I showed up an hour early. In my excitement about playing tennis, I misread the announcement and thought that we were meeting at 6pm. In fact, the meet-up was posted for 7pm. The sun was still brutally hot. The public courts were filling up fast. I stood there for a while wondering where everyone was.
Most of the courts were occupied by men. There was a smattering of women. A woman and a young girl who seemed to be her daughter struggled to hit the ball, the mother’s returns going sky-high and landing everywhere but in the court. The daughter’s balls were not a whole lot better. Another geriatric pair sat down after every single exchange of curvy slicing. If I was going to play tennis that day, it was going to be with one of the men. Except that I was a newcomer, a visitor to this city, responding to an internet announcement about a meet-up on the public courts. I knew no-one.
I asked some men if they were part of the group I was expecting to meet. They looked at me as if I was talking a foreign language. I looked around for a pro shop. It was sealed up tight, the windows heavily barred, because this was after all a public court and anything could be stolen and sold. Or so I assumed.
A man approached me smiling. I beamed back hopefully, my smile willing him to be a member of the group. As he got closer his face changed. “I thought I knew you”, he explained, and walked away. He joined a two-some that were warming up. I could have made a fourth. We could have played doubles. I don’t know why I did not ask. Maybe it was because they did not invite me. But within minutes I was glad that I did not because their fourth arrived and they continued to play.
But they all kept looking at me. And looking at me. It was clear that they all knew each other and knew that I was new. No one spoke to me. No one invited me in. And to be fair, they couldn’t , what with being solidly paired up and all.
Around 6:20pm, another guy arrived. He was wearing a t-shirt with the name of the club whose members I had expected to meet. I introduced myself. “Where’s everyone?” I asked. It was only 6:20pm, he replied. They were coming for 7pm as planned. “Oh”, I offered, sheepishly. “I guess I was too excited to get here!” I asked him how come he had arrived so early. He said that he had hoped to pick up an early game.
He had no choice but to play with me. His body language screamed his reluctance. He assumed that I was going to suck. After all, I was just a woman. And no, I am not exaggerating or overreacting. But you’d be forgiven for thinking that I am.
We started warming up. He played me some soft balls, the kind of patty-cake crap the geriatrics were slicing against each other in between lengthy bouts of sitting down. I took offense. And even as he played he kept looking around. He seemed to be hoping that another man would come to the court and rescue him from the misery. I took further offense. I asked him if he wanted to practice some serves before we started. He told me to go ahead. I walloped some balls down the line. He missed all the returns, and seemed to go into a kind of shock.
“Yes moron, I know how to play” I said in my mind, as I smashed a serve straight into his body. Out loud I asked, “Are you ready?” My tone was snippy.
He said he was ready. I held serve easily. It wasn’t that I was better than he was, but that I had the advantage of knowing that I did not suck, that I have been playing racket games against men for all of my life, and that I was not going to let this man diminish me. I did not break his serve but I took him to deuce ten times. With each deuce he seemed to get more frustrated. It was probably the longest game I ever played. I held serve again, this time mixing up some soft serves that seemed to catch him off guard. And so we continued until the members of his club finally started to trickle in. I introduced myself. I said that I was a woman who enjoyed playing with men. And I am.