**Summary: I coached varsity tennis for both girls and boys for six seasons, and this series is meant to highlight those moments that I felt were real connections between player and sport, between player and coach, or between opposing players in a competitive setting. The real nature of a competitor is shown through how she/he deals with pressure, adversity, surprises, and expectations.
I remember it was my third season coaching the girls’ tennis team, and my number one player was entering her third season as the number one player as well, but it was also her final season, as she was a senior. Before the season started, it was bittersweet to think about it being her final season because she had improved so much, and the team would have to start over again after she was gone, but we still had a season left to play. And there were many expectations, the biggest of which was that Holly (the name I’ve given her) had gone undefeated in league play the previous year, an achievement that was unprecedented for the school in either girls or boys tennis.
Being undefeated brings its own unique set of challenges, and we sat down and talked about those before Holly’s final season started. She was most worried about there being a target on her back, not unlike the girl who crushed her during their first meeting in her very first match as a first singles player. And I know I was worried about a letdown too, not because I didn’t think she was up for the challenge, but because I knew how other players had upped their games to try and defeat her. After our talk, though, I knew she hadn’t lost any of the fire, the energy, or the drive to maintain her position as the best in the league. Plus, she had worked hard all summer and she was even better than she had been the previous year.
The season began painlessly, as she rolled through her first four matches with no problems whatsoever, never dropping a set, and rarely even dropping games, but those first four matches weren’t ever going to be our issue, we both knew. It was that fifth match that we were looking toward because it was against the other undefeated first singles player in the league, and the player most other teams thought had the best chance to beat Holly. I agreed that it was going to be a dynamic match, and I know Holly had been psyched up for it from the start of the season, but I challenged her not to let her emotions get the best of her. I was also glad that the match was to be played on our home courts, because there was just a level of comfort there.
When the other team arrived, I realized that their top player had gotten even stronger than the previous season as well, and she seemed unfazed by the moment, and the opponent. She looked scary good, and very focused. Holly also appeared focused, they shook hands, and the match began. From the start of the battle, however, I could tell that Holly was a little keyed up, even though she had seemed calm beforehand. The other player, Allison, was expending a lot of energy to try and win every single point, and Holly was making mistakes she wouldn’t ordinarily have made, so before I could blink the first set was over, 6-2, to Allison, and it hadn’t been even remotely close. I spoke with Holly after the first set, and she knew she had been pressing. That was the amazing thing about her. She always knew what was going on with her game, and she was usually very good at fixing things. I told her that she hadn’t played poorly, and she hadn’t, but that she just had to play the bigger points better, and maintain her focus.
The second set became a war. Every hit, every shot was contested, while Allison went up 4-3, but I spoke to Holly on the changeover and told her she was playing great, and she really was. It was just a couple of points that separated the two players at that point in the set, even though Allison was serving with the break. Holly fought hard and broke back in the next game, then they slugged it out again and went to a tiebreak. By this time there was a crowd gathering of players who weren’t on the court, and of spectators who supported both players. Before the tiebreak I told Holly that she just needed to play loose, to only go for shots when she knew they were there. I knew by then she was focused, and had been throughout the entire second set, and if she lost the tiebreak (and with it the match), she had played her own style and hadn’t beaten herself. She told me she “got this,” and went back out there.
Then promptly won the tiebreak 7-2. So it all went down to a third set. I saw Allison pass me on the way to a water break (they got 10 minutes between the second and third set for a break), and I told her she was playing a great match. She thanked me and continued on her way. The second she was gone I turned to see how Holly was doing, and I could tell she had just gotten warmed up. The first set was basically a warm-up for her, and I knew she had a lot left in the tank. Allison, on the other hand, I could tell was starting to tire, that first set’s aggression, and that second set’s war having taken it out of her. I told Holly that she just had to play as she had, and the match was hers. She told me she “got this.”
Before the break was over, I went to talk to Holly’s mother, and she asked me how I saw the third set playing out. I told her that I honestly thought Allison was done, that she had expended too much energy just getting to that point, and I envisioned a love or a 1 set (which means that I thought Holly would win it 6-0 or 6-1). Her mother looked at me like I was crazy, like I hadn’t been watching and coaching the whole first two sets, but I smiled at her. By then I had gotten a lot better at figuring out opponents, and at trusting in Holly and her game. Lo and behold, the third set went to Holly 6-1, and it wasn’t even close. In fact, that entire set took about fifteen minutes in real time, because Allison really had been done after that second set. She hadn’t paced herself, Holly was still fresh, and that was the match.
But, after the match was over, I talked to Allison for a second and told her she really had played a great match. I told her that next time she just needed to pace herself, that she would play better and more naturally, that she didn’t have anything to prove. She smiled and thanked me for the advice. And I realized that that’s also the nature of a competitor, to lose with grace, to play hard, but not to be a sore loser, and Allison was never a sore loser. She also wasn’t a show-off winner either, as she had beaten others on my team several times over the previous seasons but had been gracious each and every time. And for Holly, she went on to have a second straight undefeated season, and she pointed to overcoming the adversity of that first set, the uncertainty of that second set tiebreak, and the focus and training it took her to win the third set as the things that she remembered most about the season. I know it was her most satisfying win, and it should have been, because she was the ultimate competitor.