The Tie Break Heart Breaker

The impact cushioned by the fresh grass court, offering nothing back that could be described as a bounce. I wave my racket in apology, grateful for the slice of luck. 

The tie break. Love them or hate them they are an integral part of the game of tennis. The tennis equivalent of the penalty shoot out? Not really, as whether a set or match tie break they are points wise nearly two games or two and a half games. There is still plenty of tennis left in a set or match once you get to the tie break. So no in my opinion it is not like a penalty shoot out. However the momentum is different to a normal game. At the start of the tie break there is a long way to go. Don’t ever believe that those early points are less important or before you know it you will be staring at match points against you.

With that said, here I am in a recent match tie break, captured point by point.

My serve. It’s a good serve, with a return to my forehand in a nice position for a pressing shot down the line. Did the ball skid or jump? Anyway my forehand is long and wide by a margin, not requiring any confirmation from my opponent. 0-1 

Change ends as per ITF rules after the first point and every four points thereafter. A few quick points hard to recall the exact nature, recollection of more errors from my racket. 0-4 

This isn’t going well. Finally an error from the other end. On the scoreboard at 1-4. 

Then 1-5, 2-5, 2-6, 3-6, 3-7. The gap is’n’t closing in fact it has widened by one. Like sand slipping through my fingers.

Here we are at North Oxford Tennis Club, the first grass court tournament of the season. Unseasonally cool under grey skies with rain forecast for later in the day. Medium strength wind from the clubhouse end of the court. We are on Court two just outside the clubhouse with a small raised seating area for about 20 people set in 4 rows of 5. The stand if you like is about half full. I don’t kid myself that all these 10 people are watching our match, there are good views of other courts as well. About a further 10 people stand near the clubhouse entrance. But hey who cares we have drawn a crowd! 

Stay calm and hit the ball is the internal conversation. Reassuring to self. This position is recoverable but you have to start now. I am at the net the ball has slightly wrong footed me, the return, more floating than driven, shoulder height wide on my backhand side. I am able to check, turn and reach, the end of my racket just clipping the ball, absorbing all pace and offering a spiralling spin in return which just clears the net. The impact cushioned by the fresh grass court, offering nothing back that could be described as a bounce. I wave my racket in apology, grateful for the slice of luck. 

To get to the point of this match tie break we had agreed before its start that we had both benefitted from some fortunate shots, whether bounces, net cords or miss hits. It felt about even. 

Sometimes what goes before the tie break can set its tone, its momentum or direction. I had taken the first set 6-4. He the second 6-3 from a 5-0 lead. Momentum should be with me right? Seemingly not.

A point to me and a point to him. 4-8. While we are not yet at match point I generally think there is still a chance. Once at match point its a lot more unlikely to create a comeback. It’s the moment of truth.

Now by my count I have lost the previous five tie breaks I have played. This includes holding three match points at 6-3 and a set up. Only to find myself seemingly only a few minutes later having lost the set tie break and then the match tie break. The omens are not good it would seem. Hopefully some learning has taken place and I can turn this around.

A sliced approach with the wind, low to the ground, slides long of my baseline by a good distance. 5-8. Change ends. I am talking myself positive and energised both at the same time. 6-8, 7-8, 8-8. This is more like it. I can win it from here. I sense tension on the other side of the net. A short ball in the middle of the ad service box. I run round to make sure with my forehand down the line. The words ‘make sure’ have a whiff of carefulness about them. And so in time honoured way of carefulness the racket head slows just a little, so as to be careful, to make sure and bring up a match point to me. Here we go. The ball hits the net tape square on and falls to the ground still on my side of the court. I can hardly believe it, such a makeable shot. 8-9 now facing match point.

We change ends. I am trying to recover my positive vibe and erase the easy miss from my brain. There is not a lot of time. The serve comes in to my backhand at a medium pace. I reply with a tentative backhand down the line, how I wish I did not have that shot, so often my undoing. I don’t want it to finish here. He’s coming to the net to finish me off if even the poor strike makes it over the net.

Everything in slow motion. My shot hits the net tape. At that moment it is done. I am on my way home. But wait the net has slowed the ball not stopped it and the beautiful green orb has cleared the net. The net has kept almost all of the momentum for itself, allowing the ball just enough to clear the net, change its trajectory below the racket of the opponent and roll away. I am still in this. We are at 9-9.

Its early season and the grass is still moist on this rarest of surfaces. The surface encouragingly flat with green and brown patches and the occasional weed. Hitting a weed is like playing your joker as the ball will inevitably zip through with little or no bounce. The next rally is concluded in such a fashion as a good paced serve, hits a weed and continues with only the slightest apology for anything that could be called a bounce. Under my racket and away. 9-10.

Facing my second match point. I recall a certain calm. Play positive and after a longish rally play a good forehand deep and into the corner. He reaches the ball, but cannot control the return which comes back high and wide. 10 all. I want to be here. It’s good to be alive. I am loving these moments, can I bring it home in my favour. We are about to find out.

I am forced into a short return and the reply puts the ball wide beyond the reach of my forehand. 10-11.

Change ends. Sliced backhand down the centre from me, shortish return and a sliced backhand to the junction of service line and sideline. Opponent nowhere in sight. I can be proud of that point played under match point against pressure. 11-11

In all honestly I have no recollection of the next two points until we get to 12-12.

A misshit shot from my opponent clears the net and drops into the service box. Once again the surface elevates its role above and beyond. I can only stand and watch as the ball dies gently on the grass, giving me no chance of retrieval. 12-13.

Change ends. Have to stay positive. Hit through the ball. The serve comes in medium paced in the ad service box to my forehand. Plenty of time to prepare and send this ball back cross court. Maybe a slightly lower bounce than anticipated, the mounting scoreboard pressure or maybe I don’t quite get into position. The ball is underhit and hits the net below the net tape. There is no chance of this ball climbing the net, it falls to the grass. We are done. 12-14.

I look in the direction of my shoelaces for a moment to collect my thoughts. It’s been a good match evenly contested in good spirit. In the balance until the end. When you watch sport it is this ‘in the balance until the last’ that you want to see. Rarely do we wish this upon the sport that we play ourselves. No complaints today though. I played pretty well for the most part.

Chatting post match over tea and cake. I have a flashback. There was that easy smash that I tried to put into the middle of next week which hit the top of my racket frame and arced itself beyond the baseline. was that an important point? Probably. Not really sure. Game point I think.

For the most part though I am pleased to have competed, played pretty well. Just disappointed to not be going through to the next round.

Postscript; the clock ticks on, this the last match of my 63rd year.

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