This weekend when I wasn’t glued to the coverage of Hurricane Irma I was watching the U.S. Tennis Open. I have been a tennis fan for years, and, many years ago, was a pretty good weekend player. I played several times a week, took lessons, and loved the game. Finally, in my twenties, I had discovered something athletic I was good at. When I was a kid my Dad told me that I ran like a girl. I felt like I was a disappointment to him, and the reality was that many sports weren’t open to girls anyway. When my younger daughter began playing in Little League and asked me what position I played she was shocked to discover that girls had not been allowed to play when I was her age. She summed it up accurately. “That’s dumb.”
What I liked about tennis was that it was a combination of physical ability and strategy. I liked the Zen aspect of using the opponent’s energy and the speed of the ball for my return. I have always been a very competitive person and I played to win, happily using my height to intimidate at the net. I remember once a male opponent was surprised that I returned a shot he sent straight at my head. “What did you think I would do?” I asked him. “Duck,” he said. That would never have occurred to me.
When I began my first job at a community college I remember attending a leadership program that included visualizing success. While other women saw themselves at mahogany desks in positions of authority, I saw myself coming to the net, sweaty but proud, congratulating the opponent I had just defeated. I imagined myself as rather Chris Evert than an administrator in a suit.
Unfortunately, my job and being a single parent did not afford me the time or the financial resources for tennis. I pretty much stopped playing for years. Then one day a colleague of mine and I got early morning court time at a reasonable price. I couldn’t wait to play, but I was shocked to discover that while I was thinking cross court volley the ball was whizzing by my shoulder. Instead of thinking I could recover my game with practice, I gave up. I have always regretted giving up, especially since I would never do that in any other area of my life. I worked hard at developing the skills I needed to achieve my career goals and learned to deal with setbacks. I never gave up.
I am looking forward to the release of Battle of the Sexes, the film about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and happy to read that it focuses on Billie Jean King’s personal life and her incredible contributions to women’s tennis, and not just the spectacle of their match. I was one of the 50 million TV viewers who witnessed her victory, knowing that it wasn’t just a tennis game, but a symbolic battle for equality. Thanks to Billie Jean King and the players of her generation, women players achieved equity in prize money and the respect they deserved. Riggs was an over-aged braggart who said women belonged in the bedroom or the kitchen. Today’s male commentators are swiftly taken to task if they make sexist remarks about female players. Unfortunately, as the NY Times reported on September 8, they are still making them (as are politicians and others), “Events of the last 18 months… have given the film a sharper edge than it otherwise may have wielded.”
This year’s Open has ended, but my love of the game, even if only as a spectator, continues. Along with my admiration for today’s women players and those that paved the way.