It was the first morning of the 5A State Championships and I was getting the Starbuck’s I’d need. With all my Team Mom duties taken care of I had only a few minutes to myself before play would begin. Standing in the line to order my first thought was to thank God for all that had gone well so far. It’s a short but intense season when high school tennis starts so by the time you get to State you’re simultaneously thrilled and exhausted. After offering my praises for all there was to smile about I had this undeniable sense come over me that today was the day Luke was going to beat, for the first time, his arch rival Kyle and make it to the semi-finals of the tournament. I answered that voice in my head with, “I hope so” and looked down to see a very shiny penny staring at me. Beaming at the thought I tucked it in my pocket and headed to the courts with my cup of encouragement.
High school tennis has proven to be one of the most heartwarming experiences in my life as a parent and with this being Luke’s last trip to State I think I was as nervous as all the players. This has also been the year I’ve learned just how deep the field is in this particular sport. It’s easy to get a little prideful when your kid is ranked in the top 25 players in the state in his division and then when you see the other 24 guys play you realize why Andy Roddick gets clobbered by Rafael Nadal. Great is different than the greatest. The depth chart in junior tennis is as unbelievable as the pros.
This broader perspective is why when Luke and his opponent were called I was taking nothing for granted even though everyone in the know about these things favored Luke to win it. His match started and from the first few games it looked that way. Luke was pulling ahead and we were all light-hearted. Then his opponent figured Luke out and turned on his A-game and things got a little tenser. Luke still won the first set but after that the momentum shifted and the other guy won the second.
Everyone who knows Luke knows he’s got the stamina of an Energizer bunny so after two hours of play we’re hoping the other kid would just wear out but he doesn’t. He pulls ahead and it’s 5-0 in the third set and Team Luke/Team Junction is in shock. We are doing our best to keep our game faces on but everyone knows how hard Luke has worked, how capable he is, and how much this means to him and his team that we feel completely deflated. To lose in the first round for him at the State tournament in his senior year would be his biggest tennis blow ever.
Nobody knows what to say. We’ve all got our heads bowed, as if in prayer, so that we don’t catch his eye when his coach calls him over to the fence. To give him anything less than a confident encouraging look would make it all worse. Then, in a way that only she can do, his coach nonchalantly says, “Well you’re right where you want to be Luke to make the biggest comeback ever so just go do it. Don’t give up. Get back in there and fight. We’re all behind you.”
Oh man she sounded good and we all wanted to believe her and dutifully followed-up her talk with clapping and cheering as he walked back to the bench but we were all bracing ourselves. In one game it would be over but then, we all saw what we call “that look” come over his face that says, “Absolutely positively no freaking way is this happening!” He walked to the service line like a tennis gladiator and served it out winning the next game, then the next, and so on giving up only one more game to his opponent. It was as if he wanted to win it in a tiebreaker just to prove a point. Three hours and twenty minutes of hard hitting tennis that prompted every one of his coaches, teammates, and their parents to erupt in a standing ovation. To say I grew a few more gray hairs is an understatement. I’ve never paced, wrung my hands, or had my heart skip so many beats in a match. You felt bad for his opponent but at the same rejoiced at Luke’s comeback.
I was shaking from the adrenaline overload and so was Luke. When he walked off the court with his hand bleeding and said, “Mom, I gotta sit down” everyone laughed at the understatement. Yes of course you do Luke! As soon as he was little less wobbly he headed over to the team’s tent to get some first aid and eat lunch knowing now he would get to face his nemesis Kyle in the next round. You could see he was exhausted and nervous.
His teammate the consummate encourager Tate sat down beside him while he was struggling to eat and said, “Luke, if you could do THAT then you got this. Today’s the day man. He’s had his three but the fourth is going to be yours. His charm has run out.” The penny in my pocket was shouting the same thing while I rolled it around to bolster my confidence.
Less than an hour later we gathered for round two hopeful from the morning’s victory but still worried that if history was on his side Kyle would once again “eek” out a win against Luke. After another three hours on the court that looked like it was going to be the case. They’d split sets and Luke was down in the third. He walked over to the fence when his coach called and leaned down to hear her say, “Okay Luke if we have to do it again this way that’s fine just get back out there and win it.”
Not a single one of us watching looked away. Instead we cheered louder because we saw it, that look come over his face that said I am not willing to accept anything less for myself right now. By this time he’d played for almost six hours yet he managed to do exactly what his coach said. In another nail-biting third set tiebreaker Luke accomplished what he had set out to do – make the semi-finals! Standing ovation number two and the most thunderous reception I’ve ever seen his teammates give him when he walked off the court.
After all the hugs when Luke finally got to me he handed me the last ball he’d played and said, “Mom I think you need to sit down.” I hugged him with tears streaming down my face. The boy was holding me up this time because I couldn’t stop crying. He’d done it. He’d accomplished his goal to make it past the first day of the tournament something he’d never been able to do. He’s had a lot of wins in his day but this one arguably meant the most.
My heart hurt for Kyle and his family knowing how much it meant to him to win as well, but I couldn’t help myself. The tears came from years of watching Luke always have to pull up from behind. From pre-school to now it’s never come easily for him. He was the kid who circled the playground from the day he could walk until almost 4th grade because he was so afraid of joining in. He was the proverbial last kid picked for any teams assembled in P.E. unless he had been designated the captain.
Luke reluctantly started hitting tennis balls with his Dad when he was five years old but wouldn’t even consider competing until sixth grade and even then he was terrified. He got turned around on the court more than once unable to keep the score straight. He wouldn’t come in to the net to hit a volley for fear of being hit by the ball. He had a hard time calling his opponents ball’s out when they were nowhere near the green. We wondered if it would ever click for him?
Then after getting a little taste of success he got the bug and with the tenacity of a bulldog Luke set his mind to being the best player he could be going up against kids that have played longer and are a heck of a lot more athletic. Knowing all this is how could I not cry? Luke’s win is a win for everyone who has ever had to come from behind in anything – personally, professionally, or financially. To be successful at things that come naturally to you is wonderful. To enjoy success at something you have to fight for is a triumph and in Luke’s case one I hope inspires others like it does me. I’m convinced that God blessed me with the children he did just for this reason. Their hard-fought victories keep me pressing on for my own. They don’t need me to encourage them as much as I need them.
I’d love to tell you that Luke went on to win the tournament. Sore, blistered, and sunburned he came back out the next day and faced two even tougher opponents. He fought hard and never gave up but even with all that grit his body betrayed him. If he’d had more time to rest maybe the results would have been different or maybe not, there’s no way to know. However, we do know the wins he did have and his fighting spirit were instrumental in his team’s third place finish and winning the sportsmanship award. Both huge accomplishments and proof that it’s always possible to win while you play if you’re determined to do so! Luke’s tennis ball and the penny I found that day sit on my desk to remind me of that.