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A Tennis Story of Rejection, Gentle Revenge, and Vindication

(because this is a true story, the names of the guilty have been changed; the names of the innocent are true).

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.
Consider even the scoring.  You can lose a game at love, but you have only lost a single game.  You can lose a set 6-0, but the next set starts at 0-0.
This is not like any other major sport.  If you fall behind 6-0 in a baseball game, you are not likely to catch up.

In the summer of 2008, I had my best ever tennis experience of redemption.

Prologue: Summer of 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
later), were really not good enough to play serious playoff tennis.  So, come the playoffs, we hardly played.

Now, I am a dead serious competitor on the court, and my record and accomplishments have long often exceeded what my game appears to be.
Which may help explain why I have often done well in tournaments, where people’s opinions of my game are irrelevant.
I do not have a lot of power, but I am 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 am good at “winning ugly” — spin, and 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, Captain Tim hardly played me in playoffs.

And I was pissed.  It felt like an adult version of being the kid who always got chosen last when playing sports in middle school.
So, 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 sign up to play in a 3.5 USTA sanctioned 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.

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, remember, 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, 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.

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.

The Final
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 (see below), 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, 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.  Thoughts of vindication keep popping into my head
like sugarplum fairies.

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.  He is damn good, after all.
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.   But I win the next one, 9-7.  I think “I have 2 free chances to win this thing, its time to force the issue, if I get any chance.”
And the way to get the chance is to hit to his backhand and come to net and take it to him.  But he runs around his backhand, so it is not so easy.  I hit to his *forehand* to open up the backhand.  This works, I hit the next shot to his backhand.  The ball comes back weakly, near the T.  This is my chance.
I take it as a backhand (my better groundstroke) and drill it hard and deep to his backhand.  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, gets his racket on it, and sends it up.  I get ready to hit another one, but this one does not
clear the net.  The End.

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.  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 gotta think that 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 play in, I won.

In pure tennis terms, this was a huge thrill.  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 nonetheless.

Epilogue: My Men’s Team
Now, that tournament would have been enough for me.  More than enough.  Still, as it turns out, there is a bit more.

I loved playing on the men’s tennis teams, but knew I would not be playing on Captain Tim’s team in 2008.
I had captained USTA tennis teams before, but never tried to actually win.  I had captained those teams mainly
as a way to get to play some serious and competitive matches.

However, I enjoyed the success of Captain Tim’s teams, despite not being played much when it counted.  So I decided
to form my own team, in a different league (I did not want the sturm and drang of playing Captain Tim’s teams directly).
The core of the team included me and two other guys who had been treated similarly by Captain Tim — being mostly
ignored come the big matches.  We should have called ourselves the “Castaways.”

Anyway, with we 3 as core, we formed a team.  These guys had good morale.  There were 1-2 team practices each week,
which always got good turnouts, plus several of the guys would play with each other an additional 1-2x/week.
Plus, most of the other teams had their matches indoors, and indoors matches had a 2 hour time limit.
That meant all sorts of special rules kicked in with about 10-15 minutes left to go, in order to be sure
to finish the match.  The upshot of this was that close matches often ended up playing 1 or more tiebreakers.

This is important for the following reason.   Tiebreakers have a different rhythm than regular games;
they are also very tense.  The time for experimenting with shots is long over.  Overwhelmingly, one has to not do anything stupid
in a tiebreaker, but, at the same time, you can’t play too cautious and conservative, either.  It is very easy to choke either way, by
overhitting and making errors, or by being too careful.  The key (for me, anyway) is to hit one’s best shots in a tiebreaker.
I don’t mean going for amazing winners that you can only hit 10% of the time.  That is NOT one’s best shot.
We all know what our best shots are.  For some guys, its the cross court forehand.  For some its the power serve.
Mine is my backhand groundstroke.  I’d rather lose hitting that shot than any other shot.

So, we practiced.  Not just tennis, but tiebreakers.  Repeatedly.  We played, in practice, tiebreaker mini-tournaments.
We played tiebreaker king of the court.  We played and played and played tiebreakers, till playing tiebreakers was a normal,
comfortable thing this team did.

Because the USTA district coordinator was so disorganized (see Why I Hate the USTA), our league only played
6 team matches.  We split our first four, and were in 3rd place (out of 4 teams) with two weeks to go.
We were all but mathematically eliminated.  To have any chance at all of winning the division, we had
to beat the 2nd place team (who had already beaten us once) and then the first place team.

A team match is best two courts out of three.  In the first of these matches, against the 2nd place team,
our first two courts had split matches.  So, the winner of the third match would
move into sole possession of 2nd place, and still have a shot at winning the league.  Our third
court consisted of John (the co-captain), and Laszlo, a grizzled veteran of competitive play.  Both had attended
almost all of the tiebreaker practices.  They win their first set, 7-6.  The second set goes to 5-5, but time is running out.
So, they have to play another tiebreaker.  Which, being as prepared as they are, they win, so they win the match, 7-6, 6-5.
Two tiebreakers.  Few things feel as good in tennis as preparation paying off.

We then go on the road, to play the #1 team.  We had not won on the road all season, but we are fielding perhaps our best team.
I am playing with Pete, one of the other guys unceremoniously excluded from Captain Tim’s team.  I have played with him several
times now.  Pete is a character, but, on the court, is all business.  Big serve, big forehand, great lob, quick hands, slow feet.
I don’t have the serve, but I do have quick feet, and a big backhand, and also a good lob.  We get into a knockdowndragemout.
Our opponents are very good at the net, probably better than we are.  So we both start playing back.  And lobbing.  We essentially start playing
a game that looks a lot like that of many of the solid middle aged women we see on the courts.  Lots of soft high lobs.  And this gives them
all sorts of trouble.  (I think I mentioned how much I love winning ugly…).  We win the first set 7-6 (another tiebreaker!).  And manage to pull out the second set without going to a tiebreaker, 7-5.  It was a helluva match, and I was sure it was going to be our team’s “match of the week.”

I was wrong.  John and Laszlo outdid us.  They were playing the only team that beat Pete and me all season.  And they had
lost the first set 6-2.  But they got into a dogfight in the second set, and got to (another!) tiebreaker.  Which they won.
There were now about 14 minutes left in indoor time.  The rules said that, if there were 10 minutes left, and split sets,
you play a tiebreaker.  But should they start a new set?  And, what kind of tiebreaker do they play? A regular, 7 point tiebreaker,
or a 10 point tiebreaker?  The answers as per our league’s rules were: They should start a new set and play a 7 point tiebreaker
if they were still tied with 10 minutes to go.  But John and Laszlo *wanted* to get to a tiebreaker; they were confident that, with all our
preparation, they would have the edge.  So, first they discussed it with their opponents.  Their opponents were not sure of the rule, either.
So, they stopped play, and consulted with both me and the other captain.

By the time that was all resolved, there were only 10 minutes left.  Which meant it was time to play a tiebreaker.  Which, of course,
John & Laszlo won.  And that match, combined with the one Pete & I won, meant that, on the road, we had beaten the #1 team, and, ultimately,
won the division.  Of the four sets we won that day, three were tiebreakers, and the third was 7-5.  It was a helluva day.

And Pete, John, and I were all discards from Captain Tim.

I hope, gentle reader, this page gives you some reason why I love tennis.

Lee Jussim