I have played a lot of tennis in my life. I played in high school and college, even earned my certification as a teaching professional.
I have also watched a lot of tennis in my life. Have you ever seen tennis on TV and thought to yourself, “I could rally with that guy.”? Well, you’d be wrong. You can’t. I know this because I just played in the US Open National Playoff and it was simply one of the most humbling experiences of my adult life.
The tournament in Norman, Oklahoma was one of 16 sectional tournaments held across the country. The 16 winners then play in a national tournament with the champion earning a berth into the qualifying draw of the US Open. Yes, the actual US Open. You know, New York City, tennis under the lights, Alec Baldwin sitting courtside? That US Open.
Because it’s a truly open event, many spots in the draw are occupied by chuckleheads like me who tell themselves they can hold their own (even though they can’t) and may just be delusional enough to believe they can win a few matches (even though they won’t).
The other spots are filled by top ranked juniors, big time college players, and guys who have actually been in professional matches. All of them possess something I do not: real, God-given ability.
When I looked at the draw a week before the tournament, I saw my name paired up against Jackson Withrow. Jackson is a 19-year old from Omaha, Nebraska and he just happens to be a freak. He was a top ten player in the Missouri Valley (a five state section), and a nationally ranked junior who was then recruited heavily by some of the biggest tennis powerhouses in the country before settling for a scholarship to Texas A&M. This was going to be ugly.
Going into the match I had two goals. Make the score respectable, and make the match last at least an hour. It’s always good to have something to shoot for.
I introduced myself to Jackson and he seemed like a great kid. He was polite and humble and I was disappointed. I really wanted an excuse to dislike this guy.
During the warm up, I felt very comfortable. Jackson even shanked a ball off the court which revived that stupid, small glimmer of hope I had that I could actually hang around in this match. That glimmer didn’t last long. I elected to serve and promptly opened the match with a double fault. My serve has always been a massive liability, why should it show up today? After the initial embarrassment of the moment in which I thought, “I can’t believe I teach people how to do this,” I won the next couple of points when Jackson missed his returns.
“Ok, the nerves are gone, time to settle into this match with a rally,” I thought. Jackson sent back my serve with what appeared to be a routine forehand. I felt ready, I felt prepared. I wasn’t. The extreme Nadal-like topspin on the ball sent it rocketing forward and up as it bounced off the court. My feeble reflexes are not honed to hit this kind of ball. I connected with some frame and maybe a string or two. It felt like trying to hurl a cinder block. I must have looked ridiculous as I jumped backwards and dumped the ball into the net. Cue the embarrassment.
The next two points, Jackson attacked my cupcake serves, ran me side to side, and then pasted a couple winners as I flailed about from eight feet behind the baseline. 1-0 Talent.
With his first serve of the match, Jackson calmly carved an ace out wide to my forehand side. He followed that up with an ace down the middle then two more missiles which I could only wave at and reply, “Nice serve.” Surprisingly, hitting with high school players and feeding balls to small children had not adequately prepared me for the timing required to return a 120-mile per hour serve with kick. I’m a coach and a teaching pro and I was thinking, “I wonder if this guy will give me a lesson?”
I didn’t win a single point on Jackson’s serve in the first set. I threw in my customary six or seven double faults – as if he needed my assistance – and Jackson took the first set 6-0. My shirt was completely saturated with sweat and Jackson wasn’t even breathing hard. I was toweling off repeatedly and I swear Jackson wasn’t even perspiring. “This guy’s a robot,” I thought. I remembered the story my dad told me of the time he played Jimmy Connors in a small, local tournament out in California. Dad said he was crushed so severely, Connors didn’t even take off his sweatpants for the whole match. I guess family history repeats itself. Had it not been 95 degrees, I’m convinced Jackson could have played in a parka and been entirely unphased.
I finally won a point on Jackson’s serve when he double faulted. It might have been out of pity or a subtle display of mercy, but I didn’t care. I almost let out an audible cheer. He aced me with his next serve, and I won a grand total of two points on his serve for the entire match. Jackson’s second serve had so much spin and bite to it that I don’t think I ever made clean contact. I caught a couple returns so late that spectators had to duck and cover. A few times I got luck and I’d frame a return back in play. Jackson looked mildly annoyed as he rushed forward to punish me for the garbage I was sending his way. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone watching, so I stared at my shoe tops as I walked to the other side wondering if I was closing in on an hour. Returning Jackson’s serve was a guessing game. I was like a goalkeeper trying to stop a penalty kick. My strategy was to dive one way and pray for contact. I usually guessed wrong.
Trailing 0-4 in the second set, I had my best chance to get on the scoreboard. By the grace of God, Jackson made two unforced errors and I found myself up 40-love. I had no chance to win but this, this would be my victory. This one game would prove something! As I thought of what that something might be, Jackson flipped his switch back to the “on” position and cracked two crosscourt forehand winners. 40-30. No big deal, still game point. I had long since forgotten about my goal of respectability. All I wanted was to avoid the dreaded double bagel. My serve went in and Jackson’s return did not hit any strings. It went straight up and immediately I began wishing the ball out. I was going to will that ball to land long. “Come on, please, please go out!” It landed well inside the baseline. “Unbelievable,” I thought as I retreated toward the fence and hit a weak forehand back down the line. Jackson sprang forward, ran around his backhand and rifled an inside-out forehand that clipped the top of the net before skidding off the far sideline. Deuce. I looked heavenward. I wanted to scream, “Really!? Does this guy need the help!?” Instead all that came out was, “nice shot Jackson.”
I had two more game points. I double faulted on both. On the third deuce point, Jackson hit a slice backhand deep into my backhand corner. I’ve dealt with slice, I can handle slice. I got down low and took my racquet back, ready to lift up on the ball and roll it back over the net like I’d done thousands of times in my life. Except this wasn’t the kind of slice I was used to. This ball was a yo-yo. It landed and then seemed to jerk violently as if Jackson held it on a string and was yanking it back toward his side of the court. I lunged and nearly completely missed. The ball nicked off the edge of my racquet and went straight down. Advantage Freak-boy. Good time for another double fault, which is exactly what I delivered. I looked at Jackson casually strolling to the bench and I wanted to yell at him. “You couldn’t let me have one game!?”
It took Jackson four serves to hold at love and close out the match. A 6-0, 6-0 dusting that was a warm up for one guy and the complete dismantling of an ego for the other. When I shook his hand, Jackson gave me an “aw shucks” look as if to say, “I’m sorry I had to do this to you.” I told him to go win the whole thing so at least I’d feel a little better about myself. I took my watch out of my bag. The match had started at 9AM. It was 9:50. I didn’t win a game, and I didn’t last an hour. Ouch.
As I sat there with my head in a towel guzzling water like a man who had been lost at sea, it hit me that at no point during the match had Jackson ever been on the defensive. I was completely unable to put him under any kind of pressure. From the outset of every point, the ball was either by me or I was on the run. I had come into the match thinking I could rally with him, but I was pretty sure the longest point of the match was six shots.
Despite a sore knee, a throbbing arm, and an obliterated sense of self-worth, I walked off the court feeling lucky. I was lucky to have been a part of a nationwide event. I was lucky to have stood across the net from a guy who might just make it big someday; who I can tell my kids I played against. I was lucky to have the opportunity to test myself and compete. I was extremely lucky no one I knew was there to watch my performance.
It’s amazing to me that Jackson is probably in the top two percent of all tennis players in the world and yet he may never get a sniff of the pro tour. If I was in the top two percent of my profession, I’d be considered an overwhelming success and I’d be very well compensated. But that’s the great part of the National Playoff format because it gives deserving kids like Jackson the shot at realizing a dream.
Besides the abject humiliation and the thought that I’d been a disgrace to the sport, I realized something too. I’m nowhere near the level of those guys on TV, but it doesn’t matter. I realized I love the game for the experiences it’s given me. It doesn’t matter that I got throttled by some teenage machine. It matters that I have an experience to share, and a lasting memory I won’t soon forget.