Serena Williams was talking about footwork, and I watching and listening intently. Mary Carillo was, too, except that she, being actually there with Serena, also got to ask questions. The women’s singles match played out on the court in front of them, Serena was speaking about the player on the court, Justin Henin. Serena’s saying how excellent Justin’s footwork is. I had never really thought about footwork as an essential skill in tennis. My tennis pro’s were always focusing on side to the net, swing, follow through, grips, arms, things like that, getting back into ready position for the next shot.
This was a breakthrough. Sitting on the sofa, I listened and listened. I need to hear this, I think to myself.
The next time I got ready to play a game of tennis with my husband, he carried bag with the ice cold drinks and Power Bar, I carried my racket, ready to go and to play like a pro, complete with footwork, big steps then smaller steps.
We play at the high school courts. I think I lost, 6 games to 3.
The next grand slam, the US Open and I was watching Marion Bartoli. I had loved to watch her gut it out, as unorthodox a player as she was. I felt akin to her temperament: She was passionate but kept it under control. She can be a role model for me. Her serve was so smooth and her starting point was something that I could model. I could see exactly where her hands began, the right wrist resting on her left thumb. To me, the fewer and more defined the movements and placements, the better!! I can serve with a serve like hers, I thought. I watched and watched.
The next time we played, I practiced being Marion, serving. I didn’t do so well, but I’m going to keep the serve. It works for me, I think. For my husband, I took videos of him serving and then showed him videos of Roger Federer’s serve. Smooth, confident, and steady.
With the next slam, I was watching Roger on the court on TV. The TV commentators were saying that his opponent was getting pushed back and pushed back. I get it. I could see that Roger was right along the baseline, moving left right left right but always right along the baseline and often moving inside it. By staying along the baseline, he has an advantage because he’s on the ball sooner and upon the return gives his opponent less time to react. I can do this, I thought to myself! Just visualize Roger’s on-court movement.
The next time my husband and I played tennis, I lost my service game, he lost his, I lost mine, he lost his. Since it’s all even, we like to say “We’re holding serve!” Then I won some of my service games, and he some of his. At 6-all, we quit. On to Starbucks, for a cool down and mocha frappuchinos.
In the next tennis cycle, I was watching another slam, the Australian Open, watching my fave, Rafa! I look at his focused eyes as he and the ball approach each other, and I recall the words from far away time and place, “Keep your eye on the ball.” Rafa was moving, the little ball was moving, and Rafa’s focus on the little moving object never wavered. ” His eyes are in the court, on the ball. “That’s what I need to do,” I thought to myself. Roger has the same focus too. It occurred to me that the tennis swing is somewhat like golf: Head steady on the ball. Maybe this eyes on the ball would help my golf swing too.
The next time my husband and I played tennis, I made like Rafa, intense focus on the ball. It was 6-4 and I was the four. But I think I played better, more rallies and shots that I was proud of. With Rafa by my side, I was coming along.
A few Sundays later, back on the court, I also recalled what my teacher of a few years ago wanted me to do: Hit the ball at its highest point in its arc. In order to do this, I would have to follow the ball with my eyes as it comes over the net toward me and the moment it hits the ground, say to myself “One Two Hit.” “Hit” would have to be when the ball was at that highest point. Does Roger say that to himself? The outline of the ball was, at that time, clear and crisp. With our traditional way of holding serve but winning a few of our own service games, at 6-all we quit. Starbucks and mochas. “We’re coming along,” I comment.
Next slam, French Open. There was Martina Navratilova, a great commentator on women’s tennis, in the broadcast booth. On her website is the comment, “The ball doesn’t know how old I am.” I keep this in mind, and all her competitions over the years. Watching TV on a Sunday, I feel lazy. I don’t want to move!!! But I envision watching Martina and Leander Paes playing remarkable mixed doubles and Martina reminds me. “The ball doesn’t know how old I am.”
It’s slam time again. I was watching our all-American tennis hero, Andy Roddick. He makes me seasick when he plays but I couldn’t get my eyes off his backhand!! He’s a righty and has both a two-handed and a one-handed so this was great for me. I saw that as he swings his arms to meet the ball and follow through, his left arm is firm and straight, providing steadiness and power. My left arm was not. It manifested insecurity. “I can do this. I will work on this and I will hit a backhand like Andy Roddick!” I commit myself.
The time my husband and I played, we were on serve – but only because I won his service games and he won mine. Still, not bad. I was glad when I won my points. My backhand was coming along. In my mind, I looked like Andy Roddick.
This summer, I noticed it becoming a little more difficult as my eyes, in their aging process (or maybe looking at my cell phone too much) were losing their ability to focus on small and quickly moving objects. It became a different mental game. Easily distracted, I had to work hard to focus and keep out extraneous thoughts or images. Including those of my old tennis teaching saying “One, two, hit.”
It’s now July and the 2015 Wimbledon champions have been proclaimed. My husband and I agree to head out to the courts. I lace up, put on my ankle brace, my wrist brace, we get our drinks and my power bar. We secure our court. It’s really hot today. Maybe it’s hit 90. There’s a little shade over by the back. It’s humid too. At some point we have to start hitting and we take our positions on opposite sides of the net. We start close to the net. Oops… That’s one into the net! We play on. Then we step further back, then further back at the baseline, hitting longer, deeper, harder. Soon we begin games. We play on and on. I throw in a couple of Serena bounces before the serve, to help loosen up my hand and my mind, then prepare my Marion Bartoli serve. I have to work harder to control my mind to have Rafa’s and Roger’s focus on the moving fuzzy yellow ball so that I can actually see it as it gets closer and closer to me. Soon it’s 4-all. We agree to play two more games: Both go to Phil. Still, I have held four of my own service games.
We head on over to our post-game watering hold: Starbucks.
At Starbucks, my husband goes inside and up to the counter as I wait at a table outside, orders, waits, then heads back toward me, his hand extended. I receive my trophy under the accolade of the hot afternoon sun. There are no cameras. My trophy is cold. I don’t lift it over my head. I don’t bite it like Rafa Nadal. I don’t kiss it like Novak. I take a sip out of it. It’s my cold mocha frappuchino, hold the whipped cream, low-fat milk.
I think I played my game and I played it very well. I played my best tennis.