Advantage who?

I COULDN'T believe my eyes. Coming out to meet me for the first round of a city tennis tournament was a disabled entrant who extended his only hand in greeting. His other arm was a short, handless appendage. His uneven legs propelled him in a rocking-horse motion when he moved forward and a scurry when he moved sideways. My first thought was, ``What a snap!'' But a tougher match would be a better tuneup for the more competitive matches ahead. Then it occurred to me that maybe I ought to reward his misguided courage by letting him win the match so that it wouldn't be a complete humiliation.

But deliberately playing beneath my level would not only be dishonest, but might be sensed by my opponent as patronizing. No matter how I play this match, I'm not going to feel good about it, I thought. Why couldn't someone else have drawn this problem?

When we introduced ourselves on the sideline of the court, it was apparent that he also had a speech impediment. Nevertheless, he didn't seem the least bit intimidated by my 215 pounds distributed over a 6-foot, 4-inch frame, and he initiated a lively and cheerful conversation. I hoped I wouldn't dampen his refreshing manner with a thoughtless word or gesture that might appear condescending.

A gallery of spectators was not common for a first-round match, but I noticed that my opponent had attracted a growing number of supporters. All of them appeared to have physical disabilities. Apparently they came from a special school.

After the usual warm-up, we spun for serve and began the match. He won the choice of serve and I watched with some fascination as he stuck the racket under his stump, gave the ball a high toss, and retrieved the racket with his good arm in time to hit a lively, well-placed serve. I attributed my loss of the first game to my fixation with his unorthodox serve. At least I wouldn't embarrass him in front of his friends by winning the set 6-0.

On my serve, I tested him with an all-out flat serve, a spin wide to his forehand, and several zingers to his backhand - all of which came back sharply. I would have easily won the game, however, if I hadn't made some uncustomary errors. In view of the uneven lighting on the court, my slow start was easy to explain. I was also conscious of his cheering section, gabbling and gesturing wildly every time he hit a winning shot.

After he won the third game I decided that I had been sufficiently charitable for appearance' sake and would take charge of the game, even if I had to take advantage of his limited mobility. His fans were beginning to get on my nerves and it was time to silence them.

I won the next game, of course; class will eventually tell. Although I was down three games to one, my mastery was clearly evident.

Apparently he didn't understand, because he took the next three games to close out the set at 6-1. At first I thought he made some lucky shots at key points, but I was becoming increasingly aware of his remarkable agility and uncanny knack for anticipating my best shots.

I held my serve in the first game of the next set and broke his serve in the second. I was hitting my stride now. Too bad the match had to go to three sets, because it might make me late for a date later that evening. Then a funny thing happened. He won the next six games to take the set and the match.

His rooting section was ecstatic. They hugged, stomped, whistled, and cheered - each one relishing the vicarious triumph. Their one-armed David had toppled Goliath.

Being gracious in defeat is not one of the better points of my game. It ought to be, I suppose, because I've had considerable practice. But this was too much. How do you tell a disabled guy half your size that you ``enjoyed the match'' without committing perjury?

When we shook hands at the net, I complimented him on his ability and began to question him about his background in the game. He responded effusively, obviously pleased at my interest, and we visited much longer than protocol required. His off-court manner was equally as winning as his court play.

As I drove home alone after the match, I uncomfortably relived the encounter with this ``disadvantaged'' player.

It gradually dawned on me that my defeat was a far greater inspiration to his loyal band than a win could ever have been for me. Their champion had shown them that a physical impairment did not sentence a person to a noncompetitive life.

After I reconciled myself to the defeat, I found to my amazement that I became one of his supporters and closely followed his progress in the tournament. He proved his win over me was no fluke by continuing through the 64-man field to the semifinals, where he lost a close match to the eventual winner of the tournament.

I felt his defeat almost as much as his loyal friends did. In retrospect, I'd have to admit that of all my memorable losses in tennis, this awakening was easily the best.

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