Going Pro

By the time she was twelve, she’d risen to the top of the amateur circuit here in Hawai‘i.  Her parents, convinced that her future lay in professional tennis, sent her to an academy in Florida.  Besides the grueling daily practice schedule, the place had a topnotch academic program, and it turned out many professional players.  More than any other in the country.

She did well academically, and she thrived in the program that had her practicing five hours a day.  She rose quickly through the ranks there, and had turned pro before her sixteenth birthday.

She’d just cracked the list of Top 20 female players in the nation when it happened.  It was the closing practice match of the evening.  She was serving.  Her left foot, the one she planted on, gave way on her follow through.  She fell to the ground.  Her scream stopped play on all the courts.

If was a fractured ankle.  The trainers couldn’t understand why the healing process was taking so long.  The orthopedic staff studied the X-rays and MRIs, and could find no reason why the pain persisted.  It was very difficult for her to put weight on her left foot.  After six months, she came back to Hawai‘i.  After a year, it was clear that she would not be returning to Florida.  For a few years it looked as though she would never play again.  Eventually, she never wanted to play again.

She majored in English at the University of Hawai’i, went on to get her teaching certification, and became a public high school English teacher.

To this day she walks with a nearly imperceptible limp.  As a birthday present one year, her husband had a tennis court constructed in their backyard.  She pretended to be happy about this, but looking at the court, day after day, made her even more unhappy.  She didn’t talk about this with him.  If coaxed hard enough, she’d go out and hit the ball around, but they never played an actual game.

Her young son and daughter would tap at balls together, which they seemed to enjoy, but she gave them no instruction, never let on that she’d almost been a tennis superstar at one time.  There were no photos of that part of her life, and she’d asked both her husband and her parents never to mention her connection to the sport to her children.

When her son and daughter were still both in elementary school, her husband became ill.  Shortly after the onset of symptoms, he was diagnosed with cancer.  The disease advanced swiftly.

In the weeks following the funeral, after her children had returned to school, she sat at home.  She’s taken an extended leave of absence from her job.

One morning she woke up, sent her kids off to school, and then went out to the court.  She stood there looking at it, and thought about her husband.  It had been constructed with high walls at both ends, and high nets running between the walls on both sides.  She picked up a racket and a ball and began to hit the ball off one of the walls, slowly at first, but then she began to pick up speed and some rhythm.  After several minutes, her arm felt tired.  She’d expected the chronic pain in her ankle to worsen, but it didn’t.

From that day on, she would take the kids to school, then come home to practice.  She began to feel good on the court, worked on her serve as well as volleying balls off the wall.  Her wall work picked up intensity, but only to a point.  If she tried too hard, her ankle would in fact give her a little too much grief.  She’d never considered taking any kind of pain killers for it.  That was madness lay, she imagined.  The pain would be with her forever.  She was fine with that.

Still, her workouts were good, became longer, and she could feel her body becoming stronger, leaner.  She realized how much she’d missed that exercise.

One Saturday morning she asked her kids if they’d like to play some tennis with her.  They were eager to try this.

She took them out to the court.  The two stood on one side of the net, and she gently tossed balls across to them, giving them some tips on their swings.

She returned to work.  Teaching took on a new level of joy for her. She’d always been a good teacher. Now she was passionate about her work.

Every afternoon she would go out to the court with her children and give them a little instructions, small pointers.  Eventually they began to play each other.  They became good at the game.

One night at the dinner table her son, a sixth-grader, the older of the two, asked her how she knew so much about tennis.  Without hesitation, she told them the story of her tennis life.  Her son was old enough to be quite impressed by details of her story, and her daughter, two years younger, was enthusiastic about what she could understand.

By the time she’d finished her story, the children had a new hero.  She was super tennis mom now.  Their friends began to come over after school, and she would give them all little hints about playing the game.

Parents were so impressed by what their children told them about her, and by what they saw when they came over to watch their children in action, that they began asking her if they could pay her to teach their children.

She was flattered by their requests, but she referred them to people in the community who gave lessons, who were serious coaches.

If she were ever going to be a serious coach, it would be only to coach her own children.  But she did not want to be a serious coach.  She explained this as best she could to her children, and when eventually both of them asked if they could take lessons from a highly respected coach in Honolulu, she was happy to pay for those lessons.

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