One Thousand Words on a Child Prodigy

You probably read about it in the paper or Sports Illustrated. Or saw it on the news. It was everywhere for a while. Like Serena Williams yelling at the linesperson or Monica Seles getting stabbed. I’ll say this, tennis doesn’t make the news often, but when it does it makes a big splash. My headlines read “Aging Tennis Star Assaults Phenom,” “Grand Slam Violence” and, my personal favorite, “Anika Attacks Amelia”. I think it just like the alliteration.

For the record, I wasn’t attacking Amelia. I mean, she was only thirteen. I would never physically assault any opponent and I certainly wouldn’t go after a teenager. I was trying to get to her father.

When my coach first told me I was going to be playing Amelia Stewart in the quarter finals of the Australian Open, I have to admit that I laughed a little. I had heard rumors about how well she was playing and that people were calling her a prodigy. Bu tennis people tend to overuse that term and she was just so young. I just couldn’t take her seriously. Sure, she had made it to the quarter finals, but streaks like that happen in tennis. Sometimes people just win for a while. And, to be honest, I was cocky. I may have been one of the oldest players on the tour, but I was still playing well. I was number three in the world and a favorite to win the championship.

From her very first serve I knew I was in trouble. Amelia was good, very good. In fact, she played like a machine. No emotion, just good solid technique. Have you ever watched Olympic figure skating? You know those little girls that skate, and usually win the gold medals? I’m talking about the ones that weigh about 60 pounds soaking wet and fly into their jumps like gravity doesn’t apply to them. If you watch them when they aren’t jumping, there’s not much there. There’s no thought, no emotion, no art. Just the mechanics. That’s the way Amelia played. The trouble was that her technique was just too damn good. She rarely messed up and the ball just kept coming back to me. And, let’s face it, the girl is eighteen years younger than me. Who do you think is going to get tired and start making errors first?

I’ve read a couple of tennis autobiographies… John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, and the like. What they all have in common is that they love to delve into the matches that were pivotal in their careers, point by painful point. I made my career in tennis, but it is simply excruciating the read that much detail about one stinking match. “He served down the T and I returned with a cross court backhand…” blah, blah, blah. I’m not going to do that. What I will tell you is that I was losing and I was pissed.

It was after I had lost the first set that I noticed Amelia’s father making some sort of gesture to her. He’s also her coach, but he’s not supposed to communicate with her during a match. It was subtle, but the look on his face wasn’t. He looked more pissed off than I was, and Amelia had just won the set easily. She saw him too, because her back stiffened and she gave this short, jerky nod. I glanced up at my own box. My husband was smiling at me, encouraging me on without words. My parents and my coach were there too, sending their love down to me on the court.

They say that it’s harder to play an ill or injured player because you start to feel sorry for them. It’s true. I hadn’t played well the entire day, but I lost that match the moment I let myself sympathize for Amelia. Every time she faulted or made an unforced error, which wasn’t often, I found myself glancing at her box to see how her father was reacting. It wasn’t until later that I heard the details of Amelia’s life. That she had been taking tennis lessons since practically the day she started walking. That she was home schooled so that she could practice eight hours a day. I didn’t know that all that then, but I could sense that the reason she was a prodigy wasn’t just her natural talent or passion. He was working her hard and there didn’t appear to be much love to along with it.

It didn’t take long for it all to be over. Amelia won, of course, in straight sets. I was angry. Not only had a lost to a thirteen year old, but I allowed it to happen.

We were still on the side of the court when Amelia’s father stormed over to her. I was on the other side of the chair umpire but I could still hear him clearly. He was berating for a badly missed shot in the first set and her one double fault of the match. His daughter was in the semi-finals of her first grand slam event and he was yelling at her.

I lost it. I admit that. But I wasn’t trying to attack Amelia with my racquet. I was trying to beat the crap her father. She just got between us.

If you followed the story at all, you know that I’m retired now. That wasn’t my last match, but it may as well have been. Amelia went on to lose in the finals of that Australian Open. But she won Wimbledon later that year. I sometimes wonder if her father was satisfied then. Probably not.

I was always a little envious of the prodigies; the kids that had been playing for years when I was just getting started. But I don’t envy them now. I was allowed to have a life. They weren’t. I hope Amelia doesn’t look back one day and wonder what she missed. I hope tennis is enough for her.

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