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Want To Captain A Tennis Team? It's Love-All

An ode to tennis captains...

It didn’t seem like a big deal when a league coordinator asked if I would consider being a captain for a competitive USTA doubles tennis team.  Having never captained, I asked, “What’s involved?”  The answer I received was not exactly honest!


“Not much.  Recruit some players.  I can help by giving you some names.  Schedule the matches for each player.  Report some scores.”  All this and you get a lunch-box size cooler at the end of the season!


The task seemed doable.  So, I agreed.  Little did I know that on every team there is at least one player who feels they are better than everyone else and should play with a preferred partner in the preferred place in a lineup. 


And I didn’t know there would be divas who create drama about lineups, starting times, warm-up times, and general personality traits on the court.  I had no idea I would be stepping into a world where sweet people are existentially transformed into court-dwelling beasts who forget how to have fun.  (Confession: Well, maybe I did know that one from having played so many years.)


Overheads would be slammed at the opponent near the net, only to have the one hitting it mutter, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.”  Right!  I’m never convinced of that!  Probably because I am as guilty as anyone else. 


In general, players at my level fall into one of two different categories. 

  1.  They played in college or as competitive juniors and can still play at a high level.  They’re just a little slower.  But they play with confidence.

  2. They are good athletes who learned tennis at an older age.  They probably excelled at another sport when they were younger and are smart enough to pick up the nuances of the game in a relatively short period of time. 

Being part of group 2, it brings me great glee to see group 2 beat group 1.  Of course, I keep that thought in my head, especially since most teams are made up of a mixture of the two groups. 


I found that managing this motley crew of former stars, wannabees, and aging smart athletes requires the diplomacy of Winston Churchill and the kindness of Mr. Rogers.  The job requires being a mother to make sure the players actually sign up for the team on the website, as well as being a psychologist, peacemaker, cheerleader, and, oh yes, a tennis player. 


By the middle of the first match I knew it was going to be a challenge when the opposing captain strolled over to ask me if one of my teammates was bipolar or just “having a moment” on the court. 


As I glanced over at my teammate, I knew exactly what she meant. What was I supposed to say?  I had no answer.  I learned that the way most captains react when they don’t know what to do or say is file a protest. 


On another occasion, one of our players called a ball out that was clearly in at a critical time in the match.  The other captain asked if that occurs often.  How was I to reply?  I can’t say, “Well, she has old eyes and is doing her best,” because she was one of our younger players. 

I tried to communicate with a hard stare to the player that it was a bad call.  It didn’t work. 


When you choose to captain a tennis team, you must always be ready to play.  At any moment a player may text or call to say she is stuck shopping or is recovering from a bad reaction to Botox.  You must be ready to deal with every situation.  An initial text from a player may be a request to play with X, but by the time the match rolls around, that player may have played with X on a prior occasion and now refuses to play with X. 


As captain you must learn which players will play only the deuce side, which players will play only the add side, which players are skilled enough to play either side, and which players THINK they can play either side. 


I learned the hard way that a sucker is born every minute.  But I learned the lesson quickly and decided captaining is not for me.  But to all those who choose to brave the world of captaining, I offer some advice gained from my short time on the block. 


The advice is simple, but if all players agree, your stint as a “sucker” will be much more pleasurable.

  1. Make sure players share.  That means sharing late and early match times, sharing balls, and sharing partners if absolutely necessary.

  2. Don’t hit.  And I don’t mean physically.  Tennis players (me included) are great at giving mental jabs.  Sometimes, even to their partners. Note: “I believe in you” is much more effective than “Why didn’t you get that ball?”

  3. Play fair. Need I say more?

  4. Stick together.  Win or lose, value each other and play as a team.  Never, ever bad mouth a fellow teammate.

  5. End each match with adult beverages! 

 

The last piece of advice I offer to a new captain is this: have fun!  But I know you won’t.  As for me, I’ll be saying, “Yippee!”  I actually get to focus on playing and improving my game.


I never did thank that league coordinator.  He didn’t deserve it.  In fact, I should have known it was going to be a disaster when he smirked and said, “not much.” 


Strange isn’t it that the game of tennis begins with “love all.” 


And I will end with love.  Although this article was in jest, I truly want to say how much I appreciate and LOVE all the captains I have had over the years.  Kudos to you!  It is hard work, and that is a fact I now know.  Thank you for putting up with me all these years!


Jesus said, “They will know you are mine by the love you show them.”  (John 13:35) Now I can concentrate on showing that love to all my fellow tennis players, and especially my captains. I ask that you have mercy and show grace when I fail to display this on or off the court.  It’s ok to call me on it!  (Please do it nicely so I don’t go home and cry.)

 

Notes:  For those of you who are not tennis fans, I apologize.  (This article is attributed to Jill Ebstein…Thanks Jill.)


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Anne Hope is the award-winning author of Bent Pages...a sharp, funny, and deeply inspirational narrative.

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