I used to play competitive matches at least once a week, but this summer, tonight, I played my first one. In less than two months, I'm going in for a hip resurfacing of my left hip and hopefully, I'll be sidelined for the lesser duration of anywhere from 3 months to one year--depends on the doctor you're listening to--and then I'll be back moving better and playing pain-free. So, these days when I play, I mostly just hit with a friend or two and play tie-breakers and baseline games. Last night, before I bicycled from White Plains to Yankee Stadium to watch the Yankees crush the Red Sox with Ichiro hitting two homers--I hopped the train going back--I met this guy, Bill, hitting against the wall. When I'm itching to play and know it's too short notice to call up a friend to hit, I go to the wall at the Scarsdale Middle School courts, and hit for about 15 minutes against the brick backboard and then maybe hit some serves. But as I was setting up to hit my first shot against the wall, Bill called from his car--he'd already been hitting on the wall--and asked if I'd like to hit. I used to be more prudish on the occasions these hitting invitations would take place. I had been a tennis pro for many years so the last thing I wanted to do was step out on the court with a player who can't rally well. But now I only teach the occasional lesson and I'm not on the court for 20+ hours a week so I accept most of these invitations.Right away, I could see this guy could hit. He was probably about my age--52, he turned out to be 54--but in very good shape, smallish but well muscled and I could see he held his Babolat with a thin head in the Rafael Nadal Western-style grip and liked to hit pretty heavy topspin off both sides. I was enjoying hitting and running, I felt spry. There's always a look you get at public courts from players at nearby courts when you and your partner start zinging the ball back and forth. The look says, "These guys are real players."I notice certain things about players after hitting for no more than a few minutes. As a tennis pro who has stepped on the court with literally thousands of partners--and as a player who played up into (and well over my head) in the Satellite Circuit back in the 80's--I know when I'm in the presence of an obscenely good player, a strong hitter but a loose player, and just a practice player. Bill could hit, he could run--but he looked like he was a bit of a fish out of water when he came to the net. It' important to take note of that because I've played with a lot of good athletes who mastered hitting hard and deep from the baseline, but never developed a good net game. I had to go and jump on my bike, but as we left, Bill, who had just moved back to the East after living in Texas for seven years, asked me who he could play with in the area. I had told him about my hip and my upcoming operation and I guess he thought I didn't really play sets anymore. But that always gets my juices flowing, when someone assumes I can't do something. So I said, "Why don't we play tomorrow night?" And, he accepted.My legs felt pretty sore this morning. When you bike on the Post Road, then Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse, it's not just the distance that wears on you, it's the traffic, the cars pulling out in front of you, and the pot-holes you just don't make it out of your saddle quick enough to escape feeling the crotch-grinding thumps that tires you out. I actually slept from midnight to 9:15 this morning and I almost never sleep more than seven hours in a night, but my wife and son are away visiting relatives and I had the bed to myself. So when I stepped on the court this evening, I felt sluggish. Usually, I'd hit with my partner for at least 20 minutes before we would start playing a match. I suggested to Bill that we start hitting from the service lines to warm up, but it was clear he wasn't familiar with this type of warmup. So we moved back to the baseline and I felt different than last night, I couldn't get out of the way of the ball as quickly. So I came up to net and took some volleys and overheads. Bill came up afterward, but he didn't even ask for overheads. He should've as I do like to lob when the occasion presents itself. We said, "Let's start playing" and took some serves. And it's weird serving in a match as opposed to practicing. My serve was not where I wanted it to be.We started playing and I rather quickly went up 3-0 and two breaks, but I knew I wasn't playing very well. Bill had said he was a solid 4.5 and I considered myself a 5.0 when I was playing more. And there is this ego/competitive fire that speaks to me in moments when meeting players like this: "I'm not going to let a 4.5 player beat me even if I can't move nearly as well as I could five years ago." When I break down a player's game, I do it a few ways: I hit a lot of slice balls to the backhand (I actually return serve mostly with a forehand/backhand hard slice); I charge the net after only a few hits or less; and I get everything back. I do not give up on balls and clap my racquet saying, "too good." I make my opponent prove to me and himself that he can finish points. I don't give away freebies. Some players like Bill, who I imagine picked up the game later in life, are very good ball strikers, but they don't have drop shots or angle volleys, and they rush overheads and try to put everyone away when sometimes a defensive overhead is the better shot. Now if I were playing a better player--say Scoop, or better--I would not be able to get away with luring my opponent to the net so much or hitting simple slice approach shots to his backhand and charging the net, saying so much with my offensive charge, "Let's see if you can pass me?" They would pass me with angle returns or get me out of position. One thing I learned from Spadea is that good-to-great players beat you by angling you off the court. There are very few ball-strikers good enough that I can't handle their long drives, but if a player can spin me off the court and get me really running--particularly in my hip-impaired state--I'm in big trouble. I think it was Jimmy Arias who made the point the other day when Mardy Fish was playing Roger Federer that as good as Fish's backhand is, he can't really dip it and hit angle wide shots.Bill started hitting passing shots into the net. He went for too much on simple rally balls and hit them deep and wide. He did not know how to challenge me, take me out of my game and force me to play a way that I'm uncomfortable with. But even at 3-0 up, when you haven't been playing competitive sets, you're groove can be gone as quickly as a bad double-fault or an easy muffed volley. And that's what happened to me. Suddenly, it was 3-2 and now Bill could easily get the sense that my game was more bluster than substance. If he kept me pinned to the baseline, played aggressively and finished points authoritatively, he could win this match. But I started serving better. It's amazing, you don't have to hit aces or even service winners to gain control of the court. I started spinning more of my serves in--I can't serve and volley that well anymore because that takes a lot of leg strength and push-off that when I get tired eludes me--but I would take his return, hit inside-out forehands most of the time and camp out for his cross-court backhand return. When I dropped-or-angle-volleyed his passing shot, Bill was in trouble because he's the type of player who doesn't play well inside the service lines. I ended up winning 6-2, 6-2 and I could tell Bill didn't think he was going to lose, especially when I told him about my impending hip operation. But my advice to 4.5-and-below players is: learn and practice playing mini-tennis. Even in this day-and-age of the aggressive baseliner, it's important to know how to handle balls hit on a bounce inside the service lines and how to finish points at the net. Look, even Djokovic and Federer are coming up to net more nowadays. I feel a little gimpy tonight. I'm riding to meet Scoop tomorrow at the U.S. Open, but I'm drinking my tart cherry juice now and a glass of wine and enjoying the sweet taste of public park victory.