My son, Callum, is 6 years old and he hits a pretty mean ball. In the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday, how well Callum, who is the same age and in the same grade (1st) as many of the 20 young boys and girls who were killed in Newtown, hits a tennis ball does not seem very important. But we connect with our children in various ways. They become extensions of ourselves, and tennis has been one way I’ve always related to Callum. I’m sure every parent in Newtown who lost a child had some activity that brought them closer to their little boy or girl and just the doing or seeing of that activity will bring forth vivid memories and tears of pain and joy.
Tennis is a frustrating sport for a little boy, especially when his dad has him on the court just shortly after the time he can stand and walk. I had heard about Andre Agassi’s dad with the mobile with a ball attached it over Andre’s crib. I had done a similar force-feeding of Callum in his baby days, floating balloons his way for him to swat at. And I could tell right away, that by god, the kid didn’t miss a balloon coming his way. Thwat, thwrop!
I find peace on a tennis court. I find ease and relaxation and a semblance of everything being in its right place. What other event allows you to go out and hit a ball with a partner 10, 20, 30 times in a row? Callum realized from an early age that his father was a bit of a tennis nut. From the age of 3, when I’d pack him in the car with our racquets and a hopper of balls, he’d say to me in a piqued tone, “No, we’re not going to the tennis courts again! I’m not playing.”
But then when I’d finally coax him onto the court, often after hitting together against the concrete walls outside the Scarsdale Middle School or White Plains High School courts, he’d start to get into it. He’s always had a fine two-handed backhand. I’d say to him early on, “Callum, that’s your meal ticket, that backhand. It’s going to win you a college scholarship,” and I could tell he got a kick out of that, not the winning a scholarship part because he had no idea what that meant, but just that he did something so naturally well. I didn’t have to model too many strokes for him, he picked them all up pretty quickly.
Last year when he was 5, I got him into a group lesson at a local club. He was with two 8 year old girls, but me being the edgy tennis father, petitioned the club higher ups to put him in a group at the end of the season with some more frisky and talented 8 year old boys. One thing I know from teaching tennis for 30 years is that in order to be good at the sport, you have to have a motor. The feet have to jump, the eyes have to light up and you have to love the contact.
This year, when he took him back to the club for a tryout, the head pro there, a South African named Denys Maasdorp, who was Top-200 at one point and has a win over Mark Woodforde, after a hit with Callum, said, “He can play in our High-Performance Group.” The kids in that group are all 9-13 years old and some of the bigger ones dwarf Callum. But every Friday, Callum goes out there and hits and plays King of the Court with these kids, and for the most part, holds his own.
They instituted a ladder at the club and Callum played his first ladder match last night against a girl, who in the past month, has won two 12-and-under Level 3 (only for players who have not won a tournament before) events. She’s about to turn 10 and like a number of the more serious kids, she takes a private lesson every week, along with two 90-minute group clinics. Callum takes the one clinic a week and tries to ignore everything I tell him when we go out to hit. “Don’t speak, Daddy, just hit the ball,” he says.
Callum knew Julia from the clinic they’re both in, but this was the first match he’s ever played (The rules are that either one set or 60-minutes will constitute a match). He had played many hours of basketball with a couple of friends the day before and had complained all day of an ankle injury. God knows he’s seen his dad come up with quite a few injuries and surgeries in his short life so he knows how to play the injury card. He took a long nap with me during the afternoon leading up to the 6 pm match, something he never does. And even up to 30 minutes before the match was to begin, he told me he wanted me to cancel it because of his sore ankle.
But I know my son. Just like when he complains about not wanting to play tennis, once he gets on the court, miraculously he has his tennis legs. And that was the case in his match versus Julia, a blonde who packs a mighty topspin off both sides and runs like a tomboy. Her mother said she didn’t put her in any 8-or-10-and-under tournaments, she zipped right up into the 12-and-under, because she already rips a regular pressurized ball from the baseline and in the younger divisions, they still play on the smaller court with the low-pressurized balls. Callum doesn’t exactly rip his shots, but he also plays baseline to baseline with regular balls and he’s like a backboard at his best.
When the match started, Callum suddenly got flat-footed. I told him to move his feet, but since Julia’s mom and I were the only ones watching the match, I didn’t want to call out too much advice. Otherwise I would’ve yelled, “Move your feet,” “Keep your head up on your serve,” “Put away the short ones,” and my all-time favorite, “No balls in the net. If you’re going to miss, miss long.”
Julia got off to a 2-love game lead and Callum, the doomsdayer he sometimes can become when losing, he’s wildly competitive, a trait I don’t know how he got, called out, “Oh, now she’s going to win 6-love.” I thought that was it. The combination of Julia having just won two tournaments, Callum’s bad ankle and the dropping of the first two games, would be too much for him to overcome. But he started to make the rallies longer. He ran down Julia’s deep topspin shots behind the baseline and somehow managed to send them back. He chased down her drop shots and hit a few of his own. He took the next game making it 2-1. Before serving the first point of the next game, he looked over at me on the bench, and while dribbling the ball, gave me a little smile. The kid had come to play! But Julia over-powered him and took a 4-1 lead. It looked like she was just too strong for Callum.
But then in between me talking to Julia’s mom and watching the match–if Julia’s mom wasn’t there, my attention would’ve been riveted on the match–Callum rallied once more. On one rally that lasted around 30 shots, the little guy hit a beautiful drop shot, and then followed it up with a backhand winner into the open court. He tied the score at 4-all.
I was amazed, but I loved it. There’s nothing I love more than to see a tennis player fight back. And Callum seemed fearless. It didn’t bother him that I was watching from the sidelines. In fact, when he would look over at me, I could tell he was happy I was watching him and rooting him on, even though I was careful to compliment Julia on her good play as well.
In the end, Callum’s serve let him down. He didn’t hit any winners off of it and he hit too many double faults. Julia won the final two games and the match 6-4. But afterward, Callum was stoked about his chances of playing more ladder matches (we’re challenging Daniel O’Neil who is three slots ahead of him) and even some tournaments. I explained to him how he could probably get a high ranking if he wanted to start out in the 8-and-under events this summer when he’s 7 and he liked the idea of being ranked. In baseball and basketball, his two favorite sports, there is no such thing as a “ranking,” and of course, there’s no way Callum could play with 12 year old baseball and basketball players the way he is in tennis.
I love watching Callum play matches at this early stage in his tennis development and I hope I don’t ever get to the stage where I cannot bear to watch him compete, the way Vince Spadea Sr. would walk away from a court Vince was playing on. I hope it never gets that life and death, that cut-throat, that serious, that I can’t watch Callum run and hit and smile with the joys of a good tennis match.