I never played tennis growing up. Well, not in an organized way, anyway. I’d had some lessons, and if my brother and I had our rackets and a court at the park was available, we’d volley and even play a game, but I’m sure my mechanics left a lot to be desired.
This was never more evident than the time I swung the racket hard, whiffing on the ball but making full contact with my forehead. I still bear a scar somewhere under my eyebrow. It was probably a cut that needed stitches—there was a lot of bleeding—but I was too embarrassed about how it happened to tell my parents.
The point is, when my daughter expressed interest in tennis lessons, I took her and her sister out to hit some balls. I knew enough from my lessons as a kid that I could show my daughters how to properly hold a racket, and I knew enough from my experiences as a kid that I could pass on valuable advice like, “Hit the ball, not your face.”
I started with a lot of show and tell, but I could tell the talking was quickly wearing thin—my daughters really wanted to get to the action. So we took out the balls. We started by balancing the ball on the racket. Then I showed them how to hit it themselves by bouncing the ball and swinging at it. (The resulting swings and misses were almost cartoon-esque.)
I never wanted to be that parent who pushed his kids too hard with sports. I wanted my girls to learn at their own pace, but in that moment I found myself losing patience. I wished they could learn the skills more quickly. I took a deep breath and realized how happy they were with their progress (or lack thereof).
My younger daughter quickly lost interest in my lessons and started to practice by herself, hitting the ball over the net using a variety of non-USTA-endorsed methods and then chasing the balls down on the other side of the net. This allowed me to work with my older daughter on the next court over.
She had a determined look about her, like this was something she wanted to do well. She had played a little bit of tennis at camp, and she realized it was something she liked. This was an important realization for a girl who up until now had no interest in organized sports in her 7 young years. And it’s why I jumped at the opportunity to teach her and possibly further said interest. My wife and I weren’t going to force her to do something she didn’t want to do…but if she opened this door we were going to come running through it.
I showed her where to position herself on the court. I put her just inside the “T” halfway back to the service line. (Is this the correct terminology? I don’t even know.) I showed her a “ready” position—knees bent, racket in the middle.
I tossed her a couple of balls. One she hit into the net. One she hit too hard—way out and towards the fence. I started to hit the ball to her lightly—every once in a while she would make contact. Progress was being made.
Then, a perfect return.
I was caught by surprise. I wasn’t in the “ready” position myself. I stumbled to lightly hit the ball back to her.
I certainly wasn’t ready for this next hit. I hit it into the net.
My daughter knew she had done something really good. She had played Jail at camp, where if you hit a successful return you stayed in the game. If you didn’t you were out—in “jail.” This was the first time she had avoided being put in jail. She knew that. I don’t think she knew that she had won her first career point.
We continued for a few more rounds, never meeting with the same success of my daughter’s first tennis volley.
We called it a day and gathered the stray balls from around the court.
“How was that?” I asked my daughter as we made our way to the car. “How do you feel?”
She looked up and smiled widely at me, and my heart melted even further with her reply.