“Secret Practices” | Part 4 of 5
By the summer of 2010, I was back training in Utah. I had already signed my contract with the University of Arkansas, a school that bragged of a women’s tennis team that was top 25 in the nation, to play with them that coming fall. And to my father’s surprise, I kept practicing even after the college deal was made. All he saw when he looked at me was the world’s number one tennis player. Anything short of that, in this case it was college, was a failure to him. I think he never understood why I kept playing and practicing if I wasn’t going to play professionally. I don’t think he knows how much I actually love tennis. Securing a contract with a college was hardly a reason to stop improving or spending time on the courts. To me, a full ride meant free training, free equipment, and free matches. I saw it as an opportunity for improvement and little bit of freedom. I had only dreamed of playing tennis without worrying about money spent by my parents. This would be an entirely different experience.
However, at seventeen I was old enough to defy my father without guilt — I think I was embracing what we call, “Teenage rebellion.” I admit, I was more edgy with him than I had ever been. He, on the other hand, probably felt like he had to pull on the reigns tighter than ever. We had gotten to the point where I didn’t involve him in my tennis at all, and yet he still tried to work tennis into my system as much as he could. When I came home, tennis “just happened” to be playing on the TV. He would call me in to watch tennis videos with him which I would “Thanks, but no thanks” to almost every single time. He would text me scores of girls I had played with while growing up when they won big matches or were playing big matches. If anyone I knew had won a big match, I knew about it from a text from my dad. Going to college and not continuing on to play professionally was already hard on me as it was. I admit, like my father, college felt a lot like taking “Second place,” which every athlete knows means absolutely nothing. I had felt inadequate as a human being. I went from being the girl who was going to be a professional tennis player to the girl who didn’t make it. Getting updates on girls that had actually “made it” didn’t put my seventeen-year-old self in the best of moods.
It was hard to accept that even with my professional dreams being quite dormant, my father never stopped being my coach. I had had hopes that he would slowly come around. I thought that maybe one day at dinner, we wouldn’t even talk about a match or a player’s ranking. Maybe one day he would ask me about a boy I was seeing. Maybe one day he would ask me about my writing. Maybe one day he’d be my father again — the man who took my family out to walk the dog all together on a Sunday or the man who would watch R-rated movies with my mother every Friday night with the doors closed. The more he acted as a tennis coach, the more I felt the absence of my father. I’m sure my sisters felt it too — and of course my mom as well. And the way he was so oblivious to it all, well, it broke my heart.
Practices with my dad as a junior were tough. I would be trying to listen to my coach with my dad standing on my side of the court telling me how I wasn’t getting low enough, that I needed to hit the ball earlier, or how I wasn’t light enough on my toes. It was a strain to hear instruction from in front of me (the coach) and behind me (my dad). Of course I hardly heard what my actual coach was saying because I would be getting so agitated by what my father was telling me from behind. In the end, I ended up mentally blocking out all instruction coming from any direction just to get the multiple voices to stay out of my head. Poor coaches, I’m sure there is so much I missed from them by just focusing on trying to stay calm. My parents probably spent a lot of money on lessons I was hardly even mentally present for.
Whether or not my father’s coaching was “correct,” it made my practices unbearable and thus quite pointless. I spent my time trying to get through them and please everyone rather than actually focusing on what I was doing. Practices weren’t helping me improve, they were just long, dragged out dog fights between me and my dad with my coach standing on the other side of the net like an innocent bystander. Now that I have coached on my own, I realize it’s hard to teach a player and get the parent (that is paying you) to understand they need to let the coach do what they are being paid to do. It’s an on going struggle that we coaches discuss amongst one another constantly.
I loved tennis, but not when my dad was around. I just couldn’t enjoy it and get into it with him there, yes, trying his best to help me, but also breathing down my neck. Eventually, I dropped lessons because I couldn’t afford to pay for them on my own, and I also didn’t want to let my dad pay for them either or else he would have a reason to justify being there with me.
I found a hitting partner that would give me tips here and there for no charge. Mostly, we would just drill and play points on our own. He was kind of like me and was trying to make it to the top with the little resources we had in Utah at the time. We set up practices in secret — yes in secret — meaning I didn’t tell my dad where and when. For a while, it was beautiful. It was just me and the ball. Hitting. Loving it. Remembering what it was like just to be playing tennis. The ball would become a blur of neon green, and I would lose myself. My mind and body breathed together, moved together, and flowed together. My hips, torso, and shoulders all twisted with perfect timing for every single swing. Once I got into “The Zone” there were no sounds. There were no distractions. There was only clean contact with my racket, an extension of my body, and the ball, my energy force. Whatever I was feeling, whatever I wanted to say, whatever I wanted to express…It all went into that little green ball. I will say, in all of my life, there are few feelings better than hitting a clean stroke completely and entirely using your mind, body, and soul and seeing the ball do exactly what you commanded.
Then all of a sudden, my father showed up. Yes, to one of my “secret practices.” He had gone looking for me because he had seen that my car was gone and knew I was out practicing. I imagine he must have driven to multiple tennis parks before he found the courts I was training at. A couple of times he just sat and watched on a bench behind the fence. With just him being there, my practice was already ruined. I admit, the blame can be put on myself as well. I mean, you must be asking why him being there was such a big deal. That’s a fair question.
Mentally, when I saw my dad at that point in my tennis-playing life, I just melted into nothing’s liquid form. There was only one thing — one person — that could get under my skin when I played tennis, and that was my dad. Even if he was sitting still on his best behavior, all I could see and hear was him standing at the fence yelling and shaking his head in disappointment. I still don’t know if I was imagining past situations where he was upset or imagining the inevitable future. I just couldn’t block him out, and I couldn’t hit a decent stroke when I saw him there. There was no reason for it, but I just couldn’t.
By the third time he managed to find me at one my “secret practices,” he stepped onto the court. Within minutes he asked as politely as he could, “Can I say something?” I just remember being so incredibly shocked by him asking to say something when he knew he wasn’t even welcome on the court.
“Sure, go ahead,” I said, hardly looking at him.
“You’re not getting low enough on your volleys. You need to get lower. That’s why you’re missing everything into the net. You just have to bend your knees. You can’t stand straight up like that. Maybe six inches to a foot lower. But much lower than you are now.”
I couldn’t believe it. He was actually trying to coach me at a practice I had snuck away to. His redundant comments on bending my knees burned a hole right through my stubborn chest. And of course, my seventeen-year-old self spent the next forty-five minutes standing up as straight as I possibly could just to try and drive my dad as crazy as he had driven me by walking onto a court I didn’t want him to be on. And it worked.
I let my teenage attitude and my father’s unwanted, persistent coaching ruin my last summer before I started college. I know he wanted the best for me, just like I did, but that didn’t make things any better. His good intentions and my will to improve didn’t justify how we acted with each other that last summer training at home. By the time fall came, I was ready to play some college tennis with a team, a real coach, and no voice behind me constantly telling me what I was doing wrong — I mean, helping me by coaching me with extra special attention. After all, the parent knows best, even if they’ve never played a tennis match in their entire life.