What is love? Growing up in a tennis family

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"Mama, what's 'love'?"

"It means 'zero.'" My 4-year-old daughter and I were watching the 2016 French Open women's final on television in her grandparents' house. For the first time, she showed interest in my favorite sport, and I was thrilled. Tennis -- playing it, watching it, obsessing over it -- is a treasured family pastime.


Mats, Martina, Ivan, Steffi -- these were the names of my early childhood. My father is a huge tennis fan; he introduced me to the sport and had strong opinions about players. He didn't care for "brash" Jimmy Connors, especially after he won Wimbledon for the second time in 1982 (when I was around my daughter's age). He adored Björn Borg and mourned his retirement from the game.

I learned to hit serves and volleys as a tween on the public courts of our nondescript New Jersey township. I had watched my father play on occasion and asked for his old racket. A parks department employee was my first coach. He complimented my graceful footwork. "She's a dancer," my father said. The coach nodded in appreciation, and fed me more backhands to fire down the line.

As my interest in the sport grew, my father took me to nearby tournaments -- the A&P Tennis Classic, a WTA tuneup in Mahwah, New Jersey, and the U.S. Open in Queens, New York. In Flushing Meadows, we stood in snaking lines for hours to secure day-of grounds passes on the tournament's first Monday, when the entire draw was still in play. It became a tradition after the first year not to purchase tickets in advance, and I looked forward to our shared test of endurance. In line, we studied orders of play and decided which matches were our priority. In the stands, I came to appreciate the sport's narratives. In tennis, not all points are equally significant; a single winner or error upset the stories of many rivalries, matches and tournaments.

To avoid paying for overpriced food at the Open, we returned to the parking lot at lunchtime. Under the shadow of the 7 Train, we ate submarine sandwiches purchased the night before from a family-run shop down the street from our house that my mother had tucked into a cooler with cans of Coca-Cola. While wolfing down our meal, he regaled me with tennis trivia from eras I was too young to remember. "Vijay Amritraj had five career wins over Jimmy Connors in their 11 matches," he said. These marathon Mondays ended when the day's play did, under the lights and often after midnight. My father and I had always been close; tennis strengthened our bond.

In high school, I played first doubles on my school tennis team in a competitive conference. Our coach encouraged me to emulate Monica Seles' two-handed backhand. "Keep it in the green!" he said, when my teammates' forehands sailed beyond the baseline. "This is not social tennis!" he said when my doubles partner or I didn't chase down a lob. We had a terrible record, but I still clipped my (losing) scores from the local newspaper and pasted them into a scrapbook. I shared them with my father, who reminded me that pleasure and passion were more valuable than points.

My father and I continued our annual U.S. Open pilgrimage, and because attending other Slams was far too inaccessible for my family, we gathered to watch the women's and men's finals of every major tournament together on television, including 3:30 a.m. matches from Melbourne. House rules were relaxed: We watched television during breakfast and disregarded bedtimes.

Throughout my childhood, these small rituals gave me regular markers to look forward to in anticipation and look back on with satisfaction, and I was determined to continue the tradition after I moved away. For years, I rode the New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to my childhood home on finals weekends to partake.

In the early 2000s, my father and I found a shared idol in Roger Federer. My father appreciated Federer's throwback style -- it reminded him of the favorites he watched growing up in India. I was drawn to Federer's balletic footwork. I began participating in the sport's online fan blogs, comment threads, message boards. Soon, my obscure tennis knowledge eclipsed my father's.


In a shocking upset, Serena Williams lost the French Open match that my daughter and I were watching, much to my disappointment. "Do you want to play tennis?" I asked her after the trophy presentation concluded and I shrugged off my sadness. My daughter and I drove to a nearby park, where she swung a 17-inch racket and missed an inflatable tennis ball -- the racket I bought for her when she'd barely begun to walk, in the hopes that one day we might find ourselves right there on that court.

"Mama, I have 'love' points!" she said, unfazed by the fact that she hadn't scored. She understood the meaning of the word, in sports terms. Her tennis journey was just beginning, and I couldn't wait to guide her just as my father had guided me.

Pooja Makhijani is a writer and educator. Find her online at poojamakhijani.com.

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