One Tired Ema



I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what we can “give” to our kids versus what they develop on their own.

In some cases you lay out all the tools you possess right in front of them and wait for them to pick them up. (Manners, I am looking at you.)

[It’s kind of fascinating, if you have the distance to look at it like a documentary filmmaker. My internal narrator is nothing like David Attenborough, though – rather someone who is light on research and heavy on sarcasm.]

Anyway, this is a post about AM. He’s 11 now, more than halfway to 12, and has more than his share of self-possession. He’s passionate about math, games, and…tennis.

AM has been playing tennis for 2 1/2 years. His universe begins and ends with Roger Federer. He was kind of alarmed a few weeks ago when Taxman and I listed all the tennis stars we could think of, stretching back to the early ’80s. You mean, there was professional tennis before Roger Federer? (Not sure he believed us when we told him that racquets were made out of wood not that long ago.)

I used to play extremely casually from maybe age 10-14, meaning I would accompany my mom and stepdad to the tennis court as they played (also casually), or play on brick walls. I played at summer camp. I had an average forehand, a terrible backhand, and could volley decently. Somewhere along the line I learned how to serve, but could never put a lot of power behind it.

This casual approach to tennis is not something my son can understand. He’s in a group class twice a week with several friends. But class is only 45 minutes, so he shows up 45 minutes early and plays on an empty court with a buddy. Most Sunday afternoons, when he has nothing happening after school, he calls a friend and goes to play for an hour or more. After he burns through his screen time on his phone (which is restricted, BADLY), he plants himself in front of the computer to watch videos of…Roger Federer. Oh, and also Hawk-Eye shots. (The first time he mentioned these, I made a joke about M*A*S*H, but like I said, this kid is suspicious of anything that happened before 2005, so he refused to engage.)

A month ago he fell on his left hand as he was chasing a loose ball and sprained two fingers. He called me, crying, as his fourth and fifth fingers turned indigo, and we bundled him off to urgent care. Two weeks in splints. But no matter, he was back on the court the next week.

This weekend, he won his division (of 23 kids) in his tennis school’s fall tournament. He passed through the first round with no trouble, then had closer matches in the semi-final and finals. (Not real games, but scoring individual points on a narrow half-court – which actually requires a lot of control to stop from going wide.)

But here’s the thing: He’s not a natural athlete. He’s in good shape because he bikes everywhere and runs around like a lunatic at recess, but he is not gifted in this way. He’s not tall, nor exceptionally strong. Yet he’s managed to claw his way to the top tier of some athletic things. He captured the last spot on his school’s tiny track team – six 5th and 6th grade boys – and competed in our city’s road race in November.

Same for tennis: He’s put in hours and hours and drawn himself by sheer will to the next level of play. He’s not a graceful player – just fierce. He has a great forehand, but his backhand fails him sometimes.  He’s had to learn to contain himself in order to put the ball between those restrictive lines. He sometimes gets furious with himself or his opponent (though this is improving). He’s less Federer and more McEnroe, sometimes. (Ema, Ema, he would sigh, McEnroe is left-handed. I am not left-handed. My literal heart.)

He has grit. This isn’t something we taught him; he just has it. (It’s not going to turn him into a professional tennis player, though, so eventually I hope he will direct it elsewhere.)

It makes me a little jealous, as I don’t think I recall ever being on fire for something as much as he is for tennis. Does reading novels on the couch count? Does that take grit? I once plowed through Anna Karenina in four days.

So I just sit and marvel. And overlook the trail of racquets and balls and shoes that line my living room. It seems like the least I can do.