Short Story by Ken Shuey Illustration by the Author
The first tennis racquet that I ever saw was in the window of the Osco Drug Store on Main St. in 1947. It had a real leather grip and seeing the price tag -- $3.98. -- I sped home on my bike, counted out my allowance and lawn mowing money, and peddled over to Joe O’Hara’s house. We rode back to the drug store and each bought one. Then we ponied up another 69 cents for a can of balls.
Off to Riverside Park to the one tennis court in town, a well-cracked, well aged, concrete surface with a sagging net and a chicken wire backstop. There was a faint hint of where the lines had once been painted and some grass growing up through the cracks. The new tin can of tennis balls came with a key on top to open it like a sardine can. We were excitedly surprised at the hiss of air rushing out of the pressurized can as we twisted off the little tin curl to open the can. We had never seen anyone play tennis before, except once in while in the newsreels that always accompanied movies. This was B.T. (before television.) We flailed away any way we could. With no idea how to score, we devised our own system. And we were learning to play tennis!
My brother Ed was only a year older than me but was always a full head taller than I was. His arms were so long that he could reach across the net of the ping-pong table. He could beat me at anything and everything and always did. No mercy, ever. When he was in the 3rd Grade learning to do story problems in math, and I was in the Second Grade, I would be trying to get to sleep at night and he’d say, “I if you had 10 apples and I gave you 4 more, how many apples would you have?” I’d give a stupid answer to shut him up so I could go to sleep. He’d say, “you idiot!” and fall asleep, and I’d lie there awake wondering if I was.
But that summer, Ed was busy caddying for our Dad in every golf tournament in the State of Iowa. He took no interest in tennis. I was happy about that. Since there was no sport that I could beat him at, tennis became MY GAME.
The next year we moved to Salt Lake City. Every Sunday afternoon, Mom would take me to the golf course to meet Ed and Dad so we could do something as a family, but there was always another nine holes for them to play. I quickly grew bored of walking around the golf course looking for golf balls and waiting for Ed and Dad to play yet another 9 holes.
But next door to the golf course was The Salt Lake Tennis Club. I could go over there and watch real players, good players, playing real tennis. I saved up my caddying money and bought my first Wilson Jack Kramer racquet and bought some tennis lessons. I learned how to stroke and serve with good form and began to play real tennis. I played in public parks tournaments, played for my high school, and played throughout my college years and beyond.
I tell you all this to show you that tennis was MY GAME. I turned over the golf course completely to Ed and my Dad as I became more and more engrossed in learning to play tennis. I had tried playing golf with them many times and matched their every stroke with two or more of mine. There was nothing I could compete with my brother in. With him not playing, tennis became MY GAME.
There was, however one glitch. Every time I played in a tournament, I would get so nervous before the match, I almost didn’t want to play. And if I got behind, those demon nerves summoned up from those sleepless nights and endless losses to my Brother, would come at me like Gangbusters. “You’re going to blow it!” “You’re going to blow it again, you idiot!” It wasn’t until much later when watching Michael Jordan on TV that I learned that champions all respond to getting behind by simply stepping up their game and playing better. Not me. My nerves and self talk always bested me.
Four of the greatest tennis players of the era, Pancho Segura, Jack Kramer, Poncho Gonzales, and Lew Hoad were bringing their exhibition tennis tour to the Utah State Fairgrounds Coliseum. I talked my Dad into taking us. There was no tennis stadium, so they played on the basketball court with a huge green canvas with tennis lines painted on it stretched tight across the hardwood floor. Few people in town had ever seen tennis played the way they did. Pancho Segura entertained everyone with his glorious smile and humor when he missed a shot. The fun they had and their love for the game was infectious and the crowd was wowed.
Fast forward now to the 1970s, when Ed and I were in our mid-thirties, both married and living on separate coasts with Mom and Dad in between. One summer weekend we all converged at my parents’ house for a visit together. When my brother had started his family he had made the difficult and courageous decision to give up golf so that he could spend time with his kids. He was a great Daddy. He understood how our Dad had been so consumed with golf that he spent little fun time with us as boys. As much as Ed loved golf, he loved his family much, much more and willingly made that sacrifice for them.
He and his new family lived in a neighborhood of homes that had a tennis and swimming club. At 6’5” and in great shape, he quickly learned the game of tennis and became the club champion. Their championship matches were always attended by a gallery and much hullabaloo, and my Brother soon became the athletic hero of the club.
So, here we are all together at Mom and Dad’s. Ed and I decided to walk down to the high school and play some tennis together for the first time in our lives. It would be a lot of fun.
There were a couple of racquets of mine in the attic that I dug out. Tennis racquets were still made of wood in the early 1970s. Getting wind of our plan Dad decided that he would love to watch his boys play together. The simple game became a major event when Dad took Ed to the store and bought him a new pair of tennis shoes for what quickly became known around the house as the “Match of the Century.”
Tennis was MY GAME, there was no question about it - I would kick his butt.
We all walked down to the high school courts, wives and all. The wives chatted, the kids played, and Dad watched intently as we warmed up and joked around.
I controlled the first set handily. 6-1. But so focused was I on waxing him in love sets, that a tiny speck of anger snuck in that I had even let him have that one game.
Second set. A battle to the wire. Ed surfaced at the end with a final missed shot that dribbled over the net to win the set 12 –10.
Third set. In charged the demon nerves and fears with a vengeance. I became totally consumed with my emotions. I was going to blow the whole thing. I knew it. It was written in the Great Book of Destiny that I couldn’t beat my Brother at ANYTHING! EVER! I double-faulted my way through my first two service games and he made short work of me in his.
3rd set. Score: 0 - 4.
I was tense as an alarm clock… I felt like I was in a pressure cooker
Score: 0 - 5.
The lid suddenly blew off the pressure cooker! I busted open like the Fourth of July fireworks. WHAM! I cussed out a barrage of oaths that would make a lumberjack blush!
“I CAN NEVER BEAT YOU AT ANYTHING!! YOU …..!!!!!”
I called him everything in the book. I completely lost it! Went totally berserk. I had about as much control of my emotions as a 3 year old.
I yelled out words that I would never say in front of children. I threw my racquet as hard as I could at the back stop and banged my hand against it. I heard my Dad say, “Oh Jesus!” as he turned and started walking back to the house. I saw my brother walk off the court and perceived his knowing smirk of what he had always known, that his little brother was a total WIMP!.
The silent walk back to the house seemed like an eternity. As expected, back at the house there was no talk of what had happened. I can’t even remember if I apologized or not, I just remember feeling very stupid and mad at myself for blowing the match and losing my head. Our family never talked about emotions or what we were thinking or going through. So the “Match of the Century” was never talked about or ever referred to by anyone ever. In our family, each of us bore our own burdens and were too proud to try to share our secret thoughts for fear of indifference or ridicule. Needless to say, the rest of the visit was pretty uncomfortable for all of us.
Time, as always, if allowed, healed the family wound. But, I had a little talk with myself. I said, “If you’re going to let a game make you feel terrible, why play it at all?” “The idea is to have fun knucklehead!” “It’s called ‘recreation,’ its a ‘sport’.” I remembered how much fun Pancho Segura had playing the game and how he could laugh at his own missed shots.
And from that day forward, I began to just play. I stopped focusing on the score and began to focus only on the ball coming at me at that moment. I began to enjoy watching the ball all the way to the racquet and seeing it smacked by my racquet coming around powered by me. I began to enjoy the sound and feel of the racquet as it swept threw meeting the on coming ball. I enjoyed my footwork setting up for a shot, I enjoyed following the ball with my eyes right up to the racquet and sending it on its way back.
I began to enjoy each of the various strokes of the game and the feel of executing them perfectly. I began to know that some balls would miss the line. That some would hit the net. I allowed that my opponent would hit some good shots. That he’d get lucky once in awhile, and I would too. That the earth would not stop spinning if I double faulted once in a while, and that I would win some games and lose some. I began to realize that when you get behind, you just focus your eyes and your mind on that fuzzy little ball and smack it back. See the racket hit it. And when you do all that, those demons simply leave you alone.
I finally began to understand that you don’t get to be a good player by only playing against players you can beat in straight love sets. You get better by playing against people who are better than you are, who can beat you, who can challenge you to play your best, and make you find ways to improve every piece of your game.
And I finally realized what a fantastic opportunity I had missed my whole life. I had grown up with someone who could challenge me at everything. Make me do my best. Make me improve. Instead of rising to his challenge I had let my own mind beat me, make me a woos, a wimp, a crybaby. I had focused on my NEED to win, not on the ball coming at me at that given moment. I had let the fear of failure teach me how to fail – every time. It had done a great job. And I resolved to kick it right out of my life.
I began to really enjoy playing tennis.
I began to see what a valuable brother I had grown up with.
I was finally learning to play tennis. And I began to enjoy every facet of my life a whole lot more.
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