This Side Up

The momentum of winning

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It can be wonderful when the tide changes. Suddenly, what was impossible seems remotely achievable, and then with time and a combination of things – some might call it luck, and others may attribute it to the correct decisions, even skill – it is within reach.

That happened Saturday on the tennis court.

From the opening point, John Olerio and I were on a downward spiral. We won a single point in our first game. Nothing improved by the second or third. We both lost our serves and our opponents didn’t yield an inch. It was 8:40 a.m. and we expected the torture would come to an end soon. The score was 5-0. With one more game – four points – it would be over.

In decades of playing in the Saturday tennis league, I’ve never come back from a five-game deficit to win a set. So when we won our first game, I held no illusion of pulling off an upset. I could see our opponents weren’t concerned; they were prepared to let us have one game and not let us walk off the court humiliated. It was their serve and time to finish us off.

But that didn’t happen. In fact, the game went quickly with hardly a volley. We were clicking. Now the score was 5-2. The next game even came easier. I could feel the tide changing – and what’s more, they knew it.

There was more at play than properly hitting the ball and chasing down shots that by all rights should have been winners. This was a psychological contest. For us, it was putting aside thoughts of pulling off an upset and remaining focused on each point. For them – and I can say this, for I’ve lost after holding the lead – it was forgetting how close they were to winning. Dismissing the thought, they had it in the bag and focusing on each point. Staying on point can be hard no matter what side you’re on. The momentum of a winning streak can suddenly evaporate. That one point can give your opponents what they need to overcome the anxiety they could lose it all, especially if it is a hard-fought point.

The tide can change.

That didn’t happen. We kept winning. We tied the score at five games apiece. We won the next game and now we were only one game away from winning the set.

But there is more to Saturday tennis than points. There’s time and there are rules.

It was 8:55 and we had to be off the court by 9.

By the rules, if a team is ahead by two games, they win the set regardless of the score. If they are separated by a single game or tied, then they are to play a tiebreaker with the first team to win five points, winning the set. Now single points are more valuable than ever. Both sides know it.

I wondered if we would get to four points each. If that happened, the final point could validate an unimaginable comeback or hand us defeat.

Under the rules, the sequence of service doesn’t change. Each player serves twice with the exception of the fourth player, who gets to serve a third time if the teams are tied at four points.

We split the first two points and then, on the next service, picked up two points. I could feel the tide. I think our opponents did, too.

Was the comeback within reach? All we needed were two points. We split the next two points. Now we were one point away and they had to win three. We had some breathing room, yet this wasn’t the time to think about that.

The next point decided it. John was elated. We bumped fists. We laughed nervously. How could this be? Neither of us had overcome such odds on the court. Our opponents were gracious in defeat.

The conclusion might be that we were evenly matched and faced with what seemed inevitable annihilation, we relaxed and played for the fun of it. I think not. We played to win and then the momentum kicked in…and maybe some lucky breaks, too.

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