Staying Alive

By Will Carlin

Frenchman Mathieu Castagnet was tired.
His opponent, Englishman Daryl Selby, knew this, and so perhaps he can be forgiven for being certain he’d won a point during a second-round match at the Windy City Open in Chicago. He just didn’t count on Castagnet pulling off one of the greatest recoveries of all time.

Down two games to one and 5-7 in the fourth game, Selby nevertheless had Castagnet on the run. It wasn’t just that Castagnet had played one of the longest matches in the first round; it was the manner in which he had done it. Playing Harvard graduate, Ali Farag, Castagnet had come back from two games to none despite running much more than his vanquished opponent; eventually, his amazing retrievals simply wore down Farag. Selby, on the other hand, had won a relatively tame match against Cameron Pilley, 3-0.

After forcing Castagnet to hit a boast out of the back left corner, Selby faked a forehand rail and instead hit a fine trickle boast that wound up very short in the front of the court.

He hadn’t wanted to lose the first two games against Castagnet, but Selby wasn’t completely worried; he knew the toll the first round had taken on Mathieu, and when he won the third game 11-3, he began to feel the match coming under his control. Castagnet had gotten off to a fast start in the fourth, but Selby was using his deception to make Castagnet work very hard, and he had rattled off a few points in succession.

And now, during this point, it seemed to be working. Castagnet had bitten on the rail, so he was late taking off to the front; the ball seemed hopelessly out of his reach. But the Frenchman dived full stretch for a miraculous get. Unfortunately, he put the ball almost directly onto Selby’s racquet.

Selby, admiring of Castagnet’s effort, but also feeling that it was playing into his hands, calmly volleyed a half-lob down the forehand wall as Castagnet’s momentum continued to carry him forward to the front left corner of the court.
Read that last bit again: Selby made contact with the ball as Castagnet continued to slide forward on the floor!

In fact, as Selby’s volley hit the front wall slightly above the service line, Castagnet was just starting to push himself off the floor. When he was finally on his feet, the ball was glancing off the side wall above the service box, dropping slowly to the floor.

As the ball bounced in the middle of the service box, Castagnet had just taken his second full step but still was about three feet in front of and four feet to the left of the T.

Selby, meanwhile, had turned to look at Castagnet and now slowly did a turn to the back wall following Castagnet as he refused to give up on the ball. Selby’s head is cocked, almost in sympathy, as he surely feels that Castagnet is wasting energy by running after a lost point.

Castagnet had pumped his arms on the first three steps, in order to get himself going, but by the fourth step, his racquet was back and his stride was lengthening. He had now reached the service line, but wasn’t quite yet at the T.
Selby, beginning to wonder if there was a chance that Mathieu actually might get to the ball, shifted his gaze from Castagnet to the ball, which had just reached its apex and was dropping to the floor for its second bounce.

Somehow, Castagnet took two strides as his racquet started its downswing. Selby, watching, had rotated almost 270 degrees and was facing the back wall with his racquet by his side as Castagnet swung madly at the ball.

When Castagnet’s racquet made contact with the ball, his momentum carried him almost to the back wall. At the moment of ball-racquet impact, Selby had just started to react.

It was too late.

The force of Castagnet’s swing unleashed a strong forehand that — unbelievably — also was accurate. When his ball hit the front wall, Selby’s weight was still shifting down into a ready position, and by the time he unweighted and took his first step, the ball was racing past him into the forehand corner.

Not only had Castagnet gotten to the ball, but he also had hit a winner.
Before the ball took its second bounce (with perfect length, right at the back wall), Selby’s shoulders had slumped, and he dropped his racquet to the floor. Castagnet clenched his fist. Selby’s hands went to his head in disbelief. The crowd went crazy.

In quick succession, Selby held his hands on top of his head, the crowd rose to its feet, clapping and screaming, and Castagnet, fist still pumped, looked up at the ceiling and kicked his racquet to the floor. As the ovation continued, Selby continued just to stand with his hands on top of his head, but Castagnet dropped to his knees and rocked forward on his hands and knees. Moments later, Selby also dropped to his knees, facing Castagnet.

The crowd continued its ovation as Castagnet got up on one knee and looked over at Selby with a smile. Selby, still on his knees, raised both his hands above his head and bowed down. He then got to his feet and offered his own applause. The crowd’s ovation continued.

When play resumed, Selby actually won the next four points in a row, but his confidence had eroded, and Castagnet ran out the game 11-9 to take the match.
“I have no explanation about that shot,” said Castagnet after the match. “I love this sport and if I have to dive and push myself to play the shot, I will do whatever I have to to win. That’s my personality and my commitment and maybe that’s why I’m now a top ten player.”

There is no maybe about it.