Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gentleman Jack? NOT!

It’s 3:45 am and I’m blogging.  I woke up to a fierce level of pain (sciatica) in my left hip and leg about two hours ago, so I stayed in bed for a long time trying to work it out.  I’ve been working on reviving my hip flexors with one of those Styrofoam rolls for the last couple of weeks and have had some success.  This morning, though, I don’t know what the heck happened.  I am usually a very good sleeper.

I lay in my warm bed for a long while, recalling my brief but stellar tennis career.  Boy did I ever have fun for about 4 years!  I guess I was thinking about it because yesterday my 16-year old grandson asked if I would hit some balls with him when the weather clear.  I kind of think it’s cute:  the baby boy wants to play tennis with his Gran!

A not so gentle man, by the name of Jack introduced me to the worst kind of tennis match I ever had.  It was my first “real” match, playing in real mixed doubles tournament, with my friend’s husband for my partner.  Bill and I were total greenies, and had played social mixed doubles where people understood that we 50-something newbie’s weren’t going to be much of a challenge.  Anyway we wanted to compete and what an introduction we got to Dirt Bag Tennis!

We came onto court, introduced ourselves and shook hands – tennis is such a gracious, polite game I’m getting the warmish just thinking about it.  We flipped a coin for who serves first then assumed our positions.  I played ad court (the one on the left) because I have a natural back hand; Bill played deuce court (the other one), and we won the toss for first serve.  

Bill served to Jack, who then drilled the ball hard into my chest.  It shocked me.   It was painful.
And I became Gentleman Jack’s game plan for the match.  Every time he got the ball he slammed it at me, hitting face, legs and chest way too often.  I was scared and furious and trembling tearful and shaky.  I held the racquet in front of my face for protection.

Our spouses were furious, and other spectators were jeering and Partner Bill asked if I wanted to withdraw.

“No Billy.  I’m going to try to teach him not to do this to me.  But I’ll be playing mostly off-court.”  I felt my voice tremble.  

“What do you mean by that?” 

“Just cover your side, Bill and let’s go get meat,” and Bill grinned. 

Dead Meat was a game a group of us Seniors collectively invented for our Friday night Newbie Social-Slam Club.  It meant trying our inexperienced best to steal points while drinking a measurable amount of homemade wine from Gordon’s Jug.  Over a dozen folks showed up to celebrate the coming weekend with this mixed doubles debacle.  We played non-ad sets of 4 points each.  

Players rotated in when a person on court screws up a point in any way.  That person is then booed off the court to the wind jug with the other three yelling “You’re Dead Meat!”  and a new person rotates in.  We always had a steady group of 50-somethings Seniors willing and ready for our fast-moving, barbarian tennis.

So on this wine-less day Tournament Day when Bill served, I stood about a yard off-court.  I could hear the crowd of twenty or so mumbling about my strategy.  Bill served, but now Jack could not return to me…because he was forced to hit it out and would lose the point.   So he returned to Bill who then lobbed the ball back to Jack’s partner, and she returned the ball nicely to my side of the court…. at which time I zipped in and returned it to her and left court.  She sent the ball to Bill; he “inadvertently” slammed it at Jack’ shorts.  Jack blocked it clumsily and sent me what I learned later was called a “perfect sitter” at the net.  

I saw it in freeze time, the yellow orb dangling over the net.  I ran on court backed by fury and without aiming hit it as hard as I could.

I heard a yelp as Gentleman Jack’s racket hit the court.  And I realized the fans were roaring; cheering me on!  This was terrible form in a tennis tournament!  Egged on by the crowd and Jack’s brutality I continued playing Dirt Tennis: remaining off court until I thought I could get the ball, and then aimed as best I could at Jack’s crotch. I got a couple of shots at his pants before we lost dismally.

I was fifty years old, and extremely new to tennis and thanks to Gentleman Jack, I never again experienced fear on the court. Being able to persevere under attack gave me great confidence. 

My tennis career was stellar, and like a comet: fast and very, very short. 

In the very beginning, I took a series of lessons by a pro that worked for our city recreation department.  Paul Sheppard taught me one serve that he promised would win me lots of “free points”.  It’s called a pronated serve, and he knew what he was doing.  Few people could return it, and to this day I don’t know why.  I don’t know what it looks like to receive: nobody else has my serve.  Opponents have told me the ball just doesn’t come up from the bounce.  

I went to the cub with my then fiancé who played USTA competition tennis.  I was impressed with his teams going to District and Sectional championships.  I joined USTA as a 3.0 player and learned all the basics of court etiquette and scoring, etc.  And no matter whom I played with, my partner and I rarely lost.   I really wasn’t playing seriously; in my mind I was just having fun.

I found I had lots of time to myself being a newcomer to tennis.  I got bored with hanging out, waiting for Gary to hit with me so I took a bucket of balls, a couple of hundred and went down to the lower courts to practice serves.  At the time it was Paul’s pronated serve, the only way I knew how to serve.  I practiced serves for literally hours.  I worked on getting my ball toss really high, using a tree branch above one court as a target for the right ball height.   

My work attracted the attention of some of the club’s highest ranking National Champs who spent time with me teaching subtle varieties of grips and stances.  Their tips and my work paid off handsomely when I started to compete in doubles.  In retrospect, I had about 15 different serves using the same toss.

It was so fun during the first year or two, playing competitively.  And then during the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament which we attended for about ten years, I had the opportunity to hit some volleys against the Australian pro Mark Philippoussis!  I actually put one or two away on him. And I got to take a number of tennis clinics at Shadow Mountain Resort in Palm Desert, we stayed there for several seasons.  

I had no understanding how consistent my serve was until I had taken a few clinics at Shadow Mountain.  One day during serve practice the resort pros pulled me out and asked if they could test my “consistent serve” in front of the class by blind-folding me to see if I could get the ball over the net and into the service court.  I did several times in a row, and they put me in their teaching video.  They asked me in front of the camera how I developed such consistency and I answered it was those many hours and hundreds of balls all by myself on an obscure court, waiting for someone to play with.  Not what most people wanted to hear, I’m sure!

I ended up being in other training films demonstrating net volleys, overheads as well as “consistent” serving.  I thought the pros were just being kind and truly had no understanding that my skill level was notched up in a number of ways. 

Back home, when higher ranking teams asked me to fill in I thought they were just being kind.  I had no concept of anything other than just having fun with tennis and I guess I was innocently quite bold about inviting the better players to hit for a while with me.  They always did.

I paid no attention to my ranking on USTA’s website, because I didn’t consider myself a serious player.  My husband was always checking it to see the record of the next team he was playing.
I suppose he checked mine, but he never mentioned it, never told me that I had an excellent record of 24 wins, 2 losses.  I found it out by myself.

When opposing teams invited me come on board and play for them, I thought that was sweet.   Eventually I was recruited by a team in a nearby town that had been to District and Sectionals Championships and really wanted to make it to National Championships.  Two years later there we were, in Tucson, Arizona, ranked fifth in the Nation.  

I even have a small collection of trophies of my own now!  I do get a kick out of how funny how life is.  How quickly it can take one down from a huge high into crash and in just a matter of weeks.  Stay tuned!

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