My Life as a Tennis Ball
MOST OF US HAVE NO IDEA where we came from. We don’t know when or where we were conceived or what makes us alive in the first place. We can’t even remember being in that cylinder before a blast of air welcomed us into the world.
I was luckier than most. I could have ended up on the tip of a radio antenna on a pickup truck. Or sliced open and poked onto a table leg so it wouldn’t scratch the floor. And even though I never got to serve justice at one of the majors, I did have a terrific roll at an ATP Masters tournament.
The lid popped for me at a men’s final where at first I thought I was the cause of so much celebration. Only later did I learn that the excitement was about the players and that my time would pass relatively unnoticed by most people. I also learned that you never know where fate will toss you or what ups and downs lie ahead, and that most of your life is a blur as it plays out. Yes, brief rests come now and then, but if you sit too long doing nothing you start to question your purpose. Soon, the longing rises to be up again and doing, even if in a routine, back-and-forth sort of lifestyle.
My best moments came when the players lent me their full attention. Particularly when they paused to cradle and caress me with the sense that I, and I alone, had special meaning. Sometimes they tossed me aside and sometimes they gave me a good whack. But the game of life doesn’t rest on love alone. On the contrary, it is, by necessity, backhanded at times. What matters is that you are granted the favor of a reply so that you, too, can get your point across—all within the bounds of decency, of course. Besides, despite all the racket (and perhaps because of it), we have an innate tendency to bounce back up and keep doing what we need to do over and over and over again.
The upside for me was that, like most professional tennis balls, I possessed the capacity to see inside a human psyche whenever players held me, turned me over, and considered my worth as though assessing my very being. At such moments I could peer into their thoughts and anticipate their actions. Needless to say, it was just such moments that gave my life direction.
I recall, for example, apperceiving one player who at first seemed robust and confident, but whose mental interior, the deeper I peered into it, revealed more strands of fear and anxiety than I had of nylon and rubber. Just as my plush skin belied a rugged interior, so this player’s demeanor disguised an underlying competitive drive to win, not the game, but an injection of self-esteem drawn from approval by others.
Seeing the churnings of a psyche out of sorts with itself, I longed to convey how it is just a beautiful game, which is all it is ever meant to be. But not having a mouth, I could not speak. Twice did I try to engage his thoughts in a rally with my own. But, alas, and due to no faults of my own, we had to move on to the next point.
The player at the other end of my world was opposite in every way. Outwardly he was ordinary and inwardly he carried only a small handbag of bravado. Whenever he gazed at me and rolled me from side to side with careful concern, I peered into a rich reservoir of surety. From such equipoise he was viewing the entirety of the game in a way that each move became a strategy, each pause an anticipation, each misstep an opportunity, and each stroke one of good fortune.
Naturally, I felt no need to convey anything whatsoever to this player. I knew only unhinged joy whenever I circulated through his end of my existence, and as I did I often wondered if he even knew how much his affection was influencing my orbit around him. I was occasionally handled by other people, but it was clearly the two players who had the strongest impact on me. Yes, they drove me hard, but only a few times can I recall either of them taking advantage.
When the match was over, I wondered if I might be lobbed into the crowd where hands would lunge at me, clutch me, and relegate me to an endless journey down memorabilia lane on a book shelf somewhere. Instead, I was scooped up with the rest of my tournament mates in a bin where we sat for days in a closet under the stadium.
Nestled together and unsure about our future, we inevitably resorted to banter. Some of us shared heroics from the match. Some compared notes about the players. Others talked openly about ball girls and ball boys we had known along the way. Then, suddenly one morning the door burst open and our bin was put on a truck that drove us to a public tennis court where we were to serve out our retirement as—I can barely utter the phrase—used balls.
For me, that time was thankfully short lived. One afternoon during a game of ladies doubles, I went sailing over the fence into a bed of ivy where, despite 10 minutes of searching, they never found me. Only after a long period of intense heat, thunderstorms, and armies of ants crawling over my belly was I nudged with a wet nose and captured by a golden retriever who lived nearby.
The days after that were certainly not what I expected as a tennis ball, but they brought their own pleasure. I never again knew the kind of apperception I had experienced on the tournament court, but a new life flew by at the beach where I was hurled long distances and rolled with glee on the sand.
Inevitably, a day came when I was thrown into the waves so the dog could swim after me. Once, in deeper water, he was so urgent to snap me up that his tooth bit a hole in my side. A few throws later—the last toss I would ever know—I found myself far from shore rolling with the outgoing tide. A current swept me out to sea and I gradually sank into an oblivion I never knew existed.
My outer purpose soon lost all meaning and over a great while my familiar form disintegrated. Eventually, the most essential part of me got absorbed back into an oil deposit beneath the ocean floor—the very place that had originally supplied the mysterious fabric of my inner self.
How could I have known? What a wonderful game. What a fabulous return.