The ball hung in the humid August air of Paris, Tennessee, for a fraction of a second before Clayton shifted his weight to the side and slid his right foot forward to hit his first serve. It had a touch of spin to keep it in the box most of the time, but was struck at enough of a downward angle to provide power.
I stood on the other side of the net awaiting its placement. Using minimal backswing, I hit it back into play, and our 30-all point was underway.
In the previous school year I, a sophomore at Henry County High School, had been the No. 4 player for the HCHS tennis team. Clayton, a junior, had been No. 1. He was the best tennis player HCHS had produced in more than a decade, and had been the runner-up in the district championship in the previous school year.
We were playing in the Paris city tournament on the eve of the start of my junior and his senior year. In a first set that had seen several breaks of serve traded, he'd pulled out a 6-4 win. In set two he was holding more easily, and now led 4-2. Still, I had reason to be happy, as Clayton had wiped these same courts with me in the two previous years. After a summer in which I must have struck hundreds of serves and groundstrokes, at least now I was keeping the match close.
I was 6'2", weighed 155 pounds and had never touched a dumbbell weighing 50 pounds in my whole life. I hit few clean winners on the tennis court, but often made only one or two unforced errors in a set, and that was enough to win a lot of matches against high school players in West Tennessee.
Clayton, however, had something I didn't: a weapon. His forehand was like a viper than darted through the court before curving downward to bite into the asphalt and then springing upward again.
As my return of serve landed in the mid-court area, he began putting his viper to work: First, he took two quick steps to his left, taking the forehand on the rise and creating a sharp angle that forced me wide of my backhand corner. I retrieved it, pushing back a defensive two-hander. I knew what was coming next—another venomous forehand, this time sending me out wide to the forehand side—but there was nothing I could do to prevent it. All I could try to do was run it down.
Most of our points were like that, especially on his serve. All too often, this pattern would continue until I finally couldn't get the ball back in play, or he snuck into net and put away a drop volley.
I could feel this point was slightly different, though; as I struck the next forehand I felt I could put it back a little deeper, thus reducing the angle he could hit on the next shot. I ran down the next backhand easily, hitting through the ball with both hands and pushing him back. Again he went to the forehand, but as it sat in mid-court I saw the chance to take the offensive.
The ball bounced on my side of the court, and as it hung in the air I remembered something my dad had said. Few players in our whole district could rival Clayton's firepower, but he had struggled to beat quick guys with good defensive skills. Often they simply kept returning the ball until he grew impatient.
Dad had said that a guy like that (here he raised his arm into a mock forehand backswing) who kept running down Clayton's shots until he got the ball he wanted (here he accelerated through his imaginary shot, shouting "Blam!" for emphasis) could have beaten Clayton handily.
In the minute increments of time the ball sat in the air, I compressed those words into a simple message: Move forward.
Rather than my usual upward swing for control, I hit forward, adding momentum by charging the net to attack the weak reply. It was an unnecessary trip.
My forehand zipped through the court, travelling parallel to the doubles lane. Clayton could only watch.
"Good shot," he said, before returning to middle of the court, preparing to serve for 30-40.
With the point underway, I again took the offensive, ripping another forehand down the line and rushing to net. This time he got the ball back, a medium-depth lob I'd need to back up to hit. Normally the overhead was a shaky shot for me, but this time I took two-three steps backward before slamming down a winner. I had broken back, effectively leveling the set.
What's more, I was now in 'The Zone'.
Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox described this feeling as being able to see the seams on an approaching fast ball. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, following his straight set win over Rafael Nadal at the 2008 Australian Open, compared it to a video game in which an ace, a forehand winner, or a drop volley winner were just a button's push away.
The HCHS varsity tennis version of this feeling was knowing that I didn't have to be careful. Defense and point-construction were no longer concerns of mine, as I could hit aggressively from any part of the court, and would have no hesitation to come to net and put away winners.
I held serve easily to tie up the set. As he served at 4-all I began taking full swings when returning his first serve, and on his second began taking them early despite their heavy kick, sending one back at his feet before he'd even finished his service motion.
When I took the early lead in that game I began imagining my name in the next round of the tournament drawsheet. This is probably the first reason why I didn't win the game.
The second was a change in tactics on Clayton's part. He sacrificed pace for placement, sliding serves out of my strike zone, resulting in a less forceful reply, then going for outright winners. He grunted as he stepped into his forehand, forcing an extra 5 mph of velocity with each one he struck. He rallied to win the game, and in the process brought me back from 'The Zone'.
He then broke me to close it out.
"Good match!" he said after we shook hands. It what we always said at the end, even if we bageled the other guy. This time, though, I sensed he meant it; he was really surprised at how close an affair it had been.
I left court the loser, but couldn't feel too bad about it. Not only was my game improving, but it had been exhilarating to play that way, if just for a couple of games.
It was not my only trip to 'The Zone': I remember playing a match against our fierce rivals Union City in sophomore year, going into the match expecting to lose but swinging freely and blowing the opponent off the court. Later, I recall playing friendly doubles matches with my best friend, whom I'd taught to play only a couple of years earlier, against the toughest adult competition in town and coming out on top. And yet, it's the match I didn't even win against Clayton I remember best.
And that match is why the subject of The Zone fascinates me. If a hacker like myself can play that well just once, what can a world class athlete accomplish in such a state? It applies to all sports, such as when Michael Jordan rained down 63 points against the dominant Boston Celtics in 1986, or when Walter Payton rushed for 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977 despite having the flu.
But in this (somewhat) regular series, I'll be focusing on tennis. Some of the game's most well-known players, from John McEnroe (in 1984) to Pete Sampras (in 1999) to Roger Federer (pick a date) have done awe-inspiring things while in The Zone, but some of my players and matches of choice will surely come as a surprise.
If you have suggestions, leave a note here or send me a private message.