Haters, I played my first league match of the season, and I didn't throw up. I didn't throw a tantrum. I didn't lose. And I didn't cry.
I actually enjoyed myself.
That was my goal. The fact that my USTA women's 3.0 Queens league match with Worthy Opponent Lori ended in a tie, with me winning the first set, 6-4, and Lori to serve for the second set at 5-3, was an afterthought. Maybe it shouldn't have been. Perhaps I should have really buckled down and made holding my serve in that eighth game my brass ring, but I was too busy focusing on more important matters, like breathing.
My goals were simple. Stay calm, see the hit, get to every ball
Seriously, have you ever paid attention to your breath in the middle of a match? I found I hold mine throughout the point. No wonder I get tight. Even my lungs are clenched.
I started the match on the way there, repeating to myself in the car my Tennis Story:
- I get to every ball.
- I improve every time I play.
- I play with confidence and gusto.
- I relish testing my limits and seeing if I can expand them.
- I am a Worthy Opponent, respecting my opponent and the game through a positive attitude and good sportsmanship.
- I love to compete more than I love to win.
Yes, Haters, repeat after me: I love to compete more than I love to win.
I was so nervous. I was filled with dread. Tennis Hate was yammering away in my head. I haven't practiced enough. I don't have a put-away shot. I shouldn't play in a league until I'm really good. I'm going to let my teammates down!
I sat in the car for ten minutes, breathing nice big belly breaths, the kind I often don't take because, well, it's just wrong to deliberately push OUT what you've been spending a lifetime sucking IN. I remembered another part of my story: I convert nervous energy into excitement. I'm excited every time I take the court. I thought of Rafael Nadal, jumping around at the net during the coin toss, doing that zig-zag sprint back to the baseline to start the warm-up. He wants to play. I was wanting to hide.
By the time my fellow Ball Busters walked onto our assigned courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with the iron smell of rain in the air, I was calm. I thought of how cool it was to be playing on Court 8, the same court that the top tennis players in the world will be sweating and grunting on in a few weeks. During last year's US Open, Court 8 hosted Simona Halep, Roberta Vinci and Daniela Hantuchova.
I was cheered by the exclusive welcome extended to me and my profession by the court itself: Media Only. The message was spray-painted on the court surface at the gate.
My goals were simple. Stay calm, see the hit, get to every ball. I caught myself at times wishing it were over, wishing I was home watching somebody else putting it all out there on the court. I didn't want to face this pressure. It reminded me of practicing zazen, Zen sitting meditation, where you sit on a cushion looking at a white wall and counting your breath to three, over and over, fighting off the urge to leap up and demand that somebody turn on a TV to The Housewives of Orange County.
Tennis is my practice, I thought, standing there on the baseline, getting ready to receive Lori's serve. This is my Zen, my spiritual practice. I live every moment fully. I want this moment to go on and on and on, because it's the only one I am living.
I got jammed up when I became a spectator of my own game. I noticed my Worthy Opponent was winning with cross-court forehand angles near the service line of the deuce court, so I started defending against them by putting more shots to her backhand. I saw that I was putting a lot of balls short. She gobbled many of them up, hitting short, angled winners to whichever side she wanted. Lori made it look easy, like it wasn't tennis. I tried to adjust, and got a few more balls back deep, including some that bounced high and gave her trouble.
I told myself, I love these pressure points. These are the sweetest moments of the match.
My best moments were when I came to net. I move up to net about 3 or 4 times, not much, but enough to be a big deal for me. When I got there, I won the point. My biggest triumph was when I went against my deeply-held sense of fair play and courtesy, and hit a forehand volley winner for the break at 15-40, deep into the opposite corner, away from my Worthy Opponent. I had to stop myself from apologizing: Sorry, Lori, I forgot, I usually hit those back TO you. Oops.
Oh, yes, service breaks. Lori and I played it just like some of the pros of the WTA, trading them like cards in a game of Old Maid. I didn't hold until my third service game in the first set. Then, the next game, I broke her! Wow! Then she broke me back! Shit! Then I broke her with the aforementioned put-away volley winner. YAY! And then -- let loose the pigeons -- I held serve at 40-30 to take the first set, 6-4.
I was pushed to deuce many times during my service games. I told myself, I love these pressure points. These are the sweetest moments of the match. I love facing break points, because I get to see what I'm made of. Lori and I must have reached deuce about 6 times in the second set, me serving at 2-3. She ended up breaking me, but, Haters, I didn't fizz into a fury. Instead, I thought, I fought off 3 or 4 break points in that game. Cool.
And then I broke her back.
I didn't consolidate the break, though. As was our way on this night, Lori, my Worthy Opponent, broke me back, easily, 0-40. She was to serve for the set at 5-3 when it was time to stop. We had been playing for two hours.
In the end, my story came true. I got to most every ball. Now, I have to add to my story a clause that says, "and I hit the appropriate shot once I get to it." I stayed calm. And, the happiest ending of all, I loved competing on this night more than I loved winning that first set.