Tennis Lessons this Friday

I can’t believe FronteraFest is here again. I’ve got a new play going up on February 6th, but before that, I’m going to be in a terrific storytelling cooperative, organized by my friend Marla. Her theme over several weeks is Love & Loss. This week, I go up with two other wonderful people.

Tristan is telling a story of meeting her husband online, and the subsequent drama and resolution with his family.

Rich is telling a story of growing older (and older) and looking for partners well into his 70s and 80s (side note: the dude just got married to someone new last month at 87).

And me? I’ll be telling a story of taking tennis lessons in Oakland when I was a kid, and the early twists and turns that took me on.

INTERJECTED UPDATE AFTERWARDS : The show was a lot of fun, and I felt like I had the story down well. We didn’t make it on to Best of Week, but fortunately that wasn’t the primary goal. I did get this great picture out of it (taken by my friend Ava):

Now I’ll be focusing on the Feb 6th show, and hopefully getting some artwork for it together soon, coming from a business associate in Thailand. Watch this space! (and now, back to the original post…)

Oh, you want more? Okay, here’s a draft of the story. I’ll be telling a slightly different version out loud on Friday, but this is the source material.


When I was 10 and living in California, the city of Oakland began offering free tennis lessons to kids 12 and under at some of their public parks.

At the time I remember thinking that was really generous of the local government, but now I think it might have been more about displacing skateboarders, bikers and drug dealers that were using the overgrown courts as a place to meet up, especially at parks like Bushrod—named after successful surgeon and philanthropist Bushrod Washington James–which was in my family’s neighborhood.

I’m not saying Bushrod was a tough park, but the Winchell’s Donuts shop around the corner was unofficially known as Police Station number 13.

I started lessons with a coach named Charles who was tall, strong and inspiring. He’d played professionally for a while, though was never ranked high enough to make any real money at it. Which is probably why he was spending his time with a bunch of 10- and 11-year-olds on the weekends.

He made us do drills and sprints and target practice with the balls and I ate it up. It uncovered a competitiveness in me I’d never experienced before, and before long I was the top player in my age bracket. I could tell Charles took a liking to me.

He encouraged me to enter city tournaments and to replace the wooden racket my dad had given me, which was so old if you took a cross section of it you’d see more tree rings inside than Bjorn Borg had headbands. It even had this wooden vice you were supposed to put on it when you weren’t using it to keep it from getting warped. And the vice was wood too, so you were basically using a warped piece of wood to try and keep a warped piece of wood from getting any more warped. So with Charles’ encouragement, I convinced my mom to take me to a tennis shop and get one of those fancy, new aluminum models. Charles also nominated me for one of several $250 scholarships the city was giving out to its most promising young athletes.

I ended up winning that scholarship and told Charles I wanted to use the money to pay for private lessons with him. I couldn’t think of anyone else to give the money to. He humbly accepted it and I got 5 or 6 sessions out of it. We had a good, working relationship, and I felt like I was getting better all the time.

Soon after that, Charlies told me he wanted to have my parents over for dinner. He was having a party and really wanted to meet them. I was excited about this coming together of my family and my coach, but he ended up making a hard sell to them to buy Amway products. I didn’t know what Amway was before then, and the whole experience left a bitter taste with my parents and I stopped taking lessons from Charles.

I transferred schools soon after that to a more affluent area closer to the hills. I was able to continue my free lessons at a place called the Chabot Recreation Center, named after Anthony Chabot, a Canadian entrepreneur known as the Water King because of the way he manipulated water usage in the area. Kids took tennis a lot more seriously at Chabot and I quickly learned that Christina Robinson was the number one player in the class.

Christina made me tingle inside from the moment I laid eyes on her. She was like a cold, steely-eyed Marsha Brady, wearing perfect little tennis outfits with her hair in cute blond ponytails. She never would have given me a second look except I quickly emerged as a competitive threat.

I remember after I’d been there a couple of weeks, she approached me, strolling across the doubles line, her tennis skirt swishing back and forth. She had little freckles on her nose prominent from an afternoon in the sun.

“Hey,” she said to me.

“Hey,” I said back.

“You should play me,” she said.

Which was the closest thing to a come-on line I’d heard in my life to that point. And possibly since.

“Okay,” I said. “Yep, yes. I mean yeah, great idea.”

So we set up a match to definitively decide who was the best in the class. I was more nervous than I’d ever been. I wanted to beat her but…. I also just kinda wanted to look at her.

She beat me. It was close, but she got ahead 40-Love in the final game and I couldn’t get back in.

I saw her relax after that, feeling confident that her rein would continue. And she didn’t have to pay attention to me anymore. Though I used her presence to continue to motivate me.

We ended up partnering up to play mixed doubles at a city tournament at some point after that, and we even won a few matches. Every time we stepped on a court together I saw it as proof that we were meant to spend the rest of our lives together. But she would take her medals home with her without even saying goodbye.

I was mildly heartbroken once the classes were through, though I knew that even if we had gotten together, she was the type of person to walk all over me. But still, I would have put up with it for a little while.

I learned a couple of years later from a friend who went to Junior High School with her that she let a guy pay her $20 a week to be his girlfriend. $20 a week. I don’t know if it was really true, but I do remember thinking…. Damn, she is a brilliant capitalist. Like Anthony Chabot or Bushrod Washington James, she sure knew how to take advantage of a system. I lost track of her after that.

I played one season of varsity tennis in high school but I just couldn’t make the wardrobe work for me. I didn’t want to have to bleach my shorts every other day. Plus people made fun of you if you wore a varsity jacket for anything other than football and baseball. I quit after that.

Anyway, I’m still a fan of the game, and I’ve still got that aluminum racket from the 80s in case anyone’s interested in playing a game or two, I’d be happy to set up a match. For, you know, $20.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *