I think once the full realization of my team career being over hits me, I’ll sit down and write a reflective post on my college tennis experience. For now, though, my thoughts on this past weekend:
2-5. That’s how Yale Men’s Tennis will end our 2017 Ivy League season. It’s certainly not a pretty record, but it belies just how close we were. Against Cornell on Saturday, we served for the team match twice in the deciding match before Cornell finally stormed back in front of their raucous home crowd for the 4-3 victory. From what I saw, we had at least 1 team match point, it’s certainly possible we had more. Columbia, on the other hand, was a clear step above us. They controlled the match from start to finish and if not for an agreement to play out remaining matches, our score would’ve been 0-4 instead of 2-5.
At the end of the day I think it came down to confidence for us. We’ve been bringing up the rear in Ivy League men’s tennis for so many years that it’s hard to overcome our mental disadvantage. In a game of such small margins on the ATP Tour, how are players like Djokovic and Federer able to consistently win the big points? They have the confidence in themselves that they are supposed to win, deserve to win, and will win. Even though we know we’re good enough to compete with the best in the Ivy League (we certainly showed it in our non-conference play), in Ivy matches, other teams look across the net and have that inherent confidence in their ability to win. That confidence manifests itself in more relaxed, aggressive, and simply better play in clutch situations. Just as I’m sure Federer had the tiniest seed of doubt in his ability to beat Nadal half a decade ago, I think that Yale Men’s Tennis has the tiniest seed of doubt in our ability to consistently beat our Ivy League foes. I hope the team can take confidence in our stride forward this year and make next year the breakthrough in which we successfully challenge the top tier of the conference and reset the mental game with which we fight against as well.
Along the same “confidence” vein, this weekend was a big weekend for me and my individual tennis career at Yale. Coming into the weekend, I was the highest ranked Ivy player in the ITA national rankings and I was also 1 of 2 players who was 5-0 in the ivies at #1 and in the running for Ivy League Player of the Year. Needless to say, just like anyone else in my position, I was very nervous. After winning at Cornell in a relatively straightforward match, I had a showdown at Columbia against my competitor for Ivy League POTY. I had known for a couple weeks that this match against Columbia would likely decide Ivy League POTY and also perhaps the NCAA individual berth from our conference. As the date drew nearer, I placed immense amounts of pressure on myself to make sure I performed at peak level on Sunday as I knew all of my season’s goals rested on the outcome of that match.
The match started about as poorly as it could’ve. In perhaps under 10 minutes, I was down a double break 3-0 and he was up 40-0 in his service game to move to 4-0. Truthfully, thoughts of just wanting to not be beaten too badly crept into my mind. Miraculously, he missed one or two shots, I finally hit a couple good ones, and with a clutch return on the deuce point, I broke back for 1-3 and that was all I needed. Despite being broken again for 1-4, I knew that it was possible for me to break and that’s what I clung onto mentally. As long as there’s a possibility, even the slightest one, what more could I ask for? If there’s even a chance of it happening, then it’s worth fighting tooth and nail for. I came all the way back in the first set and eventually won it in a close fought tiebreak 7-6(6).
The second set? Carbon copy of the first except this time he didn’t flinch and continued playing absolutely lights out. I was crushed 6-1. Again, self-doubt began creeping in. “How could I win against this guy? He must’ve made one error that entire set. Can I even buy a point in the ten point breaker?” Before the match tiebreak began I reminded myself, all I needed was a chance and I definitely had a “chance”. At the start of the tiebreak, I guessed right on an approach shot and hit a passing shot that painted the inside part of the line. A couple errors from him later (I’m sure he was nervous as well), and all of a sudden I was switching ends up 4-2. Again, I told myself, “Is there a chance you can go 4-2 on this end as well? Yes.” Every single point I played, I told myself I had a chance to win it and so I fought for it as if my season depended on it (because really it did). Changing ends again, I’m up 7-5. Now I’m TRULY close to closing this match out. As I step up to the line for my second service point, I remind myself of all the hours that I spent in team practice and the many hours I spent practicing alone in my spare time. All of the buckets of serves I hit when I came out to practice an hour and a half early. I bounced the ball a couple of times and I told myself, “you’ve hit this serve too many goddamn times. You’ve worked hard all season. You deserve to win this point”.
Ace out wide. 8-5. A missed first serve from him later, I step up to the line and repeat the same line to myself. “You’ve worked too hard all season. You can win this point. You deserve to win this point.” While it may have been momentary, repeating to myself how many hours I had spent in extra practice gave me the confidence to go for my shot. Inside-out forehand winner. 9-5. By this point I knew he was feeling the pressure. I could sense it from across the net and I could feel my confidence soaring. With the return back in play I took two big forehand cuts at the ball. Big ball, big target. The first one brought a short ball. The second drew the forced error. 10-5.
“Winners make their own luck”. I’ll be completely clear, here. I 100% believe that I got lucky in this match. I think that Shawn Hadavi, my opponent, outplayed me for much of it. Even in that match tiebreak. How many times out of ten am I going to hit that ace out wide? How many times out of ten am I going to successfully hit that inside out return winner? It’s very possible I would’ve still won those two points in a different manner but it’s a moot point. Winners make their own luck because they are prepared. The countless of hours out at practice are solely for the purpose of being prepared for situations like this. Getting those extra couple percentage points on that serve.
Perhaps 5% of my match on Sunday was luck but I needed to be prepared to go 95% of the way on my own and, to me, that’s what “winners make their own luck” encapsulates. Without the extra practice sessions on my own or with a willing teammate, I would not have made it there. I did put in those hours, though, and all of that time paid itself off. I gave myself the opportunity to get a little bit lucky.
While I think POTY is pretty much locked up, the NCAA berth is still very up in the air. I have no regrets, though. There truly is nothing more that can be done and that is peace of mind. Even if I don’t get the berth, I accomplished one of my ultimate goals in college tennis becoming conference POTY and I can move on from college tennis knowing that I did everything within my power to get my chance at NCAAs. That feeling is not just worth all the extra hours over my four years here, it’s priceless.