A Match Played With Fortitude

June 7, 2013
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It was 11:15 in the morning. The sun was just beginning to peek its head over the clouds and there was a cool breeze blowing through the tennis club. Physically, I was ready. My hair was tied back, and I had just finished warming up with a couple of my teammates. Only two other girls from my high school team had made it to the second day of CIF, they were the number one doubles. This was the semi-finals. I could sense that they were nervous because they didn't talk much. Everything seemed quiet at the club, the air was filled with anticipation of what was to come.

Mentally, I was nervous. The girl I was about to play, a junior, had been playing tennis consistently since she was five. I, on the other hand, a sophomore, had just come back to the sport a year ago, after having had a three year break.

All the girls that had made it to the second round of CIF were gathered around a small table, where two coaches stood with a list of the matches that were to be played that day. They began calling names. The coaches voices rang out in the dead air like a church bell ringing in an empty town. There was a stillness in the atmosphere. The air was no longer filled with anticipation, instead, there was a tense feeling. It felt as though everyone was frozen in their spot, until the two coaches at the small table called their names. Finally, our names were called. First hers, and then mine. The taller of the two coaches said, “You two will be playing on court five. If you need a line judge, just report back here and we will get you one. This match will be played best two out of three. If you guys are tied in the third set, you will play a seven point tie-breaker.” The other coach handed my opponent the tennis balls.

We did a short warm up, since both of us had already warmed up not too long ago. Then we
started. I was serving. I felt so nervous. I took the three balls from her hand, and walked to the baseline. I tucked one of the balls under my skirt, and tossed the second one in the corner where the fences that surround the court meet. The third ball was left in my hand, waiting patiently for me to serve. So I bounced the ball three times, and held my breath. As I tossed the ball into the air, I looked up and watched my long racket make contact with the ball. I was so nervous that I prayed my serve went over the net. It did. She returned and I tried to go cross court, but it hit the net.

“Love- fifteen.” I said the score quiet, without any confidence and served again. Similar points to the first one were played throughout the first set. Because I was nervous, I was beginning to rush in everything I did. The rushing was worse on my serve though. I would get tense and tight if I was losing, and would try to play it safe on my serve. By playing it safe, I mean that I would hit a softer serve in order to try to make it into the service box. When I did this, however, the opposite events usually occurred. I would either hit it way out, or straight into the net. I was not playing like myself. The score was 0-1. It's okay, I told myself, just try to stay focused. It was 0-2, then 0-3, and then 0-6. I had lost the first set.

I was so mad that I had let myself lose because of my nerves. During the water break, my coach tried to talk to me and pump me up, but it was hard for me to listen to what he had to say, because images of all the horrible shots I had hit into the net, or out, were circling in my head like a shark circles its prey. This was a new set, I thought, so I tried to shake off all of my frustrated emotions and focus on the second set.

We started the new set. My nerves were still there, but more controlled now. My shots were more consistent and I had less errors. I was still, however, holding my breath and holding back on my shots. But somehow, I pulled it off. I won the second set 6-3. My heart was pounding, and I was beginning to feel the familiar trickle of sweat along the back of my neck, from the sun that was no longer hiding
behind the clouds.

“Great job Kristen, keep it up.” my coach said, “Hit to her backhand as much as you can.” I felt good. My normal shots were coming back to me, and I was beginning to loosen up, instead of being that tense, scared person I was in the first set. I was gaining some confidence. But in the third set, things started to change. The little momentum I had built was slowing slipping away from me. We started to go back and forth in the third set, but I was always a game below her. 0-1, 1-2, and then 2-3. Before I knew it, the score was 2-5, fifteen-forty. If I lost this point I would lose the set and the match. It would be game over. I was so angry with myself. How could I have gotten this far behind? Then everything seemed to slow down, just like in the movies, when all you hear is the pounding of the character's heart beat. In that moment, as I watched my opponent bounce the ball, getting ready to serve for what she thought was the last time, I told my self Why are you so tight and tense? Just breathe, and go for it! Don't be afraid that your shot will go out! So that's what I did. I slowly began to catch up, one game at a time.

Usually, I don't like to look at the few people that are watching me play, because I prefer to stay concentrated on just myself and what I’m doing. But in my peripheral vision, I could see a crowd gathering to watch the match. Everyone was already done with their first match, so it was only me and my opponent out on the courts. The atmosphere at the tennis club had transitioned from being tense, to now being one of intensity. People who thought that my opponent would easily win, were now biting their nails watching us play. There was an excited, antsy energy in the crowd.

It only felt like a moment ago that I was on the verge of losing. And now the score was 6-5. I had won four games in a row, I only needed one more game, and I would win the match. The games played between 2-5 and 6-5 were all a blur to me. So when I finally realized that the score was 6-5, and that I was winning, I was in shock. I was so focused up to this point, that when I realized that I had won four games in a row, it threw me off.

I didn't play with as much intensity as I had earlier, and so I lost the next game. The score was now 6-6. We had to play a tie-breaker.

An official came out to watch us play and monitor the tie-breaker. I was beginning to feel the nerves creeping up on me again, because now, every point counted. I started off good, and won the first three points. Then she won the next two. Everyone was silent. The only noises in the club came from the sound of the ball, or from the official announcing the score. Now my nerves had spread to the crowd.

“Five-five.” the official announced. In a tie-breaker, you need to win by two points. So if I won these next two points, I would win. I served, and she returned it back to me, so I went cross court. She had trouble getting to it and hit a weak return to my backhand, so I pulled my racket back and swung hard and fast... it was just out.

“Six- five.” the official shouted. I took a deep breath, and served again. I needed to win this point. Our rally was long, we weren't giving up. She was having trouble with her backhand, so I hit a lob to it, and I watched it rise into the air. It seemed like it took forever for it to finally begin making its way back to the ground. But when it finally did, I closed my eyes in defeat.

The ball had bounced out.

I ran up to shake my opponents hand, and I could see the relief in her eyes that she had won, because I made a mistake. I felt empty inside. As I walked off the court, everyone, and I mean everyone was staring at me. Some from my opponent's team, just waiting to see if I would cry, some looking as if they felt bad for me, and others, in some sort of admiration. I did want to cry, and I fought to hold my tears back, because I didn't want to give the impression that I was a cry baby, or a sore loser. I was just so close, and I wished I would have won.

Now, looking back, I know what I did wrong. I needed to believe and have confidence in myself. So even though I lost, this really was a great lesson for me. All I need to do is have faith in my abilities, and then I will perform and do my best.

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