Monday, April 23, 2007

Apologies and Homilies

My apologies for failing to publish last Friday. I have pledged to do this daily, but that day I had to leave about 7:00 am to get to my post as an umpire for the Great Lakes Valley Conference tennis championships. It was Division II tennis, but very good. Great to be involved in, too, as all of the coaches and most of the players behaved in a mature and sportsmanlike manner. That is a refreshing experience compared to most of the Division I duals I umpire. There I characterize many of the coaches as 35 going on 10. Far too many of the players seem stuck at about 13, so the tempers fly and every judgement is met with anger and mock disbelief. Cheating on line calls is too often de rigueur because the attitude is either that if I can get away with it, it’s okay or my opponent is going to cheat me, so I ought to beat him to the punch. Winning is everything. Nothing else matters.

I deeply appreciated seeing that my readership did not diminish in the face of my absence of the two prior weeks, too. That absence was because I had agreed last fall to be in Florida during that time. It was another pair of tournaments that took me there. The first was the Florida International Wheelchair Open. The second was the Girl’s 12s National Championships. The conclusion I reached from all this was that the latter should be required to attend the former before being allowed to play.

It’s not that all the girls were misbehaved. In fact, most were quite well behaved, but still, I think, could benefit from watching the behaviors of those who’ve had to climb a few rocky hills to get where they are.

The wheelchair event was in two parts: professional and amateur. The pros were largely matter-of-fact about their abilities and joyful in their play even though the money was significant (It was a $15,000 tournament.) and the difficulties some had to overcome just to hold a racket were apparent. Yes, there were some few who were a little hard to handle, and one who notably complained about every umpire assigned to his matches, by and large the feeling at the tournament was of friendly competition. Line calls were always generous’ and conflicts quickly and comfortably solved. In a very tight and hotly contested semi-final doubles match, I had to call a code violation for racket abuse, but no comment was made, no argument, no anger, just pick up the racket and resume play. The losers left the court without talking to anyone, but later were back to their amiable selves; joking with me about their relationship.

The best match for me, though, was between two pairs of amateurs. One team consisted of a one-legged giant and a tiny man forced to live his always smiling life in a twisted little body that left him less mobile than many other players. They were from Puerto Rico. The other team was a pair of diminutive Chileans. Neither team was very savvy about the rules so I had to correct several behaviors, and I think they tested each other with questionable line calls from time to time, but the general feeling was constant elation as they fought their way through a match that was 3 hours and 45 minutes long. Every one of my corrections was met with immediate positive response, though I must admit that I got several looks of incomprehension that may have been due to our language barrier, but I think more likely were license to misbehave again. All such behavior, though, was in the good spirit of fun. They laughed their way through that grueling match and when it was over hugged each other across the net at great length before demanding that I join them at the net while the numerous fans snapped photos of us all.

At the girl’s 12s, the quality of play was generally high, but the general feeling was a bit more grim. Winning was everything for most contenders, and some things that went on were downright repulsive. Umpires had to keep their eyes peeled for cheating – not only line calls by the players, but illegal coaching from parents. Can you, as a parent, imagine taking your child to any kind of tournament where you would train your child to cheat? It was easy to detect. The kids would make eye contact with their parents after every point, obviously looking for input. Dad would then give a signal; maybe rubbing the back of his hand to indicate that she should serve to her opponent’s backhand. There were many variations, but in all such cases the fact was that they were training their daughters in illegal behavior.

Many girls were just having a good time, but these were deadly serious. The saddest part to me was with the younger girls. You could always tell which girls were receiving undue pressure to win from the parents. They were the ones who sniveled, cried or had some kind of fit after every lost point. They obviously found no joy even in points won; just an intense focus on winning the next with an equally obvious fear that they might lose it instead. Their tension was palpable; their fear clearly visible, and their pleasure in the game completely absent. Maybe if they had to attend the wheelchair tournament first, they would come to understand that their situation is not so dire. They might even come to appreciate the quality their lives offer them. They might come to understand that winning the game is not as important as the ability to walk onto a court and play it without having to overcome tremendous personal challenges.

Maybe those cheating parents would even come to realize that their dream of becoming rich by driving their daughters to become number one or two in the world is imposing a form of paralysis on their little girls that is more limiting than the loss of limbs and the ability to walk and run. Maybe they could become thankful for what they have every day rather than so greedy for more that they would sacrifice the mental health of their own offspring to chase an impossible dream they were incapable of achieving in their own time on the courts.

Maybe we should all have to spend some time watching those courageous and joyful folks in their wheelchairs so we could all reflect on the bounty we enjoy every day just by having to deal with so few barriers to whatever it is we want to do. Those weren’t superhumans out there on the courts wheeling their way after little yellow balls. They had their problems dealing with the intensity of the competition, too. But what their humanity had within it a general air of humility; of thankfulness for being able to take part in such an event.

The final match of the tournament was between the top four wheelchair tennis players in the world. The quality of the tennis was so superb that it was reason enough for anyone to want to watch it. Those guys could run down a drop shot with the best of them and hit a winner in response. The best part, though, was the pure, true joy that would burst forth on the court when that winner flew past the defenders – and it wasn’t just the winner of the point that was happy. The smiles were on both ends of the court, and the joy was shared by everybody there.

May your day hold even an iota of that kind of joie de vive.

When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace. – Jimi Hendrix

Yours in Peace - BR

No comments: