All Part of the Game

January 12, 2011

The past couple of weeks have been one long blur of tennis. Not me, mind you – it’s the kids I’m talking about. Tara started the weekend after Mrini did. I still think she’s not all that enthusiastic about tennis, but she clearly doesn’t want to watch Mrini playing while she sits out. I would have perhaps dissuaded her from taking on something just because Mrini’s doing it, but Amit was so keen for both of them to be into tennis that I didn’t stand a chance.

Predictably, while Mrini diligently does everything that she’s supposed to be doing, Tara can be found missing her turn in the queue, or facing the wrong way when it comes to her turn to hit the ball. Somehow, she manages to hit as many balls as Mrini does, though.

At home, Mrini has completely lost interest in writing and football. The moment she gets home from daycare, she runs to fetch her tennis racket. She doesn’t bother to wait for Amit and me to play with her, but starts tapping the ball right away. She has learnt to tap on every alternate bounce and can keep it up almost indefinitely (well, at least for about 15 taps). After a bit, she starts playing against the wall. She doesn’t manage to hit it to the wall more than twice in a row, but that doesn’t stop her from trying.

Tara didn’t have a racket. Initially, Amit insisted on getting just one racket for the two of them, and now that Tara had joined tennis class, she had to use a spare racket at the court. At home, she had to share the one racket with Mrini. Since Mrini was more devoted to tennis and since she had started playing at the courts first, their one racket had become “Mrini’s” racket by default. So we ordered a racket for Tara and got it at last just yesterday. I showed it to her in the morning as they were leaving for school. She was delighted, and told me not to open it, she would open it herself in the evening.

Yesterday evening, as soon as we got home, Mrini grabbed her own racket, and Tara got to work unwrapping her racket. A few minutes later, they were standing at opposite ends of the living room, hitting a ball to each other. One of them would play the lead ball; even if it went directly to the other, she would inevitably swing and miss. Then she would run to pick up the ball and start again. It was adorable!

When I was about 13 or so, my parents bought wooden tennis rackets from my sister and me and we went down to the nearby clay courts to play. There was a coach, or perhaps a marker, there, but he wasn’t very interested in coaching. There were a bunch of other girls, who also didn’t know how to play. There was an uneven, low wall to play against, an uneven ground for the ball to bounce on, and a massive, boundary-less field for the ball to get lost in. Whether you played in the court or against the wall, the rally seldom progressed beyond a single shot. Only if you were very lucky, did you get to hit a second or third shot, before walking off in the blazing sun to pick up the ball. (Of course, we used only one tattered ball at a time – balls were frightfully expensive.)

For a thirteen-year-old, it was a frustrating and short-lived experiment. It took almost two decades for me to come back to the game and actually learn how to play.

The twins didn’t seem to mind so much. The ball went all over the living room, but they are already used to running after it and picking it up, and they are especially adept at getting it out from awkward places like behind the TV or from under the steps. So they continued their game until I called them for dinner and hung their rackets up out of reach. Of course, Mrini has perfected the art of pulling up my computer table’s chair and standing on it to reach her racket, so that isn’t very effective anyway.

You never can tell with kids – they might be all enthusiastic about something one day, and then lose interest in it completely and move on to the next exciting activity the next day. I hope tennis is an activity they will continue to enjoy for a long time – it would be nice to be able to play with them as they grow up. And at least they do have a good court with a good coach nearby and they see Amit and me go there every day to play, so hopefully that will inspire them to continue. But even if they lose interest and move on to the next thing – it’s been fun watch them this far.


Wimbledon, Here We Come

December 20, 2010

No, we’re not going to watch (hopefully) Federer win on grass again next year. But another 12 years or so down the line, we’re going to sit in the Players’ Box.

In other words, Mrini started tennis coaching this weekend.

She’s been diligently practising both tennis and football with Amit (at home, in our living room, much to the detriment of the TV, music system, glass-fronted framed paintings, glass fronted bookshelf, and new inverter) for the past month or more. When Amit can’t play, she deigns to play catch (with a ball, I mean, not running catch) with me. In sports, as in other spheres, she’s diligent, focused, and persistent. She doesn’t easily get frustrated and she won’t take “no” for an answer.

It was more her eagerness and desire to learn than any innate skill that convinced me that she was, maybe, ready to start formally learning tennis. Amit spoke to Tennis Sir, and he said, “Ok, bring her in, let’s see.”

So on Saturday morning, no more than 30 seconds after I turned on the light, Mrini crawled out of the big, warm blanket and climbed into my arms. Then, as usual, she said “five minutes” and went back into the blanket. Less than five minutes later, she was up, grinning, and pulling on her tennis clothes – a straight-cut, short skirt and a full-sleeved, collarless, white T-shirt.

Tara followed suit and by 6 a.m. we were all in the car and ready to go.

Until 7.30, Amit and I played together, while the kids ran around picking up balls, throwing balls, talking to us, and generally keeping themselves busy. Then Mrini played (somewhat distractedly) with Amit for 20 minutes. (By “played” I mean, Amit threw the ball at her, and she tried to hit it. Mostly, she either missed it, or sent it right over the 12-foot fence.) By then her batch had assembled and done their warm-up and Sir called both of the girls to join them. Tara refused to go, but Mrini marched off excitedly with Amit.

For the next 90 minutes, we all had a blast watching as she made her mark on the world of tennis. She was the shortest of the ten-odd kids in her batch, the youngest, and the newest. One of the girls who was a little taller than her had started last weekend, but she was over six years old. Another boy was a newbie, but he was taller and older and much better co-ordinated. Mrini was so short that when she stood at the net to volley, she couldn’t see the ball coming at her. When she ran to the basket to take out a ball, if the basket was less than half full, she couldn’t reach down into it to pick up a ball.

But she didn’t care. Heck, no. She watched what everyone else was doing and did along with them. She swung at every ball and missed more than half the time, but never mind that. She ran around the court full tilt, picking up balls and sometimes forgetting to throw them back into the basket. She watched other kids and learned that you can collect more balls if you gather them on your racket, so she did that and then watched half of her hard-won collection roll off the racket head when she tried to pick it up.

The best part was when she ran to the net to pick up a ball. Sir told her, don’t pick up a ball from this side of the net, go to the other side. He meant, cross the net and look around the edge of the court for balls that have landed there. What did Mrini do? She took him literally, and instead of looking around the edge of the court, she ran all along the length of the net, right across one court and halfway across the next (where a halfway serious game was in session) to pick up balls!

Then the kids were told to take a ball each and tap. Mrini hasn’t learnt to tap, but she worked at it for a good ten minutes, unmindful of the fact that everyone else already knew how to do it.

Next, they were made to line up at the net and play catch. Mrini can catch a mini-basketball size ball with two hands, but a tennis ball? That’s just asking too much! Still, she lined up, and several times she caught the ball, albeit after one bounce.

Right at the end of the session, two captains were elected and they chose their teams. Naturally, Mrini, being the smallest, the youngest, and the newest kid on the block, was the last to be selected. She was then made the first to run in the relay race that followed. I wondered what she would do, considering she hadn’t seen this particular activity being done. But she understood what she had to do, and, tired as she must have been after a good three hours at the courts, she scrambled as fast as she could all the way around the courts and ended up no slower than the smallest kid on the other team!

Much to my relief, Sir told her to sit down after that. But when everyone was done running the relay race, he made them all do pushups! My baby! Doing pushups with the best of them! What a sight!

Obviously such a prolonged and physical morning outing called for a masala-dosa breakfast. The girls had had a couple of bananas each earlier on, but they still went through one whole masala dosa each, much to my amazement. And when we got home around 10.30, they still had space for their glass of morning milk!

The next session was on Sunday morning. Things went as per expectations except that Mrini was more distracted than on Saturday. At one point, she was looking at us as she walked around picking up balls. A boy who wasn’t looking where he was going slammed into her. Down she went, just exactly like ninepins, landing full length on her back with a thud. Obviously, she wailed and headed towards us. We shooed her away (though that was SO tough to do) and she went sobbing back to her place in the batch. She continued to sob for the next 15 minutes or so, but, resentfully, continued to do her part in all the activities. Of course she walked rather than ran, and continued to glower at everyone and to sob when she came near us, but she continued to do her bit right up to the relay race at the end, in which she ran as fast as she could. Sir jollied her along, firmly but kindly. Amit predicted that by the time the session ended, 40 minutes later, she would come to us with long, loud floods of tears, but I bet she wouldn’t. And she didn’t! She came looking sulky, but a minute later she was smiling again and when I asked her if she had fun and wanted to come back, she nodded happily! Even Sir was a little impressed – “she must have got hurt” he said, when she wasn’t looking.

It was a fantastic experience! I was so, so proud of Mrini. Getting bowled over by a bigger boy mustn’t have been too nice for her, but she held on all the same! And up until that point, she was so comfortable with everything. What coolth that girl has, what complete self-assurance. I love the way she just waded into the throng of six- to -12-year-olds and made herself at home. I love the way she didn’t get fazed at all the things she couldn’t do. I love that she came home thrilled to bits with herself, saying, “I played well!” on Saturday and even after falling over on Sunday, was still happy and looking forward to going back next weekend. I admire her spirit.


Tennis: Keep Your Eyes on the Ball, Girls

May 6, 2008

We took the twins for tennis on Sunday. Oh, we weren’t trying to get them to play (yet) – they were supposed to be audience or at best ball-girls, while Amit and I played. That was the plan.

It wasn’t the first time we had taken them to the courts – it was the second. The first time was Sunday a week earlier, when they had allowed us to play for precisely 25 minutes before Mrini began wailing and would not be consoled and had to be taken home post haste – wailing all the way.

In the following days, I realized that perhaps her shoes were too tight, so this time we had her in a larger pair of shoes. Also, I was more conscious about keeping them well fed and hydrated. Of course, I would imagine that no child wants to be awakened at 6 a.m. and hauled off to a strange place where they are expected to sit quietly in a corner, while their parents are off having a good time whacking a ball around. Nor did these kids appreciate it. It wasn’t that they minded being woken at six and taken off to the courts… it was just that they wanted to be out there on the court as well, bumbling around, picking up balls, leaves, sand, insects, and whatever else came their way.

The first half an hour or so was pretty good. I hadn’t been playing too well last week, but with just Amit and me on the courts, and the girls sitting quietly in the shade keeping themselves busy with God-knows-what, I was able to really focus and find my rhythm. Amit was impressed, which is saying a lot. Actually, Amit was already impressed last weekend, when he confessed to being amazed at the improvement in my game since we last played together, way back before we got the twins. But last weekend, with all of 25 minutes of play, I was only just warming up before the game was abruptly terminated by Mrini. This time, I really was able to get into my stride and I knew I was playing well, by my standards.

Then Tennis Sir dropped by to meet the twins. He is a really lovely person, and it says a lot about him that he didn’t make any stupid comments about the kids, the adoption, or about how lucky they are etc etc… just spoke to them a bit and told us how cute they are.

After that, the girls just could not be kept off the court. Despite the blazing sun (around 8 a.m.) they insisted on walking on to the court and standing right in the way of our game. We fed them, changed diapers, gave them water, showed them their toys, and told them to go sit in the shade, but nothing doing – back they came, walking on to the court and trying to get hit by the ball.

Luckily Amit was not playing his usual ferocious game of tennis, or it would not have been only the kids who would have had to leave the court in a hurry… All the same, I wouldn’t have wanted them getting bowled over even with one of my balls. I mean, they’re not even two years old yet! But Amit wouldn’t hear of calling it quits, so despite the two girls and sundry toys straying on to court, we continued to play.

I have to say that it probably did my game a great deal of good. When there are two moving targets that you’re desperately trying to avoid, and a partner who – under doctor’s orders – is supposed to avoid running at all costs (due to Patellar Tendinitis), you really have to direct your balls very, very carefully. Just to keep me on my toes (literally), Amit would periodically indicate that I should hit the ball to this side or that side of the court, and then we would shift the game to the indicated side, leaving the girls to slowly toddle over from their side to our side. I’m sure it was a most entertaining game of tennis.

We had reached the courts around 7, and it was a little past 9 when we finally packed up and drove away. The girls were still in good spirits, and by then, so was I. A few more sessions like this, and we’d at least have a decent pair of ball-girls on our hand, hopefully adept at dodging bullets, and maybe even turning into tennis players at some point.


Tennis

June 1, 2006
7 a.m. on the tennis court. Sweat in my eyes. I’m gasping for breath, but I don’t realize it. My arm feels heavy; it’s tired of swinging. My legs are tired of running. The crisp “tuk-tuk” of balls hitting the centre of other people’s rackets fills the air, but I am not aware of it. My mind is entirely focused on my ball. It swings tantalizingly in front of my hungry eyes, just inches from the tip of my searching racket. My body despairs, but my spirit won’t give up; goaded on by shouts of, “You can. You can!” from across the net.

The sun is just up, rubbing its eyes and yawning as it peeks into the crowded courts. There’s a cool, fresh breeze, pushing the grey monsoon clouds away and revealing patches of cerulean blue sky. Despite the sweat, the breeze takes my breath away as I stand by the sidelines, trying desperately to recover from the past five minutes’ exertion and prepare for the next round.

Most days, it’s not this… well, thrilling, for want of a better word. Most days, I get to rally with a marker, or with another player. If I’m lucky my opponent will be much better than me and will mostly be able to return my wild shots, so that I can concentrate on trying to improve my stroke.

But if I’m really lucky, I get to play with Tennis Sir. Sir is a master of his craft. When I watch him play with others, I can see sheer rhythm, sheer music in his movements. I’ve never seen him make an effort – every stroke is effortless, smooth as silk, gentle as a breeze. Of course he sometimes sends the ball into the net; of course he sometimes (rare though it may be) has to exert himself to reach a ball; of course he sometimes stands and watches a winner sail past him. But all said and done, he’s a master of his craft, and, to a beginner like me (and I’m not the only one), he’s practically god.

Sir must at some point have had a real opportunity to pursue competitive tennis. He must, I’m sure, have dreamt big – and perhaps he might have been able to make it to a certain level of recognition. But, for whatever reason, he never did make it. Now he coaches at a tennis court, teaching the basics to slow, lazy, middle-aged people like me.

What would you expect: Bitterness? Frustration? Remorse, at least? As far as the naked eye can see, Sir has no time for any of these. Of course, I cannot vouch for how he feels deep inside, but to all appearances he is the most comfortable, easy-going, cheerful self-assured and genuinely nice person you could ever have the good luck to run across, on a tennis court or off it.

Does he feel threatened by players who could potentially pose a challenge to him? I must say that I have not seen any such player, so I can’t say. But that does tell you a thing or two about his mastery over the game. Does he, perhaps, actively ensure that there’s nobody on his courts who can threaten his superiority? Not as far as I can see. He makes every effort to help Amit, who’s the best player on the court, to improve his game. And though I’ve never seen them play competitively, Amit tells me that Sir could defeat him 6-1 or 6-2 if he put his mind to it.

And yet, when he plays against me, or some of the other women and kids whom he coaches, he’s as gentle and considerate as can be. When he wants to be, that is. Other times, he’s merciless: he’ll make you sprint from end to end of the court like a ping-pong ball for five minutes at a stretch and never allow you to give up till you’re ready to drop – all the while shouting encouragement or throwing out good-natured challenges at you. He’s a naturally good teacher: offering encouragement, constructive criticism, and best of all, praise only when it is truly earned.

On one of our multiple public holidays earlier this year, the courts remained open. I asked Sir if he didn’t mind that there was no holiday for him when the rest of the city – or country – was on holiday. No, he said. When it rains, it is holiday for practically three months.

And yet, when the first showers came, even when parts of the court were water logged, he was there, doing what he could to provide dry courts to all who came. One weekend the courts were to be closed to players due to a tournament being held there later in the day. At the last moment, Sir declared that courts would remain open. Why? Well, he felt bad because we had all missed out on tennis for three days that week due to rain.

I have admired, even idolized Sir ever since the day I met him. But only today did something about him strike me more consciously than ever before: he’s happy because he’s doing what he loves, this much is obvious. But he’s also happy because he’s helping people do what they love. He’s not working with people at work; he’s working with people at play. He’s working with people who’re there because they want to be. He’s working with people who pay money to be there. He’s working with people who groan when it rains, because it means no tennis the next day; it means they can sleep late the next morning, instead of getting up at 5 a.m. to be at the courts at the crack of dawn. He may not be at Wimbledon, and he may not train anyone who makes it to Wimbledon either, but when his “team” brings that kind of commitment, enthusiasm, devotion to the court, when every single person is striving every single day to do the best they can, wouldn’t any boss be happy?

Come to think of it, I don’t know about that. But the point is, he’s not any boss – he’s Tennis Sir and he’s the best!


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