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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Inspired Tennis

Continuing with our Top Ten Tuesday series, here’s another one of my favorite all-time moments. In 1984, I was a freshman in college and I had a dream of making the tennis team. I worked hard the preceding summer and I was probably in the best shape I’d ever been in. Unfortunately, the team had a slew of guys who were better than I was and I was never ranked higher than number 12 (the top 8 traveled and played in meets).

After the initial rankings were set, we had an opportunity to move up on a weekly basis. We could play the guy ranked just ahead of us and if we beat him, we moved up. And of course, we had to play the guy ranked one below us if he wanted to play, and we dropped one spot if we lost. In the middle of all this competition, the school had an intramural tennis tournament. My memory fails me a bit here, but this tournament was either closed to the top eight guys on the tennis team or it was held during a tennis meet. I just remember that it included a bunch of guys who weren’t in the top eight. Sort of a “best of the rest” tournament.

I got a bye in the first round and I won my match in the second round. I think I won by forfeit in the third round, and that put me in the final against a guy who was ranked higher than I was on the team. He had a killer serve and solid ground strokes. Couple those facts with a lightening fast playing surface, and I had little shot at winning.

Early on, I tried to out-slug him from the baseline, which was a mistake because I never had the best ground strokes. I was always more of a serve and volley player. But this guy’s ground strokes were so good that he was able to get the ball by me at the net nearly every time I did serve and volley. So, I did the only thing I could do, and that was to become a counter-puncher. I was always good at putting top-spin and under-spin on the ball and I began to do both which threw him off his game.

He started to make a lot of errors and he got frustrated. So, I did more of the same and won the first set in a tie-breaker. I knew that I couldn’t win in any other fashion, so I decided to stay patient and play the same way in the second set. I glanced up at the walking track above the courts (we played inside) after the first set and I could see that he had a small contingency that came to root him on. I don’t think I even told anybody that I was in the final of a tournament, but I should have because it meant a lot me.

As the second set opened, I can still remember what song was playing over the gym’s sound system: Hello by Lionel Richie. I loved that song because it reminded me of a girl I was interested in at the time. Sometimes that’s all the inspiration a guy needs to overcome the odds. But I think I drew even more inspiration from something else. If I could win the tournament, no matter how small or inconsequential it might be, I would feel like I belonged somewhere—a feeling that I didn’t often experience early in my life because I was so shy.

I went on to win the second set, either 6–4 or 7–5 (I can’t remember which), and that gave me the tournament—the only tournament I ever won. All I got was a shirt, and I have no idea where it is today, but here’s a picture of me wearing it:

The guy I beat in the final beat me the following week—rather handily, and he passed me on the team’s depth chart. He was flat better than me, and I was never able to climb any higher in the team rankings after that, but I’ll always have that one tournament win.


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