I met Cynthia ten years ago when we were both taking tennis lessons on Friday mornings. I had just had my twins and was struggling with balancing my life. She had a boy in elementary school; we were both underemployed. Immediately I sensed that Cynthia had the same passion for the game as I did, and I asked her to play outside the lessons. We haven’t stopped playing since. We’ve played through injuries, job changes, aging bodies, and grief. We’ve played outside in wind and sun, inside when it’s cold; we’ve played in spring, summer, fall, winter, and lately, COVID.
Even though we are on opposite sides of the court, we are somehow a team. When I start losing my serve, she cheers me on. During injuries, she’s fitted me with proper bracing to keep me healthy. We trade secrets, observations we’ve made of the pros, how we can improve. If she wins the first set, I’ll win the second. When my serve is on and I am confident, I can win; without it, her swift, powerful forehand leaves me scrambling. I can’t help but admire how perfect her shots can be. As competitive as I am, on some level, I am rooting for her, too.
“Did that catch the line?” she’ll shout from the other side of the net. If I have any doubt, she gets the point. If not, she accepts it and we move on. Same thing can be said for my shots. We never quibble over points—that just cuts into the playing time and with our busy lives, there’s only so much of it.
We’re in our fifties now and after we play, my knees ache, and I’ve got to ice my forearm and elbow, otherwise the tendonitis will worsen to the point where I won’t be able to hold the racquet. Cynthia takes care of herself better than I do: she’s always fit with the proper braces, has the necessary water bottles, extra can of balls, towels for sweat. I, on the other hand, am often ill-equipped and run off to the court as if I am running for my life.
Two years ago, I had a cancer scare and needed abdominal surgery; it was Cynthia on the other end of the line telling me to calm down and not jump to any conclusions. While I convalesced, she’d text me, “You got to take it easy, go slow. Rest.” I knew she genuinely cared, but I also knew she was checking in to see when I was ready to play.
Last spring, when COVID hit, Cynthia lost her mother. She hadn’t seen her before she died and when we finally met on a warm day in May, she told me she was busy going through her things—her clothes, jewelry, make up. “My beautiful mother,” she’d say, immersed in grief. I knew she was suffering, and I knew to deal with it, she had to play. I tend to bring my life’s anxieties and frustrations onto the court, but Cynthia doesn’t. Those court lines act as a barrier to the woes of her life, and when she is within them, there’s nothing but that ball and me.
In tennis, as in life, you need to be confident. As a writer who is constantly in the throes of rejection, I wrestle with this. But I’m learning from Cynthia. I’ve watched her struggle through a first set: she can’t return my serve, hits the ball out or into the net. I hear her talking to herself, diagnosing what’s wrong, pointing out what’s right, giving herself a pep talk. Her attitude shines through with positivity and she starts her come back, while I flounder mentally, losing confidence. She comes back to win the set having been down 5-0 and all I can do is watch her and learn the right way to play tennis.