The year was 1997. The place: Citronelle, Alabama. The setting: The annual Valentine's Day tournament, one of the stops on the non-USTA-sanctioned tour throughout Alabama that used to go on (I don't know if those tournaments are still around since I haven't lived in Bama since then). Somehow, I had scraped my way to the finals of the "A" bracket, and my opponent was none other than my doubles partner, with whom I had already clinched a berth in the finals with earlier in the day.
We were high school teammates, but didn't play doubles on the team together. We started doing that after we both graduated and my regular partner for USTA tournaments moved away. We had some success, though, picking up a couple of tournament wins during our partnership. Most of our time on a court was spent on opposite sides of the net, where we played on average three times a week, for at least five years. Most of those battles were on my home court in the apartment complex I grew up in. It pretty much became his home court, though, because if you think Andy Roddick has a losing streak against Roger Federer, it's NOTHING compared to my losing streak against this guy.
When we were on the high school team together, I was one of the top two players, while he was barely hanging on the bottom rungs of the top six. However, whether it was us constantly playing or what, he definitely got better. I always thought I should beat him, even though it got to the point where I barely had a shot against him.
Anyway, back to this particular tournament in Citronelle: By this time, I must have lost dozens of matches to him in a row. We had met in the finals of a USTA tournament in Birmingham two years earlier and he beat me in three sets, which was among my better losses to him. However, this night, I was determined to break the streak. The tournament was on a hard court (as most tournaments in Alabama were) and this court was particularly favorable to my game, I felt. I've always been a baseliner, and though I play mainly now on clay courts, back then, fast hard courts were my favorite. I'm a good returner, and faster surfaces helped my so-so serve and relatively flat backhand. Even with my friend being a serve and volleyer, I knew whenever we played on a faster surface I was able to give him more fits. So I felt really good going into this match.
I lost the first set 7-5, but I was hitting passing shots and winners from all over the place. Despite dropping the first set, I was still confident heading into the second, which I won 7-5. Before every point over those two sets, I was shaking my head "no," just to focus on the moment. However, at the start of the third set, the slightest bit of doubt started creeping in. He won the first game, then I won the next ... and that was it for me: I went down 6-1 in the third. The weight of his competitive spirit just smothered me. I had him on the hook and didn't come through, even though the conditions were completely optimal for me.
Seeing James Blake lose today to Rafael Nadal (despite my picking Blake to win) kind of dredged up these old memories for me. Despite a favorable situation, the mental aspect of the game is just as important; something every tennis player knows. How does Blake bounce back for the next time he has to play Nadal from losing those two matches in back-to-back tournaments? I'm definitely the wrong guy to try to figure that out!
And back to Citronelle once again: We wore each other out so much in the singles final, we lost the doubles in three to a team we had waylaid in our last tournament. That's tennis, I guess.
(Photos: Getty Images)