This past weekend I faced my fear and played in my first singles tournament, timely named the VTC Australian Open. You’re thinking, “Wait? Aren’t you a tennis player?” Yes…but I’ve desperately avoided singles because I’m terrible at it. My mind thinks in doubles, I love the net, and that’s what I’ve played.
But the time has come to become an all around player (besides, you run more in singles). Nervous doesn’t even begin to describe the mental rollercoaster I had going into this tourney.
One main problem was that I only hit with guys, and guys have pace and spin. My partner Ben has repeatedly warned me that in the women’s level I play (4.0), I will see a lot of push balls. It’s not that I didn’t believe him; I just didn’t put enough effort into practicing something not nearly as fun as returning their blazing serves. I can count the number of times I’ve hit with women in the past month (I’m not counting mixed doubles; my 5.0 friend–she’s amazing and better than the guys; nor my sister, who’s also awesome for many reasons 🙂 ). So it was once before winter break, then again two weeks ago, and that went so poorly I came home regretting having signed up. I was a miserable grump to be around. But this past Monday’s session before the tourney thankfully boosted my confidence. For the first time I can remember since high school try outs, I played a singles set, like with points, rallies, and even held service games. I lost 5-7 but it didn’t matter: I was excited again.
My next challenge was to convince myself that I could compete. I genuinely dreaded getting bageled, that is, losing 0-0. Obviously everyone sweetly told me I was crazy, but it does happen! Look at Safina this past week in the Australian… Putting that thought aside, I still didn’t believe I could win a match. I kept telling myself as long as I put up a fight, I’ll be happy. Then (partner) Ben said, “Well, you will lose then.”
And it’s true.
Saturday morning I warmed up with the usual guys. It wasn’t a good sign that I felt off; they tried to feed me soft stuff and everything went out from my end. My left shoulder, which has been hurting lately from trying to fix my forehand against too much fast, top spin balls, was still acting up. But at least I was warm. Chun gave me a medicine patch for my shoulder and Gerald gave me wise, parting words “You just have to care.”
My first match was against a woman from Hood River. USTA is fancy and you can look up the player’s history: she had a winning record at #1 singles in her 2010 women’s league. Yah, just a little nervous. Lately my gimmick to calm myself is to jam to music. I replay a song in my head, maybe even softly hum, and it keeps me loose. Tennis is all about being loose and focused at the same time. I didn’t have a chance to listen to anything before the match, but somehow the song that stuck was “Just Dance”. Lady Gaga it was then.
During the five minute warm-up (that’s why I always try to hit before), the slower pace became all too real. That’s better for my forehand, which I can push back, but bad for my backhand, which I like to whip. She wasn’t going to overpower me, just outsmart. So I had to play my game: be patient, construct the point, and take the shot.
To my surprise, the set started in my favor. She wasn’t quite able to grill my weak forehand. I came into the net, which is not common for singles players. My lefty serve jammed her. I can’t recall the order of the games or breaks, but at some point I was up 5-2. Wait, I can win this.
Then the tables turned. She started to make less errors and me more. My backhand got tense and I hit early. Her passing shots blazed by me on my approach. Soon enough it was tiebreaker, and even quicker, 1-7. I had lost the first set. I know my cheering squad, a.k.a the Slushies of Team Soft Serve, was feeling it too.
My lack of experience played in my favor here. I don’t think too far ahead so being down a set doesn’t affect me too much. Then, we shamefully didn’t know who served first after the tiebreak. We waved and gestured to the Slushies from four courts away. There were some laughs as we deciphered whether they were pointing to me or her.
So I started off the second set really loose and broke her serve. The games went back and forth, there were many deuces, and our match neared two hours. I kept telling myself I could do this, to play one point at a time, and visibly skipped/danced to Miss Gaga a few times. I was able to consistently hold serve and break hers, winning the second set 6-4.
In the interest of time, the third set is a 10-point tiebreaker. In a way, it’s nice for the short, intense focus, but in my opinion, only if you are winning. I focused on strong serves and got a clear lead. I was very comfortable at this point, and finished with a smashing overhead, winning 10-4.
I won the match! I was SO happy. I went over to hug (my) Ben and Chippy and immediately texted a bunch of folks. Gerald, always in game mode, again sent a great response, “Nice. Now focus on hydration and relaxation.”
Ben missed my match point to go start his match (but did a little dance when he found out). I proudly leaned over to say hi, he gave me a thumbs up and said, “I’ll try to follow suite.” That was a HUGE understatement. Ben’s second match was the best I’ve ever seen him play (contrastingly, his first, the evening before, was the worst I’ve seen). The poor guy just gave him exactly what he liked–pace, easy placement–and he was whipping out winners, hitting the lines, every other point. Starving from my long match, we debated on what to do for lunch, but the next thing we knew, Ben was at 5-0 in the first set. Then we realized we could probably wait it out…
After a lot of banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), Chippy and my Ben went home. The afternoon schedule was very tight. I was to play at 5:30pm (though I requested earlier) and Ben at 5pm, but we also had a mixed doubles match for our league at 8pm, about a half hour away. We agreed that we’d default at 7:30 if it came down to it. Fully unprepared for how mentally exhausting singles would be, I lay down to rest. As it got near to game time, Ben woke me up with some hip hop, and I felt very relaxed jamming to good beats. He put on one last, very entertaining song for me to rock out to, and I walked on the court humming the words to the famous “F— you” song.
My second opponent had a long singles record. She hit similar to the first woman but with more consistency and determination. I served the first game and it must have been at least 10 deuces. At this rate, I’ll never make it to my match. My mind was somewhere else in the first set. I pushed back, didn’t trust my strokes, my backhand struggled on the short slices, and I lost some of her service games at love-40. Ben and our friend Fumi, who was also in the women’s 4.0 tourney, were giving me the look: Go for it! Come on! But alas, it was a quick set 2-6.
In the second set, I woke up. Later, the woman told me she felt like she played a different person in the second set. I felt more in control, picked my shots, and forced her to make errors. I even whipped some backhand returns (not nearly as many as I’d like). This time it was me dominating the set at 6-2. Ben gave me a pump from two courts down.
Another third set tie breaker. Remember what I said before? Well, I wasn’t able to be as focused this time around. The score went back and forth, and at 6-7, I lost two points on her serve. She now had three match points. I tried not to think about it and won back two more points with my serve. She served at 9-8. It was a long rally, with both of us just playing it safe. Then she came in after hitting deep to my forehand, I lobbed, she overheaded, I got it back but not high enough, and she won with a put away volley. It was a good match point. I was disappointed but didn’t have much time to think about it, as the clock was ticking.
Ben had won the first set but was struggling on the second. It came down to a tiebreaker starting at 7:10, which he was well aware of. He started spanking the ball to play it fast, going for all or nothing. The points and score went on and on, both sides having opportunities to win the set. I anxiously watched the match and clock simultaneously: if he didn’t win the tiebreaker, he’d have to default because there’s no way he’d finish another one for the third set. Of course Ben pulled off the win, 12-10! He ran over to shake hands, packed up, I grabbed two pizza slices, and we booked it. We arrived at our doubles match with minutes to spare, pizza still digesting, and Ben amped from another great, tough win.
The doubles match was such a change of pace. It felt a lot easier… except we were probably too loose, or just mentally and physically checked out. Our slushies showed up, and they said our body language was screaming tired. Our opponent was a stronger woman and weaker guy combo, but neither dominated the net. As long as I got my first serve in, Ben could easily poach. She did give Ben some lessons with her driving groundstrokes and good touch at the net, and the guy surprised us with funky spin and drop shot volleys. We were up 4-1 in both sets and should have cleaned it up quickly, but we played sloppy and won 7-5 and 6-4. Still, despite how tired we were, I love playing doubles with my Team Soft Serve partner, and this win was crucial for our mixed league, who are now strong contenders for making it to playoffs.
Clearly I wish I had won my second match. And it’s now obvious I made the mistake of not caring as much, just like Gerald warned. I think I had become too content about winning my first one–I wasn’t eliminated! nor crushed!–that there was no expectation or not enough heart left for the second. And like Ben said, I would lose then. Overall, I’m just happy it was a positive experience for me and I still want to do more. But first, I know what I want to work on:
1) Get a forehand. Enuf said.
2) Be aggressive on the push balls.
FYI: Ben lost the semis match in a third set tiebreaker 8-10. A great weekend for him. More pictures from my singles and doubles matches, thanks to our slushie with the cam. She would have had the second match, when I was on center court, but I wasn’t fully aware of her fanness. Next time! And of course, a big thank you to my Ben, my biggest and dedicated fan. Who knew he liked tennis so much? :p