MY DARKEST HOUR
My tennis league started up again last night, and it was a little like the first day of school. Lots of old faces, some new ones, and a few announcements to kick it all off. The league administrator gathered us all by the corkboard with the schedule on it and told us about this season’s new rule. Unlike in the past, the courts would now close promptly at 10pm. There would be no warning; suddenly, the lights would just go out. If it happened in the middle of your match, then instead of playing a makeup, the win would be credited to whoever was ahead at that point. If the set was tied (regardless of the game score), the match would be called a draw. Sorry for the obvious exposition here, but I promise I’m not including the boring rules of my tennis league as some kind of public service/waste of your valuable time. This information will become important later in the tale.
The way my league works is that each week, you and your partner will play one team in doubles, then you’ll each play one of the people from that same team in singles. I met my new partner, who seemed like a pretty nice guy (every year I dread getting one of those abusive lunatics who’ll rip my head off every time I hit a shot an inch long). Then we met our opponents. One of them was a guy I played last season, the infamous Foot Faulter, who’s kind of a jerk and who can’t seem to serve without stepping at least two feet inside the baseline. His partner was a new guy, a girlish, high-energy giggle monkey who looked like a slightly more mop-haired, butt-faced version of Johnny Fairplay from Survivor. Seemed like a nice enough guy.
As we start our doubles match, Fairplay quickly falls into a very regular pattern. He hits two great shots, then the third one goes over the fence. Stay in the volley for five hits, and the point is yours. Not surprisingly then, the match is a blowout. My partner and I win 6-0. (Due to time constraints, we only play one set in our league.) So we do what we always do and shake hands and say, “Good game” and act like good winners and good sports, and that’s the end of that. Then comes the waiting. It turns out I’m at the end of the rotation, so that means a loooooooong wait for a court before I can play my singles match.
Finally, at 9:00, Fairplay and I discover an open court and decide to get our game started. It’s a bit of a relief. Nobody wants their match interrupted by the 10pm light shut-off, and this should give us plenty of time to play. As we get started, Fairplay seems to have benefited from his doubles warmup. Nothing gets past him anymore. No matter where I place the ball or how much I make him run, he gets everything back. The sloppiness mostly disappears from his game, and he hits one great shot after another. Our volleys go for ten, twenty hits or more. It’s exhausting and often frustrating, but it’s the thing all tennis players crave most: a good game. Four matches in, we’re at a dead heat: 2-2.
Fairplay has an annoying habit of being jokey all the time and pretending like he doesn’t care about the outcome of the game. At the changeover, I stop to take a drink, and he feigns annoyance. “Well, come on! I’m all ready to go!” Is he being passive-aggressive? Is he really a jerk? Probably not, I figure. He’s just a goofball. For the most part, I tune him out.
I notice that Fairplay is a big fan of the drop shot, which is annoying for a baseliner like me, but at this point, I decide to adjust my strategy and become more aggressive. I rush the net, I go for winners, and I rally to win the next three games. The score is 5-2, and I’m one game away from victory. Don’t get excited, because if you knew my tennis style, you’d know this is the point where I always choke.
Sure enough, Fairplay wins the next two games, narrowing my lead to 5-4. It’s brutally tiring, and I stop for another drink break on the changeover. Fairplay, who doesn’t seem half as tired as I do, stalks up to me on the bench. And this is the point where things take an ugly turn, my friends.
“Well, you’re a surprise!” he says.
“Huh?” I ask from behind my bottle of Gatorade.
“I just didn’t expect you’d be much of a challenge,” he says.
“Why would you say that?”
“Well, I mean, just from looking at you.” He looks me up and down and waves his hand as if to mock my stature. “And, you know, the way you played in doubles.”
You mean the doubles match where we kicked your asses?, I’m thinking. I mean, seriously, how could a person coming off a loss like that make such a cocky, obnoxious comment?
From that moment, it was on.
Unfortunately, my anger was upstaged by my tendency to choke at moments like these. Fairplay wins the next two games, putting him ahead 6-5. As I head for the bench, he approaches the net, as if to shake my hand. He stops short, confused. “Oh, do you have to win by two?” he says. There’s nothing I hate more than losing to a guy who doesn’t know — or pretends not to know — how the scoring works.
Fairplay strolls right past me on my Gatorade break. “You can’t possibly need to drink that much!” he “jokes”. By now, I know time is running short. It’s been a very long set, and we must be approaching 10 o’clock. By now, everyone else in the league has finished playing, and the people who’ve stuck around are all congregating by our court, watching the match. “Only two minutes left!” one of them shouts.
I get right back on my feet and take the court, still determined to beat this punk. If the lights go off now, I lose. So I not only have to win, I have to win fast. As if that’s not enough pressure, there are now about twenty spectators following our game. They clap every time one of us hits a winner and chatter softly about how each of us is playing. At one point, I hear them applauding one of my errors, which seems strange. Then I turn around and notice that Fairplay is curtseying and bowing to the crowd, soliciting their cheers. You don’t bow when the other guy makes a mistake, moron. Come to think of it, you don’t bow ever. Could I possibly hate him more at this moment?
On a particularly long volley, I hit a shot right to the corner. Fairplay chases it down but doesn’t reach it in time. Then, he stops and stares at the line for a moment. “Was that in or out?” he asks me.
“It’s your call!” I grumble. “If you’re not sure, you have to call it in my favor.” That’s not only common courtesy and something I do regularly on calls I’m not sure about, but it’s a rule of our league.
“Hmmm, I really didn’t see it,” he says, ignoring me.
“I’m not going to call my own ball out,” I say. Yeah, especially not when the match is this close.
“Well, I’ll give it to you!” he says, turning toward the crowd and flashing a phony boyish smile. “I’m just a really nice guy, I guess.”
“Yeah, congratulations!” I yell.
Two points later, I won the game.
6-6. Now we have to play a tiebreaker. The clock is ticking down. I breathe a little easier, knowing that at least I’ve been spared the indignity of notching a loss on an incomplete game. But now I have to play knowing that at any moment, the lights could go off and leave me with a tie. Fairplay wins one point. I win the next five. Just two points away from victory…
It’s time for the changeover. We start leisurely switching sides, when from the tense crowd, someone yells out, “Hurry!” I jog quickly into position and serve the next point. Another long volley that ends with one of Fairplay’s swing-for-the-fence shots that’s about a hundred miles out of bounds. My point.
It’s 6-1. My heart is racing. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am, to get back into the lead, to teach this weasel a lesson. I fear the cruel punishment of dramatic irony. It must be several minutes past our deadline already. Just as I’m about to cement my victory, I just know the lights will be shut off and I’ll be stuck with a draw.
I toss the ball high in the air, raise my racket and try for an ace.
Fault! It’s out by a mile. Get it together, Jerry. You’re wasting time.
I barely take a pause before launching into serve #2. Gotta finish. Can’t let him win. Can’t go out like this. My serve sails over the net, perfectly placed at the edge of the serving box. Fairplay gets into position, pulls back his racket, swings…
And hits it right into the net.
Final tiebreaker score: 7-1. Righteous victor: me.
I jog to the net and shake Fairplay’s hand. “Good game,” I say.
Then, no more than ten seconds later, as I pull my Gatorade out of my bag for a final swig, the lights switch off.
It’s darker than I expected. The darkness is blinding in a literal sense. The distant streetlights do little to illuminate our path out of the tennis complex, leaving us to find our way off the court from memory. It’s almost pitch black.
The timing couldn’t have been better. As we feel our way toward the garage, wiped out from our marathon game, Fairplay is spared the sight of the enormous, smug grin on my gratified, victorious face.