BY PASTEL SCHWAY | This essay was selected as the 1st-Place Winner in the youth category of the Awesome Sports Writing Contest.
It was hard for me to believe that she could behave that way. Supposedly, she was my friend of three years. We had gone trick-or-treating together last Halloween, I’d been to her birthday party twice, and we practiced tennis together many afternoons after school. Just the night before, we had treated her family to a nice pasta dinner, complete with her favorite chocolate fudge ice cream, in celebration of our win together in doubles. Why would she do it?
Long after the end of that fateful point, I still couldn’t understand Carrie’s actions. When it was my turn to return serve, it was obvious that I was not ready. My back was turned to her as I was fixing my cap, tightening the strap around my ponytail. When I turned around, the ball was already flying by me. I looked at her, wondering what had just happened, but she looked back at me with steely eyes and took the point.
A lot of the girls want to win at all costs. Often opponents would try to annoy me as a way to distract me from the game. One girl even cried real tears and timed her bawling outbursts only when I was serving. Amazing. One strategy is to serve to the opponent when the opponent is not ready. The quick serve. These stunts are pulled more often by players who are losing. And she was losing. But I let my guard down because she was my friend.
All those thoughts ran through my head in a split second. So I quickly regained my composure and went on to playing the next point, trying to overlook the fact that my friend had just stolen a point from me. Carrie did not quick serve me again for the rest of the match, but she started doing other things to annoy me, like calling close balls out, questioning my line calls, and not calling out the score as she was supposed to.
How could she be so ruthless in trying to win this match? Didn’t she care about the consequences? Didn’t she care about our friendship?
In the end, I won the match but that lighthearted and triumphant feeling of winning was not there. It was replaced by an unfamiliar cold and painful feeling of betrayal. I stopped playing doubles with her after that match. Now whenever I see her at tournaments, my heart races and I have to decide if she is my friend or foe.
Today was different. The early morning sun was starting to warm my hands. I held onto my new racquet, endorsed by Djokovic in all the tennis magazine spreads. And like Djokovic, I was going to win. I had been playing tennis since before kindergarten. Initially it was the thrill of hitting a cone and earning a buck that kept my interest. Then I started to enjoy the spectators in the park who would clap when a cone was knocked down. I loved the excitement in their eyes and smiles. These days, I loved the excitement of playing a hard-fought game, even if the results didn’t turn out the way that I want.
My heart began to race as we pulled into the parking lot of the tennis center, but my mind slowed it with a verse from the movie Frozen: “Here I stand in the light of day.” There was no hesitation. I was tired of losing. This time I was going to show my parents that I could win. “The wind is howling like a swirling storm inside.” The lyrics were telling me to “Let it go!”
I did my warm-up routine: one-hundred jumps on the weighted rope, Carioca running drills, high-knees, butt-kickers and finally deep low lunges. In that order. Every time. I could do them with my eyes closed.
Then it was almost time to check-in. Focus. Remember Plan A: serve to the opponent’s backhand with a slice. If that didn’t work, go to Plan B — hit an angled ground stroke to her backhand and then go down the line. If both fail, then Plan C. But… there was no Plan C. Help! Keep breathing. Don’t forget to breathe out when jumping into the serve. Right. I would be alright if I stuck to the plan.
The overworked lady at the check-in desk glanced up quickly at me and snapped, “Your name?” “Pastel,” I replied, still sheepishly after all these years. “Court seven. Be at the court in an hour. If you’re not on time, there’s a point deduction ….” And I could finish the sentence each time I was told, but I’d always swallow hard knowing that someday I might be late and get penalized. Luckily it had never happened… yet. Better not to tempt fate.
“Who am I playing?” I asked. She searched through the draw sheets. I nearly fell backwards as she drawled, “Carrie Z., she’s your opponent.”
For the remainder of the hour, I continued my warm-up dynamic exercises, rehearsed my battle strategies. Before I knew it, time was up. I heard the loud speaker announce that Carrie Z. was already on the court and asked for me to go to Court Seven. I hoped that today would be a lucky day because my favorite number was seven. But what if that’s Carrie’s favorite number now? After all, it had been nearly two years since we last spoke.
At the court, Carrie and I gave each other swift smiles. She had changed her hair style, keeping her brown hair longer, now tied up neatly in a swaying ponytail sectioned into thirds with three blue hair ties. So nice. What happened to the bangs?
“Do you want to spin your racquet?” Carrie’s voice punctuated the silence. “Arrow up or down?”
“Arrow up,” I replied and watched the racket land arrow down. Carrie was going to serve first, and I picked to start on the side of the court against the morning sun. I knew she had become a lot better. Had she forgotten about what she’d done to me just two years ago? Should I return the favor and stab her in the back? No, I forced myself to hum the words in my head, “Let it go, let it go; turn away and slam the door.” Then, “It’s time to see what I can do,” as I tightened my cap strap around my ponytail.
An hour and a half into the match, I felt the sun’s rays pouring down on me; palms and brows salty and sweaty. I felt my ribcage heave and swell around my bursting heart. It was difficult to maintain concentration. I was mentally and physically exhausted. But I was ahead 6-1, 5-4. Still, I was taken aback that Carrie had not used any tricks this time. The line calls were fair. There was no questioning my calls. Now I just had to focus. One more game and I would win. This was crunch time. When I was up, I had a bad tendency to relax and my mind could wander, allowing the other play to catch up. Then I would have to play a third full set. And I hate third sets!
Just split, run to the ball, load, feet solid on the floor and swing. Remember to rotate the shoulder and hip to complete that full swing. Relax. I had done it thousands of times in practice. But Carrie surprised me and gave me an awkward ball that landed right in front of me so I sliced defensively. The ball landed short. Before I knew it, the ball flew by me. Minutes later, I had lost the second set.
My turn to serve. The sun was directly in my eyes, fiercely bright. I ineffectively tried to shield the light with my other hand. As always, I bounced the ball seven times. Would Carrie try anything now? Just really focus. Do the deep knee bend, trophy position, and jump into the serve. I could see Carrie’s sharp silhouette, jaguar crouch, swaying right and left waiting to pounce on her prey… me.
All the same, I was confident I could do this. I had been playing tennis since I was four years old. I took a deep breath: My knees dropped, synchronized to my arm bend in perfect trophy position, hip leaning forward. Then in a flash my legs sprang up, and my racquet ripped the ball. My slice serve landed right where I wanted it. But the spin did not fool her; she knew me too well. Each of us were hitting and dashing hard corner to corner until I saw Carrie coming to the net. I sped back, taking advantage of the perfect moment and lobbing the ball deep and high over her head. She turned and ran with her back to me, quickly scrambling to outrun the ball, and at the last moment lunge hit the ball back over the net. While Carrie was still turned away, the ball landed on the outside margin of the line.
It was difficult to say if it actually touched the line or not. It was my call. In or out? Friend or foe?
The ball had already bounced twice before Carrie turned around. She looked at me with wide, imploring eyes. “It’s good,” I said, clapping on the strings of my racket head. And with that, Carrie screamed, “I won! I won!” and ran towards me, throwing her arms around me in a warm, strong embrace. This was the first time I loved tennis more for its losses than wins.
As we put back our racquets into our oversized tennis bags, I turned to Carrie and said, “Congrats. You played really well,” and quickly added, “I like how you did your hair with all the pretty blue ribbons.”
Carrie smiled again and said, “Hey, do you want to get some chocolate fudge ice cream? My treat.”
As we walked off the court together, I did a little dance in my head to “Here I stand in the light of day.” Well, Mom and Dad, I told you I was going to show you I could win — win back my friend.
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