Virtue & Mischief: Those two imposters


In our household we’ve been steeped in tennis-related activities for the past several weeks. Krista has long loved the sport and was an excellent player for the Green Wave in her high school days.

She continued to improve during her stint in the Air Force when she was stationed in Tucson, Arizona, and had the time, energy, willing (and talented) cohort, and outstanding weather to accompany her passion. She was then, and continues to be, highly competitive by nature and still rips a pretty vicious cross-court two-handed backhand. She also moves far better than my aching right hip and heel allow me, and anticipates better than she ever did.

Now Krista helps coach the Greenville Girls’ team, which includes the eldest amigo—Freshman Abigail Swensen. Abby plays #3 singles for the same Green Wave team her mother played for a generation ago and possesses a similar nasty, penetrating, two-handed backhand. She acquired that backhand with little-to-no overt training, rendering something of a testimony, I suppose, to the heritability of specific athletic behaviors. In plain language: Abby got her backhand from momma.

That’s where the mother-daughter similarities on the tennis court end, however. The rest of their games are quite different.

Abby’s forehand is a sweeping, flat stroke while Krista’s is a looping top-spin. Abby serves with an exaggerated open stance to accommodate her pancake motion and flat entry while Krista uses an even stance and curves her serves into the court. Abby hasn’t yet become adept at net-play or overheads while Krista is solid at both. Most tellingly, Abby’s competitive intensity measures about a 3 on a 1 to 10 scale, while Krista’s is about a 27. Krista STILL analyzes the outcome of a friendly game of doubles to the nth degree while Abby—win or lose—immediately proceeds from the post-match handshake to considerations of what she’s going to eat for dinner later or whether she’ll have time to catch that night’s episode of “Steven Universe.”

The potential downside to Abby’s game is obvious. She doesn’t possess the burning fire inside her belly that sometimes fuels certain athletes to overcome adversity or daunting deficits.

On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to get nervous or suffer from the infamous “yips.” She cares (a little) about playing reasonably well and if she wins, well, super, but if not—no biggie. Steven Universe will be on later and she’s going to have a nice dinner in an hour or so, too. “It’s just a game,” she told me recently after losing a close match to an opponent three years her senior. “What’s the big deal? I played pretty decent. Do we have any sandwiches around here?” I stifled the urge to correct her grammar and nodded, pleased we would not have to go through the sometimes ugly process of post-game decompression. In the middle of a different tight match, which she ultimately won, her head coach (the imperturbable Jim Koontz) implored her get tough, show a little fire, put her opponent away! Abby’s reply, delivered in her typical sing-song lilt? “Thank you, coach, for your expertise!” I once witnessed Abby turn directly behind her to tell a sneezing teammate “God bless you!” even as her adversary was delivering a first serve. (Think Krista would have done that? Not a chance, which she’ll readily admit.)

Most important to Abby, by far, is the social component of participation—even as it pertains to her opponent. If she prevails 6-0, 6-0 but the girl she is playing is grumpy or uncommunicative, Abby emerges disappointed. The converse holds true as well. I watched her first competitive match ever, when she was in 7th grade. She got thumped and the match was over in 25 minutes. Yet I saw no sign that she was angry or frustrated. She didn’t slam errant forehands in frustration or cease happily retrieving balls at the fence like a bounding gazelle with nary a worry in the world. As she sauntered over to me afterward, I uncertainly put my arm around her and gently asked, “You OK?”

“Oh, yeah, daddio!” she chirped. “That girl was really nice. We talked about ‘Adventure Time’ a lot and she likes to write stories and draw, too! That was, like, super-fun!”

Above the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court are stenciled two lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.” “If you can meet with triumph or disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same,” it reads, poetically exhorting competitors to remain calm and strong despite the twists and turns and even the outcome of their efforts. To her credit, Abby already understands that this little foray into sports—where she regularly fills the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run—represents a fine opportunity to have fun, to be supportive of others, to improve, to demonstrate good sportsmanship, to grow emotionally.

Oh, and as she informed me a few weeks ago, “It doesn’t hurt that it fulfills my physical education requirement as well!”

By Tim Swensen

Virtue and Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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