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New Club, New Team

       Shortly after I landed my first full-time tennis pro gig, I made my debut for their open-level men’s team. The competition is generally pretty good, and even though I hadn’t played in this league for a couple of years, I thought I could definitely hang with these guys, and especially at #2 doubles, where the level isn’t quite as high. My partner was a guy who is more of a singles player overall (He has a big game off the forehand side, and doesn’t really like to come forward.). I’ll call him Randy.

       Randy and I started out fine. Our opponents were a solid team, and their club had been the league champions the year before, so I knew I had to be on my toes. What I didn’t know was that Randy had a bit of a reputation as a bad line-caller. He has a bit of a strong personality, and I think that plays into how a lot of people react to line calls. At any rate, the first set was bumping along, and we were at 3-all or so when my partner called a first serve out on his sideline. I didn’t see it well, but the opponents, apparently reacting to my partner's reputation, went a little ballistic. The server fired a ball into the net and said the call was BS. Here’s the thing: my partner had returned the serve anyway, it was a first serve, and the other team won the point on the second serve. Nonetheless, the server was a wreck for 20 minutes. They went up 40-30 on that point, but we broke them and the guy was steaming. We took the set, and I think it was largely because my partner called a first serve out on a point we lost.

       Another interesting dynamic was that in the second set, I started to miss a few returns. At some point, my partner started “coaching me” to “just get the ball in play, get it back and we’ll win the point, etc.” Sounds like good advice, and I started to try it. Dump. Frame. Way long. Easy volley. We lost the second. Nonetheless, his advice remained the same. Finally, I got so annoyed that I decided to hit the next return as hard as I could. Winner. Hmmm. Next return, aggressive, maybe not quite as good, but enough to win the point. At this point, I realized that "just getting the ball back," was part of the problem. Instead, I started to fire up my feet and try to rip a few. I didn’t play perfectly the rest of the way, but my percentage on returns went up, and the ones that were in were much more effective. I also recognized that my game in general came to life, and, not that this should be last thing I mention, I had a lot more fun.

       I took a couple of thing from this match. First, for myself as a player, I need to be sure that I don’t fear mistakes to the extent that it cripples my game. For me, and a lot of other players, trying to be careful is too inhibiting, and I tend to make more mistakes with this kind of mindset than an aggressive one. It also got me thinking about how to get on the same page as my doubles partner. In this case, what my partner was telling me was well intentioned, but it wasn’t helpful (until it made me really mad, which I don’t think was the intention). The annoyance I felt at my partner was enough to snap me out of my doldrums. At that point, I needed some kind of boost, and that turned out to be enough for me. Nowadays, I’m less likely to get mad while playing, mostly because I’ve gotten better at taking the necessary steps to avoid needing to get mad.

The other side of the coin is our opponent who lost his temper. In his case, however, he blew up at a very helpful time for us: while the match was close. I think when he exploded, after a relatively insignificant call, it was a signal that he was nervous and vulnerable. Someone who is confident about holding their serve is not going to worry about a close call on a first serve, especially if the serve was returnable, and especially especially if they end up winning the point. But that call, and losing the game a few points later stuck with this guy much longer than necessary, so there must have been more going on. To his credit, he recovered in the second set, but I think it cost them the first.

With evenly matched teams, momentum swings are often on something goofy: a lucky net cord, a ball that comes from another court, a broken string, or a bad call. You never can prepare for everything, but I think this guys mindset was more like, “He better not try to rip me off. I can’t beat him if he's cheating,” than, “He’s probably going to rip me off on a couple of calls today. If they’re really important, I’ll question them, but I’m not going to win any arguments, so it’s not worth losing my temper. I’ll just play my game, which is good enough, and I’ll probably hold serve all day.” I try to carry the second attitude against known cheaters or bad sports.

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