From yesterday's New York Times Style Section...
By Michelle Slatalla
AS I turned into the parking lot at the tennis club the other day, I pulled my visor over my face and scooched down real low in the driver’s seat so nobody on my team would see me.
They’ve been after me for weeks, and they’re like: “Mi-chelle, come on. We need you in the lineup.”
They are so peer pressure-y! They totally know I’m not ready yet because I hurt my wrist and now I have to learn to serve with my other hand. It could take years — ask anybody — for a former leftie like me to develop a right-handed serve that’s good enough for competitive play.
So I sneaked out of the car. Then I crab-walked, all hunched over, toward the privacy of the far court, where one of the club’s pros, Rafael, would help me work on my serve. I did not get far.
Oh no. Janet. My captain.
“Are you going to play in the match next week?” she yelled at me from Court Three, where she was playing doubles. I scuttled past. “Hey, come back here! Are you even on this team?”
This was so embarrassing. I pretended I didn’t notice her, which was a stretch, considering that she was barely four feet away and our eyes had locked. But whatever. I was trying to ignore her because I just wasn’t ready. I needed more time to heal.
Just then, luckily, I saw Stacey, my tennis idol and former doubles partner, standing up on the deck. She would have to protect me.
I scuttled toward her.
Then the worst thing ever happened. Stacey turned on me, too. “Yeah, are you ever going to play again?” she yelled from the deck.
And before I answer it, I would like to make one thing clear. I know I am no longer in high school. But sometimes, tennis makes me feel as if I am.
Maybe it’s the whole team thing. The last time I felt the same overwhelming social pressure to belong to a group, I was a teenager. And not just belong — I don’t want to let the group down. I want to make a difference. It’s a powerful feeling. I know some people get it at their PTA or church or local militia or whatever. Not me.
With tennis, the team is me and I am the team. We are like a pack of wild dogs. I am sorry, but it is true. When one of us brings down a baby rhino we all get to feast on its tender, baby rhino flesh. And after that? We might get to go to the playoffs. Some day: a trophy.
Does this make me pathetic? I don’t care. This tennis team matters to me, deeply. I love you, dudes!
And yet, that is why it has taken me awhile to rejoin my pack.
“It’s been two years,” Stacey pointed out, somewhat disloyally as I clattered past her, my face crimson with shame.
“I’m ready to play,” I lie-whispered. “Any time the team needs me.”
But, dying inside, I slinked home as soon as I could. Later that afternoon, I was at my desk checking e-mail when a shock appeared in my inbox. It was from Janet.
She had put me in the lineup! OMG, OMG, OMG!
“I don’t think I can do this,” I said a few days later to Rafael, who also functions as our team coach.
“Why not?” he asked. “Are you sick?”
“Of what?” he asked.
“Embarrassing myself,” I said, kind of embarrassed to hear myself embarrassing myself in this way.
“You don’t need a hard serve to win,” he said. “All you need to do is get the ball over the net. Every time it comes to you. The winner, in tennis and in life, is usually the one with fewer unforced errors.” He sounded like Yoda, if Yoda were a tennis pro from Brazil.
The unforced error is when you beat yourself. The ball comes to you and you hit it into the net. Or you hit it long. Or you hit it onto the roof of Gary Burke’s car, in the parking lot, which I do, a lot.
But the worst error of all is when you don’t even try.
On game day, I knew our opponents were going to be tough. During warm-up, the tall one kept hitting fast, spinning serves. I knocked a couple toward Gary’s parking space just to show her that she didn’t scare me. But of course, she did.
During the match, however, I stayed tough and maintained my focus. When she hit a 400-mile-an-hour drive straight at my kidneys, I played my game: the dink. Soft returns, ridiculous loopy lobs and a serve that floated across the net like a matzo ball made with love.
But a funny thing happened. My opponents kept overhitting. Meanwhile, my partner, Cheryl, and I got most of our shots in. At one point in the second set, I even heard one of our opponents hiss to the other, “But her serves are so soft ...”
“Float like a matzo ball, sting like a bee,” I thought. And wafted another of Nana’s seltzer specials over the net.
We won, 6-2, 6-3.
A few hours later, after that first incredible endorphin rush subsided — and after I had called everyone I know to shriek, “I won! I won!” into the phone, and after I had texted my daughters at college with the news, and after I did a little secret victory dance in the shower — I realized that I couldn’t wait to play again.I was back on the Team.