Only two and a half hours into my Lenten disciplines this Ash Wednesday, and already, I owe $6 to the swear jar.
I blame my Worthy Opponent, Francesca Marguerite Maxime.
Maxime, a news anchor with the wholesome cable TV network, Ebru TV, brought out the not-so-family-friendly language from me with her signature inside-out forehand deep to my ad corner. She also changes direction on a dime, drilling her heavy topspin shot past me into the deuce corner. Corner to corner she had me, running, as Andre Agassi used to say, from Bradenton to Las Vegas.
"I started playing in high school, and didn't really pick up a racquet again until I moved to Florida in 2006," she said. "I played there for three years until I came to New York."
She, too, is a Tennis Hater. "I'm addicted to it. It's like a bad relationship you just can't leave."
She writes about it in her new book, Rooted: A Verse Memoir:
He asked me if I had a vice, and what was it, and I told him
I like to eat, and he said That's it?
And I said That's it (although I like sex as much too)
unless you want to call playing lots of tennis a vice.
No, tennis is definitely not immoral. But it is a bit naughty in the way it gets into your head and your dreams, the way you obsess over recreating the feeling, once you've had it, of connecting perfectly with the ball, your mind as still as a winter lake. Call it passion.
Francesca Maxime plays a lot of tennis. "I take clinics, play in ladies groups, and am on several USTA Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Mixed Doubles teams." Like me, she burns with a desire to get better. Like a Type-A New York journalist, she's ambitious.
"I need more wins than losses this year," she said. I like how she puts that -- need. Her results last season were marred by a bad back.
"Did I mention I hate injuries?" Maxime seeks relief from this kind of Tennis Hate by watching the Tennis Channel and considering the plight of the injured pro. "Because when I see people like Rafa Nadal out for seven months with bad knees, I feel a little less bad about my human plight, and hate tennis a little less."
In our match today, I got back some good, defensive backhand slices. Where has that been? Ah, my Worthy Opponent's pace forced me to keep my wrist firm and to hit through the shot, rather than get all wristy and slice down on the ball. Instead of floating into outer space, or the net, my slice backhand zoomed low across the net and deep into Francesca's court. It drew an error a few times. More often, it at least gave me time to recover and position myself in Chicago, before Francesca pulled me east toward Bradenton again.
Maxime concedes her serve is her weakest stroke, but I could not take advantage of it. I kept hitting the ball long. In between my own expletives, I heard the voice of Saintly Pro Al Johnson asking me, in his dry, sharp way, "What ball were you looking at?" The one sailing over the baseline, Coach.
Christians worldwide are abstaining from meat today; I abstained from double faults, double clutch tosses and second serves. It's a miracle, one brought on by several weeks now of good, solid coaching. Coach Al and I are reconstructing my service motion, getting rid of, as he calls it, "hysteria." For weeks, I've been starting with the racquet head pointing skyward, no take back. During last Sunday's lesson, I started working on a take back, pointing my racquet back behind me before swinging it up into that skyward-pointing position. I tried this motion today, and liked how it felt to release the momentum of the swing into the ball. I served well.
By that I mean I got it into the box, made few errors and put some body weight into the shot. I wish I could say that "serving well" means that I actually held serve. Nope. Maxime broke me early and often, beating me solidly, 6-2.
I've got more work to do to adjust to her pace, to turn quickly and get my racquet back. And to keep my focus on the damn DARN ball.
Make that $7 in the Lenten Swear Jar.