When I was an adolescent, the best tennis player in the district was named Jay. This is not to say that everyone who rose to the number one ranking was renamed Jay (because, after all, what would be the point of that?), but, rather, to indicate that one player Jay dominated the sport in my region. In fact, the top tennis echelon consisted of Jay and no one else. There was one very good reason for this.
Nobody beat Jay. Not ever, as far as I know.
I and numerous others made up the second tier of players, which is less impressive than it sounds when one considers that west Michigan is to tennis what college students are to sobriety. I mention my status only to point out that, because Jay had to play someone, it was inevitable that he and I would one day meet on the tennis court. This occurred one picture perfect afternoonwarm, sunny, slight breezea seemingly ideal time to challenge Jays status as unbeatable. Yes, I was one confident fool.
We met by the assigned court and shook hands, my first chance to see him up close. He was tall, lean, and tan, with a mane of blond hair that would stay in place through a noreaster. I was short, skinny, and the possessor of more cowlicks than a feeding trough. But I was cooler. OK, I wasnt, but my dog liked me better and would have even if hed met Jay.
As we donned our gear and began warming up, hitting stiff shots with little regard to their placement, I was thinking This is Jay? His shots were easy to handle and not particularly accurate. Poco (the aforementioned dog) can do more with a tennis ball than this guy! I guess you could say I was less than thoroughly impressed with his game. Or maybe I was overly impressed with my own. In any case, I carried a vat full of confidence into the first set.
His prowess improved as the set began, but not enough. I was reacting to everything, hitting shot after shot past him for winners, with nary a thought that I might miss. Serves, groundstrokes, volleysyou name it, I could do it. I was in the proverbial zone (which, until that day, I had considered a myth. Like Bigfoot or Ohio). The ball was easy to hit and totally submissivea little brother wrapped in yellow felt.
By our third changeover, with me ahead 4-1, I took stock of just how darn good I was. My backhand was unbelievable, my forehand good (it had never been great, even when I was rolling). And my reservoir of stamina was so full that I actually hurried back on to the court, so eager was I to resume my thrashing of Jay.
I noticed a small crowd gathering beside the windscreens. Surely they had come to watch Jay, but I was far too impressed with myself to let him be Hawkeye to my Frank Burns.
"At the very least Im Trapper!" I yelled. This, of course, made no sense at all to anyone outside my own thoughts.
Jay and I split the next two games, as I hit some more amazing backhands and passable forehands. The game I lost, however, was due to two consecutive weak forehands that allowed Jay easy put-aways. The second of these shots was so awkward that I thought I heard people in the crowd laughing. I glared in the general direction of the tittering, a fleeting glance just long enough to look tough without actually risking a punch in the snout.
During the next changeover, Jay remarked, "I dont often see players whose backhands are better than their forehands."
"Theres nothing wrong with my forehand," I insisted.
Whether or not Jay believed me, he did not change his style of play. He fortunately hit me enough backhands to balance the numerous feeble forehands I suffered while winning one of the pair of games. That gave me the first set 6-3 and I desperately wanted to stop the match right then, solely for purposes of gloating.
"Good playing," said Jay during the changeover between sets.
"When I want your opinion, Ill ask for it," I answered.
Jay laughed comfortably, as if I were kidding.
I was on top of the world, having won a set from the great Jay with my superb play and cunning. I could hardly get over how smart I was, how effectively I was hiding that nasty hitch in my forehand from the best player I would ever face. The secret, I figured, was my intense will to win. Losing, after all, could send me into fits of yelling, object tossing, lost sleep, and other behaviors found commonly among tennis players and toddlers. All of that had been rendered unnecessary, however. I had the game figured out.
The key was errors, as in dont make any. Sure, that wasnt an attainable goal, but so what? The fewer mistakes I made, the more success I would experience. What could be more logical?
Nobody beats Jay? Keep watching, I wanted to shout. I had a vision of the future and saw curators of a tennis museum fussing over a statue of me.
"Throw away those sculptures of Laver, Tilden, and Hoad," one of them said. "The Williams is here." (This was before McEnroe and Sampras; and Borg was still so young he was losing two to three matches a year.) The inscription on my likeness would begin, "As a youth, figured out how to beat Jay. From then on, conquering the world was easy . . ."
I wondered if anyone had taken a set from Jay before. Later that day, someone in the assembled crowd would tell me that plenty of others had. But thats getting ahead of the story. I was only to the second set.
Lets see, how to describe set number two? Numerous adjectives come to mind. Theres humiliating. And embarrassing, degrading, frustrating, and disastrous. Then the words that really tell the story: Six Oh (the score). I didnt die, but thats about as silver as the lining gets.
I tried every conceivable means of propelling forehands back across the net, including topspin, backspin, and even flipspin, a stroke I made up on the spot. The first two worked a few times, offering false hope that was quickly dashed when Jays deep and powerful shots again brought out the wimpiest forehand since Aaron Burr slapped Alexander Hamilton with a silk glove. The idea with flipspin was to hold the racquet vertically, then move the strings completely around the ball during the course of the swing (if thats hard to picture, I wouldnt worry, as its not a stroke thats likely to make anyone forget the Rafter volley). Sadly, albeit unsurprisingly, the flipspin did not even get the ball to the net, much less over it.
Other forehand attempts included pushing the racquet like an oar and swinging it two-handed like a bat. I jumped up on one leg like a ballerina and tapped the ball gently (I looked as if I were trying to swat a fly without actually harming it). When those plans of attack failed, I began ridiculously running around my forehand to hit more backhands.
Please think about that for a moment. I was running around my forehand. Nobody runs around a forehand. Its the easiest shot in tennis, every players bread and butter. Its the first stroke every youngster is taught, for crying out loud! Any infant with a paddle can hit it! But there I was, purposely removing it from my arsenal rather than continue my clumsy prancing and patting. In keeping with my luck at the time, however, all this new strategy really accomplished was to hinder both shots.
I thought about all those hours in my youth spent hitting tennis balls against cement walls. How easy it was to strike punishing and accurate forehands in the absence of a real opponent. Facing only the wall, I could swing the racquet fiercely, striking the ball on the rise, blasting it with an audible pop. My reflexes were primed, my confidence high, my shots accurate, my game unrecognizable.
I remembered the warm up with Jay just an hour or so earlier. Those shots had also left my racquet fluidly regardless of how I struck them.
If I can do it sometimes, I wondered, why cant I do it now? I tried pretending Jay wasnt there, an attempt to return to my wall strokes of old. This turned out to be an astonishingly stupid strategy when applied to someone who was setting the pace of play and, not coincidentally, dominating me like, um, likeoh never mind, I hate trying to think up similes. Theres about as much chance of me drawing an apt parallel here as there is of Anna Kournikova dropping by my house to borrow a cup of Cheez Whiz.
In my desperation, I recalled Coach Floren from the first summer I took lessons. What had he said to the class, that group of youngsters with no real concerns beyond armpit noises and the relative merits of Batman and the Green Hornet? Foot forward (actually it sounded more like fute fawd through the clipped speech and Romanian accent with which he barked at us), hit the ball, reach for the balloon. I never understood why the follow-through was "reach for the balloon." Maybe its common for inflatables to hover over tennis courts in Romania. Or maybe Floren learned to play at a T.G.I.Fridays. In any case, I tried the instructions of the old coach the next time Jay knocked the ball to my right side. I stepped my left foot forward, struck the ball, and followed through high enough to graze that giant floating Garfield from the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The resulting shot was perfect, rocketing by my opponent like good writing past a journal reviewer.
(Do I sound bitter? Im not. Can I help it if the editors of JNOWAYor whatever the acronym iswouldnt know quality research if it slammed into them like a Philippoussis serve?)
"Nice shot," said Jay, as he watched the ball nick the sideline for a winner.
"Dont be so condescending," I answered.
"Dont you be so sensitive. I thought it was a good shot."
I finally had my forehand restored. It was simply a matter of returning to basics, of discarding bad habits and relearning what I was naturally programmed to do. I would have kissed my old coach right then and there had I seen him.
Two missed shots later, I decided Floren was an idiot.
Why, you ask (or even if you didnt), couldnt I hit a normal forehand? Was there something wrong with my arm? My noggin? My karma (whatever that is)?
I dont know, I dont know, I dont know, and I certainly dont know.
None of that really mattered at the time. What did was getting the ball back over the net someway, somehow.
Between new forehand ideas, when I was left with the hitch, I pretended to laugh off my errors, an attempt to mislead anyone who cared that this most recent failure was caused by the moment, my opponent, the constellation Orionanything but the truth.
The crowd was no help during my humiliation. Those who reacted did so with a mix of mockery and sympathy. Most fell into the latter group, trying to encourage me with supportive and/or patronizing smiles. Then came the dumb advice.
"Think about what youre doing."
"Come on. Just hit the ball."
Gee, thanks guys. Why didnt I think of that?
Near the end of the degradation that was the second set, I thought I heard someone in the crowd hissing. Thats righthissing. In the 70s! Come on, what was there to hiss about? I mean other than puka shells. And shirts that read "Im With Stupid." And that Clint Holmes song I could never get out of my head (My name is Michael, Ive got a nickel . . .). OK, so there was plenty to hiss about. And had I been watching, I might have joined in. My opponent was bouncing me around like a cow on a bungee chord (I warned you about the simile thing). Jay was better, simple as that. No external elements were hindering me. It was one-against-one and I was losing. It was time to admit that I might not be good enough, to take responsibility for my performance.
"The suns in my eyes," I explained to Jay during the next changeover.
He glanced up at the sky. "It clouded up 15 minutes ago."
"Oh. Well, Ium . . . shut up."
"Your plays dropped a little," he said, ignoring my suggestion. "Want some advice?"
I nodded. I had certainly run out of ideas.
"Youre playing it too safe. Like youre afraid to lose."
Technically, thats not advice and, besides that, it sounded stupid. First of all, Im supposed to be afraid of losing. Otherwise Id never be a winner, right? Secondly, my problem wasnt "playing it too safe." It was a forehand that smelled like Mojave roadkill.
As I returned to the court, however, I began to wonder if maybe there was a kernel of truth in Jays babbling. It was possible, after all, that he hadnt always been so good, that hed had to learn to hit those winners that were too frequently blasting past me. Perhaps, my revelation continued, guys like Jay arent born 62" with the confidence of a cat in a carpet-staining contest. If that was the case, even the mighty Jay must have, once upon a time, regularly missed those shots he now stroked without worry. Maybe he didnt, as he said, "play it safe," and instead developed a variety of tactics he could employ to help conquer any opponent. I was on the other end of the spectrum, with no plan beyond the next forehand (unless you count always putting my underwear on the same way before each match). As a result, I was faced with an opponent controlling every point and a forehand controlling me.
I resumed play with a change in strategy that was, for once, a change in strategy (as opposed to simply finding new means of deceit). I stopped focusing on every forehand, then dying inside each time the ball sank gently downward like a south Florida luxury car to the bottom of a swimming pool. (Youve heard of inside jokes? That was an inside simile. So inside, in fact, I dont completely understand it.)
In retrospect, I can see that my new attack was four-pronged: (1) dont flinch, (2) allow yourself to miss, (3) go for the shots you really want to hit, and (4) lose.
Eight points into the third set, I was behind 2-0. Yet I continued on my new track for a number of reasons. For one, I was tired of the deception involved in conjuring novel forehands, which, by the way, hadnt fooled anyone and, in a related note, looked ridiculous. Besides, the third set results were really no worse than before. I was simply losing a new way, one that at least had some logic to it: I had been devising tricks to avoid mistakes; take away the tricks, increase the mistakes.
But the new way also increased the fun. I could stop obsessing over one lonely feature of the game. Also amusing was the thought of Jay wondering why the guy with the arrested forehand was playing so cocky.
The final, and perhaps most important reason for my newfound devotion to risk taking was that confronting the feared forehand diminished its spell over me. It was the cruelest irony I could imaginethat stupid hitch did not start to dissipate until I stopped being so concerned with whether it would.
You see, I did gradually develop a forehand that day. Not a spectacular or even average one, not one consistently void of a hitch, but it was a forehand. It was my forehand, something I could live with, like my short stature, my cowlicks, my inability to write a decent simile.
Still, while I accepted the hitch, I did not have to like it. I certainly would have never sprayed any sunshine its way. Then again, name me anyone who admits to being a sun of a hitch.
(Sorry, but its been several paragraphs since Ive written something really dumb.)
During the third set, I did hit a few nice forehands. One, in fact, completely eluded Jays outstretched racquet.
"Nice shot," he said.
"Thanks," I answered humbly.
Other points went my way as well. In fact, for the first time in a set and a half, I was winning whole games. The crowd appreciated my effort and improved competitiveness. I even heard claps and saw nods of appreciation. One or two idiots laughed at some missed shots, but idiots laugh at everything. They tell us to in the meetings.
Alas (a term of French derivation meaning "Am I pretentious or what?"), my stamina was down a quart during that final set. Jay, meanwhile, looked as fresh as a new simile. Though my play was internally satisfying, my opponent was, unfortunately, competing on the outside.
By the time we finished the match, dark clouds were threatening the sky. The court was quiet and the crowd gone. They had been curious how I would fare, but all along even the idiots knew what the outcome would be.
After all, nobody beat Jay.
August 23, 2000