I didn’t have high hopes for the real tennis skills tournament at Lord’s. As the rookiest, lowest ranked player in the tournament, my hopes and expectations before the day were based around the avoidance of embarrassment rather than realistic hopes of outright victory.
The skills required for this skills challenge tournament are stuff that I do very rarely in the heat of battle: hitting the fiendish “winning targets”, setting unfeasibly good chases and getting serves into the right area – the latter determined by a small “Its A Knockout”-style gayly-coloured plastic padding pool – not very Lord’s, that last prop.
To add to the slightly unnerving nature of the event, I discovered that I had been teamed with friend Tony Friend, who probably also expected little once he knew he’d been teamed with me. I e-mailed him a few weeks ago, getting my excuses in early:
I haven’t done skills night before and am not entirely sure what to expect. Rest assured, at my current level of experience, I am not expecting to find any of the exercises even faintly easy. But I shall certainly try my best.
He responded with a list of the challenges. I replied:
Excellent, excellent. I normally do at least one of those things once during my hour…perhaps that wasn’t what you wanted to read.
The coaches at Lord’s tried to reassure me – “sometimes the novice players on the team do as well or better than the experienced players.” I suspected that they were being kind and/or trying to prevent a drop out.
To add to my sense of foreboding, the third man in our team, David, announced that he hadn’t played for about a year, which I thought probably put the kibosh on any residual hopes I had of being carried by two really good players.
But my negative thoughts were wrong on all of those counts.
Truth is, the skills challenge is wicked hard for all concerned. Not least because many of the skills tested do not often come into the game naturally, so all players, experts and rookies alike, are having to adapt and adjust to the challenges.
One thing our team did right was to agree a rota and relentlessly move around quickly during each challenge to maximise the number of shots we got in each two-minute time-trial round. That practice alone must have upped our chances.
The other thing that went well for us was complementary skills; at least one of us did OK or well on each of the seven challenges. On two of the challenges – lay an excellent chase and force the dedans, all three of us got into a rhythm for a minute or so and clocked up a lot of points in a hurry. I didn’t score as many points as the other two, but I don’t think I scored that far shy of them and certainly pulled my weight as the team rookie.
In short, against the odds, we won by a short head. (Aptronymically, our team had been named “Three-Thirty at Haydock Park”).
But far more than the sweet taste of unexpected success, as usual with real tennis at Lord’s, the whole evening, in particular the company was excellent; a really friendly, pleasant crowd. Naturally, the food and beverage was excellent too – it was at Lord’s after all – a curry night, done very well.
Writing as the presidential polls close in the USA, I’m hoping against hope that our real tennis tournament result is the only major against the odds surprise of the night.