A Story of Tennis Rejection, Gentle Revenge, and Vindication
This is a true story. The names of the guilty have been changed; the names of the innocent are true. It is a tennis story but not just a tennis story. It is dedicated to all those whose competence has ever been underestimated and who has been unjustifiably dismissed.
One of my favorite things about tennis is that it is a sport of relentless second chances, of slates being erased and starting over, of shots at redemption. In the summer of 2008, I had my best ever tennis experience of redemption.
Prologue: Summer of 2007
I was a 3.5 USTA rated player. This put me maybe slightly above average for serious amateurs in competition. 2007, I had a good tournament year, getting to the semi-finals of one 3.5 singles tournament, winning another, and winning a mixed doubles tournament with my wife.
The men’s team I played on also did well, getting to two rounds of playoffs (called “districts” and “sectionals” in USTA team tennis parlance). However, for reasons I will get to in a moment, the Captain of this team (let’s call him “Tim”) decided that I, and a few other guys, too (to be introduced in my followup tennis essay) were really not good enough to play serious playoff tennis. So, come the playoffs, we hardly played.
I was a dead serious competitor on the court, and my record and accomplishments long exceeded what my game appeared to be (which included no power shots and a less-than-great serve including sometimes going underhanded). In a word? My game was ugly.
Which may help explain why I have often done well in tournaments, where people’s opinions of my game are irrelevant. I was wily and fit, and have a broad arsenal of shots, few of which are killer, but, which will keep many
guys at my level off balance. I lacked power, but I had control— spin, drop shots, and little angles, and just hanging in to make the guy hit another ball.
But Captain Tim was enamored of power. Nothing wrong with power. If I could hit consistently with more power, I would. If a guy can hit with consistent power, he will probably overpower me. But if he hits with power and also makes a fair number of errors, I like my chances.
Anyway, that year, Captain Tim hardly played me in playoffs. I was pissed. It felt like an adult version of being the kid who always got chosen last when playing sports in middle school. The weekend of our second round of playoffs (i.e., while I was purposely NOT being played by my captain), I took off on a 60 mile bike ride to get the taint out of my system.
Summer of 2008: The Unbearable Beauty of Tennis
I played in a 3.5 USTA men’s singles tournament near Princeton in July. This tournament gets a pretty big draw, and some very good 3.5 players. Indeed, four of them got bumped up to 4.0 after the end of the season (as did I). 4.0 is still amateur but means something like “seriously above average for an amateur.”
Three of the guys from that 2007 team I played on signed up for this tournament. One was Captain Tim. Another was “Edward.” Edward was a big hitter, though he made errors and was not that fit. But Captain Tim loved big hitters. So Captain Tim played Edward almost every match throughout the two rounds of playoffs in 2007, where Edwards’ performance was middlin’, winning some and losing some.
The third was “Mark.” Mark was a singles specialist. Generally, the “best” players played singles, and Captain Tim played Mark at singles
several times throughout the playoffs.
In the meantime, in this tourney, I start winning my matches. In the first round, I beat a guy who got to the final the previous year. I then have an easy second round match, and a somewhat tougher third round match. Winning three rounds gets me to the final.
Neither Tim nor Edward make it to the semis. The other semi-final is between Mark and “Wu” (who I do not know at all), which Wu wins in a hard, tough match.
So, my finals match is against a guy who emerged from the other half with 3 guys from that 2007 team. He actually beat Captain Tim himself
in an early round, and then defeated Captain Tim’s “preferred” singles players from the 2007 team in the semi. I do not know what to expect, except that this guy is going to be good.
Wu turns out to be this young guy who looks maybe mid-20s, and fit as a fiddle. He has a big serve and a big forehand. But I am playing well; my strengths are return of serve and backhand; plus, from all my men’s team doubles (described in my next tennis essay), my net game is pretty sharp, too. And I am damn fit. Plus, his backhand is mediocre, and he makes enough errors to keep me in games. On the other hand, my forehand is mediocre, and my second serve is underhanded.
The match becomes a tug of war: he tries to overpower me with his serve and forehand; I try to hang in and wait for an error and also throw him off with spin, and placement. I try to make the points backhand to backhand; he tries to make them forehand to forehand. I go up 4–1 in the first set; he battles back, we go to a tiebreaker. Which I win 7–4 (I have a very good record in tiebreakers, and love playing under the pressure).
He jumps out to a 3–0 lead in the second set. I adopt the modest goal of stretching out this set as much as possible. He looks fit, but, even though I am 52, and he looks something like 27, and even though it is 90 degrees and sunny out, I feel like I can outlast this guy, and that the longer it goes, the better my chances. I fight back, hit drop shots, try to make him run. I make a set out of it, but he wins 6–3.
The format of this tournament is no third set. Instead, after splitting sets, you play a super tiebreaker, which is first to 10 by 2. I love tiebreakers, and like my chances. BUT, I can’t help thinking, “Damn, if I beat this guy, what perfect vindication!? God it wouldn’t get any sweeter than that.”
BUT, then I realize that thinking like that is pure distraction. How am I going to return this guy’s power serves if I am thinking about vindication and revenge? I have to shut it down, and get back to being entirely 100% focused on hitting the next shot and constructing points. This is probably the single hardest thing for me to do the entire tournament. Siren calls of vindication keep popping into my head.
He jumps out to a 3–0 lead in the 10 point tiebreaker, but there is still plenty of time, and I dig in. It becomes a dog-fight. 3–1, 3–2, 4–2, 4–3, 4–4. I go up 5–4. 5–5. When it is this close, it is very hard to take too many risks. Most of what I do is try to hang in the point, and wait for either a sitter or an error. I go up 6–5.
I think “I have to start constructing a lead so I can take charge of some points.” But he keeps battling back. 6–6. I go up 7–6. 8–6. “One more point,” I think, “and I would have three chances to win the match, and could really take some risks.” But he wins the next point. 8–7. I win the next, 9–7. I think “I have 2 free chances to win this thing, its time to force the issue, if I get a chance.” I hit to his *forehand* side, so he has to move there, to open up room for me to hit to his backhand. This works, I hit to his backhand. The ball comes back weakly, near the T. This is my chance. I drill it hard back to his backhand again. He sends up a high lob. I hit the overhead to his forehand, going for the open court and winning outright. But he is fast, gets there and sends up another lob. I pound this one to his backhand. He gets to this one, too, and sends it up. I get ready to hit another one, but his shot did clear the net. It was over.
I won the final 7–6(7–4), 3–6, 1–0 (10–7). Two tiebreakers, surrounding a lost set. He actually won more games
than I did; but I won the match (exemplifies “winning ugly”).
In pure tennis terms, it was the most exciting, toughest singles final I had ever played. And I had probably played the best I had ever played in a singles tournament. I think Wu would have beaten me 7 times out of 10. But that day, when it counted, under as much pressure as you can get in the kind of amateur tournaments I played in, I won.
Everything about it was a pure thrill.
And then when you add in the back story, of me beating the guy who emerged from the draw with three of the guys from the team that hardly played me when it counted, including him directly beating two of them (one of whom was Captain Tim himself), it was so sweeeeeet. In the world of sports vindication, it does not get any better than that.
As it turns out, I am glad I did not play either Mark or Edward. I mean, they did nothing wrong; they played when Captain Tim told them to play; they are good guys, and I would have felt bad beating them (not that that would
have affected my play). So, if this was a TV movie, the perfect revenge would have been beating one of them, or Captain Tim himself. Like a tennis Clint Eastwood shootout. But, in real life, I am glad it wasn’t so. This way, there was no “revenge” component at all. I just played a strong player in a tournament, and won. That’s why this essay is titled “gentle revenge and vindication.” It has for me a strong vindication part, but the revenge was just in the winning. I never had to do anything that at all was harmful to any of the guys on my former team, not even beat them. Gentle revenge. But lord knows, very sweet.