(Ed. note: due to length, this recap is split into two posts.)
"Arrrrrrghh!" I groaned in anguish as I flipped over on to my belly, anything to try and loosen the knots forming in my abdomen muscles. I rolled over on to my back again and tried arching, but succeeded only in firing off another round of back spasms. My body was rebelling against me in response to the last 4 hours, determined to not let my brain make the decisions anymore. Someone, a stranger, rushed up to me, spilling pills out into his palm as he thrust it at me saying, "Here, take these! They're quinine!" I cast a doubtful glance at him, but asked "How many should I take?" "All of them," he replied. Desperate, I grabbed the pills and swallowed them in one gulp. I flopped over again. I couldn't find a position that would allow me to relax, and started to panic about what would happen if I didn't find it soon. Shutting my eyes against the pain, I dropped my head to the dust-caked pavement, a situation that normally would've left this germaphobe running for the nearest bottle of Purell.
Eight hours earlier, I had set off bright and early for the 2 hour trip down to Long Beach for the USTA playoffs. Our team had been drawn into a round robin with scheduled matches at 11:30am and 2:30pm, and the forecast called for a general heat wave to be sweeping across Southern California. They weren't kidding. I pulled into the parking lot at 10am and felt the heat as soon as I opened my door. We had two courts reserved at the El Dorado Tennis Club at 10:30am, and I went through a languid warmup, determined not to waste much energy before our matches started. These tennis playoff sites usually have a tennis-themed carnival atmosphere to them. The organizers find a site with plenty of courts, and a couple hundred players descend on the location for the weekend, milling around watching, eating, and playing. At 11:15am we gathered under the canopy where the organizers had set up a headquarters, replete with a PA sound system. The booming voice called out the rules and regulations, including a warning that due to the heat, frequent hydration would be very important. And then they started to call out the matches. As each pair were called out the players would step forward while their teams cheered. This was almost like high-school wrestling, where running through a tunnel of your teammates got you psyched up enough to entertain the idea of rolling around on a mat with a complete stranger. Anyway, suddenly I heard "Jesse and Bernie!", and I walked up to the front table to shake hands with my opponent, and off we headed to Court 2.
Warming up, I noticed that Bernie sliced every backhand and had a decent forehand. He also had the slightly annoying habit of grunting every time he hit a serve, even a second serve. We started the match and he surprised me by coming over the ball and hitting topspin on his one-handed backhand. Still, I was feeling pretty smooth and was able to take control of the rallies, running him side to side until I found an opening for a winning shot. My serve also felt good, and I threw in a couple of aces and kick serves he struggled to return. My normal hitting partner, Marcus, is so fast that I rarely hit outright winners and almost never ace him, so it's always a pleasant surprise when I play someone else and my forehands whistle through the court, unencountered by the opponent's racket. I wrapped up a fairly routine 6-2 opening set and we started in on the second.
I continued to cruise, feeling particularly happy with one sequence in which I chipped a backhand return deep crosscourt and followed it in to the net, anticipating his down the line response and cutting it off with a forehand drop volley. The heat was starting to get to me though. At 3-0 I started to feel overheated. I thought that I was going to need to run to the bathroom at any second, but I tried to force it out of my mind and wrap up the match asap. I did just that and got off the court with a 6-1 second set, and headed toward the shade of the nearest tree. My teammates were performing similarly well and we won the match 5-0. We headed out to Quizno's for a quick lunch, and I had the Tuscan Turkey sandwich in a decision that would come back to haunt me later.
Back at the Tennis Club, our captain was working out our lineup for the second match. We had one extra player to sub in, and the question was who was going to sit out. The captain decided that our other singles player would be sitting out to rest up for Sunday's match. I talked to him and said that I thought I had about one more set of good singles left in me. I'd prefer to play doubles for the second match due to the heat, but if no one wanted to play singles then I'd do it. As I was the youngest player on the team by a solid 20 years, he kinda looked at me and said "You're playing singles."
My opponent this time around was named Kent. A sturdily-built guy from Temecula, I guessed he was in his mid to late 30s. San Diego, the first team we faced, would be taking on Temecula at 5:30pm in the third and final match in our round robin, so that meant this was Kent's first match of the day. His fresh legs advantage was tempered by my calm; I had gotten rid of the first match jitters a few hours earlier. Kent was a step up from Bernie, although their games were very similar. Each had a deceptively punchy forehand, and a one-handed backhand. Kent's serve packed a little more power though, and he placed his groundstrokes better.
Right from the warmup I could tell that the heat would factor into this match for me. I needed to conserve energy, which in a weird way boosted my game. Instead of worrying about chasing down every shot he hit, I played more aggressively and took control of the rallies early, looking to end the point by wrong footing him on a forehand or charging in for a volley. Kent helped me out as well - his style of play seemed designed to keep points short. He held to open the match but I had chances to break him. My serve came up and happily I found that I still inhabited The Zone, throwing down a few aces and generally holding with ease. I broke him early in the set and again to close it, 6-3.
I was back to my grape Gatorade tricks on the changeovers, and I was drinking more than usual. Water too, anything to try and cool down. I could feel my energy sapping away though, and I served to start the second set. After going down early, I fought back to deuce and had to save several break points before ultimately holding serve. I was up 1-0, but had spent a ton of energy to get there. The format for these matches is best of 3 tiebreak sets, but if you split the first two sets, you play a Match Tiebreaker to 10 in lieu of a full third set. My mind started exploring the possibility of throwing the second set to conserve energy and trying to pull it out in the Match TB. Kent served and held in what felt like 10 seconds. 1-all. Excuses were just pouring through my mind at this point; it's super hot, you're used to Santa Barbara weather while this Temeculan probably wears a winter coat when it's in the 70s... you're the only one playing two singles matches, everyone will understand if you don't have enough energy to win the second one, etc. Suck it UP! I screamed at myself.
(How did things end against Kent? Did the heat beat me down like a red-headed stepchild? Check back on Wednesday for the Emergency conclusion!)