My feet are two inches behind the thick, white line, two-and-a-half feet apart; my balance shifts between them. My right armband has shifted so the familiar Adidas sign faces out from the side of my wrist. My right hand tightens into the western grip, feeling the sticky, worn black tape. My left hand floats nearby; the fingertips grace the triangle beneath the racket face. This style of grip is painful because it twists the wrist out of its natural resting position; but it is a dull afterthought only remembered the next day in soreness. The reward upon striking the ball is instantly noticeable, the spin arcs it high – which makes it harder to read – and the power makes it smooth and deadly fast, if you can control the timing of the hit.
My opponent stalls and wipes his face; I fix the errant wristband. I think of his tactics from the previous times we have played. Stalling was never something he did in previous matches, his power reducing over the duration of the match. The sun stings the back of my neck. I had stalled in previous matches, drawn out the rallies, and tried to control the time of the match for that very reason. My shirt collar pulls as I roll my shoulders, nipping at the burn from the hours spent on the practice court. My back pulses as I lean forward; my calves raise slowly one at a time. I sway with nonexistent breezes. I smell nothing; that sense is useless in this game. The stench of sweat and sun would only be a distraction. A bead of sweat drops into my left eye. I wipe it with the left arm band and return the hand to its waiting point.
In one instant, motion begins. My opponent bounces the ball precisely three times; not the slow languid one I use to focus, but a rapid bounce to mentally prepare him for his power serve. There are always three bounces before this serve; I know what is coming. The King’s Game is a chess match played seventy feet apart, every move a struggle for control of the court. Every opponent has a strategy when he reaches the point at which my adversary has arrived. This opponent likes to penetrate hard to the outside corner – back line – of the service box. This serve sends his foes out wide. With this fast and powerful shot, he then commits immediately to the net. This is how he controls the points he has to win. Throughout this match, he has continuously returned to this serve to exploit his advantage, but I have break point. If I win this point I will be serving for the match. This is the moment where I control my fate. I do not rely on anyone, there is no one else on my side of the court; any mistakes I make are my own. In this moment, I am free from all other thoughts, completely focused, and all I see is green.
The motions continue and his toss hand soars while his racquet hand cocks back in the short burst. I appreciate his serve because it is my own; we learned it from the same coach when we first entered this level of the game. It is fluid, yet concise. All the power comes from the calves. I feel the compression of the spine, the explosion of the jump. His shoulder snaps his arm forward so suddenly, if I didn’t know the sensation myself, I would think it must be painful. Yet there is so much tension relief that the pain is minimized. Ignoring the little pains is the only way to play, the only way to excel. You can control the little pains: the taping of an ankle, an ibuprofen before the match, electrolyte-filled liquids to refresh and re-energize. Having control of these little pains, using the strength they can give you, is the only way to be great. I read in Andre Agassi’s autobiography about his pregame rituals, which included getting his toes and ankles taped. He wrote that if they were not taped he would experience more pain than the pressure of the taping itself. In a way, he says, it is almost protecting the player by causing minor pain to prevent major. I would add that it also acts as motivation to excel and win faster, to relieve the pressure.
The ball is arcing straight for the corner, towards my backhand. A moment passes so fast in my mind that I barely recognize it, but I do. We have been out here for hours and he knows as well as I do that my backhand is my liability. I inhale with the beginning motions of running and smell the sautéed onions and peppers from the stand behind the stadium. Those smell amazing. Focus. I do not have time to run around it for an angled forehand shot, my deadliest weapon. I control my fate. I get there in time to block it back. He is at the net, waiting for the ball. I commit to the opposite corner from where he sent me and pray he doesn’t hit it into the open court behind my back. The smell of onions follows me as I run. Making the shift to return to the open court is the most dangerous decision I could make. It could lead to the one pain that can never be controlled: injury. Injury controls the athlete. The broken arm causes the player to have to relearn his serve toss. The pulled hamstring causes the athlete to remain off his legs for days on end. There is no control of fate in injury. I watch his eyes as they watch me move. I see the tense in his shoulders, the grip shift. He has seen the hole in my defense and is adjusting to it.
He is staring into the sun when he swings. The ball makes contact with his racquet handle instead of the face, sputtering over the net like a rock stumbling to a halt at the end of an avalanche, and I barely get there in time to scoop it up over his head. He retreats to the baseline and so do I. This is where the mind takes over this struggle for control. Every shot has an angle and a spin needing response. I relentlessly attack his backhand with a topspin shot down the line. I’m playing dangerously close to the boundary line. I control my fate. We are using small alleys in a wide court. A light breeze flutters in over the stands and cools down my forehead. He hits a beautiful cross court shot to send me running. He is currently winning in the struggle for control. The volleying continues; neither one of us willing to break. Every return instantly turns into watching the opponent’s body language for clues where his next shot is heading. The hardest part of controlling your opponent is that he has the same desire to control you. The baseline battle ensues through multiple strokes: my forehand to his forehand, his backhand to my forehand. He sees I am running around my backhand. I can feel the fire of my forehand burning hot. In this surge of confidence, I swing and miss-hit a topspin cross-court shot. A cloud shadows the sunlight and my opponent sees the court clearly. He smiles and his grip tightens. I see what is coming and my legs react before my mind has fully processed what is about to take place. I have left open my weakness.
I realize that I do not have control at all. Armbands will twist out of skew. My opponent is another thinking human, and we cannot control another man no matter how hard we try. A sweaty grip will rotate in the hand, dulling the impact of the ball with the stroke. The sun will continue to shine on our inconsistencies, illuminating them for everyone to see. Blind luck will step in sometimes and allow for one of the most amazing shots you’ve ever seen. Smells will waft in and distract with the temptation of the goodness just out of sight. Sometimes you will make mistakes and have to figure out how to return from your weakness instead of your strength.
It is called break point because it can break the opponent’s confidence, but losing it can also break your own. My hands grip tightly on the racquet. I let rip a backhand. I pretend I am in control.
Author’s Note: Written in 2010