Finding “Love” Later in Life

The author with a friend at a charity tennis event.

My birthday present arrived today.

It’s white with gold trim and my hand fits nicely around the handle. It’s my new tennis racquet and I love it as much as I used to love a pair of Manolo Blahniks from 10022-SHOE. (The shoe department at Sak’s Fifth Avenue in New York has its own zip code.)

I came into competitive sports late in life. After my daughter was born and I was taking time off from my career to be a stay-at-home mom, I took up tennis at the county park.

As an adult, I have always been athletic and I have been working out since my early 20s. I even ran and finished (barely) the New York City Marathon. But I was never part of a sports team as a child. I was your typical Filipino kid from San Francisco. My friends and I sang and dance and avoided the gym when we could. My parents also were not the athletic type or, rather, they didn’t push sports the way most parents do now. But I don’t blame my parents, I blame a young man named Barry. I can pinpoint the fateful summer that drove me away from the gym to a choir room.

We didn’t have travel teams in our town when I was a kid, we had the YBA (Youth Basketball Association). My mom signed me up one summer after I had showed some interest in playing. Bless my mom’s heart. Despite money struggles, she found a way to sign us up for swim lessons and basketball. (Of course, swim lessons in the ’70s were 10 cents at the public pool and there was no mom chauffeuring. I was a seven-year-old taking the bus to lessons.) But I digress, back to basketball. It was disastrous. Well, maybe not for the other teams. We lost one game by 50 points.

There were about a dozen of us on the team, mostly Asian kids. (I grew up in San Francisco’s Sunset District in the late ’70s where, I hear, the demographic hasn’t changed much.) Our coach was Chinese-American. Barry wore what would be considered trendy nerd glasses today, but, back then, it was just that he couldn’t afford hard-lensed contacts, or, they were just too uncomfortable. Despite the glasses, Barry was no nerd. He would strut in every afternoon in his knock-off Adidas warm-up jacket and start yelling at us to move. I would leave practice dripping in sweat.

Barry also had a temper. He really should not have been coaching a bunch of 11 and 12-year-olds. During games he would start turning purple before the profanity spewed from his mouth. Mind you, our parents were all working when we had our games, so there was no one to complain. We probably all thought this was what adult coaches do. Now, when I look back, I think Barry was probably 19.

Barry also never let me play. I was a bench warmer. While I thought I was a decent ball player, even among this rag tag crew, I was what he called a weak link. (Yes, boys and girls, this was before everyone got a trophy just for participating.) I wanted to prove him wrong, but I never got a chance. Until one afternoon, he finally called my name.

Demillo,” he barked. “You’re in.

The author’s equipment close at hand.

Yes, it was just like the movies. In the movies, however, the bench warmer always finds a way (cue the music and the slow-motion) to shoot the winning basket. Do you see where this is going? Our team was trailing by God-knows-how-much and my only friend was dribbling looking for an open player. Everyone was covered, but me. She had no choice. She (reluctantly) passed it to me.

I don’t know why I didn’t start dribbling closer toward the basket. I had every intention of doing that. I froze. Barry and my teammates were yelling at me and I thought I heard shoot. (Now, when I look back, I think they were yelling, “Don’t let her shoot!” ) I couldn’t find an open player, so I looked at the basket and threw the ball up in the air and because I was just inches away from the half-court line, the ball missed the basket by at least 5 feet. It might as well have been 100 feet. Mind you time was not running out, but it ran out for me.

My horror was drowned out by laughing, from my team, the other team, a few odd spectators. Barry had his head in his hands. As we ran toward the other basket to defend the ball my only friend bumped into me and said, with dismay, “Why did you do that?”  Barry never let me play again, no matter by how much we were losing. Seriously, there is no way to comeback from a 50 point deficit.

Anyway, that was a turning point in my young athletic life. I never played competitive sports again until I was 40.

I had played a little tennis in the past, but never took a lesson. I was hooked. I was also fortunate to make a friend in the class who also caught the bug. We started taking clinics together and eventually played in leagues.

This summer I played on my first U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) sanctioned team. I also joined a singles league at a nearby town. At one point this summer I was playing competitive tennis three days a week. After sitting through my daughter’s swim meets and daily swim practices, I would drag her to the tennis courts to watch me play. Even though, every time I hit a winner, I would look at her and she would be looking at her iPad.

Believe me, I still have a long way to go. And just like everything else in life, you only get better the more you practice. But I love to practice, I love the clinics, I love to win and yes, I love the cute tennis outfits. What I really love about tennis is even as an “older” person, south of 20, I can still improve. There are women I play with in their 60s and 70s who can still hit hard and precise winners down the line. Tennis is perfect for a goal-obsessed person.

While I can’t dream about turning pro and playing at the U.S. Open, I can still dream. I dream about going from a 3.0 to a 3.5 in tennis rankings. I dream about my team winning our division.

And, really, I’m happy with dreams of winning my singles match tomorrow.  Too bad it’s not against Barry! ♥

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