So, we’ve all heard the phrase that is the title of this post a thousand times or more: “Winning isn’t everything;” and in most of those cases, it seems it’s the guy who lost that utters those words. Well, I won’t hold you in suspense by making you think the opposite is the case here. I am not a winner who somehow quickly grew bored of a recent victory. No. This post is by and about a guy who endured a humiliating tournament defeat this past weekend in the semi-finals of the Men’s 3.5 NTRP Doubles draw in a USTA tournament at the Olde Providence Racquet Club in Charlotte, NC.
Now if you don’t know this about me, let me be the first to tell you… I HATE LOSING! For me, the sting of defeat is worse than the joy of winning. It lasts longer too. With all the hard work and preparation it takes to win a weekend USTA tournament (which is probably more physically demanding–if you’re entered into two events–than a professional tennis tournament), the thrill of winning one usually wears off after I’ve had a shower and dinner. But for me to lose one?? Dear Lord… It can take up to a week or longer for the pain to ease up (and I’m not talking about physical pain either). There’s this constant, “what if I had done this? Why didn’t I do that? My string tension was all wrong for the conditions. My string choice was wrong for the surface.” But, with all that said, this past weekend was slightly different.
After winning two, two-hour matches on Friday night (singles and doubles, respectively), I knew Saturday would be a long day if I wanted to make it to “Championship Sunday.” For me to get there, I would have to win 4 matches on Saturday: 2 singles and 2 doubles. By 2:15pm, I was halfway there. I had an easy 8am singles win (6-2, 6-2) and an even easier doubles victory at 1:30 (6-1, 6-2), then a physically demanding, 6-3, 6-3 singles quarterfinal loss @ 3:30; which brings me to my 6pm doubles semifinal.
My partner and I were pitted against a couple of old guys: probably old enough to be our dads or grand-dads. At first glance, these guys seemed like they’d be a walk in the park, one I was looking forward to after losing a singles match wherein my legs just did not respond well to my commands.
During the pre-match warmup, neither of these guys showed any element of their games that caused concern: slightly average forehands, “safe” backhands, low mph serves (though one had sidespin and the other, topspin). My partner and I looked at each other and he said, “Come on Matt, let’s get these guys out of here.” I replied, “Yep, I haven’t eaten anything solid since breakfast; let’s get ’em out of here so I can go eat!” When the match finally started, the unexpected happened.
The way these guys behaved between points and games could be considered gamesmanship by some. They carried on and moved about so slowly, the match felt more like golf than tennis. Was this a part of their plan? To frustrate my partner and I using non-tennis elements? One of the guys simply would not serve the ball if anything larger than a bumble-bee moved within his view. Let someone be walking by, scratching their head or face, leaning down to tie their shoe; and he’d wait… and wait… and wait. For crying out loud, you’d think this guy was a pro playing at Arthur Ashe Stadium with someone in the stands walking to their seat! I wanted so desperately to bark to them, “come on guys, pick up the pace;” but they were old… and for the most part, nice. If they were mean boogers, it would have been much easier for me to bark at them; but all those childhood lessons about respect for your elders had me keep my tongue in check. Then it happened… somewhere in the fourth game with the score tied at 2-2.
The baseline opponent hit a high, shallow ball to me standing at the net. This was a routine overhead for me; one where if the guy at the net doesn’t move, or stands there as if to intimidate me into missing by trying to make me steer clear of him, I nail him. Against these two old guys, this would have been perfect, because it would have set the tone for the rest of the match, and may have knocked them out of it mentally. They could not retaliate with their strokes. They had no firepower. I think the two of them may have both retreated to playing baseline doubles, for which I would’ve hit drop shots for the better part of the match (I did it occasionally when we needed a big point anyway).
Without giving it any thought, I took a “safer” approach and tried to do the gentlemanly thing by not hitting my opponent in what would probably have been his chest or abdomen (given his height), and tried to gently steer the ball past him. It seems he’d gambled on my not hitting him with the ball and guessed right, because he was ready for where I tried to steer the ball and blocked it back into the court. My partner scrambled to get it and after about four more exchanges, we lost the point that should have ended with me popping my opponent with the overhead. That point would’ve given us a double-break point lead in that game, which most likely would have ended in our winning that set by a break (instead we lost it in the tiebreaker 7-6(7-4)). Though I settled myself and decided I would mentally treat the match like I was just out for friendly hitting (so as not to get frustrated with these guys between-points/games antics), my partner grew more and more frustrated by the moment. And to top things off, the guys did not hit with the pace that we’d seen all tournament, making things that much more frustrating for my partner. Though their lack of pace did not bother me and I played well through it, I began “over-playing” so that my partner would not have to play as many shots. I tried to get my partner to get off the baseline but by that time, he was pretty rattled. He struggled with first and second serve consistency and in the end, we lost the match in straight sets: 7-6(7-4), 7-5.
Watching those old guys whom we should’ve beaten easily, raise their hands in victory was like having someone pour vinegar into a paper cut. The guys we played to get to that semi-final were so much tougher (including a come-from-behind, 11-9 third-set-tiebreaker victory in the opening round match). In hindsight, I wondered how the match might have been different had I hit that guy standing stoically in front of my impending overhead. That loss hurt, because it was a match we should have won.
In retrospect, to help my partner get over what bothered him most, I would have called for an official to help us keep the time. For those of you who may be reading this, who are not familiar with amateur USTA tournaments, you should know that matches are not officiated. Players call their own lines and try to play with respect to the USTA Code of Conduct (to include minding your time between points and games). Still, at any time, a player can ask for an official; not to call lines, but to help with managing obvious cheating or gamesmanship. But you may be wondering, if I had that moment again, would I have hit the guy with the ball to change the momentum of a tight set?
ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! Not in this case. That guy was old enough for an even moderately paced overhead off my racquet to his chest or abdomen to have caused a medical emergency, for which, because my shot would have been intentionally aimed at him (perfectly legal in the sport of tennis), I’m not sure I could have lived with myself.
I know in my heart of hearts that tagging my opponent with an overhead would have changed the momentum of that match by leading to a necessary break of serve in that first set, but deep down, I still believed we could find a way to win without it. What I did not count on is the degree to which their slothfulness would bother my partner. Even still, we had opportunities that we did not capitalize on. In the end, the tournament seemed to be ours to win (especially after knocking off the top seeded team in our second round match), but winning isn’t everything. Those old guys went on to lose the championship in a third-set tiebreaker. Could we have won that match? All things considered, I believe so; but unlike any other weekend tournament I play in and lose, this morning I feel different. Sure, I wanted to win. Sure, I hate losing; but I would not change what I considered to be the turning point in that match. Heck, I could have ripped forehands at the net guy all match long, but I never once stopped believing we would win that match. Here’s a final thought though…
What if I had nailed the guy above the belt with that overhead and caused a medical emergency (which was my fear at the time), then went on to lose the final? Would not have been worth it, right?
And to appease those of you in the “winning IS everything” camp, I’ll ask, what if I hit him with the ball and it didn’t hurt him, but it threw him off his game and we went on to win as easily as I thought we could? Sure, that would have given us a berth to the final and most likely, a championship. But for me, it was not worth the risk of hurting someone seriously for a $10.00 trophy or plaque.
Winning isn’t everything.
-Matt D. Talford