Tennis is a game of grace, speed and strategy -- Except when I am playing it. Then it turns into a comic ballet with balls, racquets and legs flying in all the wrong directions.
It was never my intention to serve as court jester. But then my entire role as a racqueteer has been involuntary.
I was shamed onto the tennis courts by my friends and associates in the disability rights movement, where I worked for several years. When one is surrounded by wheelchair marathoners, blind mountain climbers and amputees who risk their remaining limbs in hang-gliding, it is embarrassing to have no athletic achievement other than an Olympic-class tan.
In other company, I might have rested on my lifelong excuse, an arm paralyzed since birth which I cannot raise above waist level. But in this crowd I was considered able-bodied enough for the decathlon.
Desperation drove me to tennis. It looked like a good one-handed sport, played in nice neighborhoods in good weather. Besides, I look good in white.
I approached the sporting life by taking lessons from the Montgomery County Recreation Department. Our teacher, an aging elf named Bobby, began the class by leaping over the net. He meant business.
First, Bobby demonstrated the proper method of serving the ball. "You hold the ball high in one hand, the racquet high in the other," he explained.
There went my illusions about tennis being a one-handed game. But I refused to panic. The object was to get the ball over the net, right? I announced to Bobby that I would serve by bouncing the ball.
Bobby stopped in mid-pivot. "There are no bounces in tournament tennis," he said.
I was enormously flattered. I hadn't planned on Wimbledon until after the third lesson. I smiled and kept on bouncing.
By now, the rest of the class had stopped serving to catch the verbal volley. Bobby demanded that I serve the right way; I agreed to one attempt, and our ace immediately spotted the difficulty.
"Oh, my God! You're impaired!" he cried out. "I've never had to deal with anything like this before. Do you want us to remove the net? Is the court too big? Can you do anything according to the Wimbledon rules?"
I was mortified. Only one thing kept me from flinging down my racquet and rejoining the sunbathers: I had already bought the little white shoes with the stars, the little white socks with the pompons--not to mention the little white dresses, the racquet, the yellow balls, the orange balls and 10 sessions with Bobby. I was in too deep to give up tennis.
After the initial shock, I realized that the fault wasn't all Bobby's. He deserved some advance warning about my disability. And Bobby realized that serving wasn't my only problem--my total lack of athletic ability was more of a handicap than my handicap.
I have had many tennis teachers since Bobby--courtside advisers with unsolicited advice on my game. Some think it is so courageous of me to play in public that I shouldn't care if I never get the ball over the net. My husband, the captive court mate, does not share this view.
Others tell inspiring stories about handicapped tennis buffs who used igenuity to play the Wimbledon way. "I knew a guy once who held the racquet between his knees . . . or held the ball in his teeth . . ." the stories go. If I tried these super-serves I would surely break the racquet or my ankle or both.
My opponents and partners are going to have to take me as I am. As a tennis player I will never be an inspiration. But I am one terrific bouncer.