Beneath my tennis shoes, a gravel trail crunches out the final steps of my athletic career. Inside, my chest beats like a helicopter. For the last three minutes, my vision has bordered on blindness, the blurring edges compressing my sight until I can only see a few feet in front of me. All smell is absent.
Before me lies a crimson battlefield, the dusty clay of Italian lore, its flat surface now baking beneath a Tuscan sun. Already inside the fence, my Japanese opponent performs calisthenics with the sort of unrestricted freedom one expects from twenty-year olds whose uncomplicated lives are devoted to professional sport.
Here to represent my country for the final time, I am consumed by an old sentiment, the absolute belief that I will win, but then, carved by the serrated edge of doubt that one fashions as he passes into the inescapable winter of a diminishing career. I pass through the gate. The sun shimmers off the flipping face of some Italian hero and I elect to serve. The walk back to the baseline and feel a surge in my helicopter heartbeat’s cardiac chop.
Memories of past matches flow like a river through the canyons of my memory. I am feeling the ball lift from my fingers as I toss it skyward and then the old focused feeling returns. The sound is a whap of gut on orb. Time accelerates and my legs are moving to the old rhythms of a younger day. Over the next thirty-two seconds, the ball passes across the net seventeen times and I’m subconsciously calculating angles and spins and speeds, vectors and arcs, plotting offensives and defenses, telling myself to move faster, to position properly, to swing aggressively, and a thousand other superlatives that interrupt what should be a still mind. This is the mental wrath of an athlete who has not competed in years. The opponent offers little resistance compared to the battle against oneself.
In an hour, it is over. I am walking to the net to shake hands with my young adversary.
He is smiling. Already I am suffering the “should have dones” and “why didn’t I-s?” of a competitive loss. In truth, the conclusion was foregone. At forty-two, chances to win are infrequent. But there is a takeaway here. I found that competitive spirit inside me again – the burn and pull of a will that struggles to find other outlets. It is there, dormant, waiting for another venue to express itself. And I have touched a part of my character that I cherish. To do so within a few miles of a place where gladiators fought lions and fights to the death were a daily occurrence, makes it that much more special. Veni vidi vici!