Your Serve: Tennis Lessons
For this father, the sport made all the difference in his life—a lesson he’s passing on to his children.
By Doug McPherson
Looking back, it’s taken me a good 30 years to appreciate just how important tennis has been to my life, and I hope, will be for my kids, too. My story starts in Paris, Tenn., a town of about 8,000 people and six tennis courts, fortunately two blocks from the dysfunctional home where I grew up.
Dysfunctional? You decide. My father hanged himself eight months before I was born. That left my mother emotionally deflated—flat and unresponsive to life’s daily duties, toward herself or employment. I remember when the phone was cut off and when the utilities man came to cut off our electricity. A few years later, my brother, 10 years my senior and whom I idolized (he had been captain of his high school football team and class president and my only male role model), developed schizophrenia and spent the rest of life in and out of mental hospitals.
Where did all this leave me, a 10-year-old trying to make sense of people he loved leaving him, with no control to stop them? For most days, in front of a 20- by 15-foot pale green cinderblock wall with a white line painted 3 feet from the bottom and straight across. It was there I’d spend hours batting a dead, bald tennis ball with an old metal racquet I got at a yard sale for 50 cents.
My first lesson from tennis was that the rhythmic thud of a tennis ball hitting a wall could be comforting. Therapy really. I could always count on that wall. I would eventually learn that I could count on tennis, too.
In time I was able to keep the ball in play long enough against the wall to get the attention of older players, sometimes a threesome seeking a fourth. I remember them clearly:
Curtis Jackson, a lean, clean-cut man in his 50s with jet black hair, a clunky but reliable backhand, and a fiery competitiveness. Don Huie, built like a linebacker, with a volcano-like temper, from which I learned two things: new cuss words and that the right amount of force mixed with anger could break a racquet. Larry Arnett, a meticulous dresser who drove a banana-colored Cutlass and always hit a slice backhand.
And Charlie Marlow, an easygoing 50-something, well-mannered player who displayed a sophisticated etiquette and perspective. He took bad shots in stride. After missing an easy putaway, he’d just brush it off. He knew a bad shot in tennis was just that. I knew that early on, too. When I was 17, after a long three-setter under the lights, Charlie gave me a beer. Acceptance from a man I admired. Yes, tennis was important.
Today, at 48, I’m the father of a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy. As they grew older I started using tennis, at the two public courts near our house, as a way to have some fun with them and get some exercise. But soon I began to think about tennis in a way I never had—as a teaching tool. In fact today, as I’ve renewed my love of the sport, I see it as the perfect way to teach my kids about life.
For me, tennis has become a much-needed tool because I’m basically a father without a map—I can’t rely on memories of a dad showing me how to be a dad. So tennis has become a way for me to share with my kids the true values they’ll need in life. How to persevere (when you’re behind, don’t quit, try harder). That becoming good at something takes work (practice and patience make a difference). That bad decisions sometimes have horrible consequences (be choosy about when to try a drop shot). In life, as in tennis, it’s just you out there (you’re responsible, make fair calls, work hard and do your best). And another key lesson: there’s always a net on the court (and there’s always a net in life; some things you simply have to overcome, but you can have a damn good time doing it).
I overcame a couple of “nets” as a child and tennis helped. During my teens, I could have traveled down so many wrong roads, but tennis and some great father figures made all the difference in my life. They never spoke of my troubles at home, although I’m sure they knew. But they let me in. They made me feel I was OK. They just showed up and played tennis with me. I’ll never forget them and their kindness. And I doubt my kids will ever forget the lessons they’re learning, either.
Who knew a sport so simple could be so magnificent, useful and beautiful?
Freelance writer Doug McPherson is an avid 4.5 tennis player in Centennial, Colo. He also says he can’t get enough of his kids.