She hit line drive after line drive in the playground. She — for that is how I then referred to the NBP (the nonbinary progeny) — drew spectators. Nine years old, but her gender unclear to onlookers. Someone asked, “How old is he?” I replied that “he” was a girl. “No way,” came the reply. The daughter picked up a 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 to throw. I don’t remember that. I think it was her innate ability, but I confess her throwing pleased 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 make friends easily. I thought that with her athletic abilities, her classmates would notice and appreciate her more, but she would not join the team. She did not voice her fears, but I could picture the discomfort at being the center of attention and the potential panic when another player yelled, “Throw the ball to second! Throw the ball to second!” And in a team setting, she could fail to throw that ball to second, letting her teammates down. That would have been soul-crushing.

                That summer 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. Once I started to play tennis, I found that she could hit the ball harder than most of the men I played with (admittedly, we were not the finest of all tennis players).   

Tennis seemed just right for her. She loved being active, and almost instinctively had great form on forehands, backhands, and serves. Not so much on volleys and overheads, but that would come. Her school did not have a tennis team, but perhaps that was just as well. She would not have joined it and faced all those team pressures. She could just shine on her own.

                She seemed to enjoy hitting a tennis ball, but never enjoyed playing the game itself, whether pickup or in the regional tournaments we went to. She lost more than her innate ability warranted. There were several good reasons for that. Tennis, especially in the city, is 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 money, and kids today don’t just hit with each other; they take clinics and private lessons and go to tennis camps. It’s expensive. Book a private court and a tennis pro and $200 flies out of your pocket. 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 regular sessions with a pro could have improved her game tremendously, but this would have cost thousands, thousands we did not have. She sometimes lost because she simply had less instruction and practice than the city and suburban kids she played against.

But her losing went deeper than that. Although she was bright, brighter than she realized, she seemed to lack a competitive killer instinct. I asked her once, “When you are behind in the first set and look like you’re going to lose the match, 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.”

Even deeper. 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 weak or whether the person could volley? If she could see that the person had a weak backhand, did she try to hit a lot to the backhand during a match?  No, she said again. Delving further, I learned that the daughter thought that it was somehow unfair to try to figure out the opponent’s weaknesses and take advantage of them. If you were the victor, you had made someone else a loser. She did not like to lose, but he also did not like to win (!) because he felt sorry for making someone else a loser. Losing did not feel good but winning was not satisfying either.

I had not played much tennis until the daughter started playing and did not know much about the game myself. 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 alone with no help. He is the one who has to adapt strategies in the midst of the match. He cannot look to someone else to give her a boost or to bail her out. It’s rough being out there all alone.

Once he was no longer required to compete (note the passive; I was the one doing the requiring), he gave up playing tennis altogether. He still enjoys hitting tennis balls if winning or losing is not at stake, but that’s it. His choice makes perfect sense to me.

Addendum: See Wednesday’s post by AJ himself on other reasons why tennis was a problem.

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