The life lesson at the end of this piece is that I need to take responsibility for how things get into my head. Other than that, I'm just writing it because it is fun to tell tennis stories. Sometimes it is nice to know that nobody is going to read this stuff.
Anyway, this is the record of two matches.
Last weekend I played for the Columbus 3.5 men's championship singles. Which is a pretty cool way of saying that the 8 playoff bound teams each sent any old loser they could find who was willing to give up 2 days to tennis for the right brag misleadingly about his tennis skills. In the end, 4 men actually tried for the title.
Hardly anything to write home about.
Ah, but plenty enough for blog fodder, right?
This makes it all the sadder that I lost.
My first match was a semi-final. Sandy was my age, and was personable. His strokes turned out to be solid, but not deadly. The situation was into my head, but not too badly. I was nervous, but I could still feel the ball, so that was cool. If the stress levels get high enough, I describe myself as "playing by braille." I cannot feel my body as it goes through the motions my mind is telling it to try. All in all, everything was working OK. I was trading games with Sandy, but I was hitting well enough to take my share.
I won the first set at 6-4, and immediately began getting nervous about losing the second. It happens. I come in wound tight for the first set, and blow through, then loosen up in the second and lose it. I usually have to lose a few games in the second set to fix my head, and get back to hitting. It's stupid and dangerous, but I have not figured that mental hiccup out yet.
I stayed tight enough, I guess, because I won the second set 6-1.
In the the final, I played Matt. I know him and his game. I'd never played him in singles, and only beaten him once in doubles, and then because my partner was stronger than I was. I started the match wound really tight, and went up 5-0. I was drilling the balls into the corners, picking on his backhand and throwing him with spin shots. In short, I was playing my match.
Next thing I knew, it was 5-2, and I was down 15-40 on my serve. This was unpleasant, because I was not sure whether I was choking, or whether he was suddenly doing better. I ratcheted things up a bit in my head, and served harder. It was enough. I finished the first set 6-2.
I kept things up in the second set, starting it 1-0, but suddenly I looked up to find the score was 1-5. I had dumped 5 games in a row.
The questions were flowing through my head like blood in a slaughter house.
It's hard to think when things are so slippery and icky in the old brain department.
I had to ask, was I choking, or was he playing better?
What I would not give to learn how to think during a tennis match. Instead of thinking, though, I buckle down harder, and play my game. There are worse strategies. Buckling down brought me back to 4-5. I had taken three games straight, and fought to achieve deuce in the deciding game. If I won the next two points, then we were level, and the set was fresh. I did not. Matt took the second set 6-4.
I had the lead in the tiebreak 7-4 at one point. Then 8-6. Then suddenly it was 8-10.
I spent the next 3 days asking myself why I lost that match?
I decided it was because I did not see what was happening. You see, we were playing on clay, which is a surface I hardly know, and on which I am not comfortable. I play on hard courts. On clay, my flattish placement game is easily defended against, because the ball bounces slow and high. Matt plays on clay 3 times a week, and has for years. He knows that you win on clay by cranking massive topspin onto the ball and forcing errors from your opponent.
Simply put, whenever I could enforce my hardcourt style on Matt, I was winning. Whenever he could force his claycourt style on me, he was winning. It being a clay court, it was easier for him to force than it was for me.
The biggest thing in my mind, though, was that I never objectively understood what was happening until the match was over. If I had "gotten it" before the match ended, I might have been able to rush the net for his moonball topspins, and taken that weapon away from him. (Insert sounds of kicking self here.) I only needed two points to win that match. On those critical points, he was able to bait me with balls that looked easy, but really were solid topspins on clay.
Yesterday ended better. My team lost the meet 2-3, but I won my match.
I've got to tell you, I wish someone had been rolling videotape, because it was one of my best ever. Doggone it's fun when thing are working like that. Both teams had placed their #1 player on court #2. It's a strategy my captain favors, so I play on court #2 a lot. (When Tom is there, he is our #1 player, but he was not there yesterday.) JR was their #1 player, so JR and I squared off. Before the warmups were over, it was clear to everyone on the court that he and I were equal, and that our partners were both pretty average. JR was more aggressive than I am maybe, but we hit the same serve, same groundstrokes and with the same intensity.
The first set was 6-0.
It was a pleasant surprise to me, and a complete shock to them. Everything was working. JR's serve was the best I'd seen all year, and I was returning it effectively with ease. My partner was having a little trouble with it, but he got back enough to close out the set cleanly. I probably had fewer than 10 shots in that set that I could complain about. It was massively wonderful and totally surprising.
The second set started out 3-0. We had kept up the roll. That turn into the second set is one of the hardest things in tennis, and we had made it. We dropped one game for 3-1, but that was no sweat, because I was serving again, and my serve was on.
JR looked at me and politely said, "I need you to watch out for those foot faults."
We lost the set 3-6.
Just like that, I lost 5 games in a row for us.
That's what it takes to beat Kevin Knox at the game of tennis.
I have no clue how to fight that kind of head game.
And not very effective.
You see, my style of serve is engineered to ensure that I never, ever foot fault. I place my left foot one inch back of the service line (just to be sure,) and then never move it. My right foot ends up safely behind my left, so at no moment is there any risk that I have foot faulted. Therefore, JR was saying that strictly to get into my head. He wanted to mess up my serve a bit by getting me to start thinking about my motion and delivery. Little did he know that I was going to start a mental meltdown of epic proportions. He was happy to take the next 5 games straight, though.
The third set started on my serve again. I had just finished losing two service games in a row, but I managed to successfully mentally reset. How much of that was because a pretty girl started watching the match, I'll never know. She was there for 4 games, watching everyone. I don't know why that settles my mind the way it does, but we won those 4 games, and started the third set up 4-0.
Somehow, imagining that someone is watching me allows me to quit thinking about myself and start thinking about the job at hand. I don't know why that is, but it surely is.
We ended the third set 6-2. We had effectively crushed the best team our opponents could field, and it felt good. It felt great.
I was really angry about JR having resorted to such a cheap trick, and I told a former parnter about it. Steve looked at me and said, "So really, it was your fault. You should never have let him get into your head like that."
I told him to keep telling me that, because I needed to hear it. I guess I will have to figure it out somehow. It was my fault. I knew what he was doing, and why, and I am solely at fault for us almost tossing the whole match. Thank goodness for random pretty girls. ;-)
There were several highlights. I will mention two.
They dropshotted me all through the match. That makes me smile from a very deep place in my heart. :-) I wear right side knee and elbow braces whenever I play. They are mandatory, but only from a maintenance perspective. Without them, the pain makes play impossible. They don't indicate any actual weakness, though. I don't believe they won a single point that they dropshotted me. I will cross 40 feet before that little ball bounces twice every time. Yesterday, I got there and did something effective with the ball every time. That is more fun than almost anything.
They also tried some lobs on us. I got to most of them as well. There was one in particular, though, that was a highlight. They hit one deep into our backhand corner. I tracked that sucker all the way back to the fence, and put a particularly sucky backhand on it. It was nowhere even near the court.
What makes that a highlight is that there is a 4 inch steel lamppost back there, square shaped. It was not even in my mind.
I have no idea how fast I was going when I hit it, but I know that I keep my head up on my backhand, because I hit it square in the center of my chest, instead of hitting it with my head (which would have been more dangerous for the lamppost.) It was just like on the cartoons. My whole body kept moving at full speed, but my chest stopped. My arms and legs flew straight ahead, and then ended up wrapped rather intimately around my insensitive new friend. I just hung there for a second until my mind concocted a likely story to explain what on earth had just happened. :-)
I wish and double wish that I had that on tape. It had to be hilarious.
They asked me how I was feeling, and I admitted that I had felt better.
I must not have been going too fast, though, because it hurts today, but not badly enough to slow my trip back from Atlanta to Columbus.
I love that game.
The trip down to Atlanta was uneventful, and I expect the trip home to be the same.
Yep, uneventful. I'm home now, and should get back to presbuteras shortly.