What’s the best tennis shot you’ve ever played?
Take a minute, it’s a trickier question than you’d think. Is it the showiest, sweetest, most surprising, or most important? The criteria are different for every player, and it shifts the better you become at the game.
Amateurs might spring for the forehand that won them their very first match, and why not? The primal joy of putting some poor sucker to the sword drives nearly every sport.
The mercurial Dustin Brown – who, Nadal victory aside, has spent his entire career playing delightful tennis when it doesn’t matter – reckons his best shot is that no-look, behind-the-back, volley he hit against Aldin Setkic in 2016.
Cast your mind back, and you might, just about, remember that Brown lost that match. Badly. Because he was rubbish. It doesn’t matter a jot. If you were watching, that’s the shot you talked about afterwards, which must have driven Setkic mad. He did everything expected of a professional tennis player, only to be overshadowed by a solitary shot that made not the slightest lick of difference to the outcome.
And the top ten players? What about them? What’s their best shot? I’ve talked to a few of the greats over the years, and their answer is usually the same: they haven’t hit it, yet. Boring but telling, I suspect. The very best don’t get to look backwards. They can’t linger on their victories. They’re magpies being chased by a swarm of hornets. Collect the silverware and keep flying, lest you get overrun.
Doesn’t stop us from speculating, though. What’s your favourite shot of theirs? Mine is Roger Federer’s running, between-the-legs volley against Novak Djokovic at the US Open in 2009.
The technical skill is one thing, but it’s the casualness of it that makes my day. He hits it the way most people hit their forehand, like it’s just another shot in the arsenal, relentlessly practised and 100% reliable. It’s not. It’s the Boris Johnson of shots: clownish, unnecessary, likely to go wrong, but sporadically entertaining. And Federer plays it against Djokovic – an all-time great who watches it go past with the look of a man trying to remember how to spontaneously combust.
At least he could shrug it off, knowing that tomorrow he’d be better. I don’t have that luxury. I play every game on the flip of a coin. Every good shot is the consequence of two bad shots. I float and smack and scramble beautifully for thirty seconds, then crumple like a man swinging an anvil instead of a racquet.
As a result, the best shot I ever hit remains my first competitive two-handed backhand. It wasn’t the showiest, sweetest, or most surprising. It definitely wasn’t the most important. Like poor old Dustin Brown, I lost the match handily in the end.
But it was the first time the pattern of a game arranged itself before me; the first time I knew what my opponent was going to do before he did. I manoeuvred him around the court, readying myself to muller one of his crunching forehands back down his throat and when the racquet connected… oh, lord, the sound. That beautiful pure ‘thwock’, like the strings are kissing the ball. Except, on this occasion, their lips were made of grenades.
The ball came off the racquet like a rocket, flat and fast, an inch off the tape. My opponent got nowhere near it. It was for the best. I swear that shot would have ripped his racquet in half and punched a hole through his stomach. Game, set, manslaughter. It was lovely. And I barely managed it again all game. Realising that I had that shot in my locker, my opponent did everything they could to keep me from hitting it.
And isn’t it always the way? I was a poet who had his pen taken away.
Doesn’t matter, though. I love that point, even now. I love that shot. I love that feeling. I love that I got ahead of my opponent, and then he got ahead of me. Proper tennis, and my favourite ever shot. What’s yours?