I have never thanked my father for one of the nicest and most difficult things he ever did for me, because until I thought of it just now, I didn’t realize he had done it, and I’m sure he’s not proud of it. My hope is that after he reads this, he will be.
Dad introduced me to tennis when I was 13, and the following year it seduced me away from my 6-year Little League baseball career. A lefty with a dangerous backhand but unreliable forehand, Dad hadn’t played much for more than 25 years. Working as a full-time CPA and commuting from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County most days, he didn’t get to spend as much time on the court as I, the youngest of his four children, did. Couple that with Dad’s 32-year age handicap and it’s easy to see why, in high school, I began to win most of our matches.
At some point in my childhood, I acquired a need to believe I was the best at everything I did. My pursuit of this impossible goal led to some painful moments. Throughout elementary school, I needed everyone to think that I was the smartest kid in the class, and I remember bursting into tears after losing a multiplication game to an intelligent and more mature girl in my fourth grade class because I felt the loss threatened my distinction as the brightest. I let go of that when I started junior high school, but I still had to succeed in certain situations, and one of these was whenever I played tennis with my father. I cared way too much about how well I played, and I used to lose my temper on the court in a way that I never did anywhere else, complete with swearing and tossing the racquet. Whether I won was not the issue; I had to play at a high enough level to satisfy the critics in my head.
As a member of the Mid-Valley League champion J.F. Kennedy High School tennis team in the spring of 1981, I never became angry during any of those matches. Playing the higher-caliber competition that year improved my game enough that I began a winning streak over my father that lasted much longer than it should have. Because I competed against other high school varsity teams, I couldn’t excuse myself for losing to Dad. He was, after all, older. And he didn’t get to play as often against good players.
He was tough, though. A track man in college, he could cover the court as well as or better than most of my high school opponents. Mark, the pro who gave Dad most of his adult lessons, used to tell me he loved to sit back and watch Dad run around the court chasing shots. Sometimes when I would least expect it, Dad would turn around one of my best serves or volleys and send it, with a flick of his backhand, down the line or crosscourt just out of my reach. High school competition did raise my game to a higher level, but not my confidence. My high school girlfriend of two years had intelligence, a heart-stopping smile, and a sharp, cynical sense of humor, but she broke up with me in March of our senior year. Over an 18-month span beginning in the summer of 1981, I asked five women out a total of eight times, and they all bailed on me, several at the last minute. One didn’t show up at all. This made me miserable. I saw myself as a smart, ugly clod.
Except on the tennis court. My father never took a set from me during a period that lasted, I think, almost two years. I’m not sure he realized that, but perhaps he did. He never used it as an excuse not to play me; in fact, he went out of his way to make sure that when we did get together during holidays and summer vacation, we played tennis.
My losing streak off the court ended around the same time as his did on it, and in retrospect I’m not sure that was a coincidence. While others trampled me in the romantic arena, I needed a place where I could rise above my setbacks and emerge with a victory. That place turned out to be the tennis court, and I fought hard to keep it that way. Dad never let on that it bothered him at all that it was at his expense, one of many expenses he would pay as my father. Fortunately, it’s not too late to acknowledge what he did and to say how thankful I am for it. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. And if you’re playing today, I sure hope you win. Even if the man on the other side of the net is me.