I had one leftover can of tennis balls, and a bucket of dusty balls in my closet, for years after I stopped playing tennis. I tried to get Dina, my black lab mix, to play catch with me, but she’d watch the yellow ball fly past her ear, or roll right up to her foot, and look at me like I’d gone crazy.
I used to play tennis, a long time ago. I started when I was seventeen years old, and stopped by nineteen, but during that time, I played almost every day. It was an obsession. I wanted to hit an inside out forehand like Jim Courier, and storm the net like Martina Navratilova. I started watching tennis during the U.S. Open the fall when I was seventeen, because there was nothing else on TV. I’d never liked Tennis before. In fact, when I was eight years old, I went to a local day camp and took a tennis elective in the afternoons, and I hated it. I have a hazy memory of bright sun and hot courts and not being able to see the ball clearly because I didn’t have my glasses on.
But something about those night matches at the US Open captivated me. I signed up for an adult education tennis class at the local high school gym, and my brother and his best friend volunteered to practice with me. My brother’s idea of playing tennis was to hit the ball as far as he could, not just over the net but over the back fence of the middle school tennis courts down the block from our house. His best friend had played on his high school tennis team, so when he “practiced” with me he used a wicked back spin and dropped the ball just over the net, plunk, where I could never reach it.
Over the next few months, I took more classes and lessons and practiced serves on my own at those middle school courts. I ruined my right rotator cuff with all of those practice serves, but I didn’t care. I’d carry my basket of tennis balls up the block and hit serves until the basket was empty, then cross to the other side of the net, collect the balls into the basket, and serve to the other side until the basket was empty again.
I started to practice with my college team in the spring, and over the summer I spent all of my scholarship money on tennis camp. I was eighteen, and the oldest camper there, but I was determined to become a tennis player. In the morning we practiced volleys and groundstrokes, serves and footwork, and in the afternoon we played matches. I could never figure out strategy, though. I was too busy trying to retrieve the ball myself to ever figure out how to make it harder for the girl on the other side of the net. My strength as a tennis player was my persistence and consistency. I didn’t give up, and I didn’t play differently each day. When I learned something, I added it to my game, and it stuck.
That fall, after tennis camp, I became a full-fledged member of my college tennis team and I went to all of the practices and played in real matches. I played sixth singles and I even won a match or two. I took more lessons and practiced religiously, and in the spring, the coach had me play a set against the girl who was currently playing fifth singles. We were evenly matched, because even though she was faster and in better shape than I was, I never gave up. Every game was hard fought and I won the set in a tie break, and won the fifth singles slot on the team. It was the best match I’d ever played, and the last, I think.
My back went out at the beginning of my next official match and I had to default. My mother took me to a doctor of osteopathy and he twisted me like a pretzel and gave me pain killers and muscle relaxants. But the back injury was one injury too many. I’d made it through the torn rotator cuff, strained hamstrings and upper back, a thousand blisters on my feet and hands, but when my back went out it just refused to go back in. And I was relieved. The desperate need to make up for years of not playing tennis was overwhelming me. I kept getting better so quickly that people forgot how recently I couldn’t play at all, and expected too much from me. Most of all, I expected too much from myself. I always do.
I tried to play tennis again a few years after the injury, but I was too tentative about twisting at the waist, and my timing was gone. I’d either hit the ball with the rim of the racket, or so flat that it landed four feet beyond the court. I knew I wasn’t up to practicing enough to get my strokes back, and I couldn’t imagine just playing for fun.
I wish I could be more like my dogs. Butterfly only expects herself to do what she can. She takes a long time to learn new skills, and does them only as much as she wants to. Cricket pushes past her own limits all the time, not to impress anyone else but because she just wants to do what she wants to do. Neither one of them is as much of a people pleaser as I’ve been, Thank God.
Maybe if I could convince the girls to play tennis with me now, it might be different. I do miss the sound of the ball hitting the racquet – whomp – right in the middle, and I miss the feeling of my whole body working together to line up the ball just right and follow through.
Butterfly would make a great tennis player, if the court were a little bit smaller and no rackets were required. She practices her split step before every pee squat and she’s very light on her feet. Cricket almost always runs on a diagonal, so her court coverage would be fantastic, and she would also be great at intercepting shots at the net, but she might try to catch the ball before it gets to her side of the net, which would be frowned upon.
Their ideal would be me standing on one side of the net with a bucket of tennis balls and a racquet, hitting directly to them, and never expecting any of the balls to be returned. The game would be over as soon as the bucket was empty and then Butterfly would head off to take a nap, and Cricket would growl and beg for chicken treats, just like any other day.