Road to the U.S. Open
3-0. I can do this. The Boys’ Tennis Championship. Highlight of the summer. I was playing in the Finals. And leading. We played straight-to-eight back in those days—a single set, first to win eight games won, no tiebreak—and I was feeling strong. I had held my serve at love, broken Stevie’s serve, then held serve again. This is my year. Dad was right.
We lived beside the tennis courts on a college campus in the 1970s. They were slow, dusty shell courts that required daily maintenance. Every day of the sweltering, tropical summer, we had to water down the courts completely, wait for them to dry, then pack the clay tight with a heavy concrete roller, and drag jute sacks across the surface. The chalk lines were put on fresh morning and afternoon like the make-up that transformed harridans into grand dames. I said “we” did all that because while the club employed a caretaker for the courts, he worked for the adults; and if we kids wanted any playing time, we had to raise the nets ourselves.
I learned to play when I was eight years old, soon after we moved into the house beside the courts. Dad played every day and was only too happy to lend me one of his old rackets, a chunky Spalding “Pancho Gonzales”, although I longed to get my hands on his Wilson “Jack Kramer”.
That year, I joined my first tournament. Dad said I wasn’t ready. I barely knew how to score. (You know: 15, 30, 40, ad-in, deuce, love. It was an exotic language only tennis players spoke.) But I insisted. I was knocked out in the first round, but not until after I gave a much older boy a little bit of a scare by taking the first few games.
3-3. Stevie has settled down. Not a lot of unforced errors from him now. I can’t just wait for him to make mistakes. If I want to win, I need to hit winners. Deep breaths . . .
The star of our age group was really Raul Celso, Racel for short, and later Russell. He was one of those natural athletes that every town seems to have. Homerun king in baseball. A sweet outside shot in basketball. And a dominating all-around game in tennis. But he had won the boys’ championship last year and had been promoted to play with the 18-year-olds. I was only a year younger, making me the presumptive heir to the boys’ crown.
Except that there was Stevie. He was a couple of years my junior but had been playing longer. His family lived on the other side of the courts, since forever as far as I knew. His father was like the club pro. Well, not really, but sometimes he gave lessons. More significantly, his eldest son Jerry (Steve’s older brother) was our Class A Singles Champion. Let me put it this way: long before Roger Federer, Jerry had all the classic strokes. He hit the corners with his serve at will, and his backhand topspin drive was a thing of beauty. Plus, he always walked onto the courts in impeccable Wimbledon whites. As for Stevie, when he was still too short to see over the net, they cut down an old racket so he could start playing. By the time we were facing each other in the Finals, he was using a full-sized racket, and he was better than me.
3-5! This is getting away from me. I knew it. @#$%&
When I mentioned to my dad a few days before the match that I didn’t think I could win, at first he didn’t respond. After dinner that night, however, he told me to sit on the piano bench in the center of the living room. This was in the Philippines. We didn’t have fireplaces. Our upright piano with all the family photos and trophies on top was the focal point of the whole house. I knew I was in for a stern talking-to. Dad didn’t do fatherly chats. He gave commands.
“Always play to win. If you’re not going to play to win, you’d better not play at all,” he said. “No son of mine is a loser.”
5-6. I’m fighting back. Can you see I’m fighting back, Dad?
That’s the beauty of tennis. The advantage shifts from end to end with every stroke. Momentum can be, uh, momentary. Slog through a couple of 20-shot rallies, retrieving balls from side to side, take one too low and drop into the net, push another a bit wide and your opponent goes up love-30, and you’re in grave danger of losing. Serve an ace down the T and you’re back in control and on top of the world.
A few minutes before the match had started, Dad had taken the time to give me a tip. “Let the ballboys do their work. Conserve your energy,” he had advised. I knew what he was thinking even if he hadn’t come out and said it. I had been born with weak lungs and had been recently diagnosed as anemic. Of course, he couldn’t say I didn’t have it in me to win because no son of his was a loser; but I would need every last bit of strength I could muster.
The sun felt like a second opponent. We were playing at the hottest time of the day because late afternoons were reserved for men’s championships. I was sweating so heavily I felt the salt leaving my body and caking on my skin, and there wasn’t even a hint of a breeze to cool us off. I was holding my breath through most of the exchanges because it seemed like the only way to get my muscles to move. If I bent down to pick up a ball, I believed I’d pass out. At this point, it was mainly mental. Banish any thought of quit. Steel yourself to make the next serve count. Rise above the heat.
Stevie sliced a return just over the net. Dropshot! I recognized it and willed myself to dash forward. I dug out the ball before it bounced a second time, but my forward motion added a little more power to the shot, and it sailed. Way too long. My heart broke.
Game. Set. And Match. I lost.
Russell found me hiding beside the soft drink cooler behind the bar. He looked at me and asked, “Why are you crying?” Then, he walked away. Not only was he a gifted athlete, but a sage at a very young age.
My father didn’t disown me. I played in several other tournaments, winning two championships. Not quite the 22 slams that Nadal has won, but enough to retire on. I stopped playing completely while I was at university.
I always play to win, but I accept that on some days I just won’t, can’t win. Why cry? This weekend I’ll watch the U.S. Open Finals. I’ll feel the players’ anguish and revel with them in their amazing gets. When it looks like all is lost, I will silently urge them to find the mental toughness of champions. Then I’ll get up to make a sandwich in the kitchen.
[This is a fictionalized account created to meet the requirements of a writing seminar that I am not attending. The names have not been changed. No one is innocent.]