CHAPTER 2: GIRLS DON'T PLAY TENNIS
Excerpted from "Getting a Grip" by Monica Seles (c) 2009 Avery a division of Penguin Group USA
Most professional athletes can remember the exact moment they were introduced to the sport that would be their destiny. For me, that day started with the smell of salt water tickling my nose. As we did every summer, my family was spending our vacation by the Adriatic Sea, and in the mornings a breeze would blow through the bedroom window and gently wake me up. Hanging at the beach for a precious two weeks a year was practically mandatory for European families, and we were no exception. Every August, we'd pack up the car and head to the coast. Two weeks of sun, sand, and surf. It was heaven. The summer I remember the best from those lazy seaside days was when I was five years old. I was a little pipsqueak of a girl who never stopped moving. Buzz, buzz, buzzing around all day long. It used to drive my family crazy. One morning I got up, threw on my swimsuit, quickly ate breakfast at my mother's insistence, and was dashing out the door as fast as my legs could carry me. As always, I'd planned on spending the day on the beach building intricate sand castles with moats to protect the princesses I imagined resided inside and the handful of crabs I recruited to act as their guards. But something grabbed my attention before I could make a run for the beach. It was my dad packing up a bag with cool-looking toys.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To play tennis," my brother, Zoltan, answered. He had a bag too.
"Can I come?" I'd already forgotten about the castles waiting to be built outside. All I heard was the word "play" and I didn't want to be left out of any fun.
"Of course you can come," my dad said, smiling. "Go put on your shoes and we'll meet you outside." I tore into my bedroom frantically searching for my sneakers. My mom found them for me and helped tie the laces nice and tight.
"Have fun," she told me, kissing my forehead and whisking me out the door, happy to have a little peace and quiet for herself. It didn't happen often. My mother, Ester, worked long hours in an accounting firm and whipped up three homemade meals a day for our family, and those two weeks were the only time she had to relax. As a five-year-old, I didn't understand what it meant to need a vacation, but I'm sure my mom did. I ran outside and caught up to my brother and dad. We walked down three different streets until we got to the local court. Jumping around like my shoes were on fire, I couldn't wait to get started. Started at what, I had no idea, but I knew something fun was about to happen. My dad and Zoltan unsheathed their rackets and started hitting a ball back and forth. It seemed to go on forever. I was getting bored sitting there; I had thought this was going to be a lot more fun. When my brother put down his racket to get a drink of water, I took advantage of my chance. I ran over, picked it up, and started imitating what I'd seen him do.
"Good, Monica!" my dad called to me from the other side of the net.
He hit a ball my way. I'd like to say that I fi red a two-handed crosscourt backhand from the baseline. I'd like to say that in that split second a star was born. But I can't. I missed the first ball. And the second, and the third. Zoltan, showing an amount of restraint and patience that is unusual in thirteen-year-old brothers, let me go on like that, swinging his racket wildly as I ran back and forth across the court not making contact with anything. But my dad noticed something right away. The racket was nearly as big as I was but I was handling it as though it weighed nothing.
My swing wasn't sending any balls over the net, but the form wasn't half bad. We played all afternoon, Zoltan and I taking turns with the racket, and I never got tired. Some sports prodigies are born with superb hand-eye coordination, abnormally flexible shoulder joints, or extremely efficient red blood cells. Me? I just had freakishly strong wrists. Years later, my dad would insist it was because, as a toddler, I walked around our apartment carrying his four-kilogram dumbbells every where I went. I don't remember for sure, so I'll have to take his word for it. The three of us spent the rest of our vacation at the tennis court together. When we got home from the Adriatic, I begged my dad to keep playing tennis with me. While Zoltan was an active player in European junior tournaments, my dad had only hit around a couple of times in his life. He played more during that vacation than he ever had before. But he had a hard time saying no to me, so he figured out a way to make it happen. Our hometown of Novi Sad - a medium-size city nestled on the banks of the river Danube - had only four courts, and kids weren’t allowed on them until they were twelve years old. The tennis club had an elitist attitude that could have rivaled Wimbledon's Centre Court. There was a mandatory dress code of all white, and it was difficult to secure a court time, nearly impossible to find the financial means to pay for it. It was a far cry from the everyman sport of soccer, the most popular sport in my country, where all you needed was a ball, a patch of grass, and the will to run.
"No problem," my dad told me after the club would not let a five-year old play on its courts. He took a ball of string down to the parking lot in front of our apartment building, cut a long piece off, and tied the ends to cars placed about ten feet apart. Voila! We had our own private, free, always available court where dress whites were optional. I devoted every afternoon to playing in that parking lot. After a month my dad saw I was serious about it - and that Zoltan's patience with loaning out his rackets was growing thin - so one weekend he got in the car and drove seven hours until he crossed the Italian border, where the closest equipment store with child-size rackets could be found. He'd done the exact same thing for Zoltan seven years earlier, so he knew the drill. He picked out the best one he could find, had it wrapped up, jumped in the car, and drove straight back home the same day. I was thrilled with my new racket and carried it with me every where. My dad and I continued to play every single evening, staying outside until my mom called us in for dinner. Even then we'd stay outside a little longer until she’d call us a second time. Then we knew she was serious. We didn't dare test her a third. Over dinner Zoltan would tell us about his upcoming tournaments and I'd hang on his every word. I loved tennis with every bit of my heart.
Until winter rolled around. I decided I'd had enough tennis and what I was really meant to do was ice-skate. I retired from my illustrious parking lot career and asked my parents to sign me up for ice-skating lessons. You'd think my dad might have been a little annoyed, after jumping across country borders to support my tennis obsession, but he was just as happy to take me to the rink at five in the morning as he'd been to drive to Italy. He didn't care what I did, as long as I was doing something that made me happy. Ice-skating was great, until I fell on my butt the first time. Waking up before sunrise in an attempt to beat the hockey players to the rink (I had to claim my little area of ice before their pucks went flying all over the place) got really old, really fast. And falling on my bony backside was not easy. Ice hurts. A lot. I was spending more time skidding on the ground than standing upright, and I had the bruises to prove it. The dresses in ice-skating were gorgeous - that had been my original motivation in deciding to be a skater - but they just weren't worth those kinds of sacrifices.
After two weeks I hung up my skates, and by the summer I'd come out of retirement and started playing tennis again. Every morning was the same. My mom left early for work but she always made time to get our breakfast ready. I'd eat it in front of the television while watching my beloved Tom and Jerry cartoons, then hurry down several flights of stairs in our apartment building with my racket in hand.
I'd practice hitting against the brick wall of our building over and over again. Ice, rain, snow, wind - no matter what the weather was like, I was out there. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people who lived on the first floor. Never once in all my years of using that wall as a hitting partner did they ever complain. They were either extremely kind or extremely hard of hearing. Either way, I owe them a huge thank-you. Every now and then my dad would lean out over our balcony railing with a cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other. A political cartoonist, he had to be up to date on every thing going on in the world and was rarely seen without his nose in a book or an international paper of some kind. If he leaned over just so he could catch a glimpse of my scrawny arms swinging my racket over and over. Both hands on my backhand, both hands on my forehand. When I first started going to tournaments, coaches pulled my dad aside.
"Karolj, you aren't going to let her keep playing like that, are you?" they'd ask.
"Yes. Why not?" my dad answered.
"Because it isn't right. It isn't how she is supposed to play tennis. She will never be a great player with both hands on the racket." The list of reasons for me not to play with two hands could go on and on. Less mobility, less time to get in position, less reach. Nobody did it. My dad usually interrupted before they got too carried away.
"That is how she picked up the racket. That is what feels natural for her. So for Monica, that is the way she is supposed to play." He'd then thank them for the advice with a warm handshake and quietly walk away.
One of the best things about having my artist/tennis-novice dad as my coach was that he didn't know what I was supposed to do. He approached the world of tennis with a completely fresh mind. Open to anything that might work, he didn't let how things used to be done color the way things might possibly be done. To him, hitting a forehand with two hands was just as good as hitting it with one. The fact that nobody else was doing it didn’t mean anything. It just meant we had to make it up as we went along. So we did. The number one rule was easy: Have fun. If I wasn't having a good time on the court, then there was no point in being there. If I was going to sulk or be stubborn or mad, I was wasting my time. Just put the racket down and go home. But my dad made our practices so much fun, I never once stormed off the court in a huff. I was still a kid, so if it had been boring or too difficult, I would have walked away without a second thought. When you're young, the choice is so easy. If it's fun, do it; if it's not, don't. Wouldn't it be great if life could always be that simple? Going to Hawaii and drinking Mai Tais on the beach? Fun. Do it. Cleaning the house and paying bills? Not fun. Skip it.
My dad took his cartooning skills to our makeshift tennis court. Knowing that I couldn't get going in the morning without my usual dose of Tom and Jerry, he drew the brown mouse's face on every ball. He then told me that I was Tom and my job was to go after Jerry with all of my ferocious predatory might. That's how he taught me to hit the ball on the rise.
Thanks to his university background in biomechanics, he figured out that hitting the ball as it was rising up would translate into more power when it rebounded off my strings than it would if I waited for it to come to me.
Cutting down the reaction time of your opponent - this was an extremely aggressive approach that few players were using. I had no idea that I was learning an entirely new way to hit the ball. I just thought I had a mouse to catch, and I went after that furry little guy with every thing I had. When I wasn't pretending I was a cat, I was aiming to take out my dolls on the other side of the court. My dad would collect a bunch from my room, carry them with him to the parking lot - not caring in the slightest who saw him loaded down with baby dolls and teddy bears - and set them all up just inside our makeshift baseline. I'd take my position on the other side of the court and, one by one, take them down. I was a one-girl firing squad. If I hit them all, I got a new stuffed animal. Nothing like bribery to get a kid to work hard! (I have to admit that there were more than a few times when I missed the mark completely. I'd get the new toy anyway.) It worked: by the time I was eight, I was the number one junior player in Yugoslavia. I was beating girls twice my size but I still didn't know how to keep score. I just hit away until I heard applause, then I'd look at my dad to make sure I'd won. It took me a long time to get the whole scoring thing down.
When I began winning matches all over Europe, our local courts finally gave in and let me play during off-peak hours. I also got my first dose of media attention and a peek into being a celebrity. One time I was shopping at the market with my mom when I heard someone gasp.
"Is she that tennis player? Look at her! She's so skinny! Look at those little stick legs!" My ears started burning and my cheeks prickled with fire. These days I'd love to hear people going on and on about my lithe frame, but back then it was horrifying. I couldn't believe they were talking about me. And apparently they thought they were in an invisible, soundproof bubble, because they were standing only a few feet away from me but were going on and on about how my parents should start giving me food. My mom quickly ushered me out of the store and then let me eat spoonfuls of Nutella when we got home. Ah, Nutella. Just talking about my dear childhood friend brings back the sweetest memories. I put it on every thing: fruit, toast, pastries - anything that could be covered in that brown goo, I tried it. But the best way was straight up, right out of the jar.
With my tenth birthday, the intensity of the media attention cranked up. One morning I woke up to see a picture of me on the cover of a national newspaper with the headline "Sportswoman of the Year" hovering above my smiling face like a crown of hype. Can you imagine? Sportswoman?
At ten years old? I wasn't even wearing a training bra yet. I was painfully shy and didn't want any attention drawn to me; this was not going to help matters. There was a big presentation downtown with a lot of important-looking people in business suits. I felt tiny and lost and very aware that I looked out of place. The next week there was a ceremony at my school honoring the achievement. I'd tried very hard to keep my tennis life and school life separate, but this blew my cover. When I felt people's eyes on me, I became very self-conscious. Why on earth I picked tennis - the most solo sport around - I still don't know. You can't be much more in the spotlight than serving match point at Wimbledon.
People might be watching you. But back then I wasn't thinking about any of that. When I first started playing, I thought it would just be my dad, Zoltan, and me playing together forever. I never thought about further down the road. I had no idea what life had in store for me.