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Break Point by Saydie Roling

artwork by AI


Quiet cheers come from the sideline of the tennis courts. I just won the first set six to three, a comfortable win. It seems easy enough to repeat this for one more set, I tell myself. Lifting my head, my mom paces a five-foot-long crater into the sidewalk. I slowly make my way to my bench, making sure to inhale through my nose and exhale with my mouth. Grabbing my towel, I dry off, repeatedly wiping my hands down, ensuring they will not allow for the racket to slip. I use my three-minute break to my advantage. I check on Paige's score on the next court over, making sure to drink plenty but not too much, and reminding myself that I have more work ahead of me.

The wind blocks are doing their jobs well, unfortunately, on this hot, humid summer day. The heat never bothers me much, but right now the effects come in full force. I am slightly dizzy and nauseous, with an ache in my back that grows with each serve. The second set starts now; I pace back to the fence and get ready to return to the baseline. I need to take control and claim this game for myself. The serve comes right to me and I send it back—and on and on—but then I miss. I can make up for this one—my only mistake. I can't afford anymore. Only a couple minutes into the game and I cannot keep up. I miss easy shots, serves fly into the net, and I don’t return the ball correctly. I know that my opponent can not score any more points. I did not make it to state to lose, but down goes one game, a second, and a third.

“No more. Stop playing so stupid,” I mutter to myself, again. I frantically search for Coach or Mark, anyone, just someone to talk to. I need to talk this out because they will know exactly what to do. I spot Coach two courts over, smiling at me and he sends a thumbs up. Coach has a lot more faith in my mental game than I do. Right now proves that because in my head, nothing makes sense. It is a scrambled mess of all my thoughts, emotions, and movements. Nothing rational occurs. I throw my hands up, letting my head drop, my breath staggering. In an instant, he rolls his wheelchair over. I quickly explain to him that I do not know how to play tennis and nothing works anymore.

Coach tells me, “Stop being so hard on yourself. You are the best five in the state of Iowa and you are here to play your best tennis. I know you can beat every single five in this state, and I want you to prove that to me.” In all honesty, I should really listen and work on it, but I just cannot stop the tears. Wiping them from my face I continue to doubt the words that process in my head, but nod anyway. I move back to my bench, then back into the game. Two more games pass in a blur, still not going my way, zero to five. I rush over to Coach again, more tears filling my eyes at the display of tennis I just showed. Coach and I both know that I can do more.

I rush my speech, shaking my head annoyed at what played out in front of me. I go back out, ready to make a difference in the game. One set, game, and point at a time. Pushing myself harder than normal, I know I can do more. Before I can commit myself to change how I play, the opportunity stands up and walks away. I blink and the set leaves the courts. I refuse to let my team down. In an attempt to clear my head, I think back to my game against Marion, the same situation, the same tears spilling down my face, a similar feeling. The more I focus on what I am doing the less I have to deal with my thoughts, so I sit, drink, dry my hands, get back up, pace the court, and focus once more on the game. Taking it to a third set, everything behind me leaves my head, a new mindset settles in and I can finally breathe. I have no room for error, ten points lie ahead of me and I cannot afford to let those slip too.

“Come on girly!” Paige’s mom says to me, proving that I am not alone.

Coaches communicate with us about who gets to serve, but I do not worry about that. My head, however, moves at one hundred miles per hour and anxiety flies through my mind about the future. Three to three, we switch sides, so far I haven’t faltered, yet I also have not proved myself. Six to six, deep breaths, a drink, dry off with the towel, and switch sides again. Keep working and do not ever stop moving your feet. Nine to eight, no time to make a mistake now. I am ready to prove to myself, Coach, and my team that I deserve my position.

I reach for the last ball by playing it safe and keeping it in the court. If I could read Coach's mind right now, I know he would say to let her make the mistake first. I keep my thoughts to a minimum and focus. I push my backhands a little harder and slice the ball farther back, ready for her to miss. I bring my arm back, ready for a forehand but it never happens because before it can reach me the ball falls into the net. Relief instantly takes over and I know that I did it. I shake her hand at the net and make my way out to cheer on the rest of my team. Six to three, zero to six, and ten to eight. Wiping away the tears that faded with the end of the second set, Coach smiles at me, my mom hugs me, and everything stops. My thoughts lost the set, but I won the match.

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