When I play competitive tennis, I normally bring a spare racket just in case. So last night I turned up with two Princes, a 2005 model (my weapon of choice) and a 2000 version which I expected to remain firmly in its bag. When I arrived at Forrest Hill last night – an oppressively muggy evening for tennis – I wasn’t too bothered about winning or losing; I just wanted the damn thing over with. And then I found out who my opponent was. We’d met twice previously. The first time was five seasons ago, back when I still knew how to play, and I won in two sets. Our other encounter was pure torture for me – a memorable match for all the wrong reasons. My fragile mental state, a tenacious opponent and inhuman playing conditions culminated in a complete meltdown – for all the gory details click here. So just when I thought emotionally-charged tennis matches were a thing of the past, if there was ever a time I would lose the plot again, last night had all the ingredients for it.
I win the toss, serve first, go 40-15 up and … that’s as close as I get to winning my serve in the entire first set. I couldn’t get anything going on my serve at all. At 5-2 down, I realised the importance of the next game. If I could break his serve, then even if I lost my own serve I’d have the advantage of serving second (!) in the next set. That’s exactly what happened. I dropped the first set (which featured eight service breaks!) 6-3, but I felt myself coming into the match towards the end of that set, and from then on made a conscious effort to hit deep groundstrokes. Anything short and he gained the upper hand, so getting depth on my shots was vital. It worked, and after a succession of long rallies, I was 4-0 up in the second set. I wasn’t enjoying it though; I was sweating like a pig. After every rally I had to wipe my sweaty palms on my shirt so I could grip the handle of my racket. My shirt soon became a greyish-brown smudgy mess – I must have looked more like a potter than a tennis player. The rallies became longer, my legs got heavier, and at 4-2 I was really struggling. For want of a better word, I was shagged. In contrast my older opponent looked as fresh as a daisy. How can you not be perspiring out here? It was after the first point of game seven that everything kicked off. I missed a seemingly easy shot at the end of another interminable rally and for the first time I can remember, I smashed my racket against the ground in frustration. “That sounded expensive,” said someone on the next court. Well it’s a five-year-old racket and isn’t worth much, but I felt embarrassed and ashamed. It’s only a game after all, and now I was going to lose due to my own stupidity. My racket looked usable, but when I hardly got a ball in play in the rest of that game, there was only one thing for it.
Out came the Emergency Millennium Edition Prince. I had to come out straight away and serve. Switching to a different racket mid-match is hard enough, but serving with a new racket is another thing entirely. To my surprise, my first serve landed smack on the line. The baseline. I was quickly love-40 down and I hadn’t won a point in ages. Somehow I scrambled back into the game, which morphed into a 15-minute monster and had me gasping for air. I clung on to my serve at what might have been the tenth attempt and eventually took out the set 6-4. On to the decider, and it started badly. Down 2-0 and a point for 3-0, I was being outplayed; the end didn’t seem far away. I levelled at 2-2 but fell two games behind once more. Again I came back, and at 5-4 I had my nose in front for the first time in the match. When I stepped up to serve for victory, what little power I had in my serving arm had vanished. My second serves became lollipops, and at 30-30 I double-faulted to give my opponent break point. Realising I might not survive two more games, I went for a winner on the next point and thankfully it was good. After yet another bruising rally, and an exchange that saw him err with a volley, I had won. There was no celebration: after two hours and 20 minutes I was exhausted.
I tried my best in the doubles, but I’d have been up against it even if I was fresh. My partner had played a very long singles match too; that probably didn’t help. I made a lot of mistakes and we lost 6-3 6-4. At least I could go home. The bad news is that I’m playing again tonight, though in a less competitive situation. Now which racket should I use?