Playing Ball: That Winning Shot

Friday, February 17, 2012 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1aWhen the freshman players walked into our coach’s office at Swarthmore College in the fall of 1987, the first things we noticed were the photos. There were a dozen or so of them on the walls, all framed, all black and white. Nearly all of them were of the 1981 and 1985 tennis teams, each of which had won a national Division III championship, an extreme rarity in the school's athletic history.

There were action shots and celebration shots, as well as one photo of each team after the trophy ceremony, all the members lined up, grinning crookedly. Two players from each of those teams held the Holy Grail of college sports, the rectangular wooden NCAA championship plaque, which looks exactly like the one that the winners of the Final Four in basketball gather around every March.

We studied the photos with awe and apprehension. This is what winning looked like; this was the top of the mountain we had not yet begun to try to climb. It was, frankly, hard to imagine ourselves in any of these shots. How did you become a national champion of anything, anyway?

The guys on the ’81 team, while they had played there just six years earlier, already looked like they came from a different, post-60s era. Many were rail thin, wore high socks, and sported long hair and headbands. We could relate to the ’85 team a little better. By then short, preppie-yuppie hair had come back, and the players looked like jocks rather than hippies in disguise. The team was lined up along the stone wall at the back of our courts. Two seniors at the center held the big plaque. They had blond hair, flip-flops, and easy smiles. Winning it all looked like the easiest thing in the world.

There was a senior on our team who had been a freshman in '85. He made those guys sound even cooler than they appeared to be in the picture. According to legend, they’d been honor students, Big Men on Campus, committed athletes, and clutch players. On the one hand, this legacy was intimidating; anything short of another national championship would be a disappointment. But it was also inspiring; there was a tradition of success in tennis at Swarthmore—the great coach Ed Faulkner had built the program—that made losing harder to accept.

That spring, the team made its annual trip to California for spring break week. Each year we traveled down the coast from San Francisco to L.A., playing a team a day. One of the first we faced was UC-Berkeley. It was a terrible mismatch, of course. Berkeley was a Top 20 Division I team; they existed several levels of the game above us. But our coach had played there, so they scheduled a practice match with us.

I was the No. 2 player in our line-up, and I got beaten badly. Serves blew past me, returns blew past me. It was a humbling afternoon, one of those in which you’re unpleasantly reminded of your place in the very long tennis pecking order.

Not that I was the only one. Players on high school and college teams, who play next to their teammates, feed off each other. They follow rallies out of the corners of their eyes and see the scores change on the scorecards. This day all of the feedback was negative. The Berkeley players might have been taking a stroll in the park. One of them, Michael Chang’s older brother, Carl, spent his time between points whistling a Depeche Mode tune.

After my singles, Berkeley’s coach asked his player what he thought of my game. The gesture was meant to be helpful, but who wanted to hear what the guy who just kicked your butt had to say about your losing style?

“He started to hang his head as the match went on,” my opponent said of me. It was true, I thought, hanging my head a little more as I walked off the court.

Our team gathered, slump-shouldered, in the bleachers above the first court. They say playing better players helps, but this day had just made the gap between us and really good college players appear unbridgeable. The Berkeley coach must have felt our gloom, because as he practiced with his top player he periodically turned around and gave us tips based on what they were working on. Again, the gesture was well meant but not so well received. Our reactions ranged from grudging grunt to mumbled epithet. “You killed us,” one of my teammates asked under his breath, “now you’re going to yell at us?”

That evening the gloom lifted as we walked through the quiet college-town streets of Berkeley. I’d never been west of Pittsburgh, Pa., before then, but like any good future English major, I had read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums in high school, and I recognized the neighborhoods, with their rumpled lawns and blue TV sets shining in the living rooms one after the next, that he had haunted and celebrated.

At one of those Berkeley houses we met up with EP, a member of the ’85 team and one of the guys holding the championship plaque in the photo back at Swarthmore. He was mellow; “sweet,” he said, softly, to any piece of positive news. He talked a little about his title season with his old teammate, and asked how we had done against Berkeley that day—that news wasn’t so sweet.

They remembered upsetting a Division I team in ’85. It had been an early sign of where they were heading, that the work was paying off, that they were doing something right.

“I remember one guy hitting this vicious return at Shep, and I thought, ‘this point’s over.’ Then the ball comes back off Shep’s racquet right down the middle for a winner. He’d never hit that shot in his life, but he had it from then on.”

Before we left, EP opened his closet and pulled out a racquet. “This is the racquet we won it with,” he said. He and his doubles partner had won the clinching match two years earlier. “I haven’t hit with it since.”

We studied it. Those were the strings that had won it. Could that be the felt from the title-winning ball stuck to them? There it was again, in front of us: the possibility.

The next year, we beat Columbia University, a very good Division I school, for the first time. The year after that, we won Swarthmore's third Division III national championship in nine years. We went out on our courts the next morning and had a team photo taken with the NCAA plaque. It still didn’t look as cool as the one from ’85, but we'd done our best.

*****

Have a good weekend.

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