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Play like a girl

Life in the cutthroat world of ladies' tennis leagues

Susan Paulus and Suzanne DeVries at The Newport Beach Tennis Club

Cheryl Smith sent an email to her tennis friends this past summer with some shocking news: She had just finished playing two hours of doubles at Los Caballeros Racquet Club in the hot sun, when her arm started hurting.

“Then things went dark,” she wrote. “And simply put, I died.”

She ends the email with this: “Will see you all soon, I hope, back out on the courts.”
This is “ladies” league tennis in Orange County: Tough-as-nails women who won’t let a little old heart attack keep them off the courts.

The stereotype of trophy wives in white skirt sets prancing around their private club? Over. Gone. Amen.

There are some of those, sure, but there are also lawyers and doctors and teachers and full-time moms, all kicking one another’s butts every day of the week from the resort-like Newport Beach Tennis Club to the ocean-breeze rooftop courts of Dana Hills Tennis Center.
“We go out there to play for the blood,” says Yuna Crawford, a Lake Forest grandmother. “I’m half joking. But not really.” 

In Orange County, women’s league tennis isn’t just a pastime; it’s a lifestyle, a subculture with, for some women, a lot at stake. Trust me, I’m one of the women. There are thousands of us tennis junkies playing on competitive doubles teams multiple mornings a week. We pack off our kids to school or pack up an extra outfit we can put on for work after our match, and then we head out for battle.

Sometimes we meet up in coffee shop parking lots and then carpool 20, 30, 50 miles even, to whatever swanky club or public courts our team is scheduled to play at that day.

Matches start at 9:30 a.m. sharp. There’s a 15-minute warmup: You whack some forehands, hit some volleys at the net, take some serves, but most important, study your opponent. Do they put spin on the ball? Prefer their backhand? Baby their overhead?

Then, it’s on. Matches can last more than three hours. The longer it goes, the higher the tension. If you’re the last match out there, sweating and panting and fighting to the death for every last point, you’ve got an audience. Teammates who have finished playing gather courtside to watch and cheer.

The courts sometime look like a MASH unit: women lurching around in knee braces, wrist wraps and elbow sleeves, Band-Aids on their faces where they had skin cancers cut off and kinesiology tape running up and down their limbs.

The only time players take a sabbatical is when they need knee surgery. Or wrist surgery. Or shoulder surgery. Or a new hip. Or they have to go back to work.
This is the saddest news you’ll hear in league tennis.

Hey, I haven’t seen Poppy around,
have you?

I heard she got a job.

Insert wide-eyed-terror-face emoji.

Most women, though, are creative when it comes to scheduling their jobs around their tennis. Priorities.

It’s not that we’re playing for anything like $2 million and the Wimbledon Cup, corporate sponsorships or professional rankings. No, no, no. We’re playing for way more important things.

For Smith, and others of a certain age, it’s a second chance. She grew up in the ’50s, before Title IX, when there were
few opportunities for girls to play competitive sports.

“This is a place for the female who feels that desire to allow athleticism to be a major part of her life,” she says. “It offers her the opportunity to get on a team that can advance to national championships. To be the best in the country. The best at something.”

Smith has made it to United States Tennis Association League nationals 14 times (the first when she was 50). Three of those times, her doubles teams returned to Orange County with the championship title. Even for those of us who have never made it to nationals, competitive tennis offers the simple satisfaction of pushing ourselves physically and mentally to be the best that we can be every time we step onto the court. And if you win, well, it just might be the only battle you win that day. Plus it gives you a shot of dopamine that can carry you clear into the next day.

And if you lose? A close loss can haunt me the rest of the day until I go to bed and sleep comes to silence the tormenting flashbacks of the moment I raised my racket high to smash an easy “meatball,” only to slam it into the net. (I shudder just writing that.)

“It’s the worst feeling,” says Smith, who played pro softball for the Chicago Ravens in ’76. “For me it has to do with my dad. I was never good enough. I wanted to be the best, and if I lost, then I wasn’t the best. Frankly, it eats you alive when you can’t be that perfection that was expected.” 

We work our butts off (and arms and legs) to get better, often paying for coaches and evening drill sessions, and it hurts when that isn’t enough, particularly if you didn’t get beat so much as you beat yourself by making mistakes. Watch a league match, and you will hear women berating themselves after missing shots.

A loss can hurt not just your ego, but also your reputation. Everybody knows everybody. Or at least knows everybody’s threat level.

If you play on a USTA team, you are rated annually on a national website that updates your record after every match, posting who you played and what the score was. Perusing the stats, you can see who is on a winning streak, who’s in a slump. It’s a well-studied site, which is to say that you could roll up in a Rolls-Royce kitted out in Lululemon, but if your stats stink, you’re as threatening as a kitten.

It is on the courts where society’s typical markers of success fall away. It  doesn’t matter what you do for a living. Or how much money you have. Or what you look like. 

“The ones in their sweat shirts and shorts and dumpy old shoes, they’re the dangerous ones,” Smith says. “Not the ladies decked out in their Fila.”

Age isn’t a huge factor either. I have seen women in their 60s take women in their 20s to school, usually with half the power, but superior strategy. Brains often beat brawn on the courts. Stick with ten-nis long enough and the smarter you will play. Even I have become a student of the game, after 17 years of beatdowns. Tennis is like a chess match. Plot your moves a few steps ahead of your opponent and you have a good chance of winning.

I once watched a young doubles team melt down at Sectionals when my senior teammates lobbed them into submission (Go Sue and Liz!). The “youngsters” were practically in tears, wildly whacking at the high-flying balls like they were being stung by bees. It was hilarious. And, more important, Sue and Liz won. Of course it’s not hilarious when you are on the other side of the net of said lobbers and spin masters.

Here’s the thing: Most women are on multiple teams out of multiple clubs. So one day you are playing doubles with someone, high-fiving them between points, and the next day you are on the other side of the net, running from an overhead they’re smashing at your face.

One year, determined to get better at all costs (including sometimes, sadly, dinner for my daughter), I signed up for seven teams, one every day of the week, across the county. 

It was possibly the best year of my life. 

OK, so maybe it’s an addiction, but a healthy addiction, I tell myself. Except when I blow out my rotator cuff or sprain my ankle for the third time or my foot neuroma flares up. But there’s always arnica, or Biofreeze, or Massage Envy.

A lot of us are jocks at heart who played other sports in high school or college – volleyball, softball – but not necessarily tennis.

I grew up hitting balls with my big brother’s racket on a playground in the “burbs” of Philly with whatever neighbor I could scrounge up. I didn’t learn to keep score – or even hit a proper volley – until I was 33, when I put my 2-year-old daughter in preschool a couple of mornings a week so I could take lessons.

My first official match came a year later. I lost – to an 80-year-old woman named Margaret. Somehow she put the ball everywhere I wasn’t, without, it seemed to me, actually moving. She was like some sort of sorceress.

I vowed to play her again. And destroy her.

This is the kind of thinking that happens when you play competitive tennis. You see someone cramping and whisper to your partner. Did you see the tall one cramping? Every. Ball. To. Her.

***

It can get ugly. I’m not going to lie. Women’s league tennis is rife with partner swapping, team switching, heat strokes, head games, bad calls, revenge calls for the bad calls and on-court squabbles.

Once we switch into ball-pounding beast mode, it’s often hard to pull back for pleasantries.

“Your inner animal comes out that you have to suppress in the rest of your life,” is how Liz Wood, retired from a career in telecom sales, puts it.

Since teams play each other over and over, year after year, it’s a bit of an ongoing soap opera, at once hilarious and ridiculous. Forget “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” A far more entertaining reality show would be “The Real Women Tennis Players of Orange County.”

But we love every glorious minute of it. The bottom line is that we’re out in the sunshine chasing balls like we’re back on the playground, while all the other adults are indoors somewhere acting all adult-like. It’s like playing hooky for a few hours – from your boss and your kids and your bills and your messy house.

“It’s an escape,” says Susan Paulus, a Laguna Beach massage therapist with the most wicked spin in Orange County league tennis. “It’s our drug.” 

There are plenty of women out there who rely on other forms of fitness for their drug. But the highs and lows of tennis are more intense, more mental, more complicated, because you have
an opponent.

“You can swim laps or run, but there’s really no end game,” says Wood, a retired financial executive. “I want an outcome. Life is so gray. It’s nice to have something that is black and white.”

Wood holds two national titles in World Team Tennis, an evening league co-founded by legend Billie Jean King.

The largest morning doubles league in Orange County is Pacific Sun. Paddy Speyers started it in 1971 when she was the Newport Beach tennis social director. Two hundred women signed up. Today it has 2,500 players out of 27 clubs – and 37 pages of rules. One of the rules for the Hill & Canyon morning doubles league is that you have to serve your opponents lunch after the match. And your ham sandwich platter better be up to snuff or you risk a formal complaint.

Unlike Pac Sun, which admits only club teams, Hill & Canyon is open to anyone. Just find eight women and collect $96 and you’ve got a team and can join the league. It has 100 teams and more than 1,200 players. It’s a guaranteed match a week for the whole season, which runs September to May.

It’s not just the competition that is important to us. The world of women’s tennis is a sisterhood, throwdowns aside. You can be going through a divorce, cancer, or just a hair-pulling patch with your toddler, but there’s always someone who will invite you to come outside
and play.

Smith, by the way, has returned to the courts, as predicted in her email. Only two months after her heart attack, the 72-year-old and her partner, piano teacher Eiki Worcester, played Newport Beach Tennis Club’s No. 1 Pac Sun doubles team. 

They won, which would have been impressive even if Smith hadn’t recently, briefly, died. 


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