A story about tennis.
“One serve, Dave. It’s just one serve. Once that’s done, all you need to do for an entire game is return the favour, until you drop, or the other one drops. And then, it happens all over again,” said my coach. I nod. Even though there is something in that theory that I absolutely fail to understand, I nod. My coach looks at me, his brow furrowed into a frown as he tries to read the mind of a blonde, knock kneed five-year-old boy whose chief ambition in life was to be the greatest tennis player in the world, barely knowing what that meant. A full sixty seconds later, my coach gives up on his quest and asks, “Did you understand everything?” I shake my head.
“What didn’t you understand?” said my coach, gently.
“Why is it only me that has to return the favour when the other boy serves just once?! It’s not fair!” I say, stamping my foot.
On hearing my dearest concern, coach cracks up into a thousand bits while I just frown.
Coach opens his mouth to say something. And that ‘something’ comes out in mum’s voice, “Wake up, Davie! You’ll be late.”
My eyes flew open. “Where’s Coach?” I said, without realising.
“Coach, sweetie?” asked my mum raising her brow.
“Well, he was here, wasn’t he? He spoke about serves and returning favours and...”
“David, it’s 7 am. You’re at home, in bed and currently running late for school,” said mum, somewhat sternly.
“Wha-...but…oh,” I managed, finally awake and fully aware, “Good morning mum.” I got out of bed and made my way towards the bathroom. I felt tired. Tired of being myself, tired of looking into the mirror and seeing a loser, tired of going through each and every day, applauding everything possible but myself. Tired of being tired.
I got ready, yawning every two seconds. Besides my eternal tiredness, I had to deal with the fact that it was Monday. It was as if the entire day had just unleashed its dark side and was looking at me as if to say, “Deal with it, kid!”
I trudged down to the breakfast table and crashed onto a chair. I was fiddling with the handle of the milk mug when mum came in and yelled, “It is 7:43 am, David Marlborough! And that milk is meant to be drunk not stared at!”
Rolling my eyes, I lifted the cup and emptied its contents into my mouth and down my oesophagus after which I was sure that another drop of milk would make my insides come out.
In another second, my mother bustled towards me with a comb in her hand. I smiled at her, glancing momentarily at the comb. Noticing the glance, mum said, “Well you aren’t going to school with that bunch of octopi you have for hair.”
I looked at the long mirror in the lobby while mum brought out the car. I looked at myself, judging each centimetre of my existence. I tried smiling, when I realised that people smile at themselves only when they have something to smile about and not when they have lost every match in the season. This was enough to wipe that stupid smile off my face. I looked down at my right wrist and gently stroked the mushroom-shaped scar. Before I could go any further into my thoughts, I heard a honk. I got into the car, and mum zoomed off.
“I’ll see you in the evening half-way through your tennis,” she said as she stopped the car in front of Kensington High School.
“Bye mum,” I replied as I got out and walked into the large black gates of the school hearing them shut behind me.
“David Marlborough? Is that you?” screamed Mrs. Lawrence, in her usual loud but squeaky tone. “Y-yes miss?” I said, turning and staring at her as if I had never seen my class teacher before today.
What followed was a 15-minute sermon on punctuality and time management. At the end of it, she made me say, “I will never be late to school,” thrice and let me go by saying “Now that’s a good boy.”
I walked to class feeling like an alarm clock rather than a ‘good boy.’
I silently made my way towards my desk at the far end of the class. No sooner had I taken my seat, than the sports teacher entered and called my name. I went outside with another girl who had been called. “I need your birth-dates,” said the sports teacher Mr. Cole, “David, you first.” “12th February 2003,” I said, watching as Mr. Cole wrote it down beside my name with the word ‘tennis’ written below it.
“Thank you, David,” he said, “Amy?”
“5th December, 2002,” Amy replied.
“Perfect,” said Mr. Cole, “Now if the two of you could wait here till I get my camera.” I nodded, and waited.
“So, you’re a tennis player,” said Amy.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“How many years?” she asked.
“This is my tenth,” I answered.
“Long time,” she said. “Do you win?”
This one caught me off guard. I glanced at Amy before looking at my feet and wondering how to answer. Unable to find anything, I said, “Yes.”
“How many did you win last season?” she asked.
“None,” I said, my face burning with a feeling I couldn’t define.
“None?” asked Amy.
“Well, you see, it was my first year in the under-17 and I was the youngest in the draw and I wasn’t in form due to a wrist injury,” I said, piping up in self-defence.
“Oh,” said Amy. She looked at me uncertainly.
The lessons flew past, leaving no gap. It was as if all the lessons were in a race determined to win but like all of us they tire out as well and that ‘water break’ for the lessons in lunchtime.
I trudged down the steps, feeling lonely. A weird, overwhelming feeling swept over me. I wanted to cry my heart out. I wanted to ask God about this time. I felt angry at Him, for leaving me alone. I felt miserable. I felt like a loser, one that could never win. Ever.
The remainder of the school day was a blur of activities, none of which made me feel any better. Before I knew it, I was back home and getting ready for another endeavour-Tennis.
I lost a heartbeat each passing second. Soon it was time. All along the road, I was wondering why I was still playing, why I was still moving ahead, why I had chosen this in the first place and most of all why I was scared to do something I claimed to love so much. Before I could answer any of them, I was on-court, standing in front of my coach.
“Hello, David, “said my coach.
“Good evening Sir,” I replied.
“There is a tournament this weekend,” said my coach, “and I need you to participate.”
“How discreet,” I thought.
Clenching my teeth, I asked, “Where is it?”
“The Annual Leicester Cup,” Coach finished with a grin.
I just stood there, watching my coach with my mouth wide open Leicester Cup, one week. Why?
“Buck up man!” said Coach, patting me, “It’s your tourney! Remember that straight set win in 2012? And that first five setter of your life? It was all Leicester. Man, doesn't it root for you.”
“I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. It would still root for me then.” I said wistfully.
“Don’t you think like that one minute!” said coach sharply.
I sighed and nodded
“C’mon now, we have serves to improve.” The look of balls made me want to run away. My hands were in such a state that they could well be used for salt and pepper shakers at the Leicester Square Pizzeria. My first serve netted, second serve crossed touching the net. Third serve, fault. Fourth, double fault. Fifth, game opponent.
“What’s wrong?” coach asked.
“You’d better buck up,” he said finally. I nodded, and just stood there, fighting back tears. I took a few deep breaths and picked another ball with trembling hands. The rest of the serves were as nightmarish as the previous ones.
“That’s enough, take a break,” said my coach.
I went up to the stands where I had kept my bag and collapsed onto one of the chairs.
I looked out of the open gate as I sucked my sipper, drinking nothing. My instincts told me to take my bag and get out and never return. Everything was on my side then. The gate was open, my bag was in my hand, I could very well run out but the only problem was that I couldn’t move.
“Ready, Dave?” Coach called.
I looked up with a start. What was he thinking? Me? Ready?
Despite this, I nodded and got up with a hell of an effort.
“I’m gonna be playing against you. That way, we can see all your shots,” said Coach.
“Oh,” I replied half-heartedly. I saw mum enter through the gate. The domino game was about to begin.
I netted the very first shot. I managed barely to return few balls till the rally ended due to coach netting the ball. This was the only time I suppressed a grin but as the game advanced, I only wished I had grinned because after that, the whole session made me want to cry. It all started when I saw my competitor, Bret Hastings enter the court. My legs turned to gelatine. I stood frozen and the ball ended up hitting my thigh.
“David! Forgotten to hit?” yelled coach.
I smiled like an idiot.
My coach shook his head and served again. I hit a haphazard thing which stopped right in front of the net. As coach went to get another trolley, I saw Bret win a game by returning a humanly-impossible-to-return shot against his coach.
My jaw dropped at the very sight and I fell to my knees.
“David?! Get up! “said an exasperated coach.
“Tired!” I yelled.
“Done for the day?” he said, coming up to my side.
I just looked at him, trying to communicate. I didn’t want to pack up, on the one hand, but on the other hand, I wanted to run home and hide under the bed.
Coach sighed, “Pack up, then,” he said.
I walked to where mum was standing, near my bag.
“Done,” I said, picking up my bottle.
“Why did you come here, David?” asked mum sternly.
I couldn’t utter a word cause if I did, I would be crying my eyes out. We walked home in silence. I went up to my room and looked at the two sheets of poster-paper pinned onto the soft board. Those words of ‘First in ATP world rankings’ and ‘I wanna beat Roger Federer @ 17’ mocked me. I was approaching retirement at 14. 17 was like afterlife.
Mum entered the room and saw me staring at the Federer poster. “You want to know the difference between you and that man?! You may have the same on-court etiquette but you work nowhere close to how passionate he is’” she yelled
Unable to bear it, I burst into tears. I cried like a baby, screaming my lungs out. I saw the broken future ahead of me. I looked at the poster on the floor. Mum was right. I was done.
I started attacking my soft board. The ironic thing was that despite my anger I couldn’t bring myself to destroy any of my things. All I did was pull out some tennis related photos and scatter them across the floor. At the end of it all, my head was spinning and my room was a mess.
What followed was a miserable dinner. I ate with my head bent as low as it could possibly be. That night I went to bed without wishing my parents.
Finally, the day of the Leicester cup dawned. I didn’t drink milk that morning because I knew my stomach was already filled with fear. I was trembling in the backseat of the car; it took me five minutes to get out at the venue.
Just as I popped out, my coach met me and said, “To the changing room then? C’mon.”
“Who am I playing?” I said in a muffled voice.
“Bret Hastings,” coach replied.
“Good luck, Davie,” said mum and dad in unison.
I saw Bret in the changing room and my legs turned to stone. I took deep breaths and tried to focus. When none of that worked, I knew for sure. “I’m losing first round.”
Just then, Coach came in and said, “It’s time.” I dragged myself through the tunnel. And onto the court. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the first round of Leicester Cup. Here on court alpha, we have David Marlborough against Bret Hastings. All the best to our participants!” said the commentator.
“Huge crowd,” said Bret to me, smirking.
“Yeah,” I answered.
I was so sure of losing that day. The toss proved this wrong. I won the toss.
“Marlborough serving for the game,” said the umpire.
I could hardly get a grip on my racket, much less serve. I began with a double fault. The rest of the game was just ‘Game Hastings’ and ‘Set Hastings’. My head was spinning and my shots were going haywire. I couldn’t run to get the ball on time either. I was literally hitting the balls frozen to one spot. I lost the match 6-2,6-0,6-0. I walked up to the net and gave Bret a rather shaky handshake. I walked back into the tunnel with one thought in mind, “I’m gonna quit today.”
I saw Coach, sitting near my bag.
“What was that?” he said softly.
“I’m done,” I told him.
“So, that’s it?” he said, “you’re gonna hang up?”
“You won’t be happy.” coach added as he walked out, leaving me on my own.
I put my head in my hands and let my tears flow. Packing up, I got up and walked out of the room, towards the parking lot. I saw my parents and Coach having a conversation. Dad unlocked the car and I got in. I collapsed on the backseat and before I knew it, my eyes shut and I drifted into a painful sleep.
I dreamt of my first Leicester Cup when I was 8. I was a complete unknown but by the end of it, I was a crowd favourite. I was pitted against a ten-year-old boy in the first round. The match was my first five-setter. I lost that match. In disappointment, I was up all evening, hitting balls with my coach.
I saw myself on that fateful evening in 2014. I was playing a doubles match hitting every ball as hard as ever. It all changed when one of the balls came straight through the centre. My partner and I lunged at the ball at the same time and before I knew it, my partner’s racket came crashing on my wrist. After that, it was just diagnosis, confusion and tears. I had a hairline crack, a chip and a dislocation, and a wire was required to hold it in place, surgically.
I saw myself playing with a crepe bandage, losing to players whom I had beaten in straight sets, receiving a lot of over pity from other parents.
Then my dream shifted to the time I broke my racket and the new one took a long time to come. I went to the court and cried every day, muttering “I wanna play tennis,” every 2 seconds. I saw, all those times in school, looking out of the door, wishing for my coach to come and take me to play bang in the middle of lessons.
Suddenly realisation struck, it was that love for Tennis, which gave me the courage to go on court every time, despite my disastrous losses in the past 2 years. I had taken this for granted. I played for myself, for my fame, for winning, for so many other things, but there was one thing for which I never played, it was Tennis.
“David, we’re home,” said Dad.
I woke up with such a start that I rolled off the seat.
“Oh.” I got out and tried to breathe. I felt a weight on my heart, one that choked me.
“I’m not done yet,” I whispered to myself, “I’m not quitting,”
“Jeez,” I thought, “If an hour without tennis chokes me, I’d be dead in a week without it.”
I smiled at that thought. I waited as mum and dad walked up behind me. Even though I didn’t look at my parents, I could feel them right behind me. If I hadn’t called it quits then, my parents would probably have yelled. I could hear mum sobbing silently behind me. It was strange but I was shocked at what quitting tennis could do to everyone.
The next day, I woke up early, I left my parents a note saying, ‘I’m out and don’t worry’ signed with a smiley.
“Ok, guys. Time for a water break,” Coach told the kids.
“Morning Sir! When is the next tournament?” I asked.
“Kensington Trophy,” coach replied, utterly stunned, “in a month and a half.”
“Sign me up,” I said. “You were right, I won’t be happy.”
“See you in the evening,” said Coach, patting my back. I smiled and walked back home.
“Where were you?” Mum asked.
“Tennis,” I replied with a grin.