Non-Binary Tennis

( Guest post from the NBP)

I am the “non-binary progeny” of my dad’s blog. Non-binary, should you not know (and I don’t mean to imply that you are unaware, but a whole lot of people don’t know this), means that I identify as neither a woman nor a man. However, my gender “assigned at birth” was female, thus I was raised as a girl. This proved to be complicated for me growing up. Playing tennis revealed some of the issues that a regular girl might not have encountered, but I was not a regular *gulp* girl.

When I was nine my parents started renting a summer place in Pennsylvania. It’s a really “nice” er civilized place: a small community of about 300 families, it has 27 holes of golf, a beautiful Olympic-sized swimming pool, and 10 tennis courts. As a kid, I hated it. There were almost no kids there my age. I was a year younger than one group of girls, who, of course, formed a clique, and I was a year older than other girls who, of course, wanted nothing to do with me. I played mucho tennis.

At 11 or 12, I had rather longish hair, and it was very thick, or thicc as they say now. That’s what girls had, after all (*^%*$%$*). However, “hair things” (ties, scrunchies, elastics) seemed like accessories or jewelry. I hated that kind of stuff, so I wouldn’t have one of those “hair things” touch me. No matter how hot I got, I would keep my hair down. My hair would, of course, fall into my face and stick to the sweat there. Pleasant. My mother, seeing me struggle with my hair with sweat pouring down my face and neck tried to convince me that boys and men would put their hair in pony-tails, “like Andre Agassi,” she said. Well, he was one of my idols. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t touch a hair thing. I must have been in a constant state of dehydration.

And then, of course, there was the issue of tennis clothes—more specifically, the dreaded tennis skirt. It was common that girls wore tennis skirts, or worse, tennis dresses. Some got away with wearing shorts, but skirts were more common. Personally, I think it’s absurd to wear a skirt for anything athletic. In tennis it seems totally nonsensical, and it’s plainly uncomfortable to stick a ball in your tennis underwear when you could so easily put it in a pocket. So I wouldn’t wear a skirt. I don’t think I ever in my life put one on. (Under duress, once of twice I would succumb to culottes or gaucho pants in place of a skirt, but that’s another story.) I only wore shorts; that, after all, is what boys wear. During the school year I played in various clubs around the City. The main one in which I trained enforced an all-whites rule. You could wear any combo of tennis attire, including t-shirts, but they had to be white. We always checked before coming to a given court, but luckily, none of the courts where I played enforced the rule that girls had to wear tennis skirts.

So now I’m 16 and a pretty fair tennis player. Dad thought it would be fun for me to try out to be a ball-person at the U.S. Open. I had a thrower’s arm (thanks to him) and could easily loft a ball across an entire court, which was a distinct requirement. If you couldn’t throw a ball the length of the court, you were cut. I was also good at fielding balls (Dad had trained me well), so after the first round, I was accepted. It was a rule, of course, that all ball-people had to wear the uniform of the athletic sponsor (e.g., Fila, Izod, Ralph Lauren, whatever). Boys got shorts and boy-cut shirts. Guess what girls got? I declined the acceptance into the ball-person ranks.

Much as I hate the idea of tennis skirts, I do greatly and deeply thank tennis for allowing me to wear sports bras all the time. Sports bras aren’t all frilly or lacy. They are made of sensible, non-chafing material. And even though I had no chest to speak of really, I wanted to hide what there was of it, and sports bras were tight enough to serve as a binder. They made me look flat-chested, and because I was coming to realize how much I wanted to rid myself of feminine attributes (no skirts, no lace), they were perfect.

My high school didn’t have a tennis team, but I continued to play tennis outside of school and got to be a better-than-pretty-fair player. College coaches were impressed enough with the video I sent (heh, VHS) with my application to want me on their team or at least wanted me to try out, and it didn’t hurt when the coaches nudged their Admissions Office to give me the thumbs up.

I chose to attend an all-women’s college, which, not surprisingly, promoted feminism and female power—intellectual, societal, political, athletic—plus, dude, I wanted a girlfriend and they are more queer friendly institutions. Imagine my amazement, then, when I learned that the girls on the tennis team had to wear tennis skirts. The field hockey team, a group of women who looked as though they could take on Roman gladiators, also had to wear skirts. I just didn’t understand. It made no sense whatsoever. What was this skirt tyranny all about? (Sorry; that was my own personal little rant there.) I resented not having the option of attire. I’m happy if a woman wants to wear a skirt to play; then she absolutely should be able to (and likewise, so should a male). On the flip side, however, she should also have the option of wearing shorts. Today, happily, these choices are more accepted. This is good; people should be able to choose what they wear without taboos and prejudice being applied.

Needless to say, I didn’t join the team there. I just couldn’t.

The game figured prominently in my youth and young adulthood. I don’t play tennis much anymore, but I do continue to hit tennis balls, mostly against walls. It’s good exercise/therapy after all, and I have to get some use out of all my shorts.

Demise of America–Tennis Edition

I will be going with the Non-Binary Progeny to the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York, on the first Friday of the two-week event. As with baseball, football, basketball, and soccer, the venue has a large stadium where spectators sit in assigned seats to watch the action. I don’t remember the first time or how many times I have attended the Open (always with the spouse and/or the NBP), but I do remember that I have seen some great tennis there, even if some of the details are hazy. I saw Federer stave off defeat in a close, exciting third-round match, but I don’t remember his opponent. I saw Agassi play a match where his opponent (I don’t remember him either) could not control his toss and his frequent intoning of “Sorry” echoed through the stadium and Andre became increasingly irritated. I saw what I heard later described as a match for the ages as Venus Williams was beaten in a tiebreak in the third set (her opponent?). In one great match I do remember both players. It was Boris Becker against McEnroe, but in this case, it was Patrick McEnroe. Long and close. It started late in the afternoon and extended past the start of the evening session. Those folks with the night tickets were kept waiting until the match concluded. The family was with me. The tennis grounds are near Long Island Sound, and as can happen, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. It was cold, and the wussy members of the family kept asking, demanding, imploring, begging that we go home, but I made us stick it out. (They have forgiven me or forgotten about it or have repressed it or have made it into a silent volcano of resentment that might erupt someday.) Patrick, who had beaten Boris earlier that year at the Australian Open, lost in four sets, three of which went to long tiebreaks.

Our seats were seldom outstanding. The best tickets were unaffordable and even if we could have dug deeper into our pockets, almost all the good seats were snapped up in some mysterious process by fat cats and corporations before we plebians could even think about buying them. However, through the years, I have learned where I could get seats that seemed to work best for us—behind the end line with the sun to our backs in the section just above the tickets for the 1%. When I first got those tickets, they weren’t cheap, but not so extravagant that I thought I was buying a high-end used car. In recent years, however, the cost for this location has gone up and up. Even if I could afford them, their outrageous cost offends me, so this year the NBP and I will have tickets in the upper altitudes where the ball is aspirin-size and the plunk of a struck tennis ball seems to take a few moments to arrive.

There were some glorious years that were different. An acquaintance worked for a company that hosted hospitality tents for sporting events, including the Heineken Pavilion at the U.S. Open. Knowing I was a tennis fan, for several years she offered me Heineken tickets to the Open. There were great advantages to this. The seats were much better than any I had bought, and the tickets granted admission to the Heineken center. The tennis center grounds are asphalt or something like it, and if the day is warm, it can be brutally hot at ground level during the day sessions at the Open, as it was one year that the NBP and I had the special tickets. The Heineken beer pavilion, however, is air-conditioned. Stepping inside for only a few moments to get a break from the heat and humidity was blissful. Because we often stay eight hours or so at the Open, bathroom breaks are necessary. There is often a line…but not at the Heineken tent. Food is also necessary; there are concession kiosks under the stands, and food stalls around the grounds. They are pricey, and often the lines are long. But those of us blessed with the Heineken connection are greeted with long buffet tables with goodies for which we do not pay. Besides that you might get to hobnob with–well, gawk at–famous tennis players of the past. The Heineken tickets, thus, had many benefits topped by being FREE. Of course, we were spoiled by them, and everything since has been a bit of a letdown.

Watching the matches in the main stadium is only a small part of enjoying a trip to the U.S. Open. A major tennis tournament is different from other sports because in addition to the action in the center court of the large stadium, the tennis venue contains many lesser courts where several matches are going on simultaneously. Some are in smaller stadiums, but many of the courts are like those in a public park with a few rows of bleachers along the sidelines. Spectators can seek out contests throughout the grounds and from a few feet away see some of the best athletes in the game. (At one of those courts, I caught a ball that flew over the three-foot fence. Before tossing it back, I noticed string marks on it and other wear and tear unlike any of the balls I have ever played with. Not surprisingly, tournament balls are changed every nine games.) In addition, the outer grounds contain practice courts where spectators can watch stars getting ready for their next match.

On these outer courts where the NBP and I spend most of our time at the U.S. Open, we have watched singles with high-ranked players and those not seeded; doubles matches; junior matches; senior matches; wheelchair matches; and practice sessions. Much of this has been highly entertaining including a women’s doubles contest with players I had never heard of. One of the players was an attractive blonde–I believe from Lichtenstein–who was drawing special attention from both the NBP and me.

The tennis tournament is also different from other sporting events because the players walk through the grounds and the spectators to get to and from the outer courts. After a mixed doubles match, Martina Hingis, one of the NBP’s favorites, walked a few feet past him. Hingis shook his hand. The NBP was thrilled, reporting, “It was soft.” And I will leave for another day our encounter with Andre Agassi.

(concluded August 30)