Game point. My husband serves the yellow ball crosscourt to me, I hit it back to him across the net, and he returns it to a corner I can’t get to fast enough. Maybe I could have made it when I was in my twenties, but that was fifty years ago. I watch it bounce out of my reach as I tighten my jaw and frown. I lose 11-6. How dare he beat me!
Pickleball is currently very popular among all ages in the USA. It is easy to play with its light paddles and plastic whiffle balls, all on a condensed-sized tennis court. My husband and I had taken a few lessons. In my first lesson, I fell on the concrete court in my tennis whites and my knee was bleeding. I sat out the rest of the class, nursing my sore knee. Coach took me aside.
“Do you know why you fell?”
“Ah, I lost my balance?”
“Yes. But that is because you hadn’t planted your feet. Don’t ever be a one-legged Mary”.
I never forgot that lesson and I improved each week. Soon Coach made me an intermediate, while my husband still had to master beginner return drills. I lifted my chin and twirled my racquet, secretly proud of my superior rank. Coach called us both over whenever either of us did something wrong. One time he told me, "This is not tennis. You can't wait for the ball to come to you. You have to go meet it." He never missed a beat and we got better. Soon we were both intermediates. I was practicing placement shots backhand and he called me over to say, “This is rare. Your backhand is better than your forehand.” I felt like I had re-captured the joy from my younger days playing tennis starting from age ten. In those days, Dad was my coach. He was no King Richard, and I was no Williams sister, but I did make the high school team and loved the game.
I was eager to play a second game with my husband to redeem myself after I lost that first game. We change sides and the adrenalin is pumping as I focus all my attention on this match. Anger at losing gives me steam and I am ahead 4-0 before he can get any points. Once I get ten points to his six, I feel confident and picture myself sailing easily to victory. My body is relaxed and I feel confident when I serve into the net and he gets to serve. I shrug, not worried because I am so far ahead. Then he aces a serve and gets a point. 10-7. I am getting hot and winded and should take a break, but I am almost at the finish line. I hit a return into the net. 10 to 8. Worry weighs me down, desperation seems to make my limbs tighten, and I can’t hit well. He serves, we volley, I miss. 10-9. Now I begin to panic and have to face that I am too tired and too distressed to hit well. I ask for a time-out. We go to the shade, drink water, and lean against the chain-linked fence. I feel somber. Soon my breathing gets easier and it is time for the end of the match.
I am calmer now and know that I have to be in this moment. He serves and I see only the ball and I go to meet it. My father’s tennis coach voice comes back to me, “Just get the ball over the net and let your opponent make the mistakes.” I hit the ball only with the intention of getting it over. It is returned. I hit it back. It comes back, I return it and he misses. I get to serve game point. I serve, we rally back and forth, I stay only with this next ball, this next hit. He finally falters and I win 11-9.
As we drive home, I tell him what my Dad said, “Just get the ball over the net…”
He nods, “That seems like a good philosophy for life”. I look out the window at the bright blue sky as endorphins kick in and make my body feel mellow from all the exercise. I think about how lately I have been so busy, with tasks I like, but so many, that I have felt overwhelmed. I take a long breath and watch a bird land smoothly in a tree, grabbing the branch with his feet. Just focus on the next thing, stand evenly on two legs, meet the ball, and get it over the net.