I’ve been thanked for many things – bringing flowers to a friend, volunteering my time, opening the door for a stranger – but someone actually thanked me for being fair during a tennis match.
But’s what the big deal about that?
That’s major because I started playing team tennis again after ditching my racket 14 years ago when I graduated college. I played NCAA division 1 tennis for four years and was so gosh darn happy to end that obligation. My ticket to higher education without the guaranteed massive debt turned into the then bane of my existence. Overdramatic, I know, but there was much love and hate for tennis.
The team tennis I signed up to play was for a doubles league in Orange County. My partner for one away match was an older Korean woman, who told me that she only started playing tennis five years ago. Her English wasn’t very good but she was very enthusiastic and determined. She nodded her head a lot and kept saying ‘Ok, ok’. We were playing a team that I had played before in a previous doubles match. They were a good team, they knew how to move together and cover the court. They were a solid team while, in comparison, my partner and I were like amateurs trying to figure out which direction to run to avoid getting hit by the dodge ball. This was only the second time we played together.
To add to our overall bumbling as a team, my partner started making bad line calls started. The first one came when she was rallying cross court on the deuce side and she called a ball out. I couldn’t see it but our opponents questioned the call. In her broken English my partner stood by her call. The match continued. The next bad call was when we were returning serve. My partner called a serve out that the other team thought was in. During the changeover, one of the players said under her breath ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ What was this – were we back in grade school ready to fight on the playground?
Later on in the match, my partner again called a ball out that was clearly in. I had to overrule her. I told her, “That ball was in.” I had to make sure and let our opponents know I reversed the call before they both leaped over the net and beat us with their rackets. I overruled one more call she made. The second time I did I just shook my head and told her no. Mind you, this is loud enough so the opposing team can hear what I said on the other side of the court. I only caught a glimpse of her expression because she turned away so fast, but beyond surprise only scratched the surface.
After we lost the match, we walked up to the net to shake hands. Secretly I was mortified at having to call out my partner that she had to stop cheating, and expected another snide comment. None came.
At the heart of it, tennis is a selfish sport because of the one-track commitment one needs to be a good player and the selfish goal of wanting to win. But there are written and unwritten rules – a moral code of conduct – all players try to follow. For those indoctrinated into the sport while young, starting as early as age six players are expected to make their own calls. And, one unspoken rule is to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt when making line calls. In other words – don’t cheat! Something that my older partner didn’t learn whereas I had experienced this first hand as a child and well into my teens.
Now, as a grown adult I still fell back on that ethos.
After we walked off the court and retreated to our respective team areas, instead of being upset that I lost the taste that soured my mouth was that those two women will more likely remember those bad calls above anything else.
To my surprise, one of my opponents came up to me and said, “Thank you for being fair. I know it’s hard to make calls against your partner. No one wants to have be in that position.” I told, “Well, it was the fair thing to do.”
Ironic how a sport that teaches one to be selfish can also remind us of how to be better.