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Scrawny To Strong: A Highschooler's Tennis Journey
It is our 4th match in the District Tournament, and my doubles partner and I are in the finals. We’ve played a strong set but we’re trailing 3-5 in a tiebreaker to 7. I am so focused that I’m completely over the shock of still being here. This is Coastal Springs High School, it feels like we never win here. Something always goes wrong—a sprained wrist or ankle, a double fault on a tiebreaker, a freak thunderstorm. But it’s no wonder we do so badly here. Just look at this place. There isn’t a water fountain in sight, and the fence is collapsing in multiple places. The court is so cracked it looks like it was struck by a meteor. My ankle still aches with pain from tripping on the cracks two points ago. I’m drenched in sweat and the dread that I’ll let my teammates down. The eyes of parents, players, and coaches track our every movement. But one pair of eyes is missing: my biggest fan, my dad, was unable to make this one.
The tall, toned girls across from us are in a ready position, poised to pounce at anything and everything that may come their way.
“Focus, Aanya!” yells the coach from the other side of the court.
In the third match of my second-ever tennis tournament, I was down two games, and my opponent, a tall, snarling, intimidating girl who was 14, two years older than me, was serving for match point. The sun glared onto my face, my cheeks burned red, and the soles of my feet ached with pain.
“Don’t give up, Aanya. you got this,” whispered my dad from the bleachers directly behind me. My dad always had a passion for tennis. He grew up watching Steffi Graff in his living room, but as much as he loved it, the lack of facilities where he grew up prevented him from playing.
I glance at my partner and see a hopeful look in her eyes; we have to win this match. I look up to my opponents one last time before I slam a serve into the box. It lands straight on the corner of the service line and bounces out of the girl's reach.
4-5, almost there.
Facing the snarling girl, 12-year-old me didn't have a chance. I was so tired I thought I might pass out. The girl served the ball as hard as she could to my left. My feet nailed to the ground, I could only hope that her shot would go out, knowing that I lacked the energy left to make the return. I watched as it hit inside the box, completely out of my reach. I glanced at the timer. It had only taken her 45 minutes to break my spirit. Well, that's a new record, I thought.
I sulked my way over to the center of the court, where I shook hands with my grinning opponent. I looked over my shoulder, to my disappointed dad, dreading the talk we’d have on the drive back home. As disappointed as I was in myself, I wasn't very surprised. After merely two tournaments, I had a feeling this might not be my thing. What was the point in trying if I just kept losing?
I walk over the cracked asphalt to the left side of the Coastal Springs court and get ready to serve. My partner holds a signal behind her back indicating where she wants to volley. Knowing how well she volleys, I know this point is ours. I slam the serve, and the girl across hits it straight up. My partner runs and smashes it down. 5-5. I can’t hide my smile anymore. This match has been so intense, I’ve been forgetting to let myself have some fun. My partner and I look at each other and I give her a thumbs up. She grins.
Tennis was the first sport I had ever done competitively. At my first lesson, I was surrounded by all these high schoolers who were all so good. It was me, a scrawny 12-year-old girl, alongside these towering, disapproving, frowning teens. It was intimidating to start a new sport playing against people who could beat you so effortlessly.
I remember this one day right after one of my tournaments when my dad sat me on our living room couch and we just talked. He told me that I wasn't being forced into this, and that if I really didn't enjoy playing I didn't have to. “But,” he added, “I know what you're capable of, and I know if you put in more effort you can be great. Remember, if you're still playing the match, you can still win it.”
I never forgot those words.
We win 2 of the next 3 points, and we find ourselves at match point, up 7-6. My legs are trembling and I keep re-gripping my racket which has grown slippery with sweat. The tall, toned girl across from me serves the ball into the court. It strikes the inside of the box and shoots to the left side of the court. I sprint as fast as I can to the ball, and reach my racket out, hitting a powerful forehand return. Everything has gone quiet and seems to be in slow motion, all of my focus on the ball, as it dives toward the ground and lands right on the line. The girl misses. Cheers erupted all around me. I can't process what has just happened, or what is going on around me. Did that scrawny 12-year-old girl, who got thrashed by those frowning teens, just win districts? My teammates all ran onto the court and attacked me with hugs and congratulated me and my partner on our win. I feel someone putting a soft thick fabric onto my neck, and look down to see a shiny gold medal.
I can’t wait to tell my dad.