And we’re off…I’m on the plane headed home the day after stealing wins from both Johnny Mac and The Big Fella, Todd Martin, last night in the Series opening tourney in Surprise, AZ. Details? You want details? Well, I’m glad you asked (said the imaginary voice in my head) as I have another 3 hours to go on this flight and writing this is more fun than listening to the annoying conversation the people in the seats in front of me are having.

Surprise, AZ is about 30 minutes from downtown Phoenix and it rests at nearly 1500 feet of altitude. With that altitude comes a tennis ball which moves quicker through the air than at sea level. The court in Surprise is a fast hard court which makes the conditions pretty speedy overall. I had the challenge of facing the big serving and bigger returning Todd Martin in the first semifinal. This was the first tournament of the year for us and we were both a little unsure going into the match which meant that neither of us wanted to serve first. Rarely am I at all concerned about a coin toss but I really wanted to receive serve first so I could ease into the match without the pressure of holding my serve right away. So of course that meant that Todd would win the toss, elect to receive serve and send my blood pressure spiking.

So, against my will, I start the match serving and go down quickly love-40 with an unforced error and two double faults. Not good. The ball was flying on me and I couldn’t get my second serve to drop down in the thin air. Somehow I managed to make some first serves, claw my way back to deuce and eventually hold serve. Whew. I then drew first blood with a break of Todd’s serve in game two and raced to a 3-0 lead before Todd settled in and started to get his teeth into the match. One-set matches can change quickly and sure enough when I served for the match at 5-3 I got “tight” and Todd broke back (just between us we can call it what it was, a “choke”). We each held serve from there to go to a tiebreaker. I had settled down after losing serve and managed to deliver a solid performance in the breaker and win it 7-5 to earn my spot in the final.

I had some time to regroup before the final, as my semi was the first of the night, so I retreated to the locker room to change clothes, eat a little and rest up as I would get about 45 mins before heading back out to play the final. Mac beat Michael Chang surprisingly quickly, 6-2, so I knew he was enjoying the quick conditions and would be a handful. So, off the couch and back into the fire I went…

I won the toss this time, electing to receive as I felt like I needed a bit of time to get warmed up after the rest. I had confidence in my game now but I still didn’t want to drop my serve early while I was still loosening up after the 45 minute break. It was a bit cool in the Arizona fall night as well so my body was taking a little longer than usual to get going. John opened up with a very solid service game hold, including making all of his first serves, and I knew I was in for a battle.

We traded holds up until 5-6 in the 8 game pro-set final with neither of us having a break point on the other. At 5-6 I got into some trouble as John pressed the attack button on his returns and hit some great shots to get to break point. We got into a baseline exchange, which is usually in my favor, and John missed a shot long on the baseline which I hit back in the court casually and waited for the out call which never came…oops. John won the point to go up 7-5 and I lost my mind on the chair umpire (Look for that part when this airs on FSN and Tennis Channel later this year). The rational part of me understands that once a call has been decided it won’t be changed and that the smart thing to do is move on immediately and forget it but the competitive part of me doesn’t always allow the rational fellow a say in the matter. It took a good 60 seconds for Mr Rational to get a word in with Mr Competitive but he finally got involved and the match continued, with John now serving for the match. I needed to do something I hadn’t been able to do yet, break the crafty lefty’s serve. I dug in, tried to forget the bad call (internal thought at that moment; “be mature, man…you’re 42 years old!!) and managed to grind out a break of serve. I think John may have gotten a little tight trying to serve it out, as I had earlier against Todd. No one is immune!

Having broken back just when I thought all was lost, I played like a man with a new lease on life. I felt free and relaxed and I would guess that John felt exactly the opposite. I held serve easily at 6-7 to send us into a tiebreaker that would decide it all. High stakes at its finest. I caught fire in the breaker, ripping returns, passing shots, forehands and serves with abandon. I was able to run away with it in the end, 7-1 the score in the breaker, and savored the feeling of victory, which never gets old.

I will tell you when I got up at 6am this morning my body reminded me it had not played tournament tennis lately either…I was tired and more than a little sore, especially in my lower back and feet. I assume (or maybe I am just hoping) that now that I am “tournament tough” again I should feel better the rest of the PowerShares Series physically. We’ll see about that but one thing I can tell you without hesitation is that I would trade feeling great physically for the mental satisfaction I feel today from winning last night. That feeling never gets old.