Thursday, August 14, 2014

I cried during water polo

It was so weird.  This afternoon, after taking in a couple of Gay Games water polo matches at the Veale Natatorium at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, I started crying.  Not for very long, mind you.  I'm really not much of a crier.  But it was right after the West Hollywood team had defeated the Atlanta team.  Everyone was getting out of the pool and shaking hands and even though it wasn't a medal game I flashed back to my gold-medal-winning match a few hours earlier and the tears just came.

At the time the gold medal was clinched, I was exuberant.  Perhaps a bit too exuberant: I actually threw my racquet in the air as high as I could and let out a HUGE roar before I jogged to the net and embraced my opponent.  I had done a good job of keeping my emotions in check throughout the match, which isn't like me.  Sure, I had a few "HIT THE BALL!!!" moments after yet another weak forehand was dumped into the bottom of the net and at least one "CALL THAT SHIT!!!" after a ball from my opponent landed just wide on break point (at least I think it was wide - in retrospect I wasn't 100% sure and so I'm glad I didn't call it).  But I was really nervous all match long.  Even though this was "just" gay tennis - just D-level gay tennis at that - it felt like something massive was at stake.  Honestly, in a way, it was massive.

I entered the world of gay tennis somewhat haphazardly.  Exactly ten years and one day ago, I was at a bar on the north side of Chicago with my then-boyfriend and his friend Mark (who would later become my good friend and roommate).  We were watching the opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympics and I commented to Mark that the Gay Games 7 were going to be in Chicago two years hence.  We had previously both discussed that we played tennis and in the haze of a couple of beers, agreed that we would team up for the event.  The next day, I looked up Second City Tennis and that fall we joined their Friday night indoor doubles league.  For two seasons we played and honed our skills and then a few days before the tournament began Mark looked at his schedule and it turned out that his cheerleading competition (don't judge) conflicted with the tennis and so I had to contact the organizers and beg them to find me a partner.  And they did - a guy named Will whom I met on the first day of competition, in 100F weather the night after an electric opening ceremonies at Soldier Field.

Will was a big hitter and, from what I remember, pretty much carried me during those games.  We were lucky that most of the Europeans went to Montreal for the Outgames (this was the year of the Great Gay Sports Split - read your history books, kids) and so the competition was primarily guys our level.  We got to the final, securing ourselves a silver medal, and it was a real rush.  For the first time in my life I had experienced something akin to elation in my own sporting success, not just teams or players I'd rooted for.  It felt big.

The next day, we were awarded D doubles gold medals by default, as our opponents (after much complaining by other players) were ruled to be sandbaggers by USTA judges who watched one of them playing his singles match - confirmed by their USTA results back home in Puerto Rico - and were disqualified from competition.  Naturally it didn't sit well with them - and it left a little bit of a hollow feeling for me as well.  But there it was, a gold medal.  I've cherished it ever since.

But that was doubles.

In those Gay Games I won two D singles matches and then lost the third round to a guy named Kevin (who a few years later would become a friend).  I kept working on my game, playing GLTA tournaments and in Chicago's gay league.  Then in my 6th GLTA event, I won the D division singles in Indianapolis in 2007 and declared myself henceforth and forevermore a C player.

That was seven years ago.

Since then I've played soooooo much tennis.  I've taken lessons, hit around, played matches, played tournaments - GLTA, USTA - participated in clinics, read books ... but the C-level wins never came.  A couple of times I won one match in a tournament,  but never two.  Part of the problem, I decided, was my fitness (tennis was the only physical activity I did) so leading up to Gay Games 8 in Cologne in 2010, I joined a gym, put myself on a workout regimen and got as fit as I'd ever been.  I arrived in Europe full of confidence and ready to surprise everyone with a deep run in C singles (I played D doubles because I could and I wanted to hedge my bets).  First round, I played an American guy who in all honestly would have struggled in D. I trounced him. And then came the second round, where I faced an Irish guy with steady strokes who just didn't miss.  And I got trounced.  (My Dutch partner and I also got trounced in the 2nd round of D doubles. In fact we were double bageled - i.e., we lost 6-0 6-0.  Ouch.)

And it never really got better.  I kept thinking of myself as a C player and yet I kept losing first round, lucky to get 3 games in most matches.  It was one continuous blow to the ego.  Normal people get better at something they put so much time and money and emotional energy into.  But not this guy.  This guy just keeps on sucking the same.

So with almost no GLTA points to my name, I swallowed my pride and decided to play my real level.  I registered for Gay Games 9 in D singles and C doubles (I had had enough success in doubles (although again, never more than one win in a tournament) that I couldn't register in D if I'd wanted to).  And I showed up with some lessons under my belt, a reworked slice serve (double faults have been my bete noir for years), and a lot of hitting time over the past couple of years with my boyfriend, Adam, who is a really really good player.

My first round matches in both singles and doubles were scheduled for Tuesday so after my stint in Kalamazoo, I sped down to Cincinnati to watch a couple of days of the Western & Southern Open.  Well actually it turned out that late Sunday night they had changed the draws and I got a call on Monday afternoon, after watching Taylor Townsend beat Klara Koukalova in a thrilling three-set match, asking where I was since my match time had been 10 minutes prior.  I panicked but fortunately they were able to rework the schedule and I arrived for my first round doubles match Tuesday morning at the same indoor courts that Lauren Davis started playing tennis.

And promptly lost 3-6 7-5 0-6.

Immediately I knew that in addition to poor play and a negative attitude, one mistake I'd made was for asking for new balls after the second set.  You see, our opponents (one of whom played B singles) liked to strike the ball hard and flat, and in the first set we were always on our back feet.  Once the balls wore down in the second, we were able to keep rallies going longer and let them make some errors.  But then as soon as they got new balls, I really struggled, especially on backhand returns.

But the good news was that I was plenty warmed up for singles.  And wouldn't you know I played the best match of my life against a really good young guy from Youngstown who hit the hell out of the ball but who was inconsistent and who, I noticed, didn't hit as well on the run.  So I was for once *tactical* and mixed in various spins and just kept the ball in play to the extent possible and moved him around.  And amazingly I wasn't nervous.  And I won 6-3 6-3.  (It also helped that the match was indoors - I just tend to play cleaner, better tennis without the sun and the wind and the squirrels bothering me.  I think it's related to my ADD.)

Because the D draw was so small (11 players!) that meant I was already in the semis, guaranteeing a bronze medal at least, or so I'd heard.  I was ready to play the second match indoors when I got an email Wednesday morning informing me that the aforementioned Lauren Davis courts had flooded overnight due to massive rain and that instead we'd be playing outdoors at Cleveland State.  That match started disastrously, as I was very nervous and my opponent hit a combination of good shots that went in and bad shots that went in THANKS, WIND.  And I hit nothing that went in.  He went up 3-1 in about 5 minutes.  But I got myself together and by force of will (and VERY heavy topspin) won 6-3 6-1.

So then came today.  Gold medal match.  Me against the young, muscle-bound guy who had blasted me off the court in doubles on Tuesday - also playing D singles.  Me against my nerves.  Me against seven years of futility.

It started off as bad as you can possibly imagine.  My opponent played focused, confident, powerful tennis and I couldn't keep up.  Worse, a number of times he dinked it to my forehand and I didn't step into the shot, do a "unit turn" of my shoulders, lead with the butt of the racquet, hit the ball in front of me, or follow through across my body.  I just dumped it into the net or hit it several feet wide or long.  I had two pieces of good news, though: one, I wasn't double faulting much and two, I knew that every match my opponent had played that week had gone three sets, with him winning the first then losing the second.

So in the second set I was able to step up my game and kept the ball in play more.  I mixed in more variety and improved my first serve percentage.  And most fortunately for me, he tightened up.  I went up 5-1 and eventually held for 6-3.

And this time I was smart.

When he went to the bathroom between sets, I walked around a bit.  But I didn't ask for new balls.  I knew that that would only help his flat-hitting, high-velocity game.  So we played the third set with the same balls we started with, now worn and torn.  And it worked.  After he went up an early break for 3-1, I stayed calm and won three games on the trot.  Sliced the ball to his forehand. Brought him to the net then lobbed and passed.  And before I knew it I was serving up 4-3.  After a lengthy game in which I had one game point, he broke me and I was afraid my chance had passed.  But then a funny thing happened.  I actually loosened up, started hitting out on my returns, and broke him! And this time when I served for the match, he wasn't able to sustain his level and I won.  Yell, racquet throw, embrace - you know the rest.

It felt like all the disappointments I'd had over the past seven years of tennis had just disappeared.  And it wasn't until water polo that I realized how much of a weight had been on, and was now off, my shoulders.  Who knows, I may never win another tennis match.  I may choke next time I try to close out a rollercoaster three-setter.  But this time, on this day, that didn't happen.  So what if it was a level lower than I'd promised myself back in 2007?  So what if I only had to play three matches to get the gold?  I won.  And I was content.

And that's when I cried.

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