Playing tennis despite muscular dystrophy

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My grandparents had the best tennis garage door ever — wooden, flat, and above it was the upper section of their split-level house so balls weren’t landing in the gutters if you hit too high. Unfortunately their driveway was very short so you had to stand in the middle of the road to be able to use their door as a backboard. Combine that with the drainage gutter across the street that I’m pretty sure was designed to vacuum up any ball that got past me and the conditions for practicing tennis weren’t ideal. Nevertheless I would play against that garage door for hours when I would visit.

Sometimes I would take the racket home with me and play against our own garage door, which was almost just as good. Plus I could stand in our long driveway and not worry about getting run down by a bus or a UPS truck. Finally one day my dad decided it was pathetic for me to be playing with a wooden racket when I could at least upgrade to aluminum. So he took me to KMart and we got a couple cheap gray Wilson tennis rackets. I didn’t care that they were the cheapest ones there — the fact that they had a cover made them special. He even took me to a real tennis court, where we played for quite some time. We’d go out and play many times during a summer, even once time the day after my muscle biopsy.

Hitting tennis balls against the garage was easily one of my favorite things to do in summer and I even got my mom to sign me up for tennis lessons through the local Park and Rec. As an 8th grader (and a tall one at that) I was much bigger and older than the other kids in the Intermediate class. They were probably all in 4th grade. Even though I wasn’t a fast runner I could hit well so I ended up being King of the Hill quite often. I wasn’t very good at “Around the World” where you had to hit the ball and run to the other side of the court — especially at the end where you feel like you’re hitting the ball to yourself.

That year I also participated in an all night Tennithon which was a fund raiser for the local Children’s Hospital. You raised money then went to a tennis club and played all night long, without sleeping. Even though I didn’t raise that much money, I still raised the most and won the grand prize – lunch and attendance at a Milwaukee Bucks basketball practice where we got to meet Jack Sikma.

In high school the following year I decided to play tennis. Since it was a no-cut sport, anyone who wanted to play, could. I was nervous about all the pre-tennis things like warmups and running and exercises. I had my mom write a note to the coach so I could get out of doing those things and he was fine with it. I never saw the point in running laps before playing tennis anyway.

So I was on the freshman tennis team. I mainly played doubles with a variety of partners — whoever happened to be leftover. Some of the partners were cool, others were a pain in the ass. I had one partner who literally did not get a single serve in during an entire match, yet he felt compelled to yell at me when I wouldn’t get to a ball. Another partner would constantly tell me where to stand so I could get to the ball better, yet he never seemed to be in position to get his own balls.

That summer I had my heel cord lengthening surgery was scheduled and the thing I wanted to do the night before the surgery was play tennis. So my friend Rupin and I went to the courts in his subdivision and played five full sets of tennis — all of which I lost. But it was definitely one way to get my last hits in before the surgery.

Finally my sophomore year, one of my friends from orchestra and I became a regular doubles team. Neither of us cared terribly about winning or losing yet we did pretty well. I would place my serve so he’d be in a good position to pounce on any balls that came back. When I was at the net he’d cover most of the back of the court so I wouldn’t have to run that much at all. It worked out well. We finished the season at 4-3, one of the few winning records on our team that year.

I stopped playing on the tennis team after my sophomore year but still played for fun with friends — at night, in the rain, in the sleet, you name it. I loved it. I would play with my aunts and uncles a lot as well — there was no excuse not to play.

I stopped playing stand-up tennis around age 23 when my balance started going due to the muscular dystrophy. I would follow through on a serve and feel like I was going to fall down. I would shift my body to go one direction or the other and end up having to use my racket to catch my balance. It was extremely stressful, so I stopped.

It wasn’t until about 8 years later that I would play again — this time in a wheelchair. But it was the same feeling, same fun, and led to many more experiences that I couldn’t believe were happening because of tennis! It also helped improve my function. I wish I had picked up wheelchair tennis earlier, but everything has its time I guess. I am just glad I have found a way to keep playing.

So even if you’re not the best at a sport you love, play it anyway. It’s not about the winning or the losing. It’s just about the doing while the doing is good.

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