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Tennis with Dogs

I had one leftover can of tennis balls, and a bucket of dusty balls in my closet, for years after I stopped playing tennis. I tried to get Dina, my black lab mix, to play catch with me, but she’d watch the yellow ball fly past her ear, or roll right up to her foot, and look at me like I’d gone crazy.

Dina

Dina

Peanut butter over tennis balls every time.

Peanut butter over tennis balls every time.

I used to play tennis, a long time ago. I started when I was seventeen years old, and stopped by nineteen, but during that time, I played almost every day. It was an obsession. I wanted to hit an inside out forehand like Jim Courier, and storm the net like Martina Navratilova. I started watching tennis during the U.S. Open the fall when I was seventeen, because there was nothing else on TV. I’d never liked Tennis before. In fact, when I was eight years old, I went to a local day camp and took a tennis elective in the afternoons, and I hated it. I have a hazy memory of bright sun and hot courts and not being able to see the ball clearly because I didn’t have my glasses on.

But something about those night matches at the US Open captivated me. I signed up for an adult education tennis class at the local high school gym, and my brother and his best friend volunteered to practice with me. My brother’s idea of playing tennis was to hit the ball as far as he could, not just over the net but over the back fence of the middle school tennis courts down the block from our house. His best friend had played on his high school tennis team, so when he “practiced” with me he used a wicked back spin and dropped the ball just over the net, plunk, where I could never reach it.

Over the next few months, I took more classes and lessons and practiced serves on my own at those middle school courts. I ruined my right rotator cuff with all of those practice serves, but I didn’t care. I’d carry my basket of tennis balls up the block and hit serves until the basket was empty, then cross to the other side of the net, collect the balls into the basket, and serve to the other side until the basket was empty again.

I started to practice with my college team in the spring, and over the summer I spent all of my scholarship money on tennis camp. I was eighteen, and the oldest camper there, but I was determined to become a tennis player. In the morning we practiced volleys and groundstrokes, serves and footwork, and in the afternoon we played matches. I could never figure out strategy, though. I was too busy trying to retrieve the ball myself to ever figure out how to make it harder for the girl on the other side of the net. My strength as a tennis player was my persistence and consistency. I didn’t give up, and I didn’t play differently each day. When I learned something, I added it to my game, and it stuck.

That fall, after tennis camp, I became a full-fledged member of my college tennis team and I went to all of the practices and played in real matches. I played sixth singles and I even won a match or two. I took more lessons and practiced religiously, and in the spring, the coach had me play a set against the girl who was currently playing fifth singles. We were evenly matched, because even though she was faster and in better shape than I was, I never gave up. Every game was hard fought and I won the set in a tie break, and won the fifth singles slot on the team. It was the best match I’d ever played, and the last, I think.

My back went out at the beginning of my next official match and I had to default. My mother took me to a doctor of osteopathy and he twisted me like a pretzel and gave me pain killers and muscle relaxants. But the back injury was one injury too many. I’d made it through the torn rotator cuff, strained hamstrings and upper back, a thousand blisters on my feet and hands, but when my back went out it just refused to go back in. And I was relieved. The desperate need to make up for years of not playing tennis was overwhelming me. I kept getting better so quickly that people forgot how recently I couldn’t play at all, and expected too much from me. Most of all, I expected too much from myself. I always do.

I tried to play tennis again a few years after the injury, but I was too tentative about twisting at the waist, and my timing was gone. I’d either hit the ball with the rim of the racket, or so flat that it landed four feet beyond the court. I knew I wasn’t up to practicing enough to get my strokes back, and I couldn’t imagine just playing for fun.

I wish I could be more like my dogs. Butterfly only expects herself to do what she can. She takes a long time to learn new skills, and does them only as much as she wants to. Cricket pushes past her own limits all the time, not to impress anyone else but because she just wants to do what she wants to do. Neither one of them is as much of a people pleaser as I’ve been, Thank God.

Butterfly takes her own sweet time.

Butterfly takes her own sweet time.

Cricket is NOT a people pleaser.

Cricket is NOT a people pleaser.

Maybe if I could convince the girls to play tennis with me now, it might be different. I do miss the sound of the ball hitting the racquet – whomp – right in the middle, and I miss the feeling of my whole body working together to line up the ball just right and follow through.

Butterfly would make a great tennis player, if the court were a little bit smaller and no rackets were required. She practices her split step before every pee squat and she’s very light on her feet. Cricket almost always runs on a diagonal, so her court coverage would be fantastic, and she would also be great at intercepting shots at the net, but she might try to catch the ball before it gets to her side of the net, which would be frowned upon.

She's so light on her feet she can barely stay on the ground.

She’s so light on her feet she can barely stay on the ground.

Cricket can jump!

Cricket can jump!

Their ideal would be me standing on one side of the net with a bucket of tennis balls and a racquet, hitting directly to them, and never expecting any of the balls to be returned. The game would be over as soon as the bucket was empty and then Butterfly would head off to take a nap, and Cricket would growl and beg for chicken treats, just like any other day.

Cricket is very good at begging.

Cricket is very good at begging.

And Butterfly is very good at napping.

And Butterfly is very good at napping.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

71 responses »

  1. Sounds to me like brother has confused playing tennis with baseball.. I like the way Butterfly & Cricket play better 😉

    Reply
  2. I love this! I played when I was young and began again now that I am, not so young! Do try again as tennis is great fun and a great way to connect with others (trust me, I am dubious of those connections but they are a good thing indeed). Buddy and Ginger have a few words to say about the subject soon too.

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  3. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    hitting the rim of the racket is the worst….

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  4. I enjoyed reading this. I too sometime wish I listened more to my body and didn’t care as to please other people so much. And I do love a dogs ability to know its limitations and solely please him or her self and love their human. Totally equal balance. They got it down packed

    Reply
  5. Wouldn’t it be so much fun to have cats play tennis against dogs?! Cats would be pawing those balls across the net and the dogs would trot over and retrieve them….and maybe give them back to the cats. Or not. I think it would be a riot! Definitely treats after match point.

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  6. Such cute photos. I love the one of Cricket begging. Who can resist that face. 🙂

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  7. I’m impressed that you took tennis as far as you did. I tried it one time in my life after watching Wimbledon on TV. I remember being stunned by the fact that tennis courts, which had looked so small on the screen, were actually larger than some European nations.

    Trying to return any kind of shot was a joke. It took me a twenty-minute bus ride just to get to that part of the court. Seriously, getting the racket within ten feet of the ball was a major achievement.

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  8. Tennis is much better than badminton where they hit birds.

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  9. I like to think of those obsessions as enthusiasms which give way to others through life. As long as we have at least one enthusiasm it doesn’t really matter what it is – within reason of course. I was once a cricket fanatic; now I prefer an unusual butterfly 🙂

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  10. I played tennis on my high school tennis team in a little town called West Columbia, Texas. The team was really good for our little school, and we always made it through to the state playoffs in Austin. I was allowed to travel with the team – but was always held in reserve in case of injury to the better players who all remained in excellent health. I have loved the game for more than 50 years now but alas, now am held in reserve in front of the television set in my living room. I am an avid fan of the Majors and will be watching all of the coverage as the US Open begins tomorrow in the Big Apple. I will now think of you and your brother playing tennis in that same city – and smile! Great post…thanks.

    Reply
  11. Doggie tennis. My GSD would (eventually) fetch a ball, but like Maggie it was a case of ‘I got it, but you can’t have it back because you don’t want it and will only throw it away!

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  12. It’s so hard when playing something you love makes the body go awry. Nothing better than playing a one sided catch with a bucket of balls and Butterfly and Cricket though!

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  13. My previous cat when young would take up position at the top of the stairs and I’d throw a table tennis ball up. She’d bat it back to me in the air and hardly ever missed; then she’d wait for me to throw again. She never chased the ball down the stairs if it was just dropping down step by step and she could handle all sorts of angles.

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  14. I can just see Butterfly and Cricket waiting for you with that ball machine:D

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  15. I enjoyed reading this post, Rachel. And I love your photos of Butterfly and Cricket 🙂

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  16. Sam is with Dina on this one. Peanut butter over balls a.n.y. day of the week and that’s ok by me. ❤

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  17. Love hearing about childhood passions and determination! About making something happen beyond because of hard work and persistence!

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  18. Reawakening your tennis days with the dogs is a great idea, as long as you play their way.

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  19. Playing with them might be a great idea 🙂 Maybe they could bring back a few of the balls so the bucket wouldn’t empty that fast. I used to play tennis as well, but never good like you. My injury was getting a ball right in my left eye (who does that?). Was afraid I wouldn’t see again and my tennis stopped right there. That eye is now the better of the two.

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  20. Butterfly and Daisy could compete for the Napping Title ! 😉 I love the photos of Butterfly on the stairs and blowing in the wind.

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  21. Oh my gosh I adore Dina!! I didn’t realize you had a 3rd fur-child. What a lovely fur family you have!
    I also wanted to thank you Rachel for your very treasured support. I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to read whatever I write be it something useful, pure shenanigans, satire and odd little stories. ❤ I also realized today that you are another blog that never shows up in my WP reader feed. I have just added your blog addy to my hand written list of blogs so I can keep up. I am going to message WP about this matter again for the 3rd time. Hopefully I will get some answer’s finally. That being said, my sincerest of apologies that I’ve missed out on all of your blog posts as I always enjoy everything you write.
    Wishing you & your fur children a lovely evening and weekend. xx

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    • Thank you so much! Unfortunately, Dina’s been gone for a while now. She lived to a grand old age (sixteen!) and left behind a lot of interesting smells and stories for her future sisters.

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      • Awe. I am sorry to hear that. I appreciate that you can write about her and her life stories! Dina would have had an awesome loving life with you no doubt about that! I hope someday I’ll be able to write as you do about Peanut. It’s almost been a yr since I put him down so I’m no where’s close to being able to even talk much about him. I never tire of Cricket & Butterfly and your story weaving! (Which reminds me, have yous seen season 9 of Murdoch Mysteries yet? I haven’t, but am dieing to know what is going to happen to CrabTree from season 8 finale! )
        Sending well wishes!! 🙂

      • It took me a long time to get Dina down on paper, and even longer to show any of the raw material to other people. I needed a lot of lightness to get back in to my head before I could manage the darkness. Meanwhile, I don’t get to see the next season of Murdoch Mysteries until it arrives at my library late in the fall, I think. And then, of course, I will watch the whole season in one fell swoop.

      • Thank you for sharing your experience about life after Dina and story about Dina. It makes a lot of sense and more valuable if that makes sense.. It’s something that takes time.
        Re Murdoch, I once sat down and watched all 7 season’s straight on Netflix lol! I prefer to watch an entire season at one time too. I see on Twitter various cast member’s saying thx for letting us film…. on a daily basis which gets my need for Season 9 wound even tighter. I didn’t realize how popular the show is worldwide so they plan to keep making new episodes and season’s for as long as they can which is fantastic. 🙂

  22. Tennis left me limping for a long time — but it was fun. Looks like Cricket might one day levitate. Forget tennis and hang on to her feet. Maybe she”l take you with her.

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  23. Loved this post, Rachel and it’s really interesting to read that you were such a competitive tennis player. Having a passion like that and your determination, says a lot about you and just extends our understanding of you.
    I also find it intriguing how the ball thing varies so much between dogs. Bilbo will only chase tennis balls and plain rubber balls. We bought him a whiz bang flashing ball and he wouldn’t touch it, despite repeated attempts. Neither of my dogs chase sticks at all.
    Lady, who had actually belonged to a professional tennis coach beforehand, looked like she’d never seen a tennis ball when she arrived. It took a few months for her to learn to chase it at all and now mainly retrieves it and lies down with it in her front paws saying: “Look what I’ve got”. Not just to us but to Bilbo who owns that ball and she loves razzing him up.
    Hope you have a great weekend xx Rowena

    Reply
  24. I really enjoyed “Tennis With Dogs.”

    Thanks

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  25. Lulu would be fantastic at chasing and retrieving tennis balls if they had fur and squeaked. Really enjoyed this writing!

    Reply
  26. Oh boy, can I relate to this post! I, too, decided to take up tennis when I was in high school, became a little obsessed and had dreams of greatness. Didn’t happen. There is much to be learned from our furry friends. Sometimes I think they are wiser than we are!

    Reply
  27. My pups love peanut butter and chicken liver treats, as well. What breed is Butterfly… Bichon Frise?

    On another note, I like your style of writing! PKF

    Reply
  28. Great post Rachel. I hope you get your game back soon.

    Reply

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