Ah, tennis, that most noble of summer sports. My mind wanders back to youthful evenings spent batting an apple over a fishing net with a spade on a makeshift gravel tennis court till the sun set behind the coal shed, before the days when age started to take its toll (I turned ten), the knees began to give and a phenomenon called computer games took over my life.
But while a plastic joypad may have replaced my plywood shovel-racket, tennis still held a special place in my increasingly lard-encased heart. Years passed. Alien invasions were thwarted, pit-fighting tournaments were won, but a suitable virtual tennis experience eluded my clammy grasp. Then, one day, a wizened old man pointed me sagely in the direction of Top Spin and after more than a decade of estrangement, my love affair with tennis was finally rekindled.
The problem with most tennis games is that they're usually so preoccupied with looking cool and arcadey that they invariably end up playing out like a game of ping-pong. Rallies become farces, tests of reflexes over placement and skill. Top Spin was different. With realism placed firmly at the game's core, it proved to be the single most realistic, yet wholeheartedly entertaining tennis game I'd ever played.
Its sheer attention to detail gave it an undeniable charm. Opponents moved and acted like real-life players, scrutinising your every move and trying to outwit you with each return they played. If you charged the net they'd bamboozle you with a deft lob or a searing passing shot, while their positional play would often leave you waving your controller in frustration like an enraged John McEnroe impersonator.
But this went both ways - the AI never felt invincible, with even the most hardened opponent displaying a unique set of weaknesses which you could exploit. What's more, unlike many other tennis games, you'd need to master and use all six shot types on offer if you were going to become number one.
The sheer variety of rallies was staggering, a lungful of mountain air compared to the predictable pace of so many of its competitors. One minute you'd be blasting in a serve then arrogantly leaving your opponent flatfooted with a net volley, the next you'd be embroiled in a two-minute baseline battle, looking for the slightest opening against an equally determined opponent.
The game's perfectly judged atmosphere further embellished the already realism-sodden matches, providing you with context-sensitive crowd reactions, service speed monitor close-ups after every ace, multi-angled replays, player reactions and a morale monitor which affected your play. But Top Spin wasn't just about the matches. It also offered a complete tennis experience. An exhaustive career mode pitted you against the greatest players on earth, forcing you to work your way up from humble beginnings and battle your way to superstardom.
You could literally travel the globe, taking part in small-fry tournaments as you honed your skills and rose up the rankings, before testing yourself on the ultimate stage against the world's deadliest players.
There were also countless fun-yet-challenging mini-games to bolster your player's abilities and stats, and help you attract new sponsors and earn more money. Earn enough wonga and you could skip to the shop with a fistful of notes to buy new gear, and make sure your appearance was as sharp as your backhand.
Once you'd beaten the AI, bought every piece of kit and won every tournament, you could then turn your attention to Top Spin's multiplayer games, which proved even more fun than their single-player counterparts, and were amongst the most entertaining ways to spend an evening in the fledgling days of Xbox Live.