Last night a dream came true for me out on the tennis court.
Had you been there, you could be forgiven for not understanding that as you watched Greg Gormley's score tick up, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, 5-0, 6-0, set, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0...
The first set was almost over when I finally began to see his first serve. At the changeover at 0-3 in the second set he told me how strange it was playing indoors. He's from Austin, TX where you can play outdoors year 'round, and being indoors was causing weird images from his glasses, messing up his vision. I replied, "Yeah. And yet somehow I haven't taken advantage of that." We both laughed.
Greg served again at 4-0, a cannon right at me. I returned it cleanly, and then put his reply deep to his backhand, drawing the error. I won two of the next three points returning a pair of second serves. At 15-40, Greg double faulted, giving me my first game of the match. As we crossed over I said, "Forgive me if I don't even pretend to be ashamed of that."
2 games later, it was over. 0-6, 1-6.
I did not hold serve once, though I did hold a couple of game points. I only broke him when he missed 3 first serves and one second serve in the same game. And he wasn't even at the peak of his game. 15 years ago, he'd been 25 pounds heavier and stronger - back when he played for 2 years on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour.
Yeah. That ATP tour.
The match was over, and I shook his hand with a big-ol' kid's grin on my face. I told him the truth. It was the first time in my life I'd ever seen the ball do the things he was making it do. I told him, "Where I play, the junk I was hitting works." We both laughed, and he told me a little about himself.
Greg Gormley is 8 years younger than me, has been playing this game at the highest levels all his life, and practices with Andy and John Roddick. A number of people think he serves bigger than Andy. (Andy holds the record for the fastest serve ever recorded during a sanctioned match, at 155 mph.) I doubt Greg served anything over 140 mph last night, but I KNOW he served over 130. When his racket hit that ball, it sounded like an explosion. I have never heard my opponent's tennis racket make that noise before, and I have to tell you it was envigorating.
It was exactly like all the movies (except the part where I lost bagel and breadstick - 0 and 1). I found myself on the court with one of those guys you dream your whole life that you might play. And I stood the test. Really.
It was about 3 strokes into the warmup when I realized I was playing above any level I'd ever seen before. He was hitting dumb strokes - flat, all-power, and aimed precisely at my backhand to see whether I could handle them - and making every one of them. When your opponent begins by putting dumb strokes in the court perfectly and repeatedly, you ask yourself a question. The answer to that question was, "Uh-oh."
I was able to handle that power.
I turned his power into spin and sent it back to him deep, over and over again. That's exactly what the book says you should do, and I was able to do it. And it worked. It worked in the warmup, and it kept working throughout the match.
You see, the thing that made me so happy was that all night long, if Greg would leave me in the point for 3 strokes, I was winning. I won more points from the baseline than he did, I'm almost sure of it.
The point I wish I had on video went like this.
GG: Big first serve to my backhand
KK: Deep, loopy return to his backhand
GG: Flat and hard into the backhand corner
KK: Deeper, somewhat flatter into his backhand
GG: Higher and softer to my backhand, about 8 feet inside the lines.
KK: This is an opportunity shot. Against another opponent, I'd put it back and wait for a better shot, but against Greg it's the best I'm going to see. That makes this an opportunity to panic. I resisted. I decided it was time to let him see I could go down the line, so I let the ball fly another 8 inches, then drive it up the line.
It was picture perfect. I painted the line, and Greg just applauded.
The point was absolutely textbook. I pinned him into the corner, then went into the open court I'd created. And I was able to do that all night long - about one point out of every 12.
You see, Greg's first serve was running from 115 to 135mph. I was successfully returning about 1 in 5 of those, and proud to be. His second serve was a wicked kicker bouncing to my high backhand at upwards of 90mph. I handled close to half of those. In order to win that match, I needed to be returning about 2 in 5 of his first service, and 4 in 5 of his second serves.
My first serve runs from 85 to 105 mph, and he was returning 3 or 4 in 5 of them. I was actually able to win some points with that serve by placing it carefully, though. The slice into his body on the backhand wing was my survival shot. I even managed to serve one ace in the warmup. :-) My second serve ran from 60 to 85 mph and he was occasionally nice enough to dump one of them into the net. He put so much pressure on my serve I probably faulted twice as much as normal, and double faulted some critical points away.
Those last two paragraphs tell the story of the match. In a typical game consisting of 4 - 6 points, Greg was getting 3 of them for free by either acing me or blasting my serve back for an easy return winner. 1-3 points per game were "in play," and those gave me tremendous hope.
This time last year, those 1-3 points would have been shameful. I would have hit 2 amazing winners, and dozens of stupid errors. Last night most of my errors were forced. In the rare moments that Greg gave me something to hit, it wasn't much, but I hit it exactly how I meant to. I patiently did not try to match his power. I turned his power into spin and buried it deep in his backhand side, and it worked. He had a shot tolerance of about 3, and sometime within the first 3 shots of the rally he'd uncork something and more than half the time he'd miss. I kept him pinned deeply enough that his flat, commanding shots were gambles that he lost.
That was my game plan going into the match, and I kept it up the whole time. With a little bit more of a serve, this match would have been 2-6, 2-6 and that's an amazing thing to me.
Here are my takeaways:
1) Greg Gormley is awesomely, amazingly better than I am at tennis. 10 years from now, after I've learned gobs more tricks, and he's slowed down and gotten weaker and older, he'll still kick my butt
2) I need to add 10 mph to my serve to compete nearer to that level
3) I need to practice return of serve, but I'm on the right track. Some of my returns were exactly what I wanted
4) My new strategy of cautious aggression is 100x more effective than my old strategy of flailing away at the ball
This time last year, I could not have held my head up during that match. I'd have walked away with nothing to be proud of. This year, I was able to win some points, return some serves, serve a couple winners, and occasionally handle the most aggressive shots I've ever seen. My spectators were never confused about who was the better player, but I'll bet a couple grungingly admitted they wouldn't be doing any better than I was.
It was a dream come true to hit at that level, and the most encouraging day of tennis I've ever played in my life.
Hopefully, I'll use some of those lessons in my next match.