That voice—like a throttled parrot—squawked from the front stairway. “Travis! Hurry up.”
“Hold on! I’m not ready.”
“We’re leaving in two minutes. Don’t make us late for church again.”
Travis stood at the entrance to the playroom, one foot in, one foot out, ready to dash, his eyes fixed on the TV. Showing at the moment, a still-shot of two champagne glasses, filled to just the right level, and strawberries on a silver tray. The caption: We will return to the Wimbledon Championships in a moment.
“Travis,” his mother called. When he didn’t answer, she took a new approach. “Alan! Go check on him.”
Travis pushed the knob on the squatty Zenith console and sprinted up the back stairs, his feet quiet as a panther’s. He bolted into the bathroom, flushed the toilet, and shut the door. Turned the lock straight-up, pulled down his pants, and went into a squat. He didn’t need to go, but it helped him get into character. Realism at its finest.
Footsteps approached, followed by the knock. “Travis. You in there?”
“You heard your mother. Get a move on.”
Travis pulled another flush. Spun the toilet paper roll. Whatever it took. His favorite player, Stefan Edberg, was playing in the Men’s Final and he wasn’t about to miss it in place of his ineffectual Sunday school teacher, Miss Shelley. “I don’t feel good,” he said. “It’s diarrhea.”
His dad let loose a groan, a cross between his “got stuck at work late” groan and “Ronnie didn’t fill the tank after borrowing the car” groan. He called downstairs in his bored baritone, “He says he’s sick. Upset stomach.”
“He’s faking,” his brother yelled from the kitchen.
“Am not!” Travis shouted. He needed more proof. A sturdy pull of the paper. Another flush. The whiiish of water draining from the bowl.
“Now, Travis. We can’t wait any longer.”
“It won’t stop,” Travis said, adding a warble to his voice. “Might have been the bacon. It was extra greasy today.”
A silence followed. Travis crossed his fingers. This was his mother’s decision to make (he figured his dad might have joined him by the TV, were it not for her influence). She reached for the car keys, which jingled in her grasp. “Come on. We’ll have to go without him.”
“But, Mom. He’s faking.”
“Get in the car, Ronnie.”
“Why do I have to go if he—”
“In the car. Now.”
His dad jogged down the stairs to join them. Seconds later, the front door opened and closed. Travis peered through a slit in the curtain. Ronny. His mom. Dad. The car doors shut. Engine started. Go. Go. Go. Blinker on, the car lolled from the driveway and cruised away. Travis hiked up his Lee jeans, raced to the playroom, and turned on the TV. Strawberries and champagne. We will return to the Wimbledon Championships shortly.
That gave him time to fetch some essentials. Travis sprinted to the kitchen for a plate of chips and melted Velveeta then grabbed his AMF Head tennis racket from the closet. Once returned to the playroom, he waited out the commercial interruption by taking practice serves, mimicking Stefan’s motion, then plopped on the floor in front of the TV and caught his breath. Yes, the whole diarrhea-bacon bit was exhaustive, but it was worth the trickery if he could watch the match in peace. The big day was tomorrow. He needed all the inspiration he could get. Surely the Man upstairs understood.
Finally, the action resumed. Was a close-fought match, with each player trading shots, back and forth, back and forth, capped off by a fourth set tiebreaker that kept Travis on the edge of his seat, only inches from the squatty Zenith, gripping the racket handle like pliers to a stubborn nail. But Stefan prevailed with a screaming forehand down the line. He easily broke his opponent’s serve in the fifth set and coasted to the championship.
“Of course, he did,” Travis shouted, swinging through a forehand of his own. “He’s only the best player in the world!”
Following the match, Travis grabbed and his can of used Spalding tennis balls and and trotted outside to the garage for his final tune-up. The balls had lost air and he could squeeze them down a good half-inch from the surface. No matter, though. After tomorrow, he’d be playing with only the best equipment (Wilson balls, Babolat grip, and maybe just maybe, a Prince Pro racket). Travis shoved the extra Spaldings into his shorts pockets and made his first strikes of the day. One … two … The ball took a funny bounce and landed near his dad’s toolset. He reached into his pocket for an extra. Three … four …
Tomorrow was the first day of freshman tennis tryouts. Travis had been prepping all summer. He carried the AMF Head everywhere he went. If he found the side of a wall, he’d spend the hour hitting a ball against it. He fantasized about one day wearing the team-sanctioned purple warm-up pants. When came time to start play, he’d slip them over his Le Coq Sportifs (the same shoes Stefan wore), then go about his business in an assassin-like manner, wiping the court with his foe. 6-0, 6-0. Maybe he’d let the opponent win a game or two, just to make it more challenging. After breezing through the regular season, he would proudly hold the trophy for Regional Championships, and then the bigger prize: Travis Wunderlich: State Champion.
Travis bent low for a two-handed backhand. The ball traveled straight and true. What he lacked in velocity, he made up for in accuracy. Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Twenty-fi… He ran to corral the third ball, hiding behind Ronnie’s skateboard, then started back at twenty-five. Couldn’t afford to fudge now.
One hundred shots against the wall. He’d done this every day during the summer, without fail. He’d even made up a rap to go along with his practices. At the time, rap had begun to reach popularity. Run DMC was becoming well-known. Travis liked the old school maestros of rhyme—Doug E. Fresh, Eric B. & Rakim, Dana Dane. But his main guy, his hero of the mic, was the godfather of rap, Kurtis Blow. He owned all his albums and knew all the words. Kurtis Blow’s best-known song was called Basketball. It went like this:
They’re playing bas-ket-ball
We love that bas-ket-ball
Travis, buoyed that a rap song had been written about a sport, had titled his T…T…T is for Tennis! It went like this:
I’m the best tennis player in my grade
And I’ll tell you all just how I’m made
I’m half hu-man and half robot
And I’ll tell you all just what I’m not
I don’t mess around
And I don’t screw up
If you don’t bring your best
You will never catch up
So bring on Justin and bring on Bart
They’ll be beaten by the start
When my forehand gets ahold and my backhand takes control
I’ll be the last one standing, the king of the court
The last verse didn’t rhyme but he couldn’t figure out a word that went with “control.” In the end, he said the word “court” with a long O sound. It worked just fine. No one could tell.
Travis pounded the ball against the wall while rapping, “I’m the best tennis player …” He gave the ball another smack. It sailed wide and ran into the lawnmower. He hustled to retrieve it. “And I’ll tell you all just what I’m not …”
The bulk of Travis’ training had been done against concrete walls. On occasion, he’d corralled his cousin Howie into joining him at the community center courts. Howie had borrowed his dad’s from-a-bygone-era wooden racket (the bolts had to be unscrewed to remove the square protective cover). But Howie didn’t care about hitting balls over the net. He was more interested in what other sixteen-year-olds were interested in, not a Friday night with his younger cousin, the white rapper, shanking balls into the net with a racket head the size of a cumquat. He’d done it halfheartedly, to say the least.
Also, the lights at the community center were broken. Travis was lucky to get 45 minutes of practice with Howie before the sky turned dark, impossible to see the faded yellow balls screaming past.
“Just a few more, Howie,” he’d pleaded.
“No way. I’ve got plans.”
“Please, Howie. Just a few more.”
“You can play with yourself. See you later.”
Ninety-six, ninety-seven … Travis lunged for a low-bouncing Spalding before it hit the ground. Ninety-nine … One hundred! Travis put his hands on his knees, collecting his breath, then sat on the toolbox and drank from his thermos of pre-mixed orange Gatorade, wiping the sweat from his brow.
A nasty thought wriggled to the front of his mind. Maybe he should have scrimmaged against other players, just to get a gauge.
Travis shook his head. This was all part of his strategy. He wanted to come out of nowhere, the unknown ace who causes everyone to go wide-eyed with astonishment and say, “Who’s that guy?” No, secrecy was his ally. Pronouncement, his foe. He checked his watch. The family would be home any minute now. He corralled the three balls and zipped up his racket cover. As he took a final glance at the training wall, a smile knifed across his face.
Tomorrow, there would be no stopping him.
The next morning, Travis went to school ready, his tennis bag packed in an economical and accessible fashion. Stefan carried multiple rackets in his bag. Travis owned one, the AMF Head, but he’d replicated the rest quite accurately. Bottle of orange Gatorade; towel; extra shirt; granola bar (peanut butter chip, his favorite). Stefan carried extra pairs of shoes, all matching. Travis didn’t own matching shoes but threw in his pair of Reebok hi-tops. His best blue shorts, folded neatly between the towel. The shorts fit a little snug in the rear, but not too bad. Socks that he pulled up exactly the same length every time, midway up his calf, and a yellow polo. He wore it tucked in, though he suspected by the time they’d fought off three hard sets, the shirt would become untucked. But that was the hallmark of a champion: bloodied by battle, disheveled, but never swayed. Travis zipped up the bag and headed out the door, the strap slung confidently across his shoulders.
He struggled to sit through classes that day, his eyes blurred in a daydream. During the final period, Travis stared at the clock. Could it go any slower? Who gave a rip about verb conjugation when one’s legacy was calling? As soon as the bell rang, he raced to his locker, grabbed his bag, and headed outside.
Though he chanted the lines of T…T…T is for Tennis!, his excitement was fleeced with nerves. Was it a one-day tryout? If so, had he sabotaged himself by not playing on the school courts? The walls he played against didn’t come with nets.
Only eight made the team—everyone knew that. But Travis hadn’t concerned himself with that. The more who tried out, the more victims he could take down. “Bring ‘em all on,” he’d said if the thought crossed his mind. “They’re fully human. They can only wish they were half ro-bot.”
Walking to the courts, he took count. One, two. There went Bart, tennis bag in hand, warm-up pants around his legs. Bart looked like a varsity player. Vinyl jacket with Adidas stitched across the back.
Bart would make the team, for sure. But that was okay. Bart could be Number One. Travis would be Number Two. Still awesome. A trio of boys ran by him, rackets in hand. They made five. Travis made six. Come on, he thought. Don’t anyone else show up.
Another boy rounded the corner—Justin, the name given top victimization to in T…T…T is for Tennis! Travis had forgotten how tall he was, at least five inches taller than Travis. And his calves! Justin didn’t wear warm-ups. With calves like his, why would he? That would be like covering a Rembrandt with sackcloth. His calves looked like someone had cut them open and hidden croquet balls inside. With each step, his leg muscles quivered like on a plum line.
Travis slowed his step, glancing backwards at his own calves. If Justin had croquet balls sewn into his, Travis had cherry pits. Justin made seven. Okay, nobody else please. He rounded the corner next to the courts.
His heart sunk like a croquet ball. His knees wilted like bad cabbage. There were boys everywhere, huddling on the lawn, rackets in hand. “How could this happen?” Travis groaned. “Tennis isn’t an important sport at school. No one even watches the matches. Couldn’t they try out for basketball or football? Or even baseball?”
Though he didn’t want to (ignorance being bliss, and all), he made himself count. Twenty-one, twenty-two. One straggler arrived late, shoelaces untied. Twenty-three. At least he could beat that guy. He didn’t even tie his shoes.
Bart stretched near the fence line, sitting on the grass and swinging his legs over his head until his feet touched the ground. Travis’s shoulders sunk. Gone was the melody of T…T…T is for Tennis! Gone was the pronouncement of making victims of the other boys.
One young man, wearing Boris Becker’s signature shoes, carried a bag filled with four rackets. Four rackets? You didn’t have four rackets unless you were good. The boy took several practice swings on the lawn then made imaginary charges to the net. He bent low, Becker-like, and mimicked an overhead smash.
The Boris clone had all the moves down. Even the service motion. A wrinkle of hesitation added to Travis’s warbling confidence: his second serve. He didn’t have one. Howie had never stuck around long enough for Travis to practice.
A tennis player, for recap, is given two serves. If the player fails on the first, he or she is given another. If the player fails on the second, the point goes to the opponent. Second serves are usually safer, whereas first serves are struck with the intent of maiming someone.
Travis was moderately secure in his first serve. As it stood, his second serve was essentially a tap, a bug in line of a flyswatter. Travis watched the boy take another imaginary serve, horrified that he’d overlooked such a crucial component of the game. Would it cost him a spot on the squad?
He searched the grounds for the coach, Mr. Stitzel. Maybe he could help carry the equipment. There he was. Short man. Thick build. Muscular legs, wearing shorts in the style of the seventies, an inch shorter than they wore now (more Connors and McEnroe than Edberg and Becker). He carried a hopper filled with new balls. “All right, gather around,” he shouted.
Mr. Stitzel, also the Geography and Humanities teacher, barked instruction at the boys. Tryouts would last one week, so make sure to come on time … or something to that effect. Travis was only half-listening, his attention drawn to the pool of faces. Suddenly, his shorts felt way too snug. He lowered them onto his hips and untucked the shirt. No one else had their socks pulled up high, either. He made sure no one was looking, crouched on one leg, and pulled his down.
Coach continued his pep talk. “Practice will be every day. Same time, right here. Our first match will be three weeks from today. Not much time, so we have a lot of work to do … for those who make the team.”
Again, Travis felt that rush of adrenaline mixed with nerves. Something about those words … “make the team.” Who would be the chosen few, the elite eight? He nearly jumped out of his skin.
“So enough of my rambling,” Coach said. “Let’s head to the courts.”
Travis gripped his racket, as others ran to their bags to garner their instruments of battle. “Oh, you can leave those,” Coach said. “You won’t be needing them.”
Travis crooked an eyebrow. What strange coaching method was this? Were they going to use their hands? Joining the others, he ran down the embankment toward the courts—two sets of three. Coach followed, apparently not in any hurry. And he’d left the ball hopper behind. The groovelines on Travis’ forehead deepened. This was tennis. Essential tools for the sport involved a racket and balls.
“Someone asked me recently,” Mr. Stitzel said. ‘What’s the most important part of tennis success? Is it talent? Determination?’ I’d thought about this question many times over the years but had never verbalized an answer. What is the most important part? True, talent covers many weaknesses. If one is lazy or unmotivated, talent can push him near the top.
“But never to the top. Only a fortunate few have that kind of talent. I sure didn’t. Look at me. Probably more fit to be a nose tackle in football. But I loved tennis and wanted to swing at a tennis ball rather than offensive linemen.”
“So, what is the most important part?” Coach held out two fingers. “Mental and physical conditioning. Mentally, it’s played between the ears. Tennis is the ultimate game of psyche out.”
Coach had a reputation for this, for speaking in a cerebral, flowery manner. Travis looked forward to sophomore year when he could take Mr. Stitzel’s Humanities class. He’d be one of his star students and prized athletes.
“It’s a game of chess. Only, in tennis, the board measures forty by fifteen.” Coach put his hands on his hips. “I’ve seen players who play up to the level of those who are better than them. Unfortunately, they also play down to the level of weaker opponents. They miss shots they would never miss.”
Coach locked eyes with several players. “And the other forty percent? Physical. I won matches because I was better-conditioned than the other player. And that’s the way you men are going to be. We are going to run, run, and run some more. I will never look the other coach in the eye and know his players won because they were better conditioned.
“That starts now. There’s twenty-three of you. Give me one group of eleven, one group of twelve. I don’t care how you split yourselves up, just be quick. We won’t be hitting any balls today. I hope you stretched beforehand, because you’re going to be running—a lot. Start with twenty laps around the court. Warm up, and take it slow so you don’t knock each other over.”
The boys split into two groups. Travis joined the larger one. His mind, were it not scrambling to keep up with his slightly off-balanced gate, would have realized that he’d never run twenty laps around anything in his life. He hated running with a white-knuckled, find-any-excuse-possible-not-to-do-it kind of hate. He hadn’t forgotten to incorporate running into his training regiment. He’d just ignored it, as it stood on a short list of his most detested activities, along with church on Wimbledon Sunday and helping his dad pull weeds in the lawn, or suffering company at the house. Instead, his mind played catch up as he jogged down the hill toward an unknown fate, a two-hour practice he’d longed for but now wished was already over. 5:30 couldn’t come fast enough.
Fourteen-and fifteen-year-old boys, no matter the given instruction, will not “go easy” when it comes to competition. Hormones, a raging current. Competition, a necessity of early manhood. Did the boys go easy, warming up, as Coach told them? There was never a chance. It became a sprint, the faster ones jockeying to pass those in front, until the superior-conditioned athletes were setting the pace, which grew faster each time around the fence line.
During the third lap, Travis developed a cramp. He wasn’t last in line but was soon to be. His footsteps felt weighted with granite, each step a resonating klumppppp against the ground. And the boy with the untied sneakers? He’d since tied them and was leading the pack, running with a confident, relaxed stride. “Move, Travis!” he yelled. “I’m trying to pass”
He’d just been lapped. How humiliating. And here came the others. One had the gall to run by and swat him on the butt. “Pick it up, Trav!”
Travis heaved for breath. Lap 18. He thought he might lose the macaroni he’d had for lunch. The tater tots, too. He might have to steer out of line and head for the grass. If he left vomit on the court where they’d be playing, he might as well walk off with his head buried in a sack.
Most of the others had finished and stood near the court bench, drinking power fluids, catching their breath, and laughing. Only one other was still running. He finished, leaving Travis to finish alone.
“Come on, Trav!”
One boy encouraged him. “You can do it, Trav.”
Finally! Travis finished. He lunged for his bottle of Gatorade. If he’d been stranded in a desert for a fortnight without a drop, he wouldn’t have drunk the contents any more voraciously. He didn’t care about the dribble that ran down his chin and splashed his yellow polo. Surely, Coach would give them a much-needed rest. And please, let that be all the running. Let’s work on the mental part now.
A whistle’s cry interrupted his rest. Coach waved his arm in a circle. “Three groups. One for each court. Line up at the baseline!”
Travis swallowed a last gulp of Gatorade. It wasn’t fair. He’d just come this close to dying, or at least passing out. Coach should have allowed each person the same rest time, even if they had to stagger when they ran the next drill.
Speaking of drills, what was this going to be? What new form of torture for Coach to incorporate now? How would he feel when ten sets of angry parents sued him for putting their sons in the hospital for heat stroke? Travis limped to the middle court. Tennis was a gentleman’s sports, not like football and other barbarian games. What kind of coach was this?
“Time for wind sprints,” Coach said, reaching for his whistle. “Race to the service line and back, then to the net and back. I don’t want to see anyone stop until I’ve blown this whistle. I’ll never have my players being out-hustled by their opponents, and that means being able to run, run, run … and run some more.”
The boys lined up. Like Olympians readying the blocks, they placed the tips of their Nikes, Sportifs, and Pumas at the edge of the baseline, trying to get an edge on the competition. Feet tapping, quadriceps shaking in anticipation. Travis shoved his toes to the line, though he didn’t bend over in a racer’s crouch like the others.
“On your mark, get set.” Coach blew the whistle. The boys took off with a shot. Though gassed from the start, Travis gave it everything he had, heaving his tired body forward, calling on every last whisper of strength.
Unfortunately, he had none left. He hit the wall somewhere between the first and second wind sprint. He doubled over, grasping for air with convulsed breaths, then hobbled to the baseline. In his daydreams, he never imagined his shirt drenched in this much sweat—a lake of perspiration covered his chest. He no longer saw the other boys whizzing by, a dizzying array of arms and legs and shoes and shouts of competition. His focus was on that net. That darned net! He hated it. He didn’t care if he had to crawl, he was going to finish. By the time Coach blew his whistle, he was almost crawling.
“Why don’t you sit the next one out,” the coach said to him. Then he added, “What’s your name?”
Coach looked on his clipboard and made a mark with his pen. Travis didn’t care whether or not Coach Stitzel was writing a damning note next to his name: Cut him! He collapsed on the bench. Never felt so good to be seated in his life. He sat out the rest of the afternoon, watching from the sidelines.
Near the end of practice, Coach asked, “Do you think you can go again?”
“I’ll try,” Travis answered. At that point, the players were doing squat thrusts. Travis attempted a series but had to excuse himself; his body needed further recovery. He looked to see if Coach had noted his excusal with pen. Who knew the first day of practice was going to be like this? Who knew the popular Humanities teacher would turn out to be such a taskmaster? Graciously, five-thirty arrived and Coach Stitzel excused the boys.
“Get some rest. We’ll be back at it tomorrow.”
That night, Travis sat silent at the dinner table, pushing his chicken nuggets across the plate and praying no one asked about the tryout. Thankfully, his dad had other matters to address with the family. If Ronnie was going to continually break curfew, his car privileges would be revoked (And for God’s sakes, fill the tank next time!). Travis escaped the kitchen and took refuge in his room, where he sat at the wobbly desk he’d had since he was eight and set a new high score on Space Rescue, all the while trying to forget the events of the day, and the bastardization of tennis with grotesque training methods that needn’t be used in the sport of kings.
Before going to bed, he packed his tennis bag, though not as deliberately as he’d done the night earlier, and placed it by the front door. Seeing the Gatorade and granola bar made his stomach turn cartwheels.
The next morning, he shoved the bag to the bottom of his school locker and went to U.S. History. Travis felt sick all over, dirty as a piece of wood. Maybe he should forego today’s tryout to rest … come back tomorrow and show everyone what he could do with a racket. Sounded like a good idea. He’d wait until the last class to decide.
The final class raced by in a blur. After the bell, Travis took special care organizing his Trapper Keeper, even helped the teacher straighten the desks. Once he’d resharpened his pencils, he left the room and headed for the lockers. The thought of blue shorts and tucked-in polos caused a sudden queasiness.
He stood at the locker, his hand gripping the combination lock. Tryouts began in five minutes. He needed to hurry if he was going to make it. Travis loosened his grip on the wheel. Tennis wasn’t even that popular of a sport. No one came to the matches. Not to mention the time suck it would be. He had other things that demanded his presence. Uh, hello, gaming club. Travis dropped the lock and left the school, heading in the opposite direction of the courts.
And so ended the tennis dream of ‘86. The next year, he declined taking Humanities (Though he did end up getting Mr. Stitzel for AP History his senior year. He never brought it up, and he hoped Coach didn’t remember). The AMF Head went into the attic. Was still there until a few years ago when his parents decided there was no use keeping all of his and Ronnie’s junk. They threw it away, along with the Star Wars action figures (Not a big regret—the boys had played with them so much they’d lost any resale value) and comic books (Again, no big loss; they’d read them ravenously, the covers torn and faded).
Author’s note: T…T…T is for Tennis! is part of a collection of stories, all centered upon Travis Wunderlich, a Yelp Elite status member, street fair connoisseur, and many years ago, an aspiring athlete.