This past weekend sixteen of my teammates and I packed up our tennis racquets, team uniforms, sunblock, visors and determination to head up to Schenectady NY to compete in the USTA Eastern 18+ Sectional Championships.
The Sectionals bring together all five regions of the Eastern division of the USTA, from as far north as the St. Lawrence Seaway, a stone’s throw from Canada, and as far south as the Pennsylvania state line. The area includes Niagara Falls, all of Long Island and parts of New Jersey. Having made it to Sectionals we’d play five rounds of five matches over the course of three days. Whoever won would go on to Nationals.
On the second day one of our singles players, who had already played doubles in the morning, lost a second set tie-break in a grueling two hour match. Losing in a tie-break is a heartbreaker—the entire match hinging on a few points. Our player was leaving the court when she buckled and fell, gripping her spasming calf. Those of us not playing rushed onto the court to offer pickle juice and electrolytes for muscle cramps while we waited for the trainer. After being treated, our teammate made it off the court to stretch and recover. We watched the other matches, camped out on the matted-down grass, moving our fold-out chairs from spot to spot as matches were called on any of the sixteen public park courts.
Fluffy clouds scudded across a blue August sky, and temps were in the eighties with 20 mph wind gusts that made tracking the ball a challenge. One of our doubles teams was battling strong opponents in the second set when one of the other team’s players clutched her calf and fell to the ground. The trainer was called, and after a medical time-out she returned to the court. The teams split sets, but halfway through the third set super-tiebreak the injured player stumbled again, falling hard on the cement court. For the second time the trainer was called. According to the rules, a player can’t have two injury time-outs for the same injury in a single match, so we assumed that since she was cramping again the match would be over. After a twenty minute delay we were surprised to see her get up and resume play.
Her teammates, who were watching from just a few feet away, explained that the second injury wasn’t cramps, but a sprained ankle. No one on our team completely believed this, and we were grumbling among ourselves when one of her teammates shared that the trainer had told the injured player that he thought she’d broken her ankle and needed an x-ray. Given this information, we were shocked that she was still on the court. She was standing off to the side by the net while her partner played the last few points alone. Any time she tried to step off the court the official told her she had to at least stand on the court or else retire. The official, though, wasn’t the one pressuring her to keep playing. It was her own partner who didn’t want to retire the match.
Suddenly a seemingly simple tennis match was raising serious questions about the limits of grit and determination, the balance between supporting your partner and risking your own health over a game of tennis. I know what the answer would have been for me, but I wasn’t the one out there. The opposing team quickly lost the tiebreak, and the injured player was driven to the hospital, where it was confirmed that she’d broken her ankle.
Over the course of the weekend there were many injuries, each one requiring its own tough decision. Determining lineups was a key part of strategy, and our captains assessed how each player was feeling after every match. Adjustments had to be made, and the dedication of everyone on the team was remarkable. No one could have been there without the support of their families—husbands who stayed home to watch young children, or went without a car for the weekend (!). One teammate drove three hours to step in after having already played four matches for a different division. Another stepped up to fill a slot after not having played singles in years. One of our teammates learned of her father-in-law’s death the evening before the last day of the Sectionals. With her family’s encouragement and support she stayed to finish the tournament. Each of these players went on to win their matches.
We completed the weekend as finalists, losing to the first place team by one match. The tournament, though, was about so much more than winning or losing. It was about grit and hard work, teamwork and heart. It was also about the complex decisions we each make every day, questions about when to press on and when to say, enough. When to sacrifice for the group and when to take a step back to take care of ourselves. We had to ask ourselves the question, how much is too much? How much is enough? The answer was different for everyone.
What was indisputable, though, was that the women I played with were universally fierce, kind, and generous. They looked out for one another. They didn’t give up. They made difficult choices, considering each individual as well as the larger success of the group. They were fair. As we sat on the sidelines, cheering for one another and making friends with our opposing teammates, we shared stories from our lives. But most of all, we got to know one another by standing side by side as we faced our opponents across the net, by hitting winners and missing easy put-aways and giving each other a high-five either way. We showed up for one another and for ourselves, whether we won or lost.
On Sunday afternoon we packed up our bags. We collected our trophies and had our picture taken with the finalist banner. The group texts stopped, but the messages remain. We’ll share them with our children, our families and communities. We’ll embody them in our lives.