KEEPING UP

When one’s age is equal to a prominent speed limit it’s gratifying to continue to compete in tennis against significantly younger players.  Gratification, however, does not make it easier.  I am on a USTA 4.0-level team.  That equates roughly to golfing with a handicap of 8 or batting about .305 in baseball.  It’s solid without being extraordinary.

My teammates are all at least fifteen years younger than I, but when we play doubles, age is not an issue.  “Craftiness” and “experience” and “calmness under pressure” are my attributes.  What I lack in power or running speed is offset by the assignment of a complementary partner who hits hard and leaps high.  My results rank me as one of the better players.

Singles, however, is a different sport.  One is all alone.  My team, called the “Bulldogs” (something about Durham) has qualified to compete in the State Championships.  To that end, my teammates have been playing each other in “challenge” matches in order to establish our pecking order.  The better one does against one’s own team, the higher court they will play at the tournament.

I played teammates against whom I have had a lot of success in my first two challenge matches.  Both also made the error of agreeing to play at my community’s clay courts, a slow surface.  I sliced and spun my way to comfortable victories and then soaked up their admiration.  After all, if my exploits are attributed to super-human qualities, their defeat at the hands of “the old guy” is less painful for them to accept.

The third match, however, was against our star.  Dave is a twenty-three-year-old so recently graduated from college that he still talks avidly about the challenges of taking early-morning classes and studying through the night.  His racquet bag still has the insignia of his college tennis club and his strings and shirts are in college colors.  Dave may be young, but he parried my offer to play on clay, cogently pointing out that the tournament was going to be played on hard courts.   Damn.  I guess they do teach them something in school these days.

I arrived several minutes early at our chosen facility, a Durham park near Dave’s office.  I noticed people hanging out around the jungle gym and the basketball courts.  The tennis court was empty except for numerous twigs and bottles.  I used the extra time to clean up while trying to ignore a teenager intently trying to remove a bicycle from a nearby rack by unorthodox means.  I convinced myself he’d forgotten the combination to the lock.

While I waited, a couple of ten-year-olds took turns crashing their bicycles into the fence surrounding the court.  Each cheered the other’s resulting fall as though this were a new event for the X-Games.  Perhaps it is.  I also noticed an older couple making out noisily beneath some bleachers.  I was relieved when they disappeared into the concrete block restrooms adjacent to the parking lot.  Finally, Dave arrived.  I had never been so happy to see an opponent.

We exchanged greetings and warmed up.  I noticed Dave’s arm was really “live.”  When he struck the ball, it had tremendous spin and hopped off the court.  I devised a strategy that was something along the lines of:  “Keep it away from him.”   I then noticed that he covered space with long, effortless strides so was only two long lopes from basically anywhere on the court.

My next strategy was I might hit “moon” balls that he might have trouble corralling.  Well, considering that Dave is six-foot-four, the high bounces didn’t faze him.  And when he came close to the net, the challenge of getting something over him and having it still land inside the court became clear.  Finally, we took several practice serves, and I realized he hit his “second” serve faster than I hit my first serve.  Not good.

My goal as we started was I wanted to avoid the dreaded “bagel.”  I considered how I would start the e-mail to our captain:  “Dave needed an ego boost.”  The first game was a revelation, however.  When I served a slow ball out wide, Dave tried to crush it so hard his shot sailed long.  After this happened several times, he became frustrated and hit balls ever farther out.  He muttered profanities as I recognized a wonderful thing:  “He really is young.”  The more slowly I hit my shots, the more wildly he hit his.

*****

The score was 3-0 for me when the music began.  An ice cream truck arrived repeating notes from a Bach Minuet.  I couldn’t resist providing this bit of information to the now-disconsolate Dave who looked at me as though I had set a new standard for nerdiness.  I suppose I had.  The music initially struck me as funny for being so out-of-place.  After it repeated nearly one hundred times the charm had worn off.  The simple tune stuck in my head.

I fought off several difficult serves to take a 4-0 lead and then served my spin-balls to make it 5-0.  As we changed sides Dave barely looked at me.  “I haven’t lost a bagel since I was ten,” he said.  I felt badly for him, though not enough to let him win a game; only enough to contain my giddiness and not say anything obnoxious.  As it turned out, I didn’t have to make a moral choice.  Dave served a succession of double faults and the first set was mine.

*****

When we started the second set, the ice cream truck finally departed.  A new distraction replaced it, namely: the lights came on as darkness descended.  They buzzed, like a nest of hornets, if hornets were the size of cruise missiles.  Like the music, I thought the buzz would abate after a “warming up” period, but I was wrong.  The only benefit of the buzz was that we couldn’t hear the teenagers at the jungle gym who were engaging in a melee.  Perhaps, they were having fun.  I didn’t hear any gun shots.

Dave began to find his range in the second set.  He slowed down and recognized he would benefit from lengthening the rallies.  After all, I’m physically incapable of hitting the ball past him.  Therefore, if we just kept hitting back and forth, eventually I would either make a mistake, or I would hit a ball short enough for him to clobber with a large margin for error.  The score went back and forth and the games seemed interminable; Dave emerged with a 6-4 win.  We had to play a third and deciding set.  Dave smiled confidently as we drank water.  I could tell he was appraising our respective chances:  he was thirty years younger, taller, faster and fitter.  How could he lose?

My thoughts were simpler and more diabolical, albeit not with any actual basis in tennis scoring.  I pointed out that if I could win just three games in the third set, I would win the aggregate score.  Dave regarded me for a moment, not sure if I was joking.  I decided to go for reverse psychology:  “I’m just happy to give you a workout,” I said, with a degree of insincere modesty that even I found nauseating.

*****

Early summer in North Carolina is a sweaty affair.  By the time it was 2-2 in the third set, we were both low on water.  We had to decide whether to risk botulism by filling our water bottles at the water fountain attached to the bathrooms or just to drink smaller and smaller portions.  I decided to sip more slowly.  Dave risked the fountain.  I digress.

We proceeded to hold our serves.  Mine were slow and bedeviling.  His were fast and powerful.  I benefited from the fact that the balls were worn and less lively.  Dave’s accuracy had improved, but his kick much weaker. Still, I couldn’t win a game on his serve.  3-3, 4-4, 5-5.  I finally cracked in my next service game and contributed my first double fault of the evening.  Dave pounced and took a 6-5 lead.  He served to within a point of victory but I broke back to force a tie-break.  Dave let out one final scream of frustration, but I sensed that he appreciated the challenge.

In one special point, for instance, he raced in to retrieve a drop shot, raced back to return a lob, came in for another drop, and scrambled back for another lob.  Just as I prepared to graciously tell him “good try,” he returned the ball with a ‘tweener.”  Caught between amazement and annoyance,  I hit a third drop shot to win the point.  There is little place for sentiment in a tie-breaker!

Justice might have been served if we had called the match a “tie.”  But as competitive males, that was not a viable option.  Also, our captain needed a result for the team placement.  We went back-and-forth for several points.  Finally, Dave pulled ahead.  When he hit the last winner, I didn’t begrudge him the win.  He’s the better player and should play on the first court at the tournament.  I’m satisfied to have prepared him for what he’ll encounter from a wily, older opponent.

I am pleased to have competed so long and so well.  Now, if I could just get Bach’s Minuet out of my head….

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