Friday, June 12, 2009

SB Tennis Misadventures

There I was, warming up with Dano on Cathedral Oaks' court 6, but mostly messing around. The sting from my last loss in the Interclub league hadn't worn off, but we were playing Cathedral Oaks, who had yet to win a match. To top it off, our captain Bob had penciled me in at #3 doubles (our first time around I played #1 with Wooten and won in straight sets). So I was feeling pretty comfortable until Bob walked up and said that instead of playing #3 with Graham, I was going to play at #1 with ... Anthony!

A little background on Anthony: he's in his early 40s, 5'11" and thin - he was a long distance runner in his youth. His salt and pepper stubble is usually styled into some short fad; a soul patch one week, chin whiskers another. He's gregarious and likes to joke around off-court and during warmup. His weekly margarita mix is looked-forward to by teammates, and he always makes sure to bring an extra special glass for his doubles partner that day; an elevation over the plastic cups the rest of the team casts around with. Also, like me, Anthony is a huge Sampras-phile. We've both patterned our serves on the "Chong", Pete's service motion, but Anthony's reach advantage has let him develop into an attacking serve-and-volleyer, while I grind it out from the baseline. Partnering Anthony in doubles, however, can be a true tightrope act. Don't be fooled by his jokes in the beginning of the match, because Anthony gets more serious as the set wears on, and he hates to lose. The cardinal sin of playing with Anthony is dumping easy volleys at net on his serve; if he gets broken because you committed an error, you better get ready for the Silent Treatment. He makes me afraid to miss, which means I'm less aggressive when we play.

After turning the intensity up to 11, I finish my warmup with Dano and head over to court 1 for our match. Today we're playing Vern and Francois. Wooten and I took on Francois last time, so I know his game well (tough kick serve, decent volleys, bad backhand return) but Vern is an unknown quantity. Anthony's seen him before though, and cautions me that while Vern's serve isn't going to overpower me, he'll spot it well. We win the toss and elect to serve, and while I'm fully confident in my serve, I like to give my shoulder a few extra games to warm up these days. Anthony serves to start and Vern rips a forehand return that Anthony can only bat back into the net. 0-15. A serve to Francois and it's almost a carbon copy of the point before. 0-30 and now I'm starting to get nervous. Anthony's no longer joking about the great return they hit. Another rip by Vern and all of a sudden we're down 0-40 and facing 3 break points right off the bat. I'm tight as a piano string and not sure what to say. Anthony's not making it any easier on me either; I try to toss him a ball and miss wide. Instead of reaching his racket 3 feet to the side he let's it go, walking all the way back to the fence to retrieve it. Fail. I turn around and get ready. Anthony's in no-screwing-around mode now and fires an unreturnable serve. At 15-40 he misses the first but throws in a filthy slider out wide for a 2nd serve ace. Another unreturnable serve at 30-40 brings us to deuce, and I start breathing easier. We win the next two points and hold, but the tone of the match has been set; this is a serious affair.

Anthony and I discuss receiving options on the changeover. Traditionally I play the ad side since my backhand return is one of my strengths, but since it failed me 3 weeks ago with Marcus I've had little confidence in it. I decide to try the deuce side to get out of my own head, and it works. I start returning well, but Francois and Vern are volleying exceptionally and hold. Soon we're zipping through games, everyone holding easily; I hold my own serve at love. At 2-3 us Francois serves and goes up 40-0, but Anthony and I make a few good returns and pull back to deuce. Anthony and I are still trying to get in sync; one point that we win ends when Anthony sends a volley at Vern's feet that he can't handle. "Great shot!" I say, running up to offer a fiver. Anthony slaps my hand and says "It was a good shot, not a great shot, but a good shot." Oooh-kay dude, what do you want me to say? I'm playing well though, and starting to feel more comfortable on the court. Francois kicks a serve to my backhand and I drive a dipping return low that he can't handle. It's our first shot at a breakpoint, and Anthony sets us up with a nice return that we convert and break for a 4-2 lead. I hold and we make the one break stand up to take the first set 6-3.

Between sets I'm guzzling my grape Gatorade again and listening to Anthony strategize for the second set. Somewhat surprisingly, they've decided to start with Francois serving even though he was the only person broken in the first set. Anthony and I slap hands and determine to start this set off with a break. Doesn't happen - Francois holds easily, and it's our turn to serve. We decide Anthony should start, even though he's had a harder time holding serve so far. Part of it is me stoking his ego, but really his serve is effective; the other team has just been picking it up well so far. It turns out to be a terrible decision - Anthony gets broken and we go into a 0-2 hole. I'm worried that this will bring out the Silent Treatment, but to Anthony's credit, it does not. He stays positive and exhorts me to punish the return and set him up for an easy put-away. We eventually get the break back and holds start accumulating. It starts feeling like my match with Marcus, where I started panicking about when we were going to break them.

At 5-all Vern collects the balls for his serve. As promised, his serve isn't overpowering but he has a knack for placing it right in the corner on my backhand side, with a little slice so that it comes in toward my body. The sidespin keeps it low and makes it harder to deal with. This time he decides to try and slide it out wide to my forehand, but he misses the target. The ball comes slicing into the middle of the service box and right into my wheelhouse. I unload on a forehand and Vern's subsequent volley flies out. On the next point we get into a little exchange, then Anthony goes for an extreme angle. Vern cuts it off and hits an even more extreme angle that I think ends the point, but Anthony sprints after it and slices a backhand around the netpost for a winner! He shouts "c'mon!" and this time there is no correction when I congratulate him with a "Great shot!" We break and head to the changeover with a 6-5 lead.

We're up 6-5, and I'm serving to close the match. This is a position I like to be in, but that doesn't mean I'm immune to the pressure. I've had an excellent serving day so far; 0 double faults and haven't been remotely in trouble - I don't think they've even gotten to deuce on my serve. I slide it out wide to Vern though and he repays me from before with a return that I can't handle. Two points later I'm down 15-30. Ruh roh. I take a deep breath while Anthony and I decide where I should serve to Francois. Anthony notices that Francois has been cheating to the backhand side since I've been going there heavily, and advises a serve up the T. I toe the baseline, toss the ball, and fire a serve up the middle. Francois does lean out wide and my serve catches him unaware; a clean ace. Two points later and we wrap it up for a tight 6-3, 7-5 win. Boo yah.

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