Looking back on the season, it’s been a constant struggle since the first day of school. I was away from tennis for long stretches of days, even weeks, and the goal of having a paper published this semester year really pushed everything else inferior to its priority. To rub it in, the defeat at Medicine Cup against a beatable opponent (though he finished 2nd in the most recent Orient Cup) really shattered my last bit of motivation. These lines pretty much sum up the first half of my semester year.
As the lunar New Year drew near, I had made satisfactory progress academically. It was a relief mentally and at the same time it created an opportunity for me to pick-up my racket and try to rescue my plummeting touch for tennis. Coincidentally, it was about the time when I had to play the qualifier for the Intercollegiate Games. To play competitive tennis with less than 50% of the touch was extremely challenging; I did not have my trademark consistency and accuracy, so I had to ensure my mind was directing within my status quo and avoiding difficult shots. My backhand and service game were nowhere to be found. Fortunately my endurance was still up to the task and I was able to grind it out physically by slowing the game down in the most boring yet effective matter. To think back, I felt I was playing to stay in the game, instead of to enjoy the game.
After the New Year, my lab work was running steadfastly, and hence that allowed me to practice tennis on a general basis for the first time since this semester year. I credited “Lil’ pink” to accept my call of duty at almost all occasions to practice at short but intense and effective spurs. I was able to emphasize on my baseline strokes and runners repeatedly and improve from there. Lil’ Pink was working hard on his defensive side of the game, so I was working on my shot locations during the process. Those individual sessions throughout the semester were extremely helpful, as I was finally finding my rhythm back, despite taking one baby step at a time.
Then came the southern regional weekend, where I only played in one match and again struggled endlessly despite grinding out with a victory. A few weeks later I went north to play in the Orient Cup with Chia-Hao. Fate may had played a role here but slipped under my eye, because I was devastatingly overpowered and overmatched by the eventual champion Chien-Wei Peng, while actually putting up a very good fight with Chia-Hao against the eventual semi-finalists from Air Force Academy. The physical aspect of my game was actually tolerable, but it was the helplessness feeling I had when I played against Peng that really haunted me for a while. For once I actually felt vulnerable on the court, and that definitely hindered my confidence. On the other hand, in the double’s match, Chia-Hao and I fell behind 0-5 before making a respectable comeback and finishing the loss at 4-6. I was pleased that we didn’t give up when we were trailing, and was regaining the groove at the net. I should had noticed that at the time my double’s game were on top of my singles, but I was buried in my misery from the defeat and could not care much.
A couple weeks prior to the intercollegiate tournament, I was very fortunate to play several singles matches against Song-Song. Competing against a player with such ferocious forehand stroke and powerful serve really forced me to take every shot cautiously and tighten up my defensive game. At the same time, I had to seize the right moment to attack his backhand side and followed it up to the net. On top of all, I had to stay focus throughout the match and be patient for my turn to climb back from the early deficits. I did not record a single victory from all those battles, but the whole process definitely sharpened my strength in consistency and forehand strokes, improved my weaknesses in my backhand defense and service, and more importantly, rejuvenated my confidence. I knew if I could put up a good fight against Song-Song, I could probably hold my own against just about anyone on the tour. In retrospect, it was through those countless approach-and-volley attempts that honed my net game, which was critical to my double’s success in the big event.
I have to admit, it was a surprising shock to be sent into the doubles on the fly. I had been playing mainly singles for several years, and I had never paired with Cheng-Yun before. On top of that, I thought our “non-aggressive” style of game were too similar to complement each other. Hence, we came to an agreement that Cheng-Yun would play his steadfast game, while I would be the disruptive aggressor on the court. We also agreed that whoever was on the baseline would create chances for the net player, and whenever we had a short shot in play, we’d hit it directly at the opponent. During the match, the coach advised us to serve to the backhand and the player on the net would need to be aggressive on the following volley.
The strategy worked effectively, despite my occasional struggles to find the right rhythm to “jump” on the volley. Cheng-Yun executed our game plan smoothly and converted most of the plays into easy winners or forced-errors for the opponent. My other concern from switching from singles to doubles was my return game, which evidently was rather sketchy in the first match against Tamkang University. Fortunately the opponent didn’t exploit this weakness and I was able to adjust later on under the coach’s direction to return it directly down the line if the serve was too fast.
As a whole, I am very thankful and blessed that Lil’ Pink, Cheng Ching-Ya, Song-Song, and the entire NCKU tennis nation was supportive through my toughest time. I am also grateful for having Chia-Hao as my company, without whom I would not had even participated in the Orient Cup, not to mention polishing my rusty double’s game in the tournament. I do not think my stroke consistency have returned to where it used to be yet, and my backhand strokes are still far from controlling at will, but I know they have been coming back steadily. After playing with Song-Song, I really feel that there is a possibility for me to take advantage of my length and play more at the net with my volley and overhead smash. In addition, I actually feel for once that I am gradually developing a deceptively effective approaching shot that integrates sudden acceleration with misleading shot direction. If I could connect my baseline and net game with that effective approaching shot, hopefully that would add a vital dimension to my degenerating defensive game.
I have struggled physically and mentally throughout the year, and it’s been an excruciating and vulnerable experience. If there were a lesson to learn from this year, was to avoid going through such slumping journey again, which was the result of lack of practice. In the future, I will have to keep myself much closer to the tennis court than I had been, so hopefully I will be able to hold on to and further build on this foundation of game that I have finally rediscovered.