Turning the Tables In Father-Son Tennis

I toss the ball skyward. An arched back, a powerful whip of the wrist at contact - just like pictures of Pancho Gonzales I'd seen as a kid - and, yes, another ace. At least in my fantasies.

The gangly 13-year-old on the other side of the net didn't flail like he used to, or half try to get out of the way. He moved into position and returned my rocket with as much speed as I had sent it.

He'd been doing that a lot of late. It was dawning on me that the 6-0 or 6-1 sets of the past were slipping into history. But I was still managing to win, even when the games seesawed to 6-4, or to ``sudden death'' (unheard of before this summer). The edge was still with experience, with an instinct for anticipation and placement.

We rallied, and I drew him out of court, playing the ball left and right until, true to form, he'd try something impossible and find the net or the back fence. These tactics usually worked, and in my mind, at least, they had the added virtue of teaching the young fellow something about good footwork and getting the racket ready.

I had harped on those things since the first time we faced each other at half-court range. I would send countless balls his way, wondering when he'd ever learn to locate them with his hand-me-down junior racket.

Now, five or six years later, he'd sometimes zing a backhand cross-court that I couldn't get within six feet of. Did I teach him that? I used to let him have a point now and then, to boost his confidence. Will that table someday be turned?

On this particular day he certainly wasn't giving me the usual quota of double-fault freebies. As we both wilted under a late summer sun, the games went to 6-4, then 6-6, and - hard to believe - another tiebreaker. We'd had one a couple of weeks earlier, which I won, but it was an unsettling experience.

The first player to reach 7 wins, with a spread of 2. I serve, and another imagined ace returns barely out of reach. He serves, just serviceably (a devastating first shot is not yet in his repertoire), but the ensuing rallies produce more of those blistering cross-courts. Three to 0, and a pattern was set. I got 1; he got 3. Then the deciding point, and a deftly launched lob - one of my favorite weapons, I'd always thought - settled it. I had lost to my son, as the whoop from the other side proclaimed.

I'll get a rematch, and I may well win it. But some kind of boundary was lowered. He's only going to get better. But isn't that what I've been hoping for ever since that plinking back and forth from half court?

He'll soon find better competition. But he'll never find an opponent who had more at stake in the outcome and was happier, inwardly at least, to be defeated - at least not for another 30 years or so when he just may find himself on the other side of the net.

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