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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Stormin' the Courts

Hurricane Sandy dominated the news yesterday, touching off a scramble to buy generators, stockpile toilet paper, and coin irritating Halloween-themed storm terms. (The first drop of rain hasn't even fallen and "Frankenstorm" has already been worn out.)
I should've been shopping for staples.  After all, I don't want to get caught without an entire gallon of milk to spoil when the power goes out for a week.  But instead of spending the evening preparing for Sandy, I stormed the tennis courts with the Smash Hits at Worldgate Sport & Health in Herndon.

The doubles-only league requires us to field three pairs per match.  Our captain mixes up the rotation, so we rarely play with the same partner twice.  This week she teamed me with R, a petite, blonde twenty-something with a cherubic face and sweet demeanor.

R and I are the youngest players on the Smashes and had played a couple practice games together but never a match.  Based on our practice time, she seemed pleasant and cool-headed.  As far as I could tell, all of her heat went into blistering groundstrokes that whizzed low and fast over the net and proved impossible for most people to hit.  I couldn't wait to play with her.

We arrived at Worldgate a few minutes early and occupied one table in the waiting area area while the opposing team sat at another nearby. When the starting buzzer sounded, the Smashes' captain sent R and me to Court #3.  Our opponents, C and M, joined us.  I'm not good at guessing age, but estimated that R and I were about ten years younger than C and M. 

As we headed toward the far court, C turned to my partner and said, "We were sizing you up over there."  A brief spike in R's eyebrows let me know this comment rubbed her the wrong way, but she said nothing.  That's good sportsmanship for you: the triumph of etiquette over sincerity.

As set 1 got underway, R and I discovered we had a clear advantage in serving, ground strokes and court coverage.  We exploited all three as much as possible.  We struggled a bit when our opponents served, though, for reasons unrelated to executing our strategy.  Tennis players have all kinds of serving tics and quirks, and theirs drove us nuts.

C would stand behind the baseline with her feet planted, holding the racquet and ball as if on the cusp of a serve.  But instead of putting the ball in play, she'd rock her upper body up and down in a motion I dubbed "The Oil Rig."  After drilling and coming up dry seven or eight times she'd finally fire the ball across the net.  I got distracted praying for a gusher instead of preparing my shot.  As a result, I sent most of my returns into the net or sailed them into next week.  R had similar problems.

We didn't find M's serving motion the least bit annoying, but the same cannot be said for her score announcing style.  Before every serve, she would pause at length and make a somber face, like she was about to say "guilty" in a murder trial instead of "deuce" at an amateur tennis match.  To heighten the dramatic tension, she prolonged her pronunciation of the score.  The deliberate, precise enunciation located my last nerve and gave it the trampoline treatment.  If Charles Dickens was paid by the word,  M was paid by syllable duration.

R and I powered through these distractions and pulled ahead, 5-3. It was R's turn to serve.  If she held, we would win the set. I trotted back to the baseline for an ad hoc pep rally.

"You're serving great," I said, giving her a thumbs-up.  "Now let's get this thing done." She nodded, her face a portrait in determination.

Unfortunately, we didn't get it done that game.  Or in the next three.  We found ourselves in a tiebreaker, and before we knew it we'd handed over the first set, 6-7.  We'd also lost an hour on it and had only thirty minutes left to win the second set and force a third set tiebreaker.  The time crunch made our opponents' serving quirks even harder to ignore.

R and I kept our concentration and managed a 4-2 lead.  I was serving to close out the game and make it 5-2 with less than ten minutes to go.  My serve landed in the far right corner of the box, almost beyond M's reach.  She got her racket on it, but barely.  Her return floated to my partner, who stood at the net and watched it hungrily, the way Katniss eyed flying prey in The Hunger Games.

When it came time to execute the kill shot, though, R didn't channel Katniss so much as Elmer Fudd.  She blasted the ball right into the net.  She let out a yelp and clenched her fists in frustration.
Meanwhile, M had missed getting a fuzzy navel by inches at most.  Yet instead of showing gratitude for her good fortune, she said to R, "My shot was bad, but yours was worse!"

If she meant this comment to be funny, her attempt didn't make it over the net.  It sent R over the edge instead.  She couldn't let the offense go unaddressed.

"Nice courtesy!" R huffed and marched back to the baseline where I stood. "I've got a fire in my belly now," she informed me.

I didn't know whether to fan it or extinguish it, so I just shut up and put the ball in play.  My serve to C was a carbon copy of the one I'd hit to M (by pure coincidence, because very little of my tennis game happens intentionally).  C hit a weak return straight to R, who pounced on it and sent a volley screaming right in between our opponents.  They didn't have a prayer of hitting it.  R turned on her heel and strode towards me.  Her angelic face had gone satanic.

R and I won the second set with one minute to spare. We met C and M at the net and had started to discuss the tiebreaker when time ran out.  Under the league rules, if the match is tied and time expires before the tiebreaker begins, the victory goes to the team that won the most games in total.  R and I eked out the win by pure math, winning twelve games to our opponents' ten.

I hope I get paired with R again, because I definitely want her on my side.

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