Were I to come unstuck in time, like a character in a Kurt Vonnegut tale, how would I tell my story as a tennis player? Maybe a little like this:
I am 9 years old and, like most boys that age, a star athlete in my own mind. I have spent innumerable hours with a ball pretending to be Magic Johnson, Ozzie Smith or Walter Payton in the green, spacious back yard of my parents’ country home outside Paris, Tenn.
But now my uncle has introduced me to tennis, a sport he and my dad play two or three times weekly. My uncle, despite his gangly build of 6'1", 155 pounds, is capable of launching rockets on the serve and hitting tremendous topspin on his groundstrokes.
His means of introducing the game to me is to float the ball over to my side of the net and shower me with praise when I’m able to do the same.
“You’re sure better than I was at that age,” he tells me.
I am 15 years old and have been playing for almost six years. Among those my age in Henry County, Tenn., tennis is above all a competition to see who can keep the ball in the court the longest, and in that respect I do pretty well.
I’m enjoying the fact I’m already better than all but a handful of students at Henry County High School and have a good chance of being the best in the school one day.
I am 18 years old, a senior at HCHS and I’m playing for the No. 1 ranking against Josh, a transfer student who enrolled at our school this year. Josh, like me, is about 6'3", but while I’m just south of a 160 pounds he’s closer to 200. Josh is capable of serving at around 100 mph, hitting hard and flat off both wings and showing delicate touch at net.
Rather than attempt to outhit Josh, I exploit his weaknesses—patience and fitness. I keep spinning in my first serves at three-quarters pace, bunting back his first serves, and making him run a lot when he hits a second serve. I don’t so much beat him as provide him the means to beat himself, and he obliges.
I am now the No. 1 player for HCHS, the toughest school in our district.
I am 29 years old, and I recently found out that the baby my wife is carrying is a boy. They tell me his legs are exceptionally long for this stage of the pregnancy, but that his weight is only slightly heavier. Both are sure signs that he takes after me.
A couple of people have already said they can’t wait to see pics of him holding a tennis racket. I certainly hope that he will enjoy the game as I have, but if he plays I hope it’s only because he loves tennis, not for the reasons I did.
I am 17 years old, a junior at HCHS, and I’m ranked No. 4 on the tennis team. The guys who outrank me are all seniors, giving me a chance of being No. 1 when they graduate. This status, however, is not enough for me; I want to be No. 1 right now.
I have inherited the same long, lanky build my dad and uncle have, placing me at an exceptionally low risk for diabetes later is life. However, many of the starters for the HCHS football team could probably knock me over by sneezing.
The tennis court is the only place I feel dominant, just not as dominant as I’d hoped to be. I can be heard on neighboring courts castigating myself for a pair of unforced errors during a 6-1, 6-1 romp, imagining how higher ranked players would take advantage of such folly. When I’m losing, though, everyone covers their ears, as my behavior resembles an unholy spawning of John McEnroe and Marat Safin.
Screams are released, rackets thrown, curses uttered; somehow this fails to increase my popularity.
I am 18 years old, in the middle of my senior year, and feeling optimistic about the tennis season ahead. As a bonus, for the first time in my life I’m dating. A girl in one of my classes spots me on the tennis courts schooling some underclassmen and asks me to see a movie with her.
For a time, it looks like my efforts have been rewarded. Until I find my calling, being reasonably skilled with a tennis racket will suffice.
Of course, change happens fast in high school, and soon she will move on, leaving me more confused than ever.
I’m 27 years old, and I recently started playing regularly again. About seven years ago I discovered a passion for journalism, and reading, writing and the school newspaper replaced tennis as my main pursuits. After working for a pair of newspapers in Tennessee, I’m now in South Korea employed as an editor.
I have never failed to keep tabs on the results of the ATP and WTA tour, though, and have long wished for more time to play.
It’s just that every time I return to the courts I’m reminded of when the game was all I had. My once rock-solid backhand always needs time to get back into its groove, and my serve remains my worst shot.
When I see more confident men crushing first and second serves, taking full swings on returns and positively destroying short balls, suddenly I’m 17 again—that shy, gangly kid whose name the girls struggle to remember whenever they need to ask about borrowing a pencil.
It’s late-August and I have a one-week vacation, during which I plan to play tennis every day to regain the consistency I once had. Also, the middle of the week is my one-year anniversary with my girlfriend, during which I plan to propose.
In the most important respect, I succeed: She says yes, and we plan a wedding for next August. Tennis continues to frustrate me, though: A week of practice results in persistent back pain, and my doctor tells me to give it a rest.
I’m 18 years old, and I’m the No. 1 player for the best high school team in this district, but not necessarily the best player district-wide. HCHS has by far the deepest bench and consistently wins the most matches when squaring off with other schools.
Almost every school, though, has one guy—just one—who is at my level.
What’s worse, the serve—whose consistency had made my victory over Josh possible—goes embarrassingly off-target as the season begins. I struggle against inferior players, lose to players I could beat, and lose badly to those I once kept pace with.
In the district singles tournament I finally show decent form, winning two easy matches before facing Nathan Clark of Dickson County. Nathan is not an overpowering player; instead he rolls the ball over the net, uses his speed to track down everything his opponent throws at him and passes/lobs over anything short of a perfect net approach.
In other words, he takes my own style of play to an extreme, almost ridiculous conclusion. I soon realize that my usual style won’t work, so I abandon it for a more aggressive approach, believing my one edge to be at net.
The match is a seesaw; I fall behind 1-4 in the first set, then rally to force a tiebreaker. Losing it, I fall behind 4-5 in the second and succeed in saving four match points in one game. In the second set tiebreaker I save another while trailing 3-6; at 4-6 I charge the net behind a deep backhand approach, and Nathan arcs a lob I have no chance of reaching.
It lands square on the baseline, ending my season with a 6-7, 6-7 defeat.
I am somewhat heartened, though, by the fact that Nathan wins in the final round 6-0, 6-1, frustrating that opponent even more than he did me.
I congratulate him after the tournament and thank him for making me feel better. He laughs.
I didn’t win, but I did my best. Isn’t that all any of us can do?
I’m 29 years old, and its June 12. The birth of my son is due in exactly one week. If he loves tennis as I do, we’ll have a lot to share and I’ll have a lot to teach him. I hope it will be an important part of his life, but not the most important part.
As Vonnegut once wrote, “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” I hope my son remembers that, and remembers that his best effort will bring reward, even those—in fact, probably those—he didn’t expect to receive.
I know this is true; if it weren’t, he wouldn’t be here.