“Shuffle to the center. Backhand!”
“Your racquet was open. Don’t do that. Keep it on edge. Use your left hand to push through it, right hand guides the swing. Now get back in line.”
Mopping my forehead with the sleeve of my shirt, I realize it’s too late to keep the sweat from dripping into my eyes, and a salty burn starts to sting inside my eyelids. The stench of compost hovers over the courts, blown in from a facility a few miles north, and an ever growing swarm of gnats and no-see-ums picks at different players in our class. All of those things would normally send me running inside to the comfort of my couch, but not tonight. Tonight, I’m a conqueror of the outdoors, an athlete, and the dog days of summer can’t take that away. I wouldn’t dare claim to be good at sports — a result of being ashamed and self-conscious about my body for so many years — except for this one. Tennis.
Because I know, that I know, that I know. When I’m on my game, I’m pretty darn good.
I’ve played since I was old enough to hold a racquet, a Disney racquet, to be exact. It was white and blue and had a Mickey Mouse silhouette emblazoned on the strings. My sister and I both learned to play under the instruction of our dad, who it turns out was an excellent coach. Geez. If only I had known then what I know now. I played consistently until I was about 17 years old, then took a 10 year hiatus. It was stupid. That right there could have been the thing that saved me from adulthood obesity. Live and learn.
A guy in my class, who still thinks the idea of the game is to rocket launch the ball into outer orbit, turns to me after a backhand drill. “Soooo, are you the teacher’s pet?” He smiles with the confidence of a guy who is comfortable in a sports setting, even ones he isn’t good at. It’s disarming. Kind of funny, even.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “I just have the advantage of knowing what he’s talking about.”
Most of the people in the class are newcomers to the game. It’s refreshing to see people in their late 20s and early 30s out trying something new. It’s also unintentionally humorous. I don’t mean that in a superior way, I’m in the class myself, after all. But I take for granted that the motions I locked into muscle memory years ago are brand new to these folks. So, for example, preparing for a forehand as you approach the ball isn’t something you automatically know you’re supposed to do. You have to learn it. And watching somebody run up on a ball and then realize they aren’t prepared to hit once they get there can be pretty funny. So we laugh with each other as much as we encourage each other.
Back in line for another drill, my turn quickly approaches. I walk up to the baseline and get in ready position. Squatting forward, heels slightly off the ground, poised to move in either direction. The ball comes to my backhand and I shuffle left to make contact. A clean shot, it clears the net and the coach sends it back, cross-court, to my forehand, and I’m already moving toward it.
Coach watches with approval. He nods at me as I send the ball back over the net. “See, that girl,” he says to the class, “she’s a mover.”
And I remember what it feels like to be in harmony with your body, not focused on the jiggly thighs or belly pudge. But feeling, just for an hour and a half on Monday nights, like a boss.
To the athlete inside,