I remember Jimmy Connors saying “The best thing I did out there was grind and fight”…and I was a grinder on the clay courts of Belgium. I’d already played my first 3-½ hour match by the age of 14.
I lost that match.
I don’t really remember the matches I won or lost 6-1 / 6-1. But I remember the joy and the pain of either winning or losing in a 3rd set tiebreak.
Sometimes I get asked by friends to recount the time I played that Dutch guy. In my mind, that was one of the greatest matches I ever played…not because I played well, but because I persevered…
I was 21 and my club was playing the final of nationals…we were competing to become Champions of Belgium.
The other team had paid 2 Dutchmen to come down from the Netherlands to play for them. And I was up against one of them.
It was clear from the warm-up that this guy was extremely good, and he knew it. His serves were whistling by me at over 120mph and it wasn’t until I was 3-1 down in the first set that I was able to return one of them.
And maybe it was the grey overcast day, and maybe I was self-conscious with my parents and the leaders of my club there watching me…but I’d come out very flat, low energy, playing badly and at this rate I was going to be back in the changing room VERY QUICKLY.
I lose the first set 6-3 and at the turnover the owner of the club comes over in a real nervous state, leans over to me and whispers: “Hey, we’re losing 3-1 overall in matches; you have to win for us to have a chance in doubles.”
I’m barely hanging on…I really haven’t challenged this guy all match and it’s 5-4 40-30 match point on his rocket serve. He comes to the net, I go out wide to hit a forehand…and in that moment I recognize the exact structure of his point setup. I’d lost every point like this all match.
In desperation I mix things up and I smack the ball as hard as I can at his stomach and he dumps the volley in the net. I can’t believe it. We go into a tiebreak. At 6-5 down match point, again, I start lobbing moon-balls over the net trying to break his rhythm and his game…I hate losing and I will try to win any which way I can. He gets impatient and hits it out and I end up winning the set 12-10 in the tiebreak.
In response I continue my slow deep moon balls pinning him to the back of the court for the first 3 games of the final set. There was no way I was going to lose now.
When I broke his serve for the first time in the match to go ahead 3-1…that’s when I had him by the…well you know what. He lost his cool and at 5-2 he quit and threw away the last game. He walked off and didn’t even shake my hand. Oh the sweet taste of victory!
In the end I did the exact opposite of my opponent: I never quit, I figured out a new match strategy and I stayed mentally strong.
Winston Churchill said: “I can sum up the success of my life in 7 words. Never give up. Never, never give up.”
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