Tennis has always been a big part of my life. Throughout high school, I’ve been a proud member of the girls tennis team, and my passion for the sport has only grown since becoming a senior and making the varsity team. While I’m not the best player on the team, I have my own personal set of skills that work to my advantage, and I have played many good (and bad) matches because of my unique style. However, one of the most memorable games I have ever played was at the Burlington County Open this past autumn, and it shaped the way I play and view tennis.
On a cool morning in September 2019, the girls tennis team huddled eating warm chocolate chip cookies baked fresh by one of our teammates. The bus was late (again), the freshmen were inside filling our water jug, and Emmanuella and the coach hit a tennis ball against the wall. When it finally arrived, we all bundled into the back and gabbed, each adorned in our uniforms and tennis sweatshirts. The scent of Coach Nevitt’s coffee was aromatic and wafted to the back of the bus, making the atmosphere welcoming and comfortable. Driving to the designated meeting place, Veteran’s Park, took about an hour.
When we arrived, we put our bags down at our traditional tree, near which roughly twenty courts surrounded the official hub for announcements. That’s when we discovered we hadn’t brought any of the necessary materials: new tennis balls, scorecards, and the community water bottles. So we went to a court picked at random and stretched and hit for a while, then gathered to hear the lineups. I was scheduled against Pemberton’s third singles player, Gabby. She was nice but had a competitive side to her, which I had seen at our scrimmage almost a month earlier. We had ten minutes to rally, and Gabby opened up a new canister of balls. The lid popped off with a click, and she handed me one of the fluorescent-colored spheres.
The rally started off fairly normally, with regular playing followed by practicing our serves, but then her coaches came over. They stood at the far end of the fence, so they could watch both her and their first doubles’ matches. Their loud, laughing voices rang across the courts. At first their presence didn’t faze me, but my perspective changed when the match actually started.
I lost the first point after getting to deuce, but I knew I could bring it back because my serves are decent, but my returns allow me to win points. The game went back and forth for a while, with the score 4-3 in my favor, when a Pemberton coach walked to our side of the fence to watch.
“It’s all about the serve, Gabby. That’s what I like to see,” he said, shouting loud enough to make birds scatter. She was serving after tying the game, 4-4. I began losing my patience with his every cheer and clap mocking the skills I had worked so hard to develop. However, I was determined to not let him get to me, and by focusing my energy on the game, I succeeded in gaining back the upper hand. As we switched sides, the second coach and some of her teammates who had already lost their matches came to watch our match.
“Take those risks, Gabby!” Her coach was irritated with the current score, 7-6 in my favor, since my opponent had lost two points in a row. By now, my coach had come to watch as well, but he remained still and silent, like the calm before the storm. I could tell his blood was boiling over their remarks, but he maintained control.
When the score became 8-9 in Gabby’s favor, my teammates gathered in a wave and sat, talking among themselves, oblivious to my need for concentration.
“Shh! I’m glad you’re watching my match, but you need to be quiet,” I said.
This next point would determine the entire match, and I did not want to risk it all. Unfortunately for Pemberton, I won the point. We were told the match would end with a tie-breaker, first to seven with a two-point difference. As I drank my water I tried to steady myself , but my hands shook. Two hours had passed since the tournament had begun, and my body was starting to shut down. Forcing myself to continue, I took my place, ball in hand.
A hush fell over the crowd as I tossed the ball high and started the first point with a serve. A nice rally commenced, until the ball was hit into the net. The winning side cheered for their girl, and the two switched sides. The tie breaker was tense, with loud cheers from Pemberton, and more subtle cheers from Palmyra. It was the last point, and back to my serve. I hit the ball, but Gabby returned it fast, a powerful hit to the opposite side of the court. Somehow, I was faster. Without much thought, I decided to take a risk. Cross-court returns with a backhand are almost never a good idea because too many things can go wrong. However, in that moment, the stars aligned. Gabby wasn’t expecting the angled shot and attempted to get it over, but her body placement wasn’t right. I met her at the net where I shook her hand, a thrilling match finally over. My body weary, I picked up my equipment and left the courts.
While my team cheered, the Pemberton coaches came down on her hard, practically yelling at the poor girl for not taking more risks, but I knew she had. We both did everything in our power to win that match, but only one victor could arise.
“That was so intense! You played great! We’re so proud of you,” my teammates said. I was glowing with joy at what I had accomplished, yet exhausted from the effort.
“I’m third singles, Palmyra versus Pemberton. I won 9-9, with a 7-5 tie breaker,” I reported to a match official, who then told me I could have a short break before the second round. In that second round, I was pinned against someone who was in a higher seed-ranking than Palmyra, and I lost pretty quickly, but I didn’t care. I was overjoyed to have even made it as far as I had, and I remember smiling throughout the rest of the day because of it.
I think back to that match often, and I consider that win to be one of my biggest accomplishments. It’s not necessarily that Pemberton was a fierce competitor, or that making it past the first round was that big of an achievement, but I’m proud of myself for all that I did because I know what it was like to be on the court that fateful day. Overall, the tournament didn’t affect my tennis career or determine anything special, but the memory of it will always linger in my mind because it helped me gain confidence in myself and my skills, which I have channeled in a positive way to other aspects of my life.
And for that, I am grateful.
— By Alyssa Rimanthe Schweiger, Class of 2020