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The Rut

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Photo: PennLive

By Michael R. Salinas |

Many athletes will talk about that game, match, tournament, or event in which they were in their zone and anything they attempted was golden. I had my perfect tournament in 1988 when I was 16 years old. It was a United States Tennis Association championship-level qualifying tournament in San Antonio, Texas, the winner and runner-up would qualify to play championship level tournaments. I played several heavy hitters who tried to slug out winners, but I was in my zone and matched their power with carefully placed shots that caused them to commit many unforced errors. I cake-walked into the finals, but it was called off due to lingering thunderstorms. But what did it matter? I had already qualified to play championship-level tournaments. My tennis future was bright – or at least that’s what I thought.

My oldest brother Oscar had taken a keen interest in my tennis talent. He was 20 years older than me and considered me his tennis star. He attempted to steer my tennis development and taught me everything he could. He was wrong about some things, such as how to string the rackets to get more power, but he was on point on other issues, such as how to use the geometric angles of the court on certain shots to maximize baseline playing and approaches to the net. Hitting a cross court shot was essentially hitting along the longest side of a right triangle.

Oscar agreed to drive me across Texas from the Rio Grande Valley to Plano near Dallas for my first Championship-level tournament. He convinced my parents to allow me to get out of school for a couple of days so I could participate in the tournament.  Skipping school was a big no-no with my parents, but he had a knack with words and persuasion over my father. When we finally arrived in Plano, and I played my first match, my arms were as stiff as stone. I could barely hit the ball into the court. I lost in straight sets.

Shortly after the loss, as I was sipping my Gatorade, a lady walked over and said, “Stick around. “You still have another match in the consolation bracket.”

I glanced over at my brother.

“Get your bag together, and let’s walk to the car,” he ordered. “You came to play championship tennis, not to play to be the best loser.”

I played a few school tournaments after Plano, but I always stiffened up when I played a tough opponent in the quarterfinals or semifinals. I could no longer pull off the big wins. I was in a rut, and Oscar took notice. He talked to me at length about how to improve my game. He even attempted to change my serve to emulate Boris Becker’s.

Oscar would come to my parents’ house and visit us on weekends. On Sunday, we would eat Church’s fried chicken, and he would watch football with my father. He would drive back to his apartment in the evening. On one particular Sunday, he walked into my room while I was sitting on the carpet watching 60 Minutes.

“Stand up,” he ordered.

I thought he was going to demonstrate how to do a new exercise, so I stood up right in front of him. He looked directly into my eyes. He didn’t usually have good eye contact, but that day was different. I knew something was strange, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. All of a sudden, his right arm flew up and he struck me on my left cheek with his open hand. I flopped onto my bed to get out of his way in case he wanted to slap me again. He didn’t say another word and walked out of the bedroom. I didn’t understand what had just happened. I cried on my bed for a few minutes. After I had gained my composure, I stood up to walk out of the room. Before I could get out, he opened the door and stepped in. He must have seen my puffy red eyes. He looked at me a little nervously. His demeanor had completely changed. His eyes were no longer directly on mine.

“I’m trying to make you play better,” Oscar explained. “I thought you would get angry, get pumped up or something.”

I stayed completely silent, dejected and completely deflated.

“I love you,” he said. He then kissed me on the cheek and walked out of the room.

If I had been a better communicator or had been more confident, I would have told him, “How can you do that and just walk out of the room?” But that’s the 46-year-old talking, not the 16-year-old. I never told my parents about that Sunday evening in my room. I didn’t want to make the situation even worse. I also knew Oscar’s intentions were sincere, but his method was completely misguided.

I played tennis for another year, but then quit half-way through my senior year. The thrill was gone. Playing tennis wasn’t fun anymore. It was all too serious now. If I had just been able to bottle up my 9-year-old self pretending to be Bjorn Borg while hitting tennis balls against the brick wall of my parents’ garage. I would beat John McEnroe in the Wimbledon final every time.

My sons have fantasies of their own. They pretend to be Kevin Durant or Roger Federer. The more talent I see in them, the more I hold back. I answer their questions and encourage their development, but I always stay one step behind them and let them take the lead. Perhaps that will keep sports fun.

Michael R. Salinas has been practicing law in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas ,since 1997. He received his A.B. degree from Princeton in 1994 and his juris doctorate from Baylor School of Law in 1997. He writes in his spare time and also tries to keep up with his sons in their sports endeavors, but he sometimes gets hurt doing so.

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