She hit line drive after line drive in the playground. She drew spectators. Nine years old, but her gender unclear to onlookers. Someone asked, “How old is he?” I replied that she was a girl. “No way” came the reply. The daughter picked up bouncing ball and threw it to me. One boy said, “That’s a boy. No girl throws like that.” (The daughter credits me for teaching her how not to throw like a girl. I don’t remember that. I think it was her innate ability, but I confess her throwing pleases me.)
She had those skills, but she did not want to join the school’s softball team. She was intensely shy, did not talk much, and did not really make friends. (Today she and I half jokingly say she was semi-autistic.) I thought that with her abilities, her classmates would notice and appreciate her more, but she did not join the team. She did not voice her fears, but I could picture the discomfort of the being the center of attention and the potential panic if another player yelled, “Throw the ball to second. Throw the ball to second.” And perhaps even worse, in a team game, you can let your teammates down. That would have been terrible.
A summer or two afterwards, we had an August rental in a community with tennis courts. The daughter’s eye-hand coordination was again on conspicuous display. Soon she could hit the fuzz off a tennis ball. A few years later after I had started to play tennis, I found that she could hit the ball harder than most of the men (admittedly not great tennis players) I played with.
Tennis seemed just right for her. She loved being active, and almost instinctively she had great form on forehands, backhands, and serves. Not so much on volleys and overheads, but that could come. Her school did not have a tennis team, but perhaps that was good. She would not have the team pressures. She could just shine on her own.
She did seem to enjoy hitting a tennis ball, but she never enjoyed playing games, whether pickup or in the little regional tournaments we went to. She lost more than her innate ability warranted. There were good reasons for that. Tennis, especially in the city, has become a rich child’s game. There are public courts, but it is not always easy to get time on them. Private courts, of course, cost, and kids today don’t just hit with each other; they take clinics and private lessons and go to tennis camps. It takes money. Book a private court and a tennis pro and more than $100 is gone. And since none of her few friends played, or even had much athletic ability, on the days without a clinic or pro, she could only hit with me, and she had soon exceeded my ability. I felt that Peter the Pro could have improved her game tremendously if she was with him a couple times a week, but this would have cost thousands, thousands we did not have. She often lost because she simply had less instruction and practice than the city and suburban kids she played against.
But it was more than that. Although she was bright, brighter than she realized, she seemed to lack competitive instincts or knowledge. I asked her, “When you are behind in the first set and look like you are going to lose it, have you considered trying different tactics—bringing your opponent into the net; hitting looping balls—to see what might work in the second set?” She simply replied, “No.”
I once asked after a tournament whether when she was warming up with her opponent if she tried to see her competitor’s strengths and weakness? Did she hit to the backhand to see if it was a weakness or how the person volleyed and so on? If she could see that the person had a weak backhand, did she try to hit a lot to the backhand during a match? She told me that she did not do that because if she did that her opponent would do the same. I didn’t say anything, but I thought, “Your opponent is likely to do that whether you do or not.” The daughter thought that it was somehow unfair to try to figure out the opponent and take advantage of any weakness.
I had not played much tennis until the daughter started playing and did not know much about the game. From her I learned a lot. I don’t mean that I learned how to have good strokes and hit good shots. I do not have her ability. Instead, I realized how lonely and brutal tennis is. The player may have had much coaching, but during the competition she is out there all alone with no help. She is the one who has to adapt strategies in the midst of the match. She cannot look to someone else to give her a boost or to bail her out. An individual wins, and that also means that an individual loses. The winner has beaten someone else. That victor has made someone else a loser. It is a zero sum game; there is always a clear winner and a clear loser.
The daughter did not like to lose, but she also did not like to win because she felt sorry for making someone else a loser. Losing did not feel good, but winning was not satisfying either. Once she was no longer required to compete (note the passive. I was the one doing the requiring), she gave up playing games. She still enjoys hitting tennis balls, but that’s it. I continue to play at my less-than-mediocre level, but her choice makes perfect sense to me.