Playing the Game

I played tennis today for the first time in over a year. It’s always an odd conversation when I meet someone and mention that tennis is my life, because their first reaction is to ask about me playing the sport. My response tends to be that I prefer watching to playing, followed by a joke about how it’s because I suck at playing. But I can tell you about this forehand del Potro hit during the 2009 U.S. Open final!

While it’s true that I like watching more than playing, and for many reasons, it is also true that I suck at tennis. Most club-level players have a bad backhand. I have a bad forehand, to the extent that I can’t even picture my motion in my head. If you rush me on that side, I am more screwed than you can imagine. Like, I will not make a single shot.

Luckily, it takes people time to figure this out. Many opponents default to attacking my backhand, which is a shot I can hit passably on a good day. My biggest asset, though, is my tactical mind. I’ve watched enough tennis to know how to break an opponent. If I see that they have an iffy backhand, I will hit literally every shot to that side for stretches. I have a background in distance running, so I’ll try to make matches physical. A few years ago — I would’ve been around seventeen — I played an adult in an outdoor match on clay early in a tournament. He was way better than me; he’d entered in a higher-level bracket and was playing both tournaments at the same time. He beat me — 6-1, 7-5 — but I made the second set miserable enough that the match felt close. He wound up withdrawing from one of the tournaments, presumably to save his legs for the other one.

One of my favorite wins was against a much taller guy, a lefty with a huge first serve. He would float in his second, though, and when we played competitively I hit a return winner on the second point of the match. It shook him so badly that he went for aces on second serves for the rest of the match. He must have double faulted 15 times, and I beat him 6-1, 6-1.

You get the point by now. Besides decent endurance, I have no real physical assets. I haven’t taken lessons in years. I didn’t even play on my high school team. If I beat someone on game alone, you can assume that person is either under the age of ten or broke both their legs. Possibly both. When a recent acquaintance and I struck up a conversation about tennis and he asked if I wanted to play, I was excited — it had been a while — but also apprehensive.

*****

We got to the indoor court and quickly saw that we’d have to set up the net. After about 20 minutes of fiddling with it (the net looks all square and nice when it’s taut between the posts, but before that it’s a gnarly, rough thing) we decided to play without a net. This went surprisingly smoothly. Neither of us was trying to kill the rallies too quickly. My practice partner didn’t hit with overwhelming pace or weight, so I could stay in points. I hit one inside-out backhand winner, my favorite shot. When he went to chase the ball, I pumped my fist a bit. At one point, I got pushed out wide to my forehand corner and tried to hit a Delpo-esque crosscourt screamer. Somehow, it kind of worked, and the ball didn’t come back.

This is what the court looked like. Not your typical indoor surface, it was mostly firm but had a tiny bit of give to it. The basketball (?) lines on the court pained my soul.

My game had its hitches, of course. Even with time, I wasn’t really sure what to do with my forehand, though I did manage to hit a couple winners. I kept stepping too close to the ball. The biggest problem, though, I didn’t discover until we started a practice set: I could not return serve.

I think I shanked my first five returns, on both first and second serves. The ball was just coming in too fast for me to handle. This destroyed the rest of my game — increased pressure to hold serve and win rallies once I got them going, etc. I knew I needed to focus on every point, every shot, but I was powerless to stop the stress. I lost the set, 6-1. It was fun.

Then I checked my phone and saw that Juan Martín del Potro was retiring.

*****

I did not see any of del Potro’s 2009 peak as it happened. I also missed his resurgence in 2013. I saw some of his second really successful comeback in 2017-2018, but I was mostly rooting against him when I watched, because he played Federer five times in that period. I’ll never forget checking my phone during a tennis lesson and seeing that Federer was serving for the 2018 Indian Wells final at 5-4, 40-15 in the third. Then I checked again after it was over and saw Delpo had come back to win a deciding tiebreak, 7-2. I couldn’t believe it.

Delpo’s decision didn’t surprise me. He is 33, and practically every part of his body has violently rebelled on him at one point or another. This time, it’s his knee. Why push through that after all he’s been through already? Many would have stopped eight years ago.

Despite this — not being shocked, and never really having rooted adamantly for the man — my first reaction when I saw the news was to panic.

You’ll be missed, Delpo.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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