A 30 ounce bottle of clear, gel-type hand sanitizer accompanied a sign demanding that all entrants wash their hands greeted us just inside the door of Pickleball Station when we arrived at 7:30 am on Sunday, March 7, 2020. We complied, signed in, then walked through the white-walled hallway towards the courts. The first morning of daylight savings time left us an hour sleepier than we’d normally be from a 5:00 am wake up from springing ahead. A conspicuous note on the sliding glass door at the exit from the kitchen to the courts banned food consumption and open-container beverages outside its limits and a printout explaining how to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus lay conspicuously between the sinks in the restroom. On and off the courts, fist bumps replaced prospectively riskier virus-spreading greetings like handshakes and hugs.
My partner (husband) Scott checked out the competition the night before for Pickleball Station’s last tournament (before transforming the courts into additional inventory space for Pickleball Central‘s online store). Seeding is based on a pair’s combined rating, and with ours at less than 4.0, we knew we’d face one of the better teams in the first round, but when Scott said that the guy half of our mixed doubles opponents was rated 4.5 in men’s doubles, I figured we were going to get killed. And as we approached Court 1, Scott mentioned that he’d lost every match he’d ever played on it. Uh-oh.
Match play was best of three games to 11 points, win by 2. Coach Mike Givens says that you should always have a plan; Ours was to target the weaker player, Abbie. (Of the fifteen pairs, only two teams had a female player with a higher rating than the male). We scored the first point of the first game, but after both of us made several unforced errors, we quickly fell to an 6-1 deficit. Not only did our opponents make fewer mistakes, they also did a better job of targeting than we did and defeated us solidly, 11-3. In the second game, we played a little smarter, were more successful at targeting, and made fewer mistakes. I didn’t feel the least bit nervous because I had no expectation that we would win. And we didn’t, although we doubled our score, losing 6-11…sigh.
While awaiting our first match in the so-called “opportunity bracket,” we watched Samuel Koo and his daughter Izzy, at 17–the youngest player in the tournament, take on Dave Alexander and his partner, Fran Meyer, at 74–the oldest player in the tournament. It was a clinic on targeting. Izzy returned shot after shot (after shot), letting out the occasional quiet laugh when she made a mistake, then smiling as she tapped paddles with her dad. The teams split 11-6, 10-12, but in the third game, Samuel stepped in to return some shots that his kid could have just as easily (though not as skillfully) and Team Koo defeated Fran and Dave 11-4. In the midst of this, Joaquin stopped by and offered a fist bump for “targeting (me during our match).” I held no hard feelings. Targeting is a smart, legitimate strategy that anyone in his or her right might would and should employ. Plus, he could have easily tagged me or slammed the ball down my throat, but never did.
Five of seven of the first round matches went to three games, and those on Courts 1 and 2 finished about the same time. Fortunately, tournament director Shar OQuinn sent us to Court 2 to take on Karen and Tuyen. During the Men’s Doubles contest the day before, Tuyen and his partner Dave battled their way through the opportunity bracket, winning five matches after landing there due to a loss in the second round, then forfeited due to injury. Tuyen declined a chance to practice before the pre-match warmup on Sunday and sported at least one leg brace. He may have been suffering, but it didn’t show. Loser’s bracket matches were, as is typical, one game to 15, win by 2, which doesn’t give a team much room for error should it fall behind. We started out well against them, primarily in successfully targeting. Plus, our serves landed in, our returns were mostly deep and we both hit most drops into the kitchen, which is to say, we made fewer mistakes than in the first match. With no expectation of winning, I felt completely calm. Late in the game, when we were up 12-8, I thought we might get at least one win. But about that time, a side out gave our opponents a chance to score. And they did. I got nervous. Performance anxiety in sports is common, and strategies to relieve it (including prepare, embrace rituals, get perspective, reframe, talk to yourself, and breathe) seem simple, but in the moment, it doesn’t feel that way.
With consistent play, Karen and Tuyen closed the gap between our scores and took the lead. Scott reminded me to breathe, but my nervousness lingered. With both teams in double digits, Tuyen lofted a perfect serve to my backhand from the odd court, which I hit…right into the net. The rest is just a blur, but I’ll never forget the last point. Tuyen served to me from the odd court with the score at 16-15 in their favor. He offered up a repeat of the lofting service shot to my backhand, which I successfully ran around to take as a forehand and returned to Karen down the line, then dashed across the baseline to the opposite corner. She hit a cross court return that threaded the needle between Scott’s condor-like reach and the side line for an absolutely perfect winner before I even arrived. We lost our way out of the tournament faster than ever before, tapped paddles with the winners, packed up our stuff and began our 100-mile drive home.
Tim Channing and Kristen Sexton finished 4-0 to earn the gold. Dave Gonnella and Jo Gries beat every team except the gold medal winners to finish with silver. In the second round, they sent our first round opponents, Abbie Morris and Joaquin Flores, to the opportunity bracket, where they defeated four teams before falling a second time to Dave and Jo to earn bronze.
Playing up and getting killed isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a humbling reminder that there is a difference between intermediate and advanced play in pickleball. And that difference primarily consists of consistency.