My tennis teacher called me a year ago. “We need a sub for a ladies’ doubles match tomorrow. I think you should play.”
Had he misdialed and thought he’d called someone else? I’d been taking group lessons from him at the Johnson City Country Club for only a year, and I was awful, as in I-can-barely-get-the-ball-over-the-net kind of awful. This is what happens when a woman of a certain age with poor hand-eye coordination tries to learn a new sport.
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” I said.
“Sure, you’ll be fine.”
Was he that desperate for a sub? “You do realize I don’t even know the rules of tennis,” I said.
“I can tell you what you need to know.”
“But I can’t serve.”
This was no exaggeration. During lessons, I’d never managed to get the hang of it. Plus, whenever my teacher asked us what we wanted to work on in class, I always yelled, “Ground strokes!” and hoped we wouldn’t have time at the end for serves. Or overheads. I hated overheads, mostly because how was I ever going to learn how to hit a ball that came at me like a bomb?
My teacher seemed unfazed at my excuses. “You’ll be fine.”
I wanted him to define “fine,” but I refrained from asking.
I had started playing tennis because I’m a writer. Writers sit at desks all day, and while we write, we eat. (And we’re not talking carrot sticks, either.) When writers work from home, which I do, the kitchen is our best friend. This is not the kind of friend anyone should have, much less a woman of a certain age whose metabolism is slowing down.
“I need another sport,” I had said to my husband a couple of years ago. (Yes, I said “another.” Doesn’t walking count as a sport? Does eating?)
“You should play tennis. I’ve seen you play badminton,” he said.
He’d been subjected to my family’s badminton throw-downs more than once. My sister, mom and I are pretty good at badminton, but I think it’s because when the birdie comes our way, we Cawood women tend to scream while hitting it. This throws off our opponents.
“Just try a few lessons and see if you like it,” my husband said. “If you do, it’s definitely a sport you can play for life.”
So I had signed up for lessons, not really knowing what I was getting into.
When I had initially thought about picking up tennis, I had mostly thought about learning how to hold a racket and how to hit a ball. How hard could that be? Turns out, very. The kicker was there was more to learn: not just volleys and the dreaded overheads but positioning and ball placement and anticipating opponents’ moves and covering the court. You can’t imagine how much I still don’t know.
And no one told me all the other things I’d have to not do in order to play well: not get bogged down by my own mistakes, not be a perfectionist, not over-analyze. But I do all of that so well! I’m a writer, after all. These are skills we writers hone from a young age; some of us have even named our inner critic.
So last year, when my tennis teacher wanted me to play a doubles match for the first time, maybe it was just because he needed a sub and had run out of other names. Or maybe he knew I’d never think I was ready or good enough if I had to make the call on my own, without his prompting.
And he was right — about that, and the fact that I’d be fine. Oh, I’m not saying I played well that first match, but I didn’t injure myself or anyone else, and I didn’t play so horribly I got booed off the court. I played with three women who had all been playing longer than I had and who encouraged me and said things like, “Good get!” even when all I did was literally get to the ball, not hit it over the net. They didn’t complain when I hit the ball out, or even when I double-faulted, which I did a whole heckuva lot.
But a year later, I’m still playing with them, and I count them as my friends. No one told me what a difference they’d make to my solitary workdays.
Or how little I would care about winning, as long as we had fun.
Or how often I’d laugh at myself. But I’m a writer — I already knew how to do that, though it never hurts to practice.
Shuly Cawood is a writer and editor living in Johnson City.