Life on the Pro Circuit: A Day Off

Knowing tournament directors generally give qualifiers the Monday off.  These kids have grinded (ground?) their way through high heat and brutal battles to earn their way into the main draw, and thus, positing them against some fresh participant who already has a ranking advantage, just wouldn’t seem gentlemanly.  So today we have the day off, which, for professional tennis players is a bit like December 23rd. for Santa Claus.  Consequently, we are hitting in the morning and the evening with a light gym session in between.

Many of the main draw players compete today and the level has picked up since qualifying.  One no longer hears the crack of ball-on-frame, and the danger from a stray ball flying over the fence has lessened by several degrees.  Too, the athletes are no longer one meal from affecting the tides, and some are more likely to solicit sponsorship from Nike than Krispy Kreme.

Truth is, these players simply work a little harder than the qualifiers. What was an empty gym this weekend, now hosts an odd array of limbs: balancing, jumping, and stretching.  It looks like a drunken version of the Village People’s YMCA song,

Lunchtime finds me re-acquainted with Ricky-Get-Your-Ass-Over-Here, the motherly named, hairy child I witnessed taking down a stack of pancakes on day one.  This time, the kid, who undoubtedly has a tapeworm, is tossing down a four-egg omelet with half a loaf of French toast.  As he passes by, I’m fairly sure he glances at my plate and it’s more than a little disturbing to be Alpha-Dogged by an eleven year old.

With gluttonous tourists and re-fueling athletes, the buffet looks like those dancing inflatables that wave around outside car lots, and I’m starting to think there may be a synergistic relationship between buffet dining and gym stretching.

The main difference between athletes and tourists is tableware speed.  Tennis players load up on pasta and chicken and eat like they have to get back to practice in three minutes – it’s like hand to mouth combat.  For tourists, they engage, filling plates with every variety of cuisine and more desserts than one might expect from a Kardashian – then they savor, sucking and slurping such that it sounds like some alien soundtrack – disgusting.  When athletes leave the lunchroom, they saunter, heels up with a little bounce.  Tourists, however, lead with the gut, the upper torso leaning back as though leveraging their full bellies, weight well-back on the heels, accompanied by the gastronomically grotesque and throaty “uuuaaghh” Imagine a cheese grater getting stuck in a jet engine and you’ll get the gist.

I mention all of this because we’ve just finished a solid 90- minute workout and now have to navigate the whole eating experience.  The sixteen year old ogles desserts the way sharks look at raw meat.  As Ricky GYAOH drops in on his chocolate mousse, I fill her plate with the right stuff and we head back to the courts for a second practice.

As I’m writing about this adventure, I realize it might be beneficial to meet the girl I’m coaching here.  I’ve asked her to speak frankly, without fear of judgment, writing something that might illuminate who she is as a competitor and a person.  And so you know what I’m dealing with, what follows is her response:

I’m a sixteen-year-old in Mexico by herself. Any “normal” family would think that this is absolutely insane, but I guess I’m not exactly normal. I’m a tennis player who is trying to become the next face of American tennis. I know I can be. Don’t worry, I don’t have this overwhelming confidence in myself for no good reason; I work hard and play big with a fierce attitude on the court. Coaches, players and parents have seen it, so, ever since I began playing competitive tennis, I’ve been told I have “this thing.” One coach gave it a name, “The X Factor.” I used to not understand what this meant, or why people saw me the way they do, but as I became more and more aware of the players around me, I started to get it.

The X Factor is an incredible hunger to get better and win; the desire to put in the work that is required to be the best of the best; and the need and ability to achieve the seemingly impossible. Being likeable and fun to watch probably helps a little too. 

So what am I doing with this X Factor and why am I in Mexico instead of France? Well, you can’t just waltz into Roland Garros and say, “Hi, I know you don’t know who I am, but I’m pretty fucking good, so could you add me to the draw?” No, you have to start at the bottom. And the bottom is in Mexico at a 10k.

So here I am at my first pro event trying to establish a reputation as a girl with a big game and an even bigger future. We had two practice court times on the first day. Our early practice got rained out so we improvised by hitting volleys on the beach. Fat, old, rich men and their young, skinny, golden girlfriends walked by us with looks of confusion and amusement. I giggled at them while working on getting more feel on my forehand volley.

I still get nervous before tournaments, and especially tournaments at a new level. So you can imagine when I walked up to the courts for our second practice, and noticed all of the girls on court, I was preparing to accept that I don’t belong here yet. I started to watch and after about a minute, my nerves dissipated. Eight out of the ten were out of shape and inconsistent.  The other two had some stuff going on but not much. 

When I began to hit, I knew I was making an impression on everyone there. I was hitting well and having a great time. After practice, Coach confirmed that I was turning heads, which just made me feel better and better. By the time I was finished, I could see questions buzzing from the people watching me walk to check in. Who is this girl? How old is she? Where is she from? 

I was the only girl at the check in when I got there. However, there were a ton of boys. Most of them were shirtless, and sweaty. I definitely wasn’t complaining. Since we missed our connection in Mexico City and they wouldn’t let me bring my racquets on the plane to Cancun, checking in for the tournament was the first quick and simple task of the trip so far. Finally the first day was over. 

My first round match was scheduled at Not Before 12:00 Followed by. Which means I would start any time between 12:00 and 5:00, depending on how quickly the matches went by. I was surprisingly calm. I played a little Mexican girl. When I say little, I mean little. I’m 5’11” so I am used to people being shorter than me, but I don’t even think this girl came up to my waist. When we would walk by each other on changeovers, I would be reminded of how much smaller she was than me.  Every time we passed, she seemed to get smaller and smaller. Maybe this was because she was getting more and more discouraged. I breezed through the match 0, 1.

When I walked off the court, Coach gave me a high five and said, “That was some good sh*t, kid.” I could feel the eyes on me. I could feel people wondering who I was and what I’m about. I liked it. I liked the attention I was getting because I knew it was good attention. I knew they could tell I could make an impact at this tournament.

Today I played my last round of qualifying. I didn’t start feeling the nerves until the match began, and it began ugly. The tennis was uncomfortable. Every player knows that feeling. You just can’t feel what’s going on. You tell yourself to change something and your body doesn’t listen. Passersby could definitely tell I was not happy. I’ll claim I can’t remember if I threw out an F-bomb.  Despite that, after the match Coach told me to take it easy on the language. I won 2, 2, but was still annoyed.

 I worried that this would affect my new reputation as an up and coming threat. I don’t want to be stereotyped into the “Big Girl” category – a girl over 5’10” who hits hard, is streaky, and can’t move. Coach reassured me after my match that not too many people saw, so I would be fine. This didn’t instill too much confidence.

 I was lucky that I played in the morning before all of the main draw players had arrived. And I was also lucky that I was able to get on the practice court a few hours after my match, when the main draw players were hitting. We hit on a court with two other girls. They were pretty good. It made me want to be better, so I was. I dialed in on the ball. I tried to hit it perfectly every time. It went great, and now I’m ready for my next match.

 Tomorrow I have the day off. I’ll probably hit twice, get some schoolwork done, and people-watch by the pool.  Maybe I’ll watch some of the men’s matches. I’ll try and stay away from the women and let Coach do the scouting. Then, it’s time to battle!

New word of the day: Youngstar (def) when an adolescent begins to rise

Tomorrow: The Four Seed

By ccxander

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