The tennis courts in my town feel the same as they did when I was a child. The city administration has improved them by repaving, repainting, and adding pickleball courts, but their essence is the same. It’s always near dusk when my parents and I arrive, and the giant lights have begun to attract clouds of insects. Between the LED lights and the dying sunset, I usually have a hard time picking my way over the tree roots on my way up the hill. The same sounds reach my ears: the thwack of the pickleball rackets, the hollow thumping of the tennis balls, the squeaking of shoes on the basketball court, and the calling and laughing of the players. Another thing has never changed, and that is the rising tension and adrenaline in my chest as I approach the courts.
My family never seems to play tennis often enough. I realize this every time we reach the top of the hill and see the courts crowded with weekend players. My mind calculates the shortest distance to the emptiest court, the one farthest away from other people. Sometimes, like the last Sunday that we played, there is only one court open. As always, my steps slowed, and a mask slid over my face. It’s true, we don’t play tennis that often. So, to my chagrin, I must relearn the sport every time I step on the asphalt. The older I get, the harder it is to simply begin.
We set our gear on a bench. My dad went to one side of the net for his ritual pre-game stretching, and my mother sat down to spectate. I set down my water bottle and returned my mother’s glance with dead eyes. She registered the meaning behind the mask and gave me a wan smile. “Cheer up, just get started.”
I picked up my racket. I stood. I walked a few steps forward, then circled back. I eyed the other courts, alive with players. In the one nearest us was an older couple with professional-looking gear. In the one on the other side of them were a bunch of young Latinos, sweaty from hours of playing, bouncing back and forth across the court with wide grins and ringing shouts as the ball flew between them. I turned away and leaned on the fence. I didn’t see the sunset; I was trying very hard not to think. I looked over one shoulder to my dad; he continued to stretch, waiting for me to get my act together. I stepped back with my racket arm limp at my side, trying to get my mom’s attention. She didn’t give it but sat expressing her disapproval of my immaturity in her weary posture. I glanced a few more times at the Latinos. I felt conspicuous. The minutes stretched by.
Suddenly I walked away to my side of the court. I had caught myself in an unguarded moment. I turned my back to the Latinos and blocked out their shouts. Dad bounced the ball a few times and served. I missed it entirely. He drew another ball out of his pocket and served again, and I missed. I absorbed the laughter a few courts down, though I knew it wasn’t for me. The next balls I tipped with my racket or sent sky-high. My dad tends to hit low into the net while I tend to hit high over the fence, which only meant further delays. But I began to act as if we were the only players around, so by the time my mom wanted a turn, I was hitting the balls squarely.
I stood on the bench to watch, letting my muscles relax and my eyes wander. Over my parents’ heads I could see the boys still going at it. “Córrele, córrele!” they yelled. Their feet pounded on the asphalt, and their insults flew as fast as the tennis balls. This time, however, I watched the low arc of the ball, the clean swing of the boys’ wind-ups and follow-throughs. I watched intently, marveling. When I replaced my mom on the court, I used the same techniques and made exponential improvements. By nine o’clock we really were the only tennis players, so we packed up and drove home.
But I hadn’t stopped smarting from those first moments on the court long enough to learn from the experience. My mom, ever the pragmatist, was the one to remind me of my inability to cope with playing badly in front of perfect strangers. And it came up in a seemingly unrelated conversation. “If you can’t even bring yourself to play tennis,” she said, “then how can you travel overseas?” I was furious. Those were two different things, I tried to argue. I walked away, loathe to lift the blindfolds to my true self. My defenses were crumbling. It was true; I was proud. I always have been. I knew I had let it thrive for too long when I found it was even hard to admit it before God. But I knelt and spat the words out. Though I did not feel any nicer afterward, I felt naked and exposed, with no veneer between me and heaven. That was superior. I had to be humiliated before I could be humble.
The next weekend I went again to play with my dad. There weren’t any tennis players around, and even if there had been, I would have had to walk on stolidly. I played well. I knew I had to take my pride by the horns.