Exercise, like anything else, gets easier the more frequently you do it, so I was rightfully concerned last week when I met my old tennis buddy, The Baseline Machine, over at the Nokomis courts for our first match of the season. TBM, it seems, had been playing indoors all winter and had joined a league this spring, while I was nursing my bum left knee back to health.
Worse, she informed me that she was undefeated in her spring league and arrived at the court with something resembling a swagger. This could get ugly, I thought. What if she’d developed a devastating serve or a savvy net game to go with her punishing forehand volleys?
I’m not a competitive guy, but tennis is one of those sports that loses its appeal when the person you’re playing is a whole lot more talented than you are. You can only flail away at so many serves scorching the center line or stare helplessly at so many backhand winners before your interest in the game begins to wane.
Thankfully, TBM’s winter on the indoor courts hadn’t significantly altered the balance of power. Warming up, it became clear that she still was nearly automatic from the baseline and, though her net game had improved, her serve remained as returnable as ever.
My serve, of course, is eminently returnable as well, and my fortunes tend to rise and fall based on my ability to control my often wayward ground strokes. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover I could still hit the ball over the net with some regularity in the early going. My knee seemed pretty stable, if not particularly strong, and I managed to eke out wins in the first two games before TBM settled down and began whacking forehand winners down the lines to take game three.
We split the next two games, with TBM appearing to gain some momentum. And as she prepared to serve the pivotal sixth game, trailing 2-3, I could feel the tide shifting.
It’s been said of most of the great tennis players that their will to win, their sheer desire to get to every ball, was a greater factor in their success than even their shot-making skills. And that in every match there are a handful of pivotal moments when one player’s stubborn refusal to lose that point makes the difference between winning and losing the match.
I’m generally not that sort of player. In game six, I fell behind 15-30 and watched one of my feeble backhands land wide before declaring, more contentedly than I had intended, “That’s three games to three.”
TBM volleyed a quizzical glance my way. “No, it’s only 40-15,” she said helpfully.
“Really?” I ventured, a bit surprised.
“Yeah,” she affirmed, sounding mildly annoyed. “It was 30-15.”
“OK,” I said, and proceeded to win the next four points and the game, to go up 4-2. I’d like to say I gutted it out through sheer force of will, but that would be a slight exaggeration.
In fact, it was TBM who then began to channel Chris Evert, rocketing cross-court winners and forcing me into numerous errors until she had prevailed in three of the next four games, knotting the set at five games apiece. Then, inexplicably, her game descended into a series of muffed volleys and wayward service returns and I cruised through the last two games without losing more than a couple of points.
Winning is always nice, but it’s better when your opponent is on her game. TBM confessed later that she was a little distracted. I wanted to confess that I was having a little trouble keeping score, but I didn’t want to push it. She might have demanded a recount.