Return of the hack
It's been 20 years since James Crabtree played a competitive match. He takes to the court one more time to write a match report from the inside.
The challenge: to report on a match from within the match.
How is this accomplished? By playing the match. No easy task for an out-of-shape journalist who last played a competitive match 20 years ago.
Now firstly this isn’t going to be pretty. I’m playing in an Australian Money Tournament at Melbourne Park where the players walk around with a steely glare. Already I feel intimidated even if most of these guys can’t really grow facial hair yet.
The average age of the contenders is 20-years-old. I am 33. Despite the immediate disadvantage in the age stakes I do possess the two most important attributes for success outside of a thumping serve, ego and delusion.
Ego and delusion – the two best friends any hack could ask for. Today they shall be both my head coach and personal trainer.
History is also on my side.
Remember Brian Baker who came from nowhere this past year and climbed the rankings. What about Andre Agassi and Rod Laver who played well into their thirties, or Pancho Gonzalez and Ken Rosewall who played into their forties? Don’t say it can’t be done.
Anyway, I stand around anxiously at tournament control waiting for my name to be called. The day is backlogged because of wet weather. Sadly I don’t have my headphones or music to distract me from me and thus my brain is filling with pointless thoughts ranging from the ozone layer to Christmas lunch.
Now on any normal day I would have already spoilt myself with some sort of unhealthy diabetes-causing sugar-laced monstrosity. But today I am an athlete. I have nervous energy because I am about to use my diminishing skills and test them against, in all probability, some kid who doesn’t shave yet but is still young enough for a career in tennis or at least has the time to play all the time.
More thoughts fill my head. What am I going to do in the match? Who am I going to play? A future great? A nobody? Should I tweak my forehand technique? I’m hungry. Does Justin Beiber still have the same hair style? My legs feel like lead. Can I make the 1:30 meet up at the pub? Stop thinking!
This is my first tournament in a while. What on earth am I doing? Ego, delusion WHERE ARE YOU?!
After more standing around and waiting I realise every other player has a racquet bag twice the size of mine. Did I not get the memo? How many racquets do these players need? Five? Ten? Fifty? My mind races. Will I have a temper tantrum and run out of racquets the same way Ivanisevic did?
Finally my name is called and I am told to go to Court 18. Stupid outside court, and don’t tell me Rod Laver Arena isn’t available because I know Jennifer Lopez has left town.
I stroll through the venue like a vagrant, with a feeling that everybody knows I am a fraud. They are right. I unpack my old Agassi Flexpoint racquets (that they don’t make anymore) and await my opponent.
Disaster. He is 16 or 17 but does have some facial hair. He wears a cap, is scrawny looking but appears confident.
I warm up well. Delusion. I can do this. I am Ivan Lendl, I have a great forehand. Does the kid opposite me even know Lendl was once a player? Relax. My serve feels good. Maybe this will be OK. My first tournament that turns out to be an improbable run all the way to the Australian Open before a meeting in the final versus Roger Federer, where I win. Thanks, ego.
The first game goes to four deuces on his serve. I lose it after two quick easy forehand errors.
I sit down for a second and reflect on my awful preparation. Stayed up far too late to watch Gladiator (again) last night. My three year old daughter woke me at 3 am. I haven’t practised against somebody who can keep a four-ball rally in play for six months. My first serve does hurt my arm. My second serve usually goes in the third time. My return of serve is courtesy of Specsavers. I am not feeling confident. Ego, you are useless.
My first service game is a disaster. I lose it before I’ve really acknowledged what’s happened. My first serve is flat, but not flat hard. My backhand has had more shanks than an average golfer. Before I know it I have been thinking too much and the score is 0-3. Arghhh.
My serve again and I feel the heat on my back. That pub invite sounds awfully good right now, I will probably have a crisp cool Corona. Doh, loss of concentration, 0-5.
I sit and reflect. Time for an epic comeback. Channel the serve and volley brilliance of Pat Rafter. They, whoever they are, will talk about this comeback like they do Agassi at Roland Garros in 1999 or Ivanisevic at Wimbledon in 2001. It will be remembered in tennis lore, Crabtree AMT 2012.
Somehow I get a game back and with it a glimpse of confidence. I lose the opening game of the second set but feel like I am getting somewhere. I hear the words of my old coach Bernard Eyre saying “Go for your shots, James,” in the same way Obi-Wan Kenobi appears sporadically for Luke Skywalker.
Sure I lose the game but it wasn’t bad.
I feel great until we get locked into a baseline rally at deuce and I start pushing my forehand that eventually sails out. I would like to report a crime – somebody has taken my forehand.
“Change of ends,” says the kid on the other side of the court. I ask him the score “Zero-three” he says. Hang on, I am a set and 0-3 down? That’s bad. A number of expletives fill my brain, one of which may have been uttered. Maybe it was two expletives.
Another loss of focus and it is match point. I curse all the times I have been overly critical of the professionals who do this slog day in day out. How do they do it? How do they remain so focused, so committed … How do they continually play so well?
I hit a forehand out.
Game, set and match to the kid. I shake his hand. He is pleased, but probably annoyed he had to play someone old enough to be his dad.
Surprisingly I’m not as unhappy as I should be. My mind gears up again – you have not seen the last of me! The comeback still lives on! Thanks, delusion. Now for that Corona.