I’ve been playing competitive team tennis for 30 years now. Whew…that’s an awful long time, isn’t it? But here’s the thing; something is wrong with me.Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not dying. At least I don’t think so. I am behind on scheduling my annual checkup though, so until that happens, I can’t say definitively that I’m not dying.Anyway, I digress…for those of you who know me, you won’t argue that something is wrong with me. I don’t mean I see dead people or anything. But wouldn’t that be awesome? I’d love to visit with my family who’ve passed on, maybe even meet Mark Twain, Jane Goodall or Einstein. Scratch that last one; I probably wouldn’t understand a word he’s saying. There I go digressing again…
Tennis is my passion so I hope to be playing into my 90s. My first obstacle is living that long. Then I’ll need to have my wits about me, which is already questionable. Then I have to be a smidgen ambulatory. Yes, it will be ugly tennis but some would say that describes how I play today. And they would not be wrong.
To be competitive in tennis, we generally partner with and play against those within our rating bracket. I’m rated 4.5. If you don’t play USTA tennis, that statement means about as much to you as the Theory of Relativity means to me. My point is, I enjoy competition.
You see, I’ve always been a tomboy. At least that’s what they called it when it was unusual for girls to be just as athletic as boys. Being a tomboy was a stigma because I wasn’t “a feminine young lady.” People didn’t know what to make of me. But things have changed. Today, female athletes are on boxes of Wheaties and the cover of Sports Illustrated.
I’m a tennis nut. In fact, my license plate frame says, Tennis Forever, Housework Whenever. I try to honor that discipline as often as possible. I’ve played tennis on hard courts for the past 30 years and I have the knees to prove it. In Florida I played on grass courts (a complete disaster) and also tried sliding (not so gracefully) on clay. I attended a Nike tennis camp in Santa Cruz, played in the high altitude of Lake Tahoe, the dry heat of Palm Desert, and on a picturesque cliffside in Maui.
Still, I’d say the most memorable place where I’ve played tennis has to be San Quentin Prison. No, I’ve never been incarcerated but I’ve hit with those currently residing in the big house, as we who are pretending to know the lingo like to say.
You see, a member of my tennis club is the recreation director at the prison. He rounds up volunteers to play various sports with prisoners who have earned the privilege. One of those sports is tennis. This court was unique in its location and condition — cracked cement riddled with fist-sized potholes scattered within rudimentary painted sidelines.
Tennis at the big house is a trip. We had to acquire what’s called a Brown Card (clearance) then we receive instructions on attire and general protocol when inside the gates. Friends ask whether I was nervous being around convicted criminals, some incarcerated for rather horrendous crimes. I can’t say that I was. I think attending a Dodger’s game wearing a Giant’s jersey is scarier.
Guards are everywhere on the grounds and armed in towers above. Besides, the men allowed to play tennis treasure it, knowing that any misconduct results in a suspension of that privilege. The last place they want to be is back in their cells.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not condoning what any of the men did to get there. But I feel, with some exceptions, most of the guys we met were incarcerated because of bad choices, not necessarily because they’re bad men. Anyway, they’re paying the price for those choices and from the looks of it, a stiff one. San Quentin is no country club.
The Inside Tennis Team (their moniker, whose motto on court is integrity), is led by Juan. Our first day there he read a letter he’d penned for the volunteers. Basically, he said we had nothing to worry about; each man would put their lives on the line to protect us. And you know what? I believe they would. They so appreciate visits from outsiders that they act like mother hens. If a prisoner off court seemed to be leering a little too much, they’d be told to keep moving.
The “season” lasts from March-October. We’d arrive early on Sunday mornings and play for 2 hours, rotating in and out with different partners. Some were quite good, others had little clue what they were doing but loved every minute of it.
We once obtained permission for Burt, a gregarious and personable 39-year-old, to give us a tour of his cell block. Now THAT was an eye-opener. Two men crammed in cells meant for one. The noise level was almost deafening; everyone had something to say and always at the top of their lungs. I couldn’t imagine spending 21 years there, as Burt has.
Back on court, while we waited our turn to play, some of the men shared their stories of what life is like on the inside. Sometimes they shared what they did to get there. Actually, I preferred not knowing. They, on the other hand, are not allowed to ask volunteers personal questions, and they didn’t.
I love playing tennis. It’s good exercise and a fun challenge where you meet active, interesting people and can play on a variety of surfaces all over the country. But without a doubt, of all the locations where I’ve hit a tennis ball, San Quentin is, and will most likely remain, the most memorable.
It sits safely tucked away on the back shelf in my garage. During my once-a-year purging, I come across its cold, musty leather with worn straps barely holding it together. The feel of it in my hand is cool and tight around my fingers and it smells of leather oil. I love that particular scent because it brings back fond memories of my childhood.When you’re an 8-year-old tomboy, the best gift you can receive is your brother’s baseball glove that helped the Indians win the Little League Championship. Continue reading
I’m on a mission to get back into shape. Not to say I ever WAS in shape, but at least I could spot a muscle or two amidst this mass of droopy flesh. Locating a muscle on me today is like looking for sunken treasure. You know it’s under there somewhere. But I have to say I miss my muscles, so I’m on a mission to find them again.Last year when I hurt my knee, I stopped playing tennis, jogging and working out. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t particularly love going to the gym but I know it’s a necessary evil. I’m hoping to someday do situps without moaning like a woman in labor. Continue reading