My first delivery, hard and flat and probably too ambitious — I’m not Roger Federer, after all — smacks the net, and just like that the butterflies are awake. My stomach lurches before I even walk over to pick up the ball from the errant serve. I see the returner take a step forward as they prepare to receive my second serve, adding another dagger of nerves into my already lacerated heart and stomach. Are they a good aggressive returner? I think desperately, trying to pore over the details of previous matches in that indeterminate liquid stretch between serves (there’s no defined amount of time you can take between serves in a club match, but you know when you cross the line). Nothing useful comes to mind, the part of my head that’s usually so cerebral when thinking about tennis has been wiped completely blank.
The tip of my white-soled tennis shoe toes the baseline. Already? How did I walk over here so fast? I’m not ready for this. I’ve taken enough time that my opponent is starting to look at me with confusion in their eyes, which will compound into the anger that can translate into a fierce return winner if I dawdle much longer. I haven’t even had time to think about where this serve is going. Don’t psych yourself out, I admonish myself. Go with the serve you can trust.
It’s time to leap into the nuanced chasm of trusting my serve and hoping my opponent won’t prey on it, but my body is momentarily on strike. My fingers won’t spiral outward into the motion that’ll drive the ball bouncing into the ground for the last time before it meets my racket (which suddenly seems to weigh a thousand pounds). That’s enough, I decide. MOVE!
At long last, I toss the ball, bend my knees, leap in the air, and strike the ball, reaching and straining and praying to find that balance between reckless aggression and nervy passiveness that sometimes seems to elude everyone on the second serve, even the very best — and the serve smacks the net. Not the top, either. A swarm of nerves attacked my arm midway through the motion, sapping it of strength and conviction just before the point of contact, sending the ball fluttering into the middle of that devilish rectangular network of squares resting smugly between its two immovable posts. Who said playing tennis without a net would be a bad thing? Double fault.
The worst has happened. I let my head drop, my chin thumping wearily against my chest. I start the walk of shame up to the net to collect the ball, my heart beating with hot embarrassment and — is that grief? Yes, grief — every step of the way.
Love-15 in the first game of the first set.