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McEnroe in the Making

Picture the scene: Simon and I are at what we call the two-minute tennis court, so named because it is located two minutes from our house.

“Man, why do I keep missing my backhand? What’s happening?”

“Are you using both hands?”


“Are you finishing up here, at your shoulder?” [the correct stroke is mimed]

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, that’s your problem then. You have to follow through with the racket over your shoulder. And keep your eye on the ball.”

Can you guess who was/is who in this exchange? If you went to UNC between 1989 and 1992 or have kept up with this blog, you likely can. For everyone else, I’ll give you the last part of the exchange:

“Mommy, I think you need to take adult lessons with Mr. Fitzroy.”

I do; perhaps the fourth time at trying the game will be the charm. When Simon started playing tennis five weeks ago, I picked up a racket for the first time in 20 years and had at it. I was awful, but not as awful I was in college. With time and practice, I reached the point where I could hit *most* of Simon’s volleys back to him. By the time he began going to clinics at the Louisville Tennis Center, I joked that even I could keep up with a five-year-old if I practiced a lot. I figured I’d be good enough to play with him for at least another year or so.

I’m not, and we both know it. To make matters worse, Simon got to play with a great player just two days ago. We were out with Caroline and her grandmother, Jane. Jane is a life-long player and the mother of a once nationally ranked player (that would be Caroline’s father, Barry). Whereas I can return most of Simon’s volleys but cannot place them well, and Matt can return pretty much all of Simon’s volleys and place many well, Jane could get them all over and placed perfectly for a player of Simon’s size. Simon is fast and energetic, so his court coverage is terrific. But a child under four feet simply cannot hit a low ball in the far corner of a regulation court and get it over the net. They lack the height and power for that.

So there he was Sunday, running like a mad man despite a heat index of 99, nailing his forehand and backhand ground-strokes, sending a lob or two over the net, and even coming to the net to volley a few times. Intentionally or not, he’s started putting topspin on some balls. They had volleys that lasted up to 12 or 16 combined strokes. It was a blast to watch.

Fast forward to yesterday, and Simon was stuck with me, the worst player in the family. I sent over a lot of balls that were too low or too long for a kid his age to hit. The problem is, besides my being awful that is, that Simon will not let a ball go and will not accept “you are too short” as an explanation for failure. He wants to play like Roger Federer. When he is on the court, tennis is a matter of life or death for him, attacked with an intensity and tenacity I possessed for my GPA, Scrabble, and knitting, but never, ever for any sport. When I say “it’s a game” or “this is supposed to be fun” to him, he looks at me like I’m mad. Then he wipes away his tears of frustration, collects himself as best he can, and dives right back in as though his life were on the line.

I’m honestly flummoxed. Dragging him off the court just makes him more upset. Consistent efforts to change the tone only sometimes work. Yesterday I turned things around by changing the conversation; I had Simon diagnose my own problems, and then we did some drills where I threw balls to him. Tomorrow? Who knows what if anything will dial down the intensity. All I know is that I think I’m going to adult lessons in the park next week, I’m hoping Matt and/or Evie can get out there with him again soon, and I really, really hope that I can bribe/beg Barry into some lessons, in exchange for which I will happily play Barbies with his daughter.

The situation is rather humbling. Usually when I see kids hysterical over a missed stroke or strike, I assume they have crazy parents pushing them too hard. It never occurred to me that some of these kids were pushing themselves so hard at the tender age of five. Regardless of how long this phase lasts, I just hope Simon can summon a fraction of the same intensity for, say, calculus when the time comes.



5 Responses to “McEnroe in the Making”

  1. Amanda says:

    I wanna see your teacher’s face when you tell him/her that you’re taking lessons to keep up with your 5 year old.

  2. Amanda says:

    Too bad my brother isn’t nearer. He’s a hell of a good tennis player, and he loves kids. Hope Barry helps you out.

  3. goldsteinrita says:

    I recognize some of this. The difference is that you just quit when you realized that you were not going to be ready for the Bolshoi or be a Nadia Comaneci after a year or two of ballet and gymnastics. As you have said, you saved your do or die for other things.

  4. Jessica says:

    Actually, mom, I think this is a different flavor. I quit gymnastics and ballet because I was singularly unsuited to both: I do not possess great balance or flexibility, especially where extensions are involved. Simon, by contrast, WON’T quit, even when he’s exhausted and can’t perform any longer, precisely because he IS naturally good at soccer and tennis and wants to get better.
    When he collapses while trying to read or do math above his ability, that’s when I recognize myself.

  5. blg says:

    Barbie dolls? You’re volunteering to play with Barbies? Greater love has no mother.

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