Category Archives: Tennis

Serena Williams and her Tennis Family

Yesterday I read On the Line by Serena Williams and Daniel Paisner. This is probably not a book for you if you don’t love tennis, and it is certainly not for you if you don’t like Serena (unless you have an open mind, and then this book may swing you into her camp).  I am a big Serena fan and I am relatively new to watching versus playing tennis, and for me this book was a good combination of the recent history of women’s tennis and the personal history of Serena Williams, her remarkable parents, and her sisters.  On the Line is told in a voice that sounds authentically Serena-like, and with its easy-going and engaging pace, it is a pleasure to read, a cut above the usual tennis/sport biography.

The story of how Richard and Oracene Williams first taught themselves tennis, and then took their five girls to the broken-down courts of Compton and drilled into them the skills, the discipline, and the desire to play tennis was  really fascinating.  Their story is the American Dream of  pursuing a dream for the money, stability, and status; what makes the story so compelling is how the symbiotic relationship between the Williams family, a cohesive and supportive unit, and the local tennis talent (Richard Williams found hitting partners in all types) and tennis community (local tournaments and events), worked to create the superstars Venus and Serena Williams.  It takes a village, and in the case of the Williams sisters, it took an extremely close family, strong faith, and support from the local tennis community, to become who they are today.  Not a bad formula for success, no matter how you define success: family, faith (or another form of connection to a larger vision — no religion required), and community.

The reason that I read On the Line in the first place was not because of the US Open fever I find myself in every year but because I knew that Serena lost a sister six years ago and I wanted to know what she had to say about her oldest sister’s sudden death and the aftermath of that death on herself, her family, and her tennis. For those of you who have been following this year of mine, reading my reviews of the books I read every day, you know that I lost my oldest sister over four years ago;  I began this year of reading in part to find solace for a death that was sudden, undefendable, unexplainable, and unimaginable.

And after reading On the Line, I have had an epiphany.  It is strange in a way, this sudden and powerful insight coming so close to the end of my book-a-day year, and being sparked by a celebrity biography.  But as sudden as the insight may seem, I know that it has been a cumulative process, the books I have read have been provoking and percolating and pit-stopping in my brain throughout the year.  And now I know.  I know that I do not want  to define my sister’s place in my life by her death. I do not want the most important thing about my sister, the biggest part of her or the most impact she had on me, to be how she died.  I want, I choose, for it to be how she lived.  Because it is her life that matters, and always will, not her death.  Her place in my life is defined by everything that she did, everything she showed me, the way she led me to new ideas; it is every way that she was to me, as the oldest sister, scholar, beauty, friend; it is the way I worshipped her and bugged her and loved her.  Who she was is what I want to dwell on, not her horrible loss and my horrible pain but her wonderful life. I will anchor myself with her life, and not with her death. Death took all choices away from her, but not from me, and I choose to live on with her beside me always, alive in my very good and happy memories of her life.

Serena does not say anything like this in On the Line but her shared thoughts on her sister’s sudden and untimely death were surprisingly sharp, smart, and cogent.  I say surprisingly because so many religious people I know were no help after my sister’s death; they wanted me to see God’s design where I could only see chaos.  Serena, deeply religious, saw chaos also.  She admits that her religion could not help her after her sister died, nor could her tennis or her family: instead Serena had to come to that place, that moment,  when she chose what to do with her life. That is what we owe to our sisters, choosing our lives.

On the Line is a sports biography, inspirational, exciting at times, and with little probing or critical thinking.  But it is also a memoir about one girl’s experience as the youngest daughter in a very close family, her dream of being a tennis star, her tragic loss, and her powerful choice.  Serena is now a woman, and she has energy,  grit, and determination, as well as more than a bit of charm and fun.

Otto Penzler: Tennis Love (and Murder)

Yesterday I read Murder is My Racquet, a collection of tennis crime fiction stories, a perfect combo of my weekend mystery ritual plus my yearly obsession with the US Open tennis tournament, played just one hour away in Flushing Meadows, Queens.  I was lucky enough to visit the Open twice this past week — a challenge for my book-a-day quest but I managed by reading while waiting in line for the gates to open (slightly embarrassing to read about fornication and inebriation in John O’Brien’s Better and be asked for details about “What are you reading there?” by the sweet retirees from the Midwest who had also gotten themselves to the Open at 8:30 in the morning — perhaps it was my honest answer that allowed me to leave them stunned and gaping behind me and race like the wind to secure first-row, unreserved seats in the Grandstand and watch from very up-close Haas, Wozniaki, THE WILLIAMS SISTERS, the Bryan Brothers, and John Isner  — what a day!).  From this point on in the tournament I will follow the matches via TV and live streaming from www.usopen.org; as long as no one in my house needs clean laundry, fresh food, or milk, I should be fine watching all the tennis I can and reading my book a day as well.

Yes, I love tennis, both watching it and playing it, and I liked most of the stories in this lively collection, gathered together and edited by Otto Penzler, founder of New York City’s The Mysterious Bookshop and The Mysterious Press.  The stories do a great job illustrating the joys of tennis along with the trials of the game, including a realistic portrayal of the competition and corruption that exists at all levels, from local courts to international events.  Anger management plays a big part in many of the stories (“Terrible Tommy Terhune” by Lawrence Block is a marvelous and scary send-up of temper control on and off court), with some welcome vengeance from umpire and line officials (“The Rematch” by Mike Lupica) and unexpected consequences of a pro trying to help a player with his game (“The Continental Grip” by David Morrell).  The competition between players (and their parents) offers very fertile ground for crime as is to be expected (the wonderfully chilling and moving “Six Love” by James W. Hall); less expected is the murder stemming from ball boy angst at Wimbledon (“Needle Match” by Peter Lovesy).  There is a humorously chilling warming against unhappily married couples playing as a doubles team, especially when more than just the match is on the line (“A Peach of a Shot” by Daniel Stashtower); my husband and I usually manage to play without bloodletting, having learned that an encouraging pat on the butt goes a lot further than on-court shot analysis (during-the-match criticism can only lead to a serve being hit directly into the back of even the most-beloved spouse).

My favorite story was “Close Shave” by Ridley Pearson, a riveting story of corruption, hauntings, love, and tennis played in the zone. I was hooked from start to finish by this suspenseful tale, held rapt as much by a very important match as by the machinations surrounding its playing, its play-out,  and its pay-out.

Brad Gilbert: Tennis Tips for Winning Matches, Not Friends

Yesterday I read Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly, a tennis match prep book that focuses on “mental warfare.”  The title of the book comes from the phrase often used to describe Gilbert’s game; he was a player without any stellar shots or a big serve and yet he won matches through hanging tough mentally and by playing to his opponents’ weaknesses.

The book is really geared to the match player who wants to win, who plays to win, and who is willing to prepare physically and mentally for matches.  It is not so much a book for people like me who play a lot with friends and family and where playing hard is part of the game but gamesmanship — slowing play down by taking long breaks, speeding through matches to throw off an opponent, hitting another player’s weak shots again and again — is not.  Why would I want to play someone who has prepared for days to hit me with psychological warfare and why would any of my friends want to play me if I took that plan?

I would recommend this book for team players and tournament players but for me, a happy recreational player, the most useful part of this book were his suggestions on physical warm-ups before a match.  Warmed up players play better and I want to play better.  I just don’t want to approach every match like it’s war, because it’s not.

I prefer the advice of W. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis: “It is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest  possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try to create obstacles for him.  Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise.”  The victory is in playing your best and then reaching across the net for the handshake, with a smile and a thank-you, no matter who won.

Billie Jean King: Great Under Pressure

Billie Jean King’s Pressure is a Privilege is a genuine and heartfelt sharing of her philosophies on life all set within the framework of her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs, the battle of the sexes that set the record straight for the hundreds of thousands who watched the game:  women play sports as seriously and with as much entertainment value as men.  Her recollections of that match, including being carried in on a golden litter held aloft by athletic young men, the rigorous training schedule she worked out with coaches, her mental preparation, and why she took on the challenge in the first place, was great stuff to read.  It’s too easy to forget what King lays out in this book: that in the early 1970s women were paid little as tennis professionals, received none of the financial or institutional support in sports that men of equal talent did (in high school, college, or beyond) and that “women libbers” was still widely viewed as an epithet, not a compliment (I fear we’ve come a bit full circle on that one).

King took on Riggs’ challenge to play against him (just months after he’d wiped the court with Margaret Court) to provide support for the Title IX legislation being fought out in Congress, as well as to bring attention to the women tennis circuit started as the Virginia Slims Tournament and to offer proof that people would come out to see a woman play tennis, enjoy themselves, and be impressed by the ability and tenacity of a woman.  She achieved all that in her spectacular win over Riggs, and then continued on her trajectory of bringing tennis and fair play into the everyday life of millions around the world.  She has been a consistently human and humane ambassador for her sport and her gender.

Although I usually prefer my life lessons n the form of a good book of fiction,Pressure is a Privilege is an extremely readable and non-preachy exposition of her very solid ideas. Young people — still open to clear and simple messages — would especially benefit from her insights into goal-setting, determination, and integrity.  Her book should be mandatory reading for all young athletes and their too-often overbearing parents in how it prescribes taking personal responsibility, maintaining perspective, planning and executing goals, and respecting elders, history, and family. Divas will not be tolerated but there is no condemnation in this book and no diatribes, but also no holier than thou stuff.  King is a real person with her own issues that she does not try to hide: instead she uses her own battles as examples.

Each chapter is titled with a category of advice and finishes up with an encapsulation of the lesson.  For example, the second chapter is presented under “Lessons at the Dinner Table” and ends up with five basic rules:  “Be polite; Show respect to yourself and others; Listen to and engage your elders; Give to those less fortunate than yourself; Show gratitude.”  Simple stuff but strong because the chapter itself included a sharing of King’s life, moments from herself, that make the argument cogent and persuasive.  “See it Happen to Make it Happen” gives guidance on setting goals and meeting them, again simple stuff but not simplistically presented.  King understands, she has been there and she has helped hundreds of others who have been there: her advice is not talking through her hat but real stuff, straight from the racquet.

What she says about pressure being a privilege is applicable to many aspects of life.  As she says, being a parent is a privilege but it is marked by pressures of trying to do the best for your child, giving up certain liberties and freedoms in exchange for the joy of seeing your child flourish.  Having a great job is a privilege but comes with pressures of performance; being a good friend takes some work but the joys of companionship are worth it.

I have had the privilege of meeting King several times (and the pressure of nerves) and she really is a warm and kind person (nerves wiped away with one smile).  As she says in the book, she greeted me with “Hi, I’m Billie Jean” and then she engaged me fully in a conversation about the amazing strength of my two-year old in pushing his stroller all the way up a hill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a feat she’d witnessed. Pressure is a Privilege contains all her warmth, and more; it shares in simple and engaging prose her years of thinking about how to live well and fully, for herself and for others.  Good thinking, and good advice from a great woman.

Ryszard Kapuscinski and Eternally Abiding Africa

Yesterday I read the amazing The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski, about the forty years he spent in Africa as a Polish journalist.  He was in Africa from the late 1950s through the late 1990s.  Kapuscinski makes clear in his forward that there are a thousand Africas, and that there can never be one story or one explanation to cover such a huge and varied continent.  He traveled through or lived in Tanganyika, Tanzania, Ghana, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, Monrovia, Rwanda, Senegal, Zanzibar, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Mali, and Cameroon.  His stories are rich with details of the physical landscape, vivid with his portrayals of the people he met, and disarmingly personal in his affection and empathy for the many Africas he gets to know.

Kapuscinski loved his travels, enduring fear and deprivation for the joys of experience and knowledge, and that love is contagious through his book.  It is a real pleasure to read this book, and it offers a thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable, steeping into the cultures, climates, and histories of the many places he writes about. There are very disturbing and grim depictions of horrors and miseries: these, of course, are not enjoyable to read but they are real and moving, and necessary to understand Africa, and Kapuscinski’s enduring optimism and hope for Africa does not let the reader mire down in depression.  For him Africa is enduring and abiding and eternal, and full of so much that he has found to love and to admire.

In all the disparate places he either lived or visited, Kapuscinski found common themes of spirituality (a universal belief in a supreme being, One God, and the enduring influence, both practical and physical, of ancestors, and of spirits both good and evil) endurance (“their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humor”), timelessness (in Africa, “time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it…It is a subservient, passive essence, and most importantly one dependent on man.”), community (the individual cannot survive alone in Africa), war (thousands of little wars and too many genocides), and almost constant hunger.

The diet of the Africans that Kapuscinski met, no matter where he went, is never adequate, certainly in terms of western customs, but not for them either.  No food is wasted and every crumb is consumed at the one meal a day most of the poor Africans have to live on. Water is treasured as sustaining and too often, rare.   For some Africans, a bottle of water is their only sustenance for a day, for others it is a cup of mint teat, thickly brewed, or homemade beer with such a pasty residue at the bottom that it serves as a kind of nourishment.  Or the meal for the whole day might be rice with a spicy sauce, a stale biscuit or a banana.

Describing a meal in Lagos, Kapuscinski writes, “Every bit of food disappears immediately and without a trace.  Everything is eaten, down to the last crumb.  No one has any supplies, for even if someone did have extra food, he wouldn’t have anywhere to keep it, no place to shut it.”  Reading the many, many descriptions of meager meals shared, I could only feel disgust at how so many westerners have devolved into treating food as the enemy, with our diets and our proscriptions against eating that or this or that other thing.  “Respect the food you have”, I felt like admonishing my children last night: we truly do not know how lucky we are to have the basic means of survival: food, water, shelter, and a stable government.

Kapuscinski offers a deeply humanistic portrait of the many Africans and Africas he got to know during the time he spent there.  He is neither a sensationalist nor a reporter of the facts alone.  He shares with the reader his personal interactions, his own ruses for survival (including a horrifying bout with malaria), and his sympathy for the people he meets.  Kapuscinski witnessed torture during the years of WWII in Poland and he suffered from hunger, deprivation, and fear during those war years. Perhaps that made him more open and available to the Africans he met, and more understanding of the daily struggles they endure.

He ends the book with a story of an elephant invading a Christmas feast in  Tanzania.  One of the guest explains to Kapuscinski that the elephant embodies the spirit of Africa. “Because no other animal can vanquish an elephant.  Not a lion, not a buffalo, not a snake.”  Kapuscinski leaves us with this hope, a hope supported by the marvelous histories he has given us in The Shadow of the Sun. I recommend that everyone should read this great book.

Seventies’ Style for Today

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey is a wonderful artifact of the seventies.  It is completely lacking in irony and chock-full of zen insight; it is also refreshingly optimistic about the possibilities for all of us to play better tennis and enjoy a better life.

I liked this book a lot.  Gallwey gives some good advice on tennis and he makes sound connections to life lived off the court as well.  Much of what he says will sound familiar to anyone who has read any zen-based guides on concentration, meditation, and focus.  Stay in the moment, relieve your mind from worrying about the past or the present, let yourself be fully in the present.  How to do that?  Focus on something in your present moment, the seams of the ball coming toward you, the smells of the freshly-mown grass, the sound of your child’s voice — and when all else fails, focus on your breathing.  Nothing is more present than the in and the out of your constant, rhythmic breathing.

Gallwey talks a lot about visualizing and feeling the correct way to do something, even actually doing the swing or the serve and watching your arm as you do it, feeling where your racquet is, visualizing where you want the ball to go.  Then he advocates letting your body play without thinking about where everything is supposed to be (arm, feet, swing) and just letting your body do what it feels is right.  Let go of trying to control, trying to remember every little thing you are supposed to do.  But do keep your eye on that ball, don’t let that go: focus.  Thank you, Yoda, I think I’ve got it.  But you know, he is right.  Letting your body play and your mind enjoy gets you to better tennis.  Or at least tennis that is more fun (more on that later).

Gallwey made excellent points about the issue of competition that really resonated.  I always have trouble beating people (other than my husband, I love when I rarely beat him and I always try very hard to beat him — at tennis.). With others, especially friends, I hold back. As Gallwey points out, we think when we are playing that we will feel good (validated) if we win; the corollary is that our opponent will feel bad (devalued) if she loses.  As Gallwey says “[t]here would be no problem with competition if one’s self-worth was not at stake“.  Or the self-worth of a friend, which we don’t want to damage; we support our friends.

Gallwey advises us to throw out the idea that any intrinsic value of inner worth will flow towards the winner and away from the loser: it is just a game and the best games are ones where you play hard, you play your best.  When the game is over, you will feel tired but satisfied, no matter what the outcome. “It is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest  possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try to create obstacles for him.  Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise.”  The victory is in rising, in playing hard and then reaching across the net for the handshake, no matter who won.

PARENTS out there: if your kid wins a baseball game or dance competition or spelling bee, you have not won the best parent award.  At best, you have taught  your child to compete with engagement and enjoyment (congratulations!); at worst, you are creating someone who equates winning with self-worth (then your should read Gallwey’s book).

Now to the best part of The Inner Game of Tennis, the chapter where Gallwey lays out the different types of tennis players, warning that  “that this guide not be read as an exercise in self-analysis, but as a key to discovering how to have more fun while playing tennis.”  It is also a surefire guide to having fun while living.  Too many people do not have fun. Period.  Ever. On court or off.  Although times are rough right now, most people I know don’t have to worry about clean water, basic medical care, decent schools, or imminent homelessness, and  so we really should be able to laugh and relax, without the aid of cocktails or internet liaising or whatever.  We should be able to have some fun and not take ourselves so seriously.  Why do we screw ourselves up?

According to Gallwey because we are always trying to measure up, to prove ourselves, to be of value, and to be better than someone else.  Gallwey says, and I paraphrase, relax, chill out, set your own goals and reach  them for your own satisfaction.  Then he does something truly amazing: he makes reference to Jonathan Seagull!  Do we all remember Richard Bach’s Jonathan Seagull?  Are we back in the seventies? You bet we are and it is not such a bad thing.  “Like Jonathan Seagull, are we not an immeasurable energy in the process of  manifesting, by degrees, an unlimited potential?….We are what we are; we are not how well we happen to perform at a given moment…the score of a tennis match may be an indication of how well I performed or how hard I tried, but it does not define my identity, nor give me cause to consider myself as something more or less than I was before the match.”  Or before you lost your job or before the value of your house fell through the floor, or after you won the big bonus or scored the big deal.

Visualize your game, Gallwey says, and then let yourself live it, enjoying it all the way.  Great advice from the seventies. I say we all give it a try here in the 21st century.