Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Amateur Hours

Small Potatoes


I always put more heart into my avocations than ever I did my 8-to-5 commitments. Take tennis, for instance—for many summers I strived to be as deadly and merciless as possible, efforts that went well beyond amateur. Today, I think I'd be tagged as a "Valley Pro"— serious enough about sports to be considered amateur only in the sense that the money involved is however much it'd take to be a player—enough for skis, racquets, clubs ... whatever.

What reminded me of my tennis days was an op-ed piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Mr. Klinkenborg is 54 and is just taking up tennis. I think he was in low spirits when he wrote this piece for it's all about the stress he's under in trying to keep his eye on the ball, the very crux of the game and much harder to master than the backhand or serve or freeing your feet from molasses.

If I knew Mr. Klinkenborg, I'd invite him to meet me at Perry's where we could talk over a cuppa.

"Mr. Klinkenborg," I'd say, "keeping your eye on the ball doesn't come naturally, but because it's so crucial to every ball game, most of us likely got our first lesson on the Wednesday after the Monday we first let go of the coffee ta-ble and veered off on our own. About then our Dads took us out to the back yard and introduced us to the demanding world of keeping your eye on the ball.

"Now watch it, Honey ... here it comes Honey ... WATCH it, Honey!" he'd beg as he lobbed a softball that floated slow as a balloon past our little cocked bats. Even then, with our little-kid eyes still as soft as Lassie's—and soft eyes are cru-cial to eyeing the ball—only rarely did he get to shout, "Yes, yes!"

And here you are, Mr. Klinkenborg, with the hardened and slow-moving eyes of a 54-year-old and still bold enough to take on tennis. I say good on you!

During my tennis avocation there was a particularly pe-culiar thing concerning trying to keep my eye on the ball. I was sure I was zeroed in on it at all times. I carried on end-less inner chatter—"Watch the ball, watch the ball, watch the ball"—but how far from contacting my racquet it'd be before my eyes darted across the net to the diabolical spot on which I wished for it to land, I have no idea. As I recall, maybe once in July, and perhaps twice in August, did I truly keep my eye on the ball, and such exquisite happenings those were—the ball looming big as a pumpkin as it landed on the pristine sweet spot and then zinged back across the net into the very vicinity I'd had in mind.

Not many of People of Tennis become skilled enough at eye-balling to consider turning pro.

And the few who go for it, even if they move quickly up the ranks to, say, 84, still don't have it made. Some pros, I've heard, when no one's looking, lay aside their racquets and go to the backboard and swing away with a short piece of broom handle. Still they suffer mortifying lapses. Who hasn't felt a sense of pure joy at seeing Nadal or Roddick, and even Federer, catch a ball on the frame and seeing it sail up, up and away into the far reaches of the stands. And those guys still have soft eyes.

Recently, I muted the TV during a commercial break and figured out just how much actual time I've logged trying to keep my eye on the ball. The result impressed me. I didn't puff up the numbers either. They're based on a minimum of 15 minutes a day in a three-month average season, and I had a total string of at least 25, which comes out to a whopping 33,750 minutes. When I converted those into standard eight-hour days, they became a lifetime total of 70+ days. Good heavens!

You might think that anyone who devoted over two months of A+ attention span to keeping her eye on the ball might well have been on the path to being another Steffie Graf. It didn't happen. I did come to believe I was above av-erage, don't we all, and if I could have that chat with Mr. Klinkenborg, I'd tell him patience, patience, patience—be-fore long you'll be thinking you're above average too.

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