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Hard serve

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A business theory called the Peter Principle suggests that workers rise within a hierarchy until they reach a level at which they're incompetent. They stop rising, but the damage is already done: A mature organization is filled with high-ranking yet incompetent employees. I fear that the Peter Principle applies to my tennis team.

During the last several years, I played on teams at the USTA 4.0 level, meaning that, at least according to the United States Tennis Association, I exhibit "dependable strokes, including directional control and depth on both forehand and backhand sides on moderate shots." At this level, I've enjoyed significant success: two state championships and five league championship winners, having narrowly missed an additional regional and state championship. Winning is not the most important thing, though I cannot deny I find it preferable to losing.

But my success created a problem. Alongside half of my teammates from last season's 4.0-championship-winning team, the USTA pushed me into their 4.5 level. I'm now only one step removed from club professionals and current or recent collegiate players. The dudes on the other side of the net are now awesome. Oy vey.

Last week, during our team's fourth consecutive loss, I was assigned to the premier court to play "First Singles." This should have been an honor for my well-past-50 self, but being enthused about playing the anticipated 25-year-old stud proved impossible. I figured he would be so recently out of college he would arrive with intact, university-issued equipment. I assumed he would hit serves I couldn't return. I imagined he would run with ease to retrieve my assortment of chips and slices.

Alas, I was overly optimistic.My opponent stood 6-foot-6, and in a month, he'll graduate from UNC, where he plays on a club team. My ability to return his serves can generously be called "inconsistent." I could barely see the ball before it bounded over my backhand side.The young assassin constantly called me "sir."

Adjusting to losing requires mental gymnastics.I've had to revive all the clichés I once told my children without necessarily believing: "Lessons in humility are valuable," "Setbacks are opportunities for growth" or "So long as you try hard, that's what really matters." Such palaver falls flat for me. I'm inclined toward Martina Navratilova's cynical but concise conclusion: "Whoever said 'It's not whether you win or lose that counts' probably lost."

Six weeks remain in the season, so I have opportunities to improve my record. I hope I can, because, as much as I hate losing, I have no desire to return to the 4.0 level.Sure, my reach has exceeded my grasp, but the situation has deposited me in a rarified tennis atmosphere. I'd like to stay.

Is this what they call cognitive dissonance?

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