“We should go!” my son, David, texted me last August, adding a link to the website for the 2019 Madrid Tennis Open, which would begin on May 3rd. “We’ll be right near there.”
It sounded perfect. The Madrid Open was a premier tournament, a tantalizing prelude to the French Open in June. David’s youngest sister would be studying in Vienna in the spring, and our whole family was planning to visit her so it wouldn’t be hard for the two of us to zip over to Spain.
“I’m in!” I texted back. But deep inside, I doubted we’d actually go. David was 24 now, working and living on his own in New York. True, I’d been his tennis buddy for years, mainly because I was the only person on the planet who shared his belief that spending 12-hour days in sweltering stadiums watching a yellow ball whiz back and forth was nothing short of heaven. But May was nine months away – time enough for him to meet a girl who’d think that backs-of-thighs roasted on hot plastic seats were a small price to pay to be with my boy.
How This Mom and Son Bonded Over Tennis
How much longer could I expect him to travel for tennis with his mom?
For much of my life, I’d never even thought about tennis. But the seeds of change were sown one fateful year when David turned five, and a friend gave him a transportation play set for his birthday. It had a slew of toy vehicles and a vinyl mat imprinted to look like a busy city, and David couldn’t get enough of it. He’d sprawl on his belly for hours, making whooshing noises as he steered convertibles along Main Street and sped police cars toward City Hall, often with my husband playing right alongside.
Sometimes I’d try to play along, but the truth was I found the toy absurd. How was traffic playable? Yet, there were my boys, gleefully lowering helicopters onto the airport’s landing strip or guiding mail trucks toward the post office. Watching them, I realized that I needed an activity we could enjoy together. But what?
The connection I had with David’s two little sisters was effortless. They loved the things I’d loved growing up: Ballet. Ceramics. Acting. David, by contrast, was a STEM kid through and through. In one of my more ambitious moments, I bought a three-foot-tall motorized K’nex ferris wheel, which I thought would be fun for us to assemble together. But two hours into the project, we had accomplished almost nothing, and I had a blinding headache that sent me straight to bed. Lying with a cold washcloth over my forehead, I knew I had to try again.
Then, when David was six, he began playing tennis, and when my husband took him to the U.S. Open that summer. I figured I might as well tag along – unexpectedly, I fell in love with the sport. Tennis was about strategy and risk-taking, about pacing and timing, about self-reliance and self-knowledge. It was about pushing past stifling heat and cramping muscles, and coming out on top or accepting defeat and learning for next time. A tennis tournament was a lesson…in life. That was something both David and I could embrace.
I began spending more time each year at the Open, taking David by myself when no one else in the family wanted to go. We relished each player’s unique strengths – the unabashed drive of Andy Roddick, the fiery speed of Rafael Nadal, the icy elegance of Caroline Wozniacki, the unimaginable power of Serena Williams. We took pride in discovering new talent, like the energetic teen we spotted one summer, who had maturity beyond her years. We predicted she’d be someone someday, and we were right – she was Sloane Stephens, who went on to become the 2017 U.S. Open Women’s Champion.
As David moved through middle school, we grew antsy to see more matches. Unfortunately, trips to the other Grand Slam tournaments – the Australian Open, the Paris Open, and Wimbledon – weren’t in the family’s budget. But then we hit upon the idea of traveling to some closer-to-home Master’s level tournaments like Montreal, Cincinnati or Miami, which, although one level down from the Grand Slams, were still exciting.
I might have used these trips for important mother-son conversations; with no friends or activities to distract him, I could gently bring up topics like girls, or drugs, or drinking. But the reality is we didn’t talk about anything. Instead, we took in the wonder of it all: Nick Kygios’ edgy attitude; James Blake’s miraculous comeback from an almost deadly on-court accident; Roger Federer’s superhuman consistency, and Donald Young’s exceedingly human inconsistency. We stadium-hopped from early morning until way after dark.
The winter after David finished college and started his first job, we traveled to the Indian Wells tournament where weather stranded us in California for three extra days. I took the delay in stride, but David was a wreck. He had meetings and clients that week, and felt bad dropping the ball.
At the hotel that night as I watched him work on his computer, I concluded that this would be our final trip together. My son was a man now; he no longer needed his mom to take him places. We’d had a good run, but parenting was like a tennis tournament: The matches conclude, the players pack up, and the gates clang shut.
That’s what I was thinking last August when David texted me about Madrid. My response was “I’m in!” but my heart said, “No way.”
Soon it was February and one morning when I was looking into flights to Vienna, David texted me with a new idea: The Monte Carlo tournament was also coming up, and it was cheap to fly there from Vienna, he wrote. Should we go there instead of Madrid?
His question made me think of that California trip, and I remembered the final nighttime match we saw. The up-and-comer Taylor Fritz was losing badly to the veteran Marin Cilic – but deep in the second set, Fritz won a big point. Then he won another, and two more, and suddenly he could do no wrong. With the crowd cheering him on beneath that inky desert sky, Fritz powered through to emerge victorious. It was unpredictable and improbable and absolutely magical.
So I looked at David’s text and smiled, realizing once again how much life mirrored tennis. Sometimes when things looked over – they weren’t.
Maybe I’d have one more trip after all.