The Tennis Player from Bermuda

BOOK: The Tennis Player from Bermuda
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& T
, B

I tossed the tennis ball high and out, cocked my wooden racket deep behind my shoulder, went up on my toes, whipped the racket forward, slammed the ball and ran toward the net.

Rachel Martin –
Martin to someone my age – returned my service with her forehand, hard and low, to my feet.

I was already into the deuce service court alongside my father, and I bent down, so low my right knee was almost on the clay, and half volleyed, a bit too high, but angled away from Mrs Martin toward her husband, who was her mixed doubles partner. Usually, I would hit to the woman in mixed doubles, but Mrs Martin was a much stronger player than her husband. Earlier that summer, she had been a finalist in the Bermuda ladies’ singles championship match. So when I could, I hit to Mr Martin.

He got his racket on it, just barely, and hit to my father in the ad service court, but I yelled “Mine!” and backhanded a hard volley straight down the centerline between the Martins. Our point.

Father bent his head down beside my cheek. “Rachel’s forehand is so good. Why serve to it? It’s match point, let’s be careful,” he said quietly. I didn’t tell him what I thought, which was that I could volley her returns from either wing easily. He would regard that as cheeky. Instead, I smoothed down my tennis skirt and whispered, “I’ll go down the middle to Mr Martin.”

I went back to the baseline. I saw Father line up a bit closer to the far side. He was trying to fool the Martins into thinking that I would go wide again. I didn’t bounce the white ball. Mrs Martin felt that bouncing the ball before serving was an affectation and had told me not to do it. I just set up, tossed, served, and ran forward. My serve hit the tape on the service line exactly and skidded a bit before coming up. Mr Martin bobbled his return and hit a lob, high but not deep.

“Mine!” I yelled. I backed up a few steps, set up, left index finger picking out the ball against the Bermuda sky, right elbow up, racket head brushing my back, kicked my left leg out for balance, and swung hard – what Bud Collins would call a ‘skyhook.’ The ball went fast down the line between the Martins. Neither of them got near it.

Game, set, and match to Dr. Hodgkin and his daughter, Fiona. I was 18, and that summer I was the ladies’ singles tennis champion of Bermuda.

, B

My parents both loved tennis and played often, usually at the Coral Beach & Tennis Club on South Road, but they were not what today we would call ‘tennis parents.’ I was their only child, and they began teaching me to play when I was perhaps five or six. The thought of pushing me to play tennis would not have entered their minds. I never had a paid coach; my parents would have felt that paying for a coach was unsporting and Not Done. Still, I loved tennis from the start. I just wasn’t good. Father and I would play as mixed doubles partners on weekends and have great fun. When I served, even though I would hit a child’s puffball over the net, Father would yell, “Come up, come up! Don’t stay back!”

In July of 1957, I had just turned 14, and on my own I entered a girls’ tournament at Coral Beach. I had never played in a tournament before. I knew all the girls who had entered, and perhaps one of my friends said she would enter if I would as well. In any event, I entered.

Private autos had been legal in Bermuda since just after the second war, but my parents, like many Bermuda families, did not own an auto until the mid-1960s or so. We rode pedal bikes, or took the ferries or the bus when we moved around. So my friends and I cycled to Coral Beach on a Saturday morning for the tournament, with our rackets in the baskets of our bikes.

I played two matches in the morning and won both. The Club served us lunch – cheese sandwiches and Coca-Cola – on the terrace above the courts along South Road. Then, after lunch, I was to play Sara Martin.

Sara was further along in puberty than me – I was quite envious of her – and larger and stronger. I didn’t know this at the time, but Sara’s mother, Rachel Martin, had played at Wimbledon in 1939, the last Wimbledon before the war. As a 14-year-old in Bermuda in 1957, it’s possible I hadn’t yet heard of Wimbledon.

Sara blasted me off the court. I would serve and run to the net, and Sara would easily hit the ball past me. She won 6-0, 6-0. Sara went ahead to play two more matches and win the girls’ side of the tournament. Her mother had taught her to play tennis well.

Later that afternoon, I was sitting on a metal folding chair in the ladies’ dressing room at Coral Beach. I had my head in my hands. I was sobbing because I couldn’t bear losing. Mrs Martin walked into the dressing room, looking for me.

“Miss Hodgkin, why are you crying?” I looked up at her but couldn’t answer. She was wearing a simple, white tennis dress that looked so old it was almost ragged. Just above her left breast, a small, faded Bermuda flag was sewn onto the dress.

“Your father has ruined your game by making you play mixed doubles with him. Come to the net, that’s all you do.”

I was still sobbing. “I like playing with Father.”

“In singles, you must stay close to the service line. Don’t come to the net unless the ball lands quite short.”

“I like coming to the net.”

Mrs Martin snorted. “You don’t have the service to support a serve and volley game. You have to stay back.”

I kept sobbing.

“Stand up,” she said. She reached down and took hold of my arm. “We’re going down to the courts.”

She marched me down the steps to the lower courts. No one else was there; the tournament was over. The only bicycles leaning against the wall were Mrs Martin’s and mine. She picked a tennis ball up off the court.

“Toss this,” she said.

“I don’t have my racket.”

“I didn’t ask you to hit it. I want you to toss it.”

I tossed the ball, and it landed at my feet.

“Pathetic. It went straight over your head.”

She reached under her tennis dress and pulled out a ball she had tucked into her tennis knickers. She raised her left arm with the ball in her hand, and when her arm was fully extended, she simply opened her fingers and let the ball’s momentum carry it up. The ball went up about two meters and landed well out into the court.

“Like that,” she said.

“But I can’t – ” She interrupted. “Toss it.”

I did.

“Better. Again.” I tossed another ball. “Higher. Farther out.” I tossed again. “Better.”

“But I can’t hit it that high and out!”

She glared at me. She must dislike me, I thought, but I had no idea why.

“If you want to follow your serve in, you’ll have to toss the ball high and out, and then extend your arm to hit it. You’re not strong enough to do it any other way. Now try tossing it high and out and then hitting it.”

I found my racket. I stood at the baseline. The sky was the blue that you see only in Bermuda. There was a farmer in a horse-drawn cart, slowly moving along South Road. Other than the hooves of the farmer’s horse clopping on the road, and the barely audible waves landing on Coral Beach far behind me, the court was silent. Mrs Martin looked grimly at me. I set up, took the white ball and tossed it.

I drew my feet together and whipped my arm forward and out. I pulled the racket through as hard as I could and hit the ball with all my weight. The ball skidded on the tape of the service line of the opposite service court and then hit the concrete block wall at the back of the court, just under South Road. It ricocheted high in the air and finally landed back in the court. I turned to look at Mrs Martin.

She looked back at me for a few moments. It was as though I had confirmed something bad about myself that she had already suspected, but I had no idea what it could be.

“Like that,” she said finally. She said nothing more, turned on her heel, took her bike and left.

I was alone on the courts. I gathered about twenty balls that I found on the courts and practiced my serve until dusk came. Then I rode my bike home.

A week or so later, Mrs Martin called Mother and arranged to play tennis with me one afternoon. Over the next four years, until I left the island for college at Smith, we played tennis with one another four or five times a week, and more often during school holidays, but she usually arranged these meetings through Mother.

BOOK: The Tennis Player from Bermuda
6.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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