I walked toward the front door Thursday morning, bearing the fresh burden of the twenty-six ton man bag I'd just hurled across my shoulder. "See you tonight," I said.
"You bet you will." She stood in her bedroom doorway, looking every bit her just-woke-up teenagerness—pajama pants, one of fifty or so t-shirts emblazoned with her school's name, and the left half of her hair looking like Axle Rose's in that Welcome to the Jungle video. "March madness returns tonight," she said, betraying her non-enthusiastic appearance.
I grabbed the doorknob. "Yes, it does. Hey, good luck in your tennis match if you have one today."
"No match, just practice."
"Okay, then good luck at practice."
"No one says that, Dad," she replied, disappearing into the bathroom.
This spring is her final season of high school sports. After playing volleyball and basketball, each of which offer its own flavor of intensity, she's donning the old skort for the last time.
Ahh, tennis. It's the perfect tonic to ensure a kind and gentle ending. For the past four years, her coaches have permitted doubles teams to play together and stay together, so her partner has been her best friend the entire time.
Is it a recipe for overall team success? Probably not, but so what, they sure seem to enjoy themselves.
Sorry to get all Uncle Rico on you—again—but that ain't how things were back in my day. During the late Seventies, competition for spots on my high school tennis team was as fierce as it was moose-knuckled. We were constantly pitted against each other to determine the best combinations.
Plus, every once in a while, I had to play this guy who was so good, I seriously don't think I ever got a point off him. He had a tennis court in his backyard and his dad made the whole family play. Let's just say that kid toyed with me like a kitten nibbling a daddy long legs.
But, the weather was usually decent—by season's end you had a little bit of a tan—and our coach constantly took us out for ice cream.
However, a single overwhelming fact remains which made spring tennis the best sport of all:
It was co-ed.
Lots of cute girls.
In tennis dresses.
Sometimes they'd even show up with baked goods.
Usually ranked fifth, I became a mixed doubles mainstay. My sixteen-year-old sensibilities were thrust into tri-weekly, ninety-minute relationships with different female temperaments. Most went well. I learned patience and how to choose my words carefully.
Even so, two ended in divorce.
About halfway through that sophomore season, I settled into a life of monogamy. The coach paired me with a freshman girl I sort of knew. We clicked immediately, mostly due to her inappropriate sense of humor and love of The Twilight Zone, but she was really interesting and smart. We became good friends and a fairly decent doubles team.
We entered the league tournament feeling pretty shaky. Neither of us had expected to compete in a varsity playoff, so we lost the first set badly, playing like our rackets were wrapped in meat. Finally, she and I settled a bit and began committing fewer unforced wood-clanking errors. We won the second set and after six games of the third and deciding set, the score was tied at three apiece.
During the next game, as our opponents charged the net, I attempted a lob which, using tennis terminology, would be classified as weak ass. The guy on the other team rared back and slammed a laser beam—right into my partner's nose. She dropped her racket, grabbing her nose as blood dripped into her white pleated skirt.
Her eyes welled with tears, yet her face displayed a look that wasn't one of pain as much as anger and frustration. People brought towels and ice, and then a strange adult approached us.
"You have five minutes to get back on the court or forfeit the match."
"Oh well," I thought. "We were doing great. Nothing to be ashamed of if we have to stop now..."
"I can play," she said. She moved the towel away, revealing her swollen nose and puffy eyes. "I think the bleeding is stopping."
"Really? Are you sure? " I couldn't believe it.
She walked back onto the court in her blood speckled clothes and settled in her previous spot, again a few feet from the net. I could tell our opponents, especially the guy, felt bad about the accident, but they also looked confident, like they'd hobbled us and intended to finish us off quickly.
Apparently, my partner had decided that since she'd committed to playing the remainder of the match with a swollen face and impressive headache, winning was the only option, since we didn't lose another game that day.
I'll bet I've told my daughter this story a million times and I'll probably repeat it a few more. That's okay. It never hurts to remember how a fifteen-year-old girl showed a sixteen-year-old boy the personification of toughness and loyalty.