Catch It on the Rise

A white golf cart driven by a freckled old man zipped around the corner at top speed, two wheels lifting off the pavement. It looked as though the man was going to tumble out in a bloody wreck. Then the cart levelled with a little bounce and disappeared down the path that ran along the tennis courts.

“Whoa! Did you see that?” Caty asked.

Her mom didn’t answer at first, watching Garrett climb the steps of the clubhouse. “Your father will pick you up!” she called out, waving even though Garrett’s back was already turned.

“See what, honey?” she finally asked.

“That maniac driver on the golf cart!”

Her mom laughed. “I think you mean Mr. Stirling.”

“The famous coach?” Caty asked, her voice rising in disbelief.

“That’s him!” her mom said. “The reason we moved to Florida for your brother to train.”

Caty had never thought about playing tennis before. That had always been Garrett’s thing. It seemed she’d been hearing forever about his magic hands, killer reflexes. Garrett was going to turn pro one day. That was the plan.

Caty was a swimmer. Or at least she had been, before her family moved. Now she wasn’t sure what she was. She missed her old teammates too much to even think about finding a new swim team and starting all over making new friends.

Back at the house, Caty rummaged around in the garage until she found one of Garrett’s old racquets. It was heavier than she thought it would be. The leather grip was slippery in her sweaty palm. She opened the side door hoping for a breeze, but all that did was let in more sticky air. The morning sun was already hot. She hated being sweaty all the time.     

She grabbed a ball from a basketful in the corner and took a swing, sticking her tongue out in concentration. She aimed for the doorway and missed the ball completely. Even with it right in front of her face. The air whistled through the strings. On her second try, the ball bounced off the racquet frame and thudded against the ceiling of the garage. Caty knew her mom would come nosing around if she kept that up, so she walked into the backyard.

A little white dog was sitting in the shade of the neighbor’s tree, panting so hard its fur quivered.

“Hey pup,” Caty called out. “Watch this!”

The next ball connected with a satisfying thwack. It slammed against the chain link fence. The dog jumped up on dainty paws and let out a high-pitched yap.

“Not bad, eh?” Caty felt a stupid grin break out on her face. She threw another ball up and swung fast. This one cleared the top of the fence. It sailed over the neighbor’s clothesline.

 The little dog ran around in circles, barking excitedly.

 “You havin’ a party out here?” A woman in frayed denim shorts appeared in the yard. She walked over to the dog to ruffle its ears, then looked over at Caty.

 “Just goofin’ around,” Caty said, feeling self-conscious with a racquet in her hand.

 The woman squinted in the sun. “Show me what ya got!”

 Caty hesitated, then grabbed another ball from the garage and hit it soaring across the street.

 When Garrett got home from drills, Caty found him snacking at the kitchen counter like he was starving. “Could I come with you to hit at the backboard?” she asked.

“What for?” he sputtered, cracker crumbs spewing from his lips.

“I, uh… want to practice.”

Garrett stared, then shrugged. “Fine by me,” he said. “You must really be bored.”

“I think it’s great if you want to try playing,” Caty’s dad said, grabbing the car keys from a hook by the door. “Let’s get a move on.”

At the courts, Caty felt nervous standing in front of a tennis superstar, even if it was her brother. She bounced the ball, working up the nerve to take a swing.

“Get a little closer to the board,” Garrett said. “It’s easier at first.”

She took a few steps forward, bounced the ball again, and swung. The racquet flew out of her hand and clattered onto the court.

Garrett laughed and pulled a roll of green, spongy tape out of his racquet bag. “Here, try this.” He wrapped the grip of the racquet tightly to absorb the sweat.

This time when Caty swung, the ball hurtled toward the backboard and came bouncing back so fast it caught her off guard.

“Line up for the next one!” Garrett yelled.

Caty stood there paralyzed. The ball was already crowding her. She swung awkwardly and missed.

“Here, let me show you,” Garrett said. He shuffled his feet between shots, looping his racquet in a smooth motion each time the ball bounced back his way. “See?” he said, without missing a beat. “You have to move your feet.”

It seemed like a lot of things to remember all at once, but Caty liked the electric jolt in her arm when the ball connected solidly with the racquet. “Lemme try again,” she said.

Caty started going to the backboard every chance she could. It helped her forget about missing swimming and her friends. She got lost in the hypnotic rhythm of the game, her feet skipping across the court, dancing with the little yellow ball.

One morning she rode her bike over to the courts early. She wanted to have enough time to practice before the serious players showed up for drills at the academy. A cool mist was just starting to burn off the golf course as she pedaled past. Sprinklers on the front lawn of the clubhouse arced silver in the pale light. She parked her bike and began hitting against the backboard right away. Ka-pow, thud, bounce. Ka-pow, thud, bounce. She was settling into a rhythm when she saw a flash of white out of the corner of her eye. She stopped the ball with her hand.

Mr. Stirling had parked his golf cart on the sidewalk. He was too far away for Caty to see his expression, but he nodded and gave a friendly wave.

Caty squinted at him through streaks of sunlight just starting to crest the oak trees.

Did he want her to come over?  

She waved back. Her stomach fluttered.

He was wearing all white — a white visor around his bald head, white tennis shirt buttoned to the neck, white shorts, and white sneakers with white socks pulled up to his knobby knees.

Garrett had told her that at Wimbledon, it was a rule that players had to wear all white. It was considered traditional.

It seemed Mr. Stirling was waiting for her to keep hitting, so she turned to the backboard again. She felt jittery in front of a world-famous coach. Staring extra hard at the ball helped her focus. She had almost forgotten Mr. Stirling was there when she heard the whirring sound his golf cart made as it gained speed.

A few weeks later, Caty was eating lunch at the clubhouse with Garrett when she saw Mr. Stirling heading their way. He was glowing in clean white, arms swinging by his side. She swallowed her bite of turkey sandwich quickly.

“Hello, Garrett,” Mr. Stirling said when he got to their table. His face was deep in shadow under the bill of a white visor. Caty focused on his freckled lips. “How’d you like to train at the academy one of these days, Caty? You’ve made a lot of progress on the backboard.”

“Uh… I would love that.” Caty cleared her throat. “Thank you.”

“Splendid!” Mr. Stirling said. “Be here at 9:00 a.m. sharp. Garrett will get you started.” With that, he did a curious little tip of his head and walked off.

“I’m going to need a tennis skirt and those bloomer things!” Caty said. It was the first thing that popped into her head.

Garrett burst out laughing. “Bloomers!” He almost choked on a grape.

On Monday, Caty stood in front of the mirror in her room staring at her pink, skinny legs.

Were tennis skirts supposed to be this short?

Garrett’s legs by comparison were tanned a deep brown from all the hours in the sun. When he took off his shoes and socks, he had a solid line between his legs and his ghost-white ankles and feet. People gave him funny looks at the grocery store.

Caty’s ankle socks were pulled as low as she could get them. Maybe that way when she got a tan line it wouldn’t be as noticeable. She wanted to be able to wear sandals without looking like she was floating.

Underneath her skirt, lace-trimmed bloomers scratched against her thighs. She pulled on the tight elastic. It snapped back at the same time Garrett poked his head around her bedroom door. “Hurry up!” he said. “We’re going to be late.”

Caty quickly brushed her hair into a high ponytail, took a deep breath, and ran out to where her mom and Garrett were waiting in the car.

“Ready for some kangaroos?” Garrett asked.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Caty said impatiently, wishing she wasn’t so nervous.

“Just wait…” Garrett said with a smirk.

Caty’s mom smiled at her. “You look lovely.”

Caty didn’t feel lovely. She felt uncomfortable. She crossed her ankles and flattened her palms against her skirt. She didn’t know how she was supposed to sit, wearing lace-trimmed bloomers for anyone to see.

At the academy, a bunch of players were gathered in a circle on the front court. Garrett and Caty propped their racquets along the fence and found an opening.

“Morning, people,” a coach pacing in the middle said. “Let’s start with some easy stretches.”

Caty touched her toes and reached for the sky, following his instruction.

“Feet up!” the coach said, starting to jog. “Up!” He clapped loudly.

A trickle of sweat snaked its way down Caty’s eyelid.

“Kangaroos now!” the coach said. “Fifteen. Let’s go!”

Caty watched Garrett out of the corner of her eye. He jumped straight up and brought both knees to his chest. Caty jumped, but her knees got left behind.

“Work for it, people!” The coach winced under his baseball cap. “Those are some sad looking kangaroos!”

Caty jumped again and forced her knees up as fast as she could.

“Now you know,” Garrett gasped, catching Caty’s eye. His bangs looked like blades of wet grass stuck to his forehead.

Just when they thought they were finished, the coach yelled, “Five more!”

“NOOOOO!” everyone moaned.

Caty’s legs trembled like jello. “How am I supposed to play tennis now?” she asked Garrett. “I can barely walk.”

“You’ll get used to it,” he said, wiping his face off with a towel.

Caty wobbled over to where all the coaches and players were gathering around Mr. Stirling. He was standing with a clipboard in his hand, all in white. When he started calling out the court assignments, everyone leaned forward to hear him better. Caty had learned he was from Australia, which explained his accent. Sometimes it was hard to understand him. When he called out Caty’s name, his sharp blue eyes settled on her for a moment and twinkled.

The other girl Mr. Stirling assigned to Caty’s court had Hello Kitty stickers all over her racquet bag. She even had a Hello Kitty key chain hanging from the zipper.

“Aya,” the girl said, tucking her jet-black hair behind her ear and pointing at herself. She giggled like she had said something funny, then clipped back her bangs with ladybug barrettes that glittered in the sun.

“Have you played before?” Caty asked.

Aya paused. “Lot of time,” she said, pronouncing each word carefully. “With coach in Japan. You play before?” 

“No, uh, just on the backboard. It’s my first day here at the academy.” Caty wondered what Mr. Stirling had been thinking. It was obvious she didn’t belong on the same court as Aya.

“Everybody have first day one time,” Aya said, pulling a gleaming silver racquet from her bag. “Second day better.” She giggled.

“Line up on the baseline, girls,” the coach called from across the net. “One of you is going to hit forehands, the other backhands.” He grabbed four balls at once out of a shopping cart full of them. “Doesn’t matter who starts where ‘cause we’re going to rotate. Side-step back to the middle after each shot.” He talked with a thick smear of white sunscreen on his lips.

Aya was small and delicate. Her shoulders looked like folded wings sticking out from the criss crossed straps of her tennis dress. She was wearing peach-colored sneakers and her dress was lime-green, so it was easy to imagine her as a butterfly just landed. Her dark eyes glistened when she looked over at Caty.

“Which side do you want first?” Caty asked.

“New girl pick,” she said.

“Guess I’ll take forehands, then.”

The coach dropped a ball and hit it her way.

Caty missed so many balls into the net it didn’t seem to matter how much she’d been practicing on the backboard. Playing on a court was like starting over again. The coach wasn’t too friendly about it either. “Not how the game works!” he yelled in exasperation, after Caty flubbed a whole slew of shots, one right after the next.

Aya mimicked him and scrunched her face up like a grouch when she walked by, making Caty laugh.

A breeze ruffled the edge of Aya’s dress as she skittered along the baseline, light as air. It looked like she might take flight. But when the coach fed the ball, she planted her feet, turned, and looped her racquet back. She pummeled the forehand with such force a puff of neon fuzz trailed the ball. It screamed cross-court and dropped right on the line. A sure winner.

Aya’s next forehand was a copy of the first. And she had a one-handed backhand. She was strong enough to pull that off. Caty had to use two hands. Aya sliced under the ball gracefully so when it landed, it kicked back and to the left. Caty wanted to learn how to do that.

Later when they practiced serves, the coach swung through the motion a couple times to demonstrate good form. Aya stepped up and made it look easy. Caty couldn’t even see the ball in the glare when she tossed it up. And her timing was all wrong. She was supposed to bring her feet together, tilt the racquet back, and spring up to meet the ball as it dropped, all in one smooth motion. She muddled through, flailing like a beached walrus. 

Then Caty hit one where everything clicked. The ball skedaddled over the net and landed in the service box.

Aya gave a low whistle. “Chop-chop!” she said. “You learn fast.” She gave the coach a look. “Is good, yes?”

Caty wanted to hug her. It felt like she’d made her first tennis friend. Maybe Mr. Stirling knew exactly what he was doing, putting them together.

“Way to hang in there,” the coach said to Caty when drills were over.  He looked flushed and tired. “You comin’ back for more?”

“Yep,” Caty nodded. “I’ll be here in the morning.”

Aya curled her tiny bicep. “Tough. Like me.” She giggled and tossed her racquet bag over her shoulder. “Later, gator.”

Over the coming months, Caty got used to being sweaty and streaked with sunscreen. There was no other way to play tennis in the Florida summer. But August brought the relief of afternoon thunderstorms. All the stickiness in the air just built and built until the sky broke open with jagged streaks of lightning and thunder moved in with the sound of giant boulders colliding. Big, fat raindrops splashed onto the courts, darkening the clay with slanted polka dots. That’s when the storm was just getting started. When there was still enough time to race around picking up balls, help the coach get them into the storage shed where they were kept, and sprint for cover under the awning of the clubhouse.

Sometimes they didn’t make it. A sheet of rain would come down so fast and furious Caty could barely see her hand in front of her face. And the temperature just dropped. One minute she’d be panting like a dog, next thing she knew she was flat-out shivering. The air felt super-charged. Caty loved every second of it.

One afternoon Mr. Stirling drove his golf cart right onto the edge of the clay where Caty was drilling. She was so startled she flubbed her next shot into the net. He hopped down before his cart had even come to a full stop and walked over to her in giant strides. What was he doing on her court? Mr. Stirling only coached top players.    

“Here’s where you should be hitting it,” Mr. Stirling said, taking Caty’s racquet from her hand. He swung through the motion of a forehand, stopping when the strings connected with his freckled fist. “Out in front.”

He swung again and this time held his fist close to his body. “See the difference?” He pointed down to his white Tretorns. “I’m on my back foot now, off balance.”

Caty nodded. She understood she couldn’t let the ball cramp her.

“Catch it on the rise,” Mr. Stirling said. “That’s why you hustle.”

He motioned for the coach to hit a ball his way so he could show her. The old guy wasn’t kidding around. He took a few nimble steps forward and hauled on the ball. It skidded down the line. Then he had Caty try one. The ball leapt off her racquet, out front, clean as a whistle.

Mr. Stirling looked at her intently when he handed her racquet back. Straggly eyebrow hairs curled in every direction over his watery blue eyes. “Good on ya, Caty. You’re getting the knack of it.” His face broke into a mischievous smile.

He strode to the other side of the net and grabbed a handful of balls from the basket to take over the drill. “Three forehands across, then rotate,” he called out.

Caty and the other two players lined up on the baseline. The balls started coming fast. Caty worked hard to keep up — lunging for each shot, trying to ignore the stitch in her side. Just when she thought she was done for, Mr. Stirling stopped abruptly and looked up.

A seagull was flying over the court carrying a huge chunk of bread, struggling to hold onto it, wings beating faster. Mr. Stirling started laughing. Everyone watched as the seagull landed on a tree to rest, mouthing its prize. Then Mr. Stirling hopped back onto his cart and sped off without another word.

When Caty was ready to play her first tournament, she had to order a USTA card so she’d be qualified to play. The lady at the tournament desk took it from her and ran a pink-frosted fingernail down the player checklist. “Gotcha!” she said, beaming up at Caty with a dimple in the middle of her shiny chin. “It’s gonna be an extra hot one, missy. Hope you’ve got your visor and water bottle.”

Caty held them up for her to see. “I’m all set!”

“Good girl,” the lady said. “As soon as we get your opponent checked in, we’ll get you a can of balls. Rona’s around here somewhere. I just saw her.”

Rona Duncan didn’t even look at Caty when their names were called. She just grabbed the balls and headed off to the court in a trail of watermelon gum and coconut sunscreen.

“How’s it going?” Caty asked, catching up.

Rona blew a huge, pink bubble in Caty’s general direction and kept walking.

After the 5-minute warmup, Rona won the coin toss and elected to serve first. Caty bounced on her feet at the baseline, shaky with nerves, and returned Rona’s serve with a decent forehand. Rona looped the ball back, high against the sky. It had enough topspin on it to make it dive like a bird of prey then kick up high off the bounce. Caty was pushed back along the fence, jumping to get a racquet on it. Her shot was so feeble it might as well have been shark bait. Rona was all over it for a winner.

Next point didn’t go any better. Before Caty could even shake her head clear, she was trailing 3 games to love in the first set. Rona hit one loopy shot after the next, pinning Caty to the back fence like bug splatter. Caty’s returns were weak. Rona pounced. Repeat.

Caty was tired of digging a trench behind the baseline. The next time Rona dropped her racquet low to brush up over the ball and send it soaring, Caty was ready. She charged forward, tracking the ball as it spun, and hit it, Swoosh, clear out of the sky. Then she followed it to the net.

Rona was so surprised to see Caty up close and personal she glitched like a robot low on batteries. Her return was shaky and now it was Caty’s turn to be a killer. Crunch! She volleyed that sucker to the corner. Point over. 

Rona’s next serve came fast down the middle. Instead of scurrying around to hit a forehand, her better shot, this time Caty trusted her backhand. With two hands tight on the grip, she twisted and powered through the ball. It shot off her racquet to the corner, making Rona run for it.

Rona’s return came back short. Caty took a few quick steps forward and walloped a forehand to the other corner. Rona lunged and took a swing at it. The ball skimmed past the tip of her racquet. She wiped her forehead with that fluffy wristband and pretended it was no big deal.

But when Rona double faulted, Caty knew she was getting to her. One serve long, and the other in the net brought Caty a point away from winning her first game of the match.

Rona wasn’t taking any chances on another missed serve. She stepped up and delivered a blooper to get the ball in play. Caty’s return landed deep in the court, where pale bottom feeders might swim. Rona was leaning on her back foot when she hit it. Her shot had nothing on it. Caty returned it for an easy winner, straight down the line to pocket the game. 

Swimmer was on the scoreboard!

Caty exhaled loudly on the follow-through of her next backhand. She knew it was dynamite just by the way it felt leaving her racquet. The sweet spot. The ball crossed the net on a sharp diagonal, pulled to the line like it was magnetized. Rona didn’t have a blue moon chance of getting her racquet on it. The ball skated past her.

“Yesss!” Caty pumped her fist and walked back to the baseline.

That’s when she heard it.

“Out!”

Caty stopped dead in her tracks, then turned around. “What did you say?”

“That ball was out.” Rona swiped her wristband across her sweaty forehead.

Caty’s eyes bugged out of her head. “It totally hit the line!”

“It was out.” Rona flicked her ponytail like cheating was as easy as breathing. “It’s my call.”

“Unbelievable!” Caty thwacked the top of the net with her racquet in frustration. “I need a referee.” She knew she couldn’t leave the court, or she’d get disqualified.

Garrett stood up suddenly from the bleachers where he’d been watching. “I’ll go!”   

Caty sat down to wait. She poured some water on a towel and covered her head. The heat was brutal and there wasn’t a cloud in sight.

“What’s the trouble?” the referee asked, stepping onto the court.

Rona and Caty started talking at the same time.

“Hold up a minute!” The referee shook back his silver-streaked hair. “I understand you want to dispute a call,” he said to Caty. “But I can’t overrule, because I wasn’t here.”

“But she—”

The referee cut her off. “Young lady, that’s just the way it is. Now,” he turned to Rona, “since your call is being disputed, I’ll stay on the court to monitor.”

“Yes, sir,” Rona replied, suddenly polite.

Caty threw her hands up in disgust. “So, she gets away with it!”

The referee gave her a stern look and crossed his arms.

Caty tried to shake off the bad call, but it kept festering in her brain. Rona was alert to any signs of weakness. She started hammering low, fast shots to throw Caty off even more. Caty slammed them back, not thinking straight. She knew better than to let her opponent set the pace. She was losing points left and right.

During the changeover, Caty looked over at her dad on the bleachers. He was frowning at a newspaper he’d pulled from somewhere. Garrett was picking a mosquito bite on his arm. Aya had come to sit next to him. She smiled at Caty and curled her tiny bicep. “Tough. Like me,” she mouthed.

That shook Caty out of her funk. Her next serve streaked down the middle line and kept going for an ace. Rona looked at her racquet like there was a hole in it. Caty stood there grinning. The referee nodded to confirm it was in. 

Caty knew the momentum had shifted back in her favor. This was her chance to get back in the match. She dug for every point, lunge, and scuff marks on the clay telling the story of the battle. She fought to pull ahead. In the last game, her forehand caught the tape. Time stood still as the ball balanced on top of the net. Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. Caty’s heartbeat pounded in her ears. Ploink. The ball rolled to Rona’s side, giving Caty the advantage.

Match point. Everyone on the bleachers was quiet, listening to the grunts and thwacks and squeaks as the rally went on forever. Neither player was going to give in. The final ball came spinning in the glare of the hot sun. Caty raced forward to meet it. No time to hesitate. She looped the racquet back in one smooth motion, Mr. Stirling’s voice in her head. Catch it on the rise. Caty could feel it. She was going to win.

Hannah Palmer

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