Yesterday afternoon I got my ass kicked on the tennis court. Competition junkie that I am, I’d been looking forward to playing my first official match of the season — until I stepped through the chain-link fence and got a look at my opponent. She was a big and tall, Hercules of a woman; intimidating as all hell, with textbook serves and forehands and backhands, the kind you learn when you grow up on a tennis court. Looking across the net at Hercules, before we played even one point, I wanted just 2 things: not to embarrass myself and good line calls. Good tennis and no cheating. I hoped for a fair and square, fun game.
The whole lying/cheating-thing is getting to me lately. This week it was Greg Mortenson pinching pennies out of school children to fund his book tours and private jet travel, and having his charity buy his books (for giveaways) so he could make his royalties. Earlier this month it was the Barry Bonds steroids trial here in California, where Barry basically got off the hook (being pinned with only one of the many charges against him). I watch professional tennis matches where the players are coached from the stands (aka cheating) without penalty. During this year’s NCAA March Madness, I was appalled to learn that college players often receive “backpacks full of cash.”
I guess it’s everywhere. Or I’m naive. Or both.
There’s a Rudyard Kipling poem I learned back in college. My Father’s Chair starts like this:
There are four good legs to my Father’s Chair –
Priests and People and Lords and Crown.
I sits on all of ’em fair and square,
And that is the reason it don’t break down.
So yes, yesterday I lost my match because Hercules was scary tough and she brought her A-game. But I hung in there with her to the end. I just kept battling. She squeaked past me in the first set, 6-4. I fought hard and scrambled and scrapped my way to win the second set, 7-5. After more than 2 hours on the court, we were dead even, and it all came down to a 10 point tiebreaker to decide our match. Outside the chain-link, I could see and hear my teammates cheering me on. “Come on!” they yelled. “You can do it!” I wanted to win for them and for me.
Of course it didn’t go my way. Hercules beat me in the tiebreak, fair and square, 10-8. The cheering stopped. Game, set, match. It pained me to shake hands at the net, to look that woman in the eye and say, “Good game. Thanks for playing.” I’d worked so hard, and I’d lost by 2 lousy points.
In today’s light, it occurs to me that there were a number of times over that 2+ hours where I could have called Hercules’s balls out when I wasn’t quite sure. Some people play that way: it’s close, it’s out. Heck, I might have stolen a game or two. The balls landed so close to that line. So, so close. If I had cheated, even a little, I might have won. And who would ever know?
There’s that Kipling poem again: I sits on all of ’em fair and square, and that is the reason it don’t break down.
And there’s the rub. I love games because there are rules. I’m a competition junkie, sure, and I love to win as much as anybody. But I’m also a rules junkie. I hate to see someone cheated. You play by the rules, you win or you lose, and that’s that. I don’t get how the rules breakers, the cheaters, don’t break down. How do you lie in your memoir, take that bag of cash, say the in-ball was out, without falling off the chair.
Who would ever know? I would.