ITF 200 Halton – reasons to be cheerful!

I lead 2-1. This is the best start I have ever made to a tennis match – ever!

Monday 16th

Its that good, good, feeling of jogging to the tennis club for a Monday 8am lesson. The 10 minute jog, sufficient to warm up ready to play. It has rained overnight, so there is dampness in the air.

We are up on court one with me hitting into the wind from the bowls club end. Initially with short balls over the net, we are shooting the breeze and as I am not really thinking hard about my shots they are by all accounts really smooth. The distraction principle at work. It feels like the recent video session is starting to influence my game for the better. Hitting the ball really well and consistently and the backhand continues to improve even against the wind.

The last 10  minutes of the session are held in increasingly heavy rain – love it! Got absolutely drenched on the jog home though!

Off to Halton this afternoon. M5 near Taunton is closed for an estimated 3 hours – spirits sink, but we actually get moving after about 45 mins. Relief!

Feel good for the match tomorrow.

Tuesday 17th ITF 200 Halton

I like this. First players to arrive at the club and onto the practice court just after 8am. It’s a beautiful sunny morning, perfect for tennis. The excellent breakfast from the B&B sitting comfortably – porridge, fresh eggs from the hens in the garden and home made marmalade.

We start with short balls across the net into the service box, while drinking in the atmosphere, noticing how the balls react on the artificial clay. We progress to full court, hitting relaxed, working through crosscourts forehands and backhands, a few volleys and overheads and some gentle serves, trying to feel the ball on the strings.

At 8.50am I see the face of Bob the tournament referee appear on the steps at the side of the clubhouse, above the sight screen and framed by the doorway. He says gently in a manner that comes with experience and to which there can be no dispute “Can you finish practice now please and drag the courts ready for the first matches”

In fact although I did not check my watch to see that Bob spoke these words at exactly 8.50am, I believe he spoke them each morning at exactly the same time, to usher us from the practice court. After three days at a tournament you get to know the referee and he likewise must get to know the players.

My match today is scheduled for 4.30pm. There is time to kill and observe the comings and goings around the club, players, ground staff, coaches etc. Halton is a beautifully well maintained club and everything about it is professionally run and looks as if it runs like clockwork.

Bob glides to courtside, unnoticed at the nearest hint of a disagreement. By the time two players are stood side by side looking for a mark in the clay to decide if the ball was in or out, Bob is courtside. Equally if there is a dispute about the score, he will appear. His mere presence ensures that without having to utter a word, the trivial matter of whether the ball was in or out, or indeed the score itself, are resolved and the match continues. Only once did I see Bob actually have to step onto the court.

How does this happen? Well the referee’s office overlooks two of the courts, the top step from which offers a further view. Or when on patrol he can move sight unseen behind the screen at the back of the courts, which allows a view through to the courts from the outside. For the more distant courts, court supervisors keep Bob updated on the state of play, via walkie talkie. There is also the underrated sense of sound. If I can hear each new tin of balls being opened in the referees office, to signal another match, when sat courtside, then the referees office has ears as well as eyes, no doubt.

Everything about the set up encourages me to want to play tennis, even though I have a long wait. This waiting is a strange thing, the little thrum of anticipation, holds me in suspension, just the right side of boredom. This prevents me eating the wrong foods (read cake) , but I have to manage the thrum, turn it down to prevent burning all my nervous energy.

There are seven and a half hours to go before my match. The morning is split between conversations, watching parts of matches, drinking coffee, mooching about before we reach lunchtime. Venturing into nearby Wendover for an excellent tuna/ cheese baked potato with salad.

Back at the club, the time creeps slowly towards match time.

I watch a player standing nearby, tennis bag on shoulder, racket in hand, headphones on, managing his thrum. Everything about him says ‘prepared’ He goes on to play brilliantly and win with some ease against a good opponent. The match itself just the tip of the iceberg, a moment in time, backed up no doubt by hours on court and including managing the thrum on match day.

In the clubhouse I find a table and rest my head on my hands and close my eyes. Trying to visualise how I want to play today, though it is difficult to totally block out the noise around me. I am trying to create  a feeling of self belief and confidence to take with me on court. Slow deep breathing, staying relaxed, shutting out the distractions. I want to disrupt the natural order today. Me the unheralded against the number seven seed. This has never happened before, usually the natural order prevails.

With 30 minutes to go before match time I find a quiet and shady space in the car park for my warm up. Stick to the process. Do the things you need to do, try to ignore the people walking by. Raise the heartbeat, move the body through a range of motions, play some shadow strokes. Quieten the mind. Ready to play.

We are on what might be termed the show court, to the side of the clubhouse. On some days this can be a distraction as you can be aware of who is and is not watching. Today, all that is on my mind is to play well and be hard to beat.

Onto court and we hit the first balls to each other. I am aware that I have seen my opponent today play briefly before. My first thought “how the hell did I not notice he was left handed?’ Calm. I am coached by a left hander, all is good.

It’s not an encouraging start. The first set flies by 1-6. I am making too many errors. I win my first game at 0-4 down. In practice matches I practice staying calm when behind and try to figure out a way. Sat on the bench before the start of the second set, I am trying to figure out a way.

My mind lands on a match a couple of years ago when I was in a similar situation after a first set, that I went on to win. I try to tap into that feeling, remain calm, be positive, reduce the error count. All the way from Cornwall, 6 hours in the car for nothing. Come on.

3-0 the second set starts well

3-3 natural order restored

4-3 stem the flow and serve to stay ahead. An important game to win.

4-4 time to dig in

5-4 another hold

6-4 Sigh of relief. Level at one set all. The only two points I can remember from the whole set are playing two nearly identical backhand lobs, in quick succession, which both went long and then bounced over the back fence. I recall seeing Bob’s head above the netting on the top step of the clubhouse and asking him for a couple of replacement balls.

I cannot place the moment exactly, but at some point during the second set there was the unusual sound of applause from a few of the half dozen or so who are casually watching. That has not happened before, feels good.

Tie break to ten, changing on first and every fourth point thereafter as per ITF rules. To the best of my recollection the scores went something like this;

1-0 this first point feels important 3-0, 3-1, 4-1, 4-2, 7-2, 7-6, 8-6, 8-7, 8-8, 9-8, 9-9, I have been here before and come away empty handed. It could go either way. Stay positive. 10-9. I run around a backhand with the intention of hitting  a winning forehand down the line. I frame the ball and it skews wide of the tramline. 10-10, 10-11 one point from going out, 11-11, 12-11, ball hits the net tape, 13-11. A win! Phew, relief.

Peter is very gracious in defeat. The difference between win and lose is wafer thin, the feelings are miles apart. I like to think that I would have that gracious quality if the score had been reversed. I am not sure though.

Dragging the courts ready for the next match is a curiously reflective moment. It’s a process you cannot really hurry. And even in this moment of my first ever ITF 200 victory, I am conscious of wanting to do a good job and leave the court in good condition for the next players.

Wednesday 18th

8.10am practice court. I am seeing the ball like a football this morning.

After practice, I am casually watching future potential opponents should I win my next match. My phone pings. Message from Bob the referee to say my opponent today has withdrawn. Later in the referees office Bob tells me it was due to injury, having felt a little stiff after playing yesterday, my opponent today is unable to play. I concentrate a little more on the match in front of me as I know now that I will play the winner tomorrow. No singles match today then, turn off the thrum.

Doubles at 6pm. Plenty of effort but little reward 1-6, 0-6.

Thursday 19th

8.10am practice court. Its going to be a warm and sunny day.

Men’s 60s semi final today. New territory for me.

One hour before the projected midday start I have a coffee, a protein bar and a banana to keep the energy high and bridge the four hour gap since breakfast.

I mirror the warm up from my first match, only changing the place, now having found a quieter spot to the rear of the club on the mini courts, rather than the car park.

Bob informs me that matches are running a little late. I walk around  a little. I don’t feel particularly nervous, this seems to have been replaced by something I can only describe as feeling prepared. I am ready to play. I hold this feeling until we eventually get on court at 12.30pm.

I am again scheduled on what might be termed the show court. Suits my ego.

As I step onto the court, I notice Ian, who is the number two seed, just ahead of me, opt for the bench in the shade. He’s thought things through. Later after the match he will excuse himself for a short while to stretch and shower. Behaviour fitting of the number two seed.

Again I feel well prepared. Ready and primed, with any nerves brought in line as energy for the task in hand and not spilling all over the place interfering with thought and deed. Big tick in the box of preparedness.

Ian wins the spin and elects to receive a decision he later said he thought was a mistake. I stand on the service line, hold one ball aloft to indicate I am ready to start serving and we are off.

It is almost impossible to recall every point blow by blow, therefore before the next sentences there needs to be an explanation, like in a movie based on real events, knowing that some of the content may not be exactly as it happened. The following is not changed deliberately, it is just the best that my memory recalls the following events. Any man (woman) or dog who witnessed the events differently, then feel free to correct what follows. As I say it’s the best my mind remembers it, these few days later.

I send the first ball aloft with a straight arm and I know before I strike the ball that it is going in. Yes, first serve in, confidently. Short rally and Ian wins the point with a winner wide to my forehand. I am a little bit caught mid court. Love – Fifteen. In truth I remember little of the next few points save for the fact that all first serves went in with purpose and I won the next four points, including I think a serve returned long and a forehand winner. 1-0. Great start.

Change ends to play into the bright sun and slight breeze. Ian serves well, I make some good returns and Ian wins the game to 30 or maybe I even got to deuce. The point is that I am competitive. 1-1.

My serve again. All first serves in and pretty quickly I am on my way to the bench to sit down. I lead 2-1. This is the best start I have ever made to a tennis match – ever!

Then it happens. My brain says, this never happens to you Mr underdog, you have no right to be here playing in this way and of course, I then worry about maintaining the good start. Almost inevitably, the early positivity and clean hitting is replaced by something just a little less proactive a bit more passive. It makes the difference.

Ian holds serve. 2-2. I drop serve. 2-3.

Then normality is resumed. 2-6.

Second set 0-4, 1-4, some resistance, trying to believe it is still possible. 1-6 cross court forehand, very similar to the first point of the match, brings a close to this particular adventure. I have no answer to Ian’s intelligent play.

On the adjacent court the number eight seed is putting the number one seed to the sword. As I drag the court ready for the next match, I have a curious mix of emotions. The ssshh, ssshh noise of the court dragging mat behind me and the measured way I have to walk to make it effective allows for reflection. Disappointment at losing and what might have been. Overridingly I feel proud of my efforts. Tiny in comparison to those who carry away the winners honours and all trace removed by the time my side of the court is dragged. Nonetheless on the journey I am trying to navigate, it’s a big positive. Enjoy the moment.

 A couple of people say how much they enjoyed watching and what a good standard the match had been, which was nice. I am told of one rally which stretched to 22 strokes which I eventually won. I have no recollection of this at all.

Thanks Halton, its been a blast! Plenty to ponder on the drive back to Cornwall.

Friday 20th – rest day

This coming week is one of preparation, in which I also want to finally get on top of my sore arm, so I need to make sure that common sense prevails. Enthusiasm is great but I need to channel it effectively and not fall into the more is better mindset. Today I forced myself to have a rest day after competing at Halton. Good decision.

Footnote: My efforts at Halton have given me 90 ITF ranking points and on the GB rankings I have moved from 120 to 79 in the over 60s. World ranking wise I am this week’s biggest climber in GB up 814 places to world number 1,110.

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