Lawn. And Tennis.

“If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.” ~Serena Williams

If the closest you’ve come to tennis is watching Wimbledon on TV every two weeks in July, then you probably think the game is akin to golf, with nattily dressed people playing a gentlemen’s or a ladies’ sport while spectators “Ooh” and “Aah” over their precise shots and acumen. Of course Wimbledon, being on NBC for so long, was accessible to the masses. Regular folk like you and I could watch it and feel like we were transformed into the strawberries and cream loving crowd that filed in and out with spectacular precision from the grounds of England’s Lawn and Tennis Club. Lawn. And Tennis. That’s what we imagine. But that’s not the only tale of tennis.

Around here there is an old tennis court. I use the term loosely, because ages ago, when the weeds began to grow through the cracks in the cement, someone decided to take the posts out and transform the area into a place to ride skateboards. They didn’t take a broad stroke to it, though, as you could still see where the posts had been, and the ghosts of the lines still show through in places. I used to stand outside the fencing and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday, probably in the ’80s when pretty much every place had a tennis court within walking distance.

Of course the ’80s were for stars like Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and others. Continue reading “Lawn. And Tennis.”

We Need a Really Good Ball Man

kramerballmanRemember that Seinfeld episode when Kramer wanted to be a ball man for the U.S. Open? He spent an awful lot of time racing from place to place, stopping on a dime, and then racing back. I’m almost certain he never really made it to the big time, but it was Kramer so it was just funny that he even thought he could. That’s one thing about Kramer: he always gave his all to whatever passed his fancy.

But I’m sitting here watching Wimbledon, and I see these kids sprinting back and forth from one side of the court to the other, chasing balls before the stars who are playing the actual match get ready to serve again. I can do that.

What we need in today’s modern tennis game is a really good ball man. We need someone who can make quick decisions, who won’t get too caught up in the game, who can focus on wherever the balls are, and who can retrieve them and get them back into play as soon as possible. Ball women would be nice too.

Think about it. So many of the tournaments throughout the year are played during school time. Why take these kids out of school so they can do a job an older person can accomplish just as well? There are many adults out of work. This would take care of a few jobs for them. 000039a7_mediumIt’s a win-win. Kids can still come out on the weekends and have part-time work that way, but during the week we can rely on really good ball men.

There would be a training academy where tennis pros and former ball boys and girls lead workshops on the best decisions to make in certain situations. They could be taught on court, and simulations done to test reflexes. There could even be a reality show on it; they’d call it “Get Those Balls, Man,” and there would be a separate “Get Those Balls, Ladies,” for the women.

Ball men would handle the ladies’ tournaments, and ball women would handle the mens’. This way we can hopefully keep focus intact, because everyone knows women are more interested in watching other women play, and men are more wont to pay attention to other men on court. By mixing it up we create better focus and, let’s be honest, more eye candy for the spectators. Being able to watch fit ball men and women get after those balls would only add to spectator interest. Another win-win.

We need a really good ball man because we need an infusion of something new in the ages old game. First there were changes in court surfaces, then better racquet technologies, and now the revolution should continue. Get those kids back in school, eliminate some of that rampant unemployment, and add to spectator interest.

Now, to pitch it to the world tennis tours…



ace_tennis_love_key_chain-rf79912a9eaac4b9cb4a41eaf73f22f1f_x76w6_8byvr_512It’s that time in the game when the server begins to get nervous, when the returner starts gaining confidence, that moment after the ball hits the net and the head judge calls out, “Love-30.” Palms are sweaty because both players know they can’t afford to make any mistakes. They know that momentum swings on a swift pendulum, and that it could quickly get away from one or the other of them, so they also know about pressing advantage and defending position. It’s that tipping point that can change everything.

I remember the first time I fell in love. It was all magic rainbows and gaudy fireworks inside my mind and my heart. I felt a rush every single time I thought of her or saw her even in passing. She had no idea at the time, but she would smile at me and my heart would melt clear away. I would sit there and work out in my head just how I would approach her, with a complex line made to sound simple, one that she would chuckle at, and find me charming, and fall into my arms. But things don’t work that way in real life.

When I finally made my move it was clumsy, like a bad magician dropping his hat and everything falling out, but she still found it charming, she still found me endearing in my awful footing. She still wanted to dance with me. And it began as things often do, with looks, and sighs, and talks about nothing and everything at the very same time. It was exactly like I had pictured it, a whirlwind of emotions swirling around like so many dust particles, settling on us at the same time. I knew, I absolutely knew, that we were feeling those feelings, so I planned on how I would tell her.

tennis_ball_hitting_net_photo_cut_out-racb2aefbd4044e6a891180563a8de2fb_x7saz_8byvr_324I set it up like I set up most things, with a lot of planning and my heart on my sleeve. I was ecstatic to know that those words would soon step into the physical world, and everything would change. That change was like the difference between being a child and being an adult. It snuck up on you, but when you finally realized it was there it seemed like it had always been there. We would hug, and kiss, and spin around drunk on this ultimate feeling, set up by those three unimpeachable words.

And I said them, after so much preamble. They were out there in the world, like that ball sailing through the air off the strings of my tautly strung racquet, hitting the net. Love-30. I looked deeply into her eyes, at the power simmering in her gaze, mixed with a pain that I couldn’t quite fathom. I thought things had been perfect, that it was the next logical step in our relationship, that the momentum we had gathered had no way of slowing down or stopping. Until the ball hit the net, and her gaze lowered, and I knew the game was already lost, that the Love-30 had slid quickly to Love-40, then the game was done as swiftly as it had begun.

It was that tipping point that changed everything, but I realized later that it was the best thing that could have happened. Because Love is a beautiful thing, but it has to be shared.


Agassi vs. Sampras

090114_SamprasAgassi_2000_h.h2Both men were sweating profusely, those two titans of the sport, one ranked #1 in the world, the other widely believed to be the greatest of his generation, and they were playing a game with which the rest of us were not familiar. The one was a classic baseline player, the best at returning serve, while the other possessed the best serve the game had ever seen, so their heavyweight battles were full of punches and counterpunches, body blows that came in quick and fast with a dizzying array of shotmaking ability.

It was late night during Australian summer, in early 2000, and the roof was open to the late evening sky, ushering in a slight breeze that still did nothing to cool off the players. Sampras blinked first, losing one service game in the first set that proved to be the difference as Agassi won it 6-4. The second set was a mirror image of the first, however, with Sampras getting the set’s only break to win it 6-3. Agassi had a prime chance to win the third set with a couple of chances on Sampras’ serve but they were not to be, as Sampras took the lead with a dominating tiebreak win.

In the fourth set of that epic match in the making, Sampras looked fresher but could not capitalize, as it went to another tiebreak, this time with Agassi coming out victorious. Then the time had come for a decisive fifth set that seemed destined to be just as dynamic as any set they had previously played. But the Sampras who came out for that fifth set looked tired as he sluggishly thumped around the court. It didn’t look like he had any gas left in the tank while Agassi looked fresh and fit, even 2 1/2 hours into the match. Agassi looked like the man who ran up and down hills just outside of his native Las Vegas to train. He steamrolled Sampras in that final set and raised his hands in victory. Continue reading “Agassi vs. Sampras”

The Nature of a Competitor: Part 5

**Summary: I coached varsity tennis for both girls and boys for six seasons, and this series is meant to highlight those moments that I felt were real connections between player and sport, between player and coach, or between opposing players in a competitive setting. The real nature of a competitor is shown through how she/he deals with pressure, adversity, surprises, and expectations.

It was my first year coaching the boys team, and I had some real doubts about our ability to win actual matches. The crew was undisciplined and small. If there were just two players who didn’t show up for a match we would have to forfeit one of the positions. That’s how small the team was. But they were fearless, which was their best quality. Well, that and their sense of humor. Even though we had a horrible year in the win-loss column, we never gave up and we always played hard until the very end.

One of our early matches that season was with a school we matched up well against. In fact, my first and second singles players won their matches rather easily, as did their second and third doubles teams. That meant the match came down to third and fourth singles, and to first doubles. We sweated out the first doubles match, winning in the third set 6-4. The fourth singles match came down to the wire as well, but we lost it in the third set 7-5. And, as often happened in those high school tennis matches, when players finished their matches they gathered around to watch whatever matches were still in progress. That meant everyone on both teams, including both head coaches, was gathered around to watch the drama that was the third singles match. Continue reading “The Nature of a Competitor: Part 5”

The Nature of a Competitor: Part 4

**Summary: I coached varsity tennis for both girls and boys for six seasons, and this series is meant to highlight those moments that I felt were real connections between player and sport, between player and coach, or between opposing players in a competitive setting. The real nature of a competitor is shown through how she/he deals with pressure, adversity, surprises, and expectations.

I remember it was my third season coaching the girls’ tennis team, and my number one player was entering her third season as the number one player as well, but it was also her final season, as she was a senior. Before the season started, it was bittersweet to think about it being her final season because she had improved so much, and the team would have to start over again after she was gone, but we still had a season left to play. And there were many expectations, the biggest of which was that Holly (the name I’ve given her) had gone undefeated in league play the previous year, an achievement that was unprecedented for the school in either girls or boys tennis.

Being undefeated brings its own unique set of challenges, and we sat down and talked about those before Holly’s final season started. She was most worried about there being a target on her back, not unlike the girl who crushed her during their first meeting in her very first match as a first singles player. And I know I was worried about a letdown too, not because I didn’t think she was up for the challenge, but because I knew how other players had upped their games to try and defeat her. After our talk, though, I knew she hadn’t lost any of the fire, the energy, or the drive to maintain her position as the best in the league. Plus, she had worked hard all summer and she was even better than she had been the previous year.

The season began painlessly, as she rolled through her first four matches with no problems whatsoever, never dropping a set, and rarely even dropping games, but those first four matches weren’t ever going to be our issue, we both knew. It was that fifth match that we were looking toward because it was against the other undefeated first singles player in the league, and the player most other teams thought had the best chance to beat Holly. I agreed that it was going to be a dynamic match, and I know Holly had been psyched up for it from the start of the season, but I challenged her not to let her emotions get the best of her. I was also glad that the match was to be played on our home courts, because there was just a level of comfort there.

When the other team arrived, I realized that their top player had gotten even stronger than the previous season as well, and she seemed unfazed by the moment, and the opponent. She looked scary good, and very focused. Holly also appeared focused, they shook hands, and the match began. From the start of the battle, however, I could tell that Holly was a little keyed up, even though she had seemed calm beforehand. The other player, Allison, was expending a lot of energy to try and win every single point, and Holly was making mistakes she wouldn’t ordinarily have made, so before I could blink the first set was over, 6-2, to Allison, and it hadn’t been even remotely close. I spoke with Holly after the first set, and she knew she had been pressing. That was the amazing thing about her. She always knew what was going on with her game, and she was usually very good at fixing things. I told her that she hadn’t played poorly, and she hadn’t, but that she just had to play the bigger points better, and maintain her focus.

The second set became a war. Every hit, every shot was contested, while Allison went up 4-3, but I spoke to Holly on the changeover and told her she was playing great, and she really was. It was just a couple of points that separated the two players at that point in the set, even though Allison was serving with the break. Holly fought hard and broke back in the next game, then they slugged it out again and went to a tiebreak. By this time there was a crowd gathering of players who weren’t on the court, and of spectators who supported both players. Before the tiebreak I told Holly that she just needed to play loose, to only go for shots when she knew they were there. I knew by then she was focused, and had been throughout the entire second set, and if she lost the tiebreak (and with it the match), she had played her own style and hadn’t beaten herself. She told me she “got this,” and went back out there.

Then promptly won the tiebreak 7-2. So it all went down to a third set. I saw Allison pass me on the way to a water break (they got 10 minutes between the second and third set for a break), and I told her she was playing a great match. She thanked me and continued on her way. The second she was gone I turned to see how Holly was doing, and I could tell she had just gotten warmed up. The first set was basically a warm-up for her, and I knew she had a lot left in the tank. Allison, on the other hand, I could tell was starting to tire, that first set’s aggression, and that second set’s war having taken it out of her. I told Holly that she just had to play as she had, and the match was hers. She told me she “got this.”

Before the break was over, I went to talk to Holly’s mother, and she asked me how I saw the third set playing out. I told her that I honestly thought Allison was done, that she had expended too much energy just getting to that point, and I envisioned a love or a 1 set (which means that I thought Holly would win it 6-0 or 6-1). Her mother looked at me like I was crazy, like I hadn’t been watching and coaching the whole first two sets, but I smiled at her. By then I had gotten a lot better at figuring out opponents, and at trusting in Holly and her game. Lo and behold, the third set went to Holly 6-1, and it wasn’t even close. In fact, that entire set took about fifteen minutes in real time, because Allison really had been done after that second set. She hadn’t paced herself, Holly was still fresh, and that was the match.

But, after the match was over, I talked to Allison for a second and told her she really had played a great match. I told her that next time she just needed to pace herself, that she would play better and more naturally, that she didn’t have anything to prove. She smiled and thanked me for the advice. And I realized that that’s also the nature of a competitor, to lose with grace, to play hard, but not to be a sore loser, and Allison was never a sore loser. She also wasn’t a show-off winner either, as she had beaten others on my team several times over the previous seasons but had been gracious each and every time. And for Holly, she went on to have a second straight undefeated season, and she pointed to overcoming the adversity of that first set, the uncertainty of that second set tiebreak, and the focus and training it took her to win the third set as the things that she remembered most about the season. I know it was her most satisfying win, and it should have been, because she was the ultimate competitor.


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