It is hot outside: 26 or 27 degrees, which I know is barely half of what Melbourne can do at its worst. A terrible city, Melbourne. But I am here, and I am playing the Australian Open, and I want the ranking points and the prize money.
My opponent is Sara Sorribes Tormo, who I know well. We played in the quarterfinals of Abu Dhabi last year. She won the first seven games, but I hit back to win 0-6, 6-1, 6-4. It was kind of great at the end, but mostly awful before that. I know she will run like Satan is chasing her on every point and somehow I will still get tired before her. I know that at some point during the match, I will hate her and tennis and pretty much everything on earth. But I’ll get to run her around a lot while not defending that much myself, which is always fun.
One thing I don’t recall from Abu Dhabi is her rally shot kicking up so damn high off the court. Sorribes Tormo hits with a lot of topspin, and this court fits her like a glove. I’m having to hit forehands at eye-level on every point, many of which I’m mistiming because we seem to be playing in the eye of a hurricane. It is windy. She breaks me in the first game, which I’m not overly concerned about since her serve is one of the weakest on tour. Holding is generally harder than breaking from what I recall of our previous matches.
My returns aren’t locked in just yet, so she holds easily. At 0-2, love-15 on my serve, I finally go on the attack. I’m moving her from side to side. At one point I nail a backhand down the line onto the baseline, which she somehow gets back after a shrieking slide. I end up hitting long on the 27th shot of the rally, and now I’m pissed. This is a match I want to be over as soon as possible, I’ve just expended a lot of energy, and none of the points I’ve won are reflected in the scoreboard yet. I end up getting broken again. How the hell is this happening? None of her shots are even vaguely aggressive.
You know what hot days in Melbourne are meant for? Eating ice cream.
At 30-all in the next game, I advance on a slightly shorter ball, ready to produce my first break point, but I slam a forehand into the net. But with Sorribes Tormo a point away from a 4-0 lead, I find my game at last. I destroy a second serve with a backhand winner down the line — I took it on the rise, well aware of the risks associated with taking my shots early. I have to time them perfectly. Still, this set will be lost if I don’t change something. I crush another backhand winner down the line, then break her with a perfect volley onto the baseline. That was some good freaking tennis, if I say so myself.
I’m having some sustained success at net. I make a couple forays to start the 1-3 game, and soon I’m up 40-love, having hit winners on six points in a row. Sorribes Tormo and the heat are starting to annoy me less.
I’ve stopped making errors, meaning that Sorribes Tormo either has to win points by playing 20-shot rallies or by being really aggressive, which isn’t her style at all. I break her to 15, and now we’re rolling. As irritating as it is to play Sorribes Tormo, there’s always just a bit of security involved, since she struggles so much to hold serve.
I might have understated how much I hate playing her. In six games of tennis, she’s made four unforced errors. I’m an aggressive player, but it’s nice to be able to count on an opponent handing you a point once in a while. She somehow lifts a lob over my head on the dead run, it kisses the baseline, and I’m down 15-40 because I’ve started to misfire from the ground again. She breaks.
This match has a weird vibe — usually there’s pressure on my service games because I know I need to hold to keep pace with my opponent, but here it’s almost like holding is an unexpected bonus since we know I’m going to break her and she’s going to break me.
To begin the 3-4 game, Sorribes Tormo tries to serve and volley. I blast a return past her before she even has time to cross the service line, but the serve was a let. Bullshit luck. At 30-all, she hits another lob over me. I manage to prolong the rally, but on the 20th shot I lose patience, go for a forehand winner, and end up missing. I don’t think people know how frustrating it is to be lobbed — it’s one of the slowest shots in the game, yet you end up having to sprint to get to it, and then have to hit a shot with your back to the court if you’re lucky enough to get there. She holds to 30, hitting her first winner of the match on a successful serve-and-volley play on game point. I do have to admire her creativity a little bit; she’s got less than zero easy power but figures out ways to win points anyway.
I really don’t want to lose this set. If I lose this set, I’ll have to play two more to win, and I want to have something left for the next round, where 6th seed Paula Badosa is probably waiting. I also just don’t want to be out here any longer than I have to be. Once I get tired, each one of Sorribes Tormo’s waaaaaAAA-EHHHHHH grunts are like a dagger to my heart, and I’m starting to get tired.
At 3-5, 30-all, I go on an inside-out forehand rampage. After what seems like an hour, I wrong-foot her and she doesn’t chase my last one. I clench my fist. That was satisfying, sure, but it was like making a dozen valid points to win a small argument when two or three should have been enough. Freaking exhausting.
I miss an easy backhand to start the 4-5 game, which hurts. She’s serving for the set, so I need to break, and cheap errors give her hope. I get back to 15-all, and that’s when we play a point that makes my soul ache. She is putting so much spin on her forehands that it’s practically distorting the shape of the ball. They are jumping off the court like bouncy balls. I have to jump on several consecutive shots to prevent the ball from flying over my head. I do stay in the point, though, and after 26 agonizing shots, Sorribes Tormo flubs an overhead. There is fairness in the universe! It hurt to play her game, usually it’s Sorribes Tormo marching to the beat of my drum, even if I do drop a stick now and then. But I have to stay in this set, so I’ll do anything. I go on to break.
We go to a tiebreak, which feels big. I am tired. The writer of this blog is tired just watching, and he is lying on his bed eating something called “Snack Size Italian Bruschetta Toasts.” I take a 6-3 lead, and now I feel good, even with the first two set points being on Sorribes Tormo’s serve.
I charge the net on the first, which has generally been a good play for me today, but get passed cleanly crosscourt. Then I hit long on the second. At 6-5, we play another bone-crushing rally, the kind that wipes your mind clean as soon as it’s over. We both ended up at net, and I’m pretty sure there was a net cord in there somewhere. 29 shots. Twenty-nine. Twenty-six wasn’t enough for you, Sara? I win the rally, meaning I’m up a set, and in with a chance of getting off this court (which seems to have been delivered directly from Hell) in straights. I clench my fist, then my muscles tell my brain how tired they are and I lean forward, one arm braced against my leg, the other arm bracing my racket against the ground. I must look like a defeated statue from some epic myth.
I swaddle my neck in an ice towel, then hold a bag of ice to my head (which I’ve just decided is my new best friend) and go off court for a comfort break between sets.
Curling seems fun. Hanging out in a cool ice rink, slowly sliding weights to a target…why couldn’t I have been a curler?
Thankfully, the second set is a little bit easier, though Sorribes Tormo continues to insist on hitting perfect lobs. Aside from a scary moment at 2-3, 15-30, I’m in control. She helped me out a bit with two double faults in the 3-all game, including one on break point. I saw angels as the serve fluttered into the net. I break her again to win the match, piling on the pressure. Despite hitting almost triple as many unforced errors as Sorribes Tormo, when I focus my power accurately, it’s game (and set, and match) over.
I yell a celebration at a few people in the crowd — the seats for this match were sparsely populated, but I had way more support than Sorribes Tormo. (Not that it helped my legs feel better.)
I applaud her as she walks off the court. I don’t envy how hard she must have to work for her wins, but I also don’t want to play her again anytime soon. Badosa may be ranked higher than Sorribes Tormo, but if I can survive the trial by attrition I just endured, I can survive anything.
Look out, Paula.