Yellow Balls at Eco-1

I don’t remember when I started playing tennis. What I recall when I saw a yellow ball coming at me, the instinct to avoid or run away was of paramount importance. It’s like a yellow menace about to attack me with its fuzzy skin. I got hit by it, of course. It was an inevitable tale of woe filled with shame that it wasn’t worth the spit but it is a reference point. The first time it happened is when I stood posing like Naomi thisclose to the net with my racquet below my knees and my reflexes must’ve been below par. It left an indelible mark on my top left eyebrow. Mom, a nurse, applied cold compress on it along with a tongue lashing for being meek and unathletic, adding more salt at my bruised ego. “Stick to Chinese Garter sweetie, that’s what you are good at!” Those words stung more than the throbbing sensation on my forehead as she left my room. That’s when I realized I needed to protect myself, learn how to serve, fend off round, yellow but fuzzy missiles coming at me, and hit it back HARD whoever is across the net.

When I lived in Detroit and Chicago, I played tennis only for fun and exercise. I didn’t even have the right shoes and played with an aluminum racquet made famous by Jimmy Connors. I would turn on the telly to watch Wimbledon and the US Open. Those days, I envied Chris Evert wearing those white lace pinafores and I tried to emulate her, or hit like Andrea Jaeger in all her pig-tailed glory and two-fisted backhands. Well, to my chagrin, Dad won’t let me go out of the house clad in a woman’s outfit just so I can whack yellow balls out to oblivion. Well, that’s how it really happened. I’d hit the ball but my racquet face was looking at the sky that the ball arced out of the tennis court onto the nearby fields or parking lots. I got tired of doing the same, old routine that I befriended someone cute and brawny on the other courts one day to help me with my game. He blushed and declined politely but told me to watch this Czechoslovakian serve and volley tennis player named Martina Navratilova, who is a lefty, like me. I checked her out. Not even two minutes of watching her play at her third Wimbledon finals in 1982 in TV, Dad blurted out in the comfort of his ottoman, “Sheesh, she’s a lesbian!”

“Lesbian?”

“Yes, your opposite. If you are a bakla, she’s a tomboy!”

My eyes widened with amazement. I remembered that moment. I was in heaven. The mingled feelings of gladness and sorrow got me inspired. Am glad to see an LGBT tennis trailblazer like Martina who came out the closet in 1981. I was sad that her personal life became the point of anger and derision from conservative, closed-minded people who wanted her mouth shut. She plays in ‘my league’ and is beating the shit out of all the hetero girls again and again. Martina became and will always be my idol.

I tried to serve and volley. I am done with the Chris Evert hit-the-ball-back-forever method since it took eons to win and maybe, just maybe, I was being lazy to construct points. At first, it worked. Then my opponents caught on. Because the balls bounced high enough for them to hit it back hard corner to corner and since I am a tad short, these balls would whizz by me or I’d try and retrieve a lob to no avail. I told myself, “Better have a Plan B.” You see, someone I won’t mention told me that the serve is the most important stroke in tennis. It starts everything. I worked on serving flat and hard serves, vary them as to have at least two-three kinds of first serves then just soften the second serve but made sure it was in. Double faults meant free points. Just keep the ball in. I also learned how to slice where the balls don’t bounce as high as it should, making the returner to hit up and it was much easier to put away.

Then I moved to San Francisco. Most of my loved ones resided in the Bay and Sacramento area, I followed suit. I’ve made friends who play tennis recreationally and we would go the courts just to exercise. Sometime in summer of 2004, a friend asked if I could sub for him in a tennis tourney for Gays and Lesbians. I’d be playing in the D division.

“You mean there is tennis tournament for baklas and tomboys dito sa Bay area?” I asked.

“Yes, and sometimes meron mga transgenders pa na sumasali.”

“You mean me mga Renee Richards na naglalaro?” He nodded as he took out a wooden racquet out of his leather tote bag.

“Ano division will they be relegated?”

“Hay naku, e di sa division of where they are ranked and they will beat your arse love and love for being naïve and stupid. Let’s play na!”

Enough said!

Since then, I’ve played in various tournaments sanctioned by the GLTA (Gay, Lesbian Tennis Association) within the California area (San Francisco, Stanford, Los Angeles, Palm Springs and San Diego) and won D Doubles trophies and a consolation medal in D Singles. There were tournaments all over the world. There was even a Gay Games. One time, I was in a tournament in Palm Springs and waited for my turn to play 2nd round singles at the show court. The bleachers were filled with people. It was the Open semifinals. I was curious why there was a huge interest in that particular moment. We were watching a tall and lanky blond with a crew cut who served and volleyed and hit the ball hard at the corners. It took him two steps to get to the net and finesse the ball away. His opponent barely eked out a one and zero loss rather than a bagel. Then I heard someone behind whisper, “I didn’t know that was him, he’s much cuter in person than in TV!” I thought, “Aba, me pro palang kadugo ko sa male division!” At his peak, he went up the ATP Top 20 rankings at one point. No names here.

In tennis, confidence is key. Once you try something new and it doesn’t work, always try and try again. In life, no one learns without making any mistakes. You have to keep moving your feet, and learn to anticipate where your opponent place the ball. Nothing is static. Always remember to use your stomach muscles to deep breathe from your nose and exhale through your mouth. You hate to lose? That’s just too bad! Not everyone wins all the time. Most of all, sweat it out, enjoy and have fun.

You can’t lose all the time. It is a ubiquitous statement worth pondering every now and then.

Fast forward to the 2019-2020….

Here I am in Davao; facing COVID-19 (social distancing, face shield and mask, stay home, no visitors allowed), sudden jolts on the ground and, ahem, jealous and insectyur boytoys. I live up the ninth floor overlooking a mall and construction site full of men in orange vests. The staff, security, and housekeeping remind me to be nice and treat people with respect. My whole week is dominated with eating, sleeping, writing and tennis, at times window shopping, though not in that order. Before I left Berkeley in 2019, I messengered someone in FB who was recommended by a bank manager friend. We met and he started coaching me. He introduced me to a 3-court tennis club close to Ecoland and its members. At first, I didn’t know what to expect but I try to fit in. I was surprised that I was accepted as a member. Then came the 2019 holiday soiree where I was asked to host and inducted as a member. I tried but I can’t butch it up with these guys. I realized that I am the only openly gay player in the group. They are accepting and actually fun to be around with. We encourage and root for each other to win games and sets. In the end of the day, a fellowship is formed for life.

In the US, we play 2 sets of 6 games with the winner on two game margin or if each team wins a set, there’s a third set tiebreaker and we change sides of the court. It can go on to 6 games each then settle it with a tiebreaker. Here, we play a pro-set of 8 games, with a two-game margin to win or if it is tied at 7 games all, it is a draw or barangay. There’s a shell court (slower) and two hard courts (faster), all outdoors along with a clubhouse/meeting room. We watch people play on each side in a long rectangular and roofed open structure with fans, tables and tons of chairs. There are plenty of trees enveloping the courts so there’s shade but between 10 am – 2 pm on a hawt sunny day, the heat can be really prickly. I usually play Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays afternoon. It is also the time where a lot of people play. We adhere to the new normal of social distancing, washing and sanitizing our hands, wearing facemasks all the time during these times. Though at the present, I play in the mornings at the faster court at a maximum of two pro-sets. We start early, around 6:30ish, and finish before 10:00 am. 

Of course, there are also other courts around Ecoland where the players are more competitive when incentivized with coin and that didn’t bode well with me. I chose Eco-1 because we play at our own pace. Don’t get me wrong, members here are quite competitive but acknowledge each other with respect. We have fun rallying with unreturnable and unexpected groundstrokes left and right and over each other. This game is one of the best aerobic exercises around where you get to run, retrieve balls, serve, deep breath in between points or getting ready to line up a shot. The key to a good forehand is the follow-through.

Saving the best for last, I believe the most important people within these times are the ball boys or in a more colloquial term, the “Pulot Boys.” They do more than retrieve balls for the players. They umpire, help bring in equipment, serve food, stage seats close to the courts, act as hitting partners, and run errands like buying cold water, snacks, food and the like. And, they can play tennis. Whenever I can, I’d bring candy and snacks for them. The other players do the same in their own way.

One of our stalwart and forever young players, Sir Greg, organized a tennis tournament for them this year. The prizes were donated by the members. After a round robin and semifinals play on Friday, the final was set on Saturday. It was a see-saw battle that pitted contrasting styles of play; Both Zaido and Mac Mac were aggressive from the baseline though Zaido was crafty from the onset. In the end, Zaido’s steady play prevailed over Mac Mac’s few but pivotal unforced errors as he took the title with an 8-6 score. We had a little ceremony later to induct new members and recognize the winners and players of the tournament. Sir Nelson also gave each of them gifts. See pics below.

Ecoland 2020 Champ Zaido w/ John Jagonia and Sir Greg Isleta

Ecoland 2020 R-up Mac Mac with John Jagonia and Sir Greg Isleta

Sir Nelson Estares, Club President Antonio Acain and the Ball Boys with their gifts

Without them, we’d end up being the Pulot boys. Back in the US, WE are our own Pulot boys. We don’t have anybody picking up balls before we play. Here in Davao, I am spoiled to have someone pick up the ball for me, even if it was stuck in between grilles of steel or underneath a pile of wood or far into the bushes. With them, I learned to be patient and be appreciative for their time and effort by saying thank you every now and then. That simple act of kindness can go a long way however to each their own here and most of all – Bawal ang Judgmental (No Judgment!). We welcome players, young and old, men or women, left and right, up and down, who love to play tennis. The holidays and staying at home may have added a few pounds into our hips so what’s a good way to lose those but play tennis, right?

All Rights Reserved © joegasparauthor 2020

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