Monday, September 09, 2013

Tennis the menace

I secretly love sports. Watching football and basketball is fun but playing just about any sport is awesome (except for when you play with competitive killjoys). I signed up for a new intramural league sport every semester in grad school and that turned out to be quite useful in a jack of all trades sort of way. I blew my knee out a couple of years back though, as a result of which there is a narrower range of sports that I can play now. No cutting-jumping motions - so no badminton, football, ultimate frisbee, soccer, basketball, and sprinting. Unfortunately those were my favorite sports and now I was forced to find new ones that fit better. I can still play racquetball, racquetball is fun.

I have been trying to get a grip on tennis for close to six years now and most of my best cricketing shots have happened on a tennis court. The muscle memory from playing other racquet sports makes you even more clumsy on the tennis court. Only recently I have managed to get enough of touch that I can actually return a hittable ball to the opponent. But my play is not of exhibition quality, so I mostly pick late evenings and hidden courts to do my dance.

This week, we started playing at the apartment complex court at about 8:30 pm. Twenty minutes in, I was starting to find a groove. A couple of rallies happened. 'I must be getting better at this', I reflected. Just that moment, a balding man with a white t-shirt and frayed shorts walked up to the enclosure. He said something inaudible, so I moved closer. And then the horrifying thing happened.

"Can my son play with you guys?", he requested. He moved aside to reveal a scrawny 8-year old kid clutching a racquet, his pockets bulging with tennis balls. Ignoring all niceties, I inquired seriously, "how good are you?". "Actually, I'm really good", the kid replied nervously. I spat inside my mouth and probably made a face too. "Why not?" my wife said and the kid propped open the gate and entered the enclosure. "Thanks", said the dad and stayed outside to watch.

Now I don't really hate kids and I definitely don't mind playing with them. I just have some scars from my past. I remember playing a reluctant chess game with my (then) 6-year old cousin when I was about 17. He beat me in less than ten moves. Thrice. It hurt bad. I am a pretty competitive person, it is just that I am also simply incompetent. The sensitive ego makes it worse. From then on, I restricted myself to handicap games that still look fair.

So I now had to manage this crisis. I signaled for my wife to join my side of the court. The kid held two balls in his hand. It was surprising that he could fit one in those tiny hands but he held one firmly and bounced the other one on the ground in preparation. He arched back in a perfect semi-circle and let loose his cannon serve at me as I skipped slightly in my spot so nobody would notice me shivering.

BANG! It rammed into the net. I smiled in relief. BANG! The second serve hit the net too. And a third. And a fourth. "Can I just serve like this instead?", the kid asked nervously and motioned to make an underarm serve. "Is that allowed?", I asked my wife with a grin. She ignored me and nodded at the kid.

It was not too bad a game as things turned out. I let the wife serve the entire time. This kid had a talent for apologizing for everything. He raced around the court to take my erratic returns, often with a sorry when he missed (and I chuckled). The dad got his workout around the court enclosure as he picked up and returned balls from my home runs back to the park. I noticed that my wife was a better player than I thought. With a proper opponent, she was able to hit the ball back with a lot of zip on it (though she did not get as many apologies as I did. Ha!). I mostly stared at them play, occasionally chipping in and making the kid run more. Half hour later, it was over and we walked home. I was still grinning.

Lets do this again sometime kid.