready for a war rather than a routine win. I’m not bothered by the fact his coach has watched and studied all of our matches and thinks he knows how to guide Josh to beat me. I know I can play amazing, shocking tennis when I have to. And it’s always been enough to beat Josh. And there’s another factor which is helpful. It’s a cloudy day, so no sun, glare or shadows to bother my vision and timing of the ball. And I think that Josh could be still mentally hurting and possibly devastated from having blown the three match points he had in the tiebreaker – which would have been his first match win against me in four years.

We start at 3:30. He breaks me at love to start the set. But I break back. Here we go again. Another classic slugfest, every game is a close battle that could go either way. At 3-3, I fall into a 0-30 hole and face about five break points. But somehow win the game. We both are playing excellent tennis.

Two shots I will never forget. One was when he ripped the two-hander at my knees and I made the pefect volley into the open court. It felt Sampras-like. Then, the next game I connected on another perfect, this time low, point-winning backhand volley into his forehand side that he had to be amazed by. I seriously can’t see how John McEnroe could have better played those two volleys.

Then Josh amazed me with some volleying magic. With all my might, I ran down a short forehand and bashed it, from about ankle height, as hard as I could at him at net, about two inches over the net. A perfect, blistering shot! But somehow he reflexed it back for a winner. Patrick McEnroe would have yelled, “Are you kidding me?!” on ESPN. I looked at Josh and smiled, but he was stone-faced, like an assassin.

The shot of the day though was in that 3-3 game. Down break point I hit a backhand laser crosscourt from outside the alley that he, covering the line, tried to dive for Becker-style, but could not even touch it. Absolutely perfect. After yelling loudly as it impossibly whizzed by him, Josh laid on the ground parallel to the net for about 15 seconds. He said he was unhurt, but was holding his left hamstring. Then he goes up and serves an ace down the tee. Amazing.

I eventually win that game and then break him to go ahead 5-3 but blow my serve and it’s on serve at 5-4. Just like last week. But Josh’s serve is a little shaky, he double faults and I work my way to 30-40 – set point. The point evolves to backhand to backhand cross court. I try to keep it deep and slow the pace with each shot. And on the fourth or fifth one he mistimes it and hits it wide by two inches.

Aahhhhhh, what a relief. Playing so hard, so well and overcoming so much adversity, I have to yell out a loud, “Come awwwwwwnnn.” It’s over (57 76 64). Josh shows no emotion but tells me he definitely wants to play next week. We both have nothing but huge respect for each other and we know we both played magnificent, unforgettable tennis.

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