Ryan Rodenberg pays tribute to his late mother through their shared love of tennis and the cherished memories the game brought him.
My 8-year-old son gazed at a dusty bookshelf, impressed by what he saw and inspired by what his grandmother had accomplished.
“Wow, Grandma sure has a lot of tennis trophies,” he said during a visit to my childhood home earlier this year. “I want to win more trophies than Grandma someday.”
“Me too,” I replied.
Last summer, I watched my Mom beat my son in a tiebreaker at the local high school tennis courts where I grew up. Days later, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
My Mom passed away last month.
But our shared family tennis memories—like the trophy-fueled spark of inspiration my Mom left for her grandson—will continue.
Title IX was ‘too late’
I once asked my Mom how many sports she played in high school before focusing on tennis.
“None,” she said. “Back in the 1960s there were no organized sports for girls other than cheerleading.
“Title IX came too late for me.”
Title IX is the 1972 federal law that banned sex discrimination in federally-funded activity programs and has played a substantial role in expanding female sports participation from elementary school to college.
My Mom took up tennis in junior high, playing at the local city park with other kids. There was no high school team to look forward to, however.
A self-taught player who devoured the tips in the monthly tennis magazines of the day, she preferred the autonomy and better exercise that singles offered over doubles. As a social outlet after getting married, she had a half-dozen good friends with whom she organized regularly scheduled matches several times a week.
In the days before USTA league matches existed, the ladder and club championship tournaments provided the competitive outlets for my Mom and others in her generation.
Indeed, the club tournaments were where she earned all her trophies. During a three-year run, I counted seven trophies with the words ‘champion’ or ‘finalist’ engraved.
Making the trip to Wimbledon
By 2012, my Mom and I had ended our competitive tennis days. We still played recreationally every once in a while though.
“I want to keep my game up so I can play with my grandkids for as long as possible,” my Mom said at the time.
We always found time to watch televised tennis too.
For years, we always woke up early—as tennis fans on the West Coast know well—to watch the weekend Wimbledon telecasts live.
I decided to surprise my Mom with a mother-son trip to Wimbledon in 2012. We snagged Centre Court tickets for opening day. As is tradition, the defending men’s champion always plays first the following year, so we knew we would see Novak Djokovic.
We figured we would also get to watch our favorite player—Roger Federer—but in a scheduling quirk that remains a head-scratcher to this day, Federer played his match on No. 1 Court.
But we didn’t care. We were at Wimbledon with great seats at tennis’ most famous venue. As we strolled around the grounds, I put two blades of grass in my pocket. We even had SW19’s most famous snack: strawberries and cream.
When we got home, we tracked every match Federer played the rest of the fortnight and were thrilled when he beat Djokovic and Andy Murray in back-to-back matches to win the title.
Federer was our favorite player for another reason, too.
Beating Federer…kind of
Plotting out indirect wins over famous tennis players is a hobby all serious tennis players do at some point, even if they don’t admit to it publicly.
I do not hide from my tennis-specific, Kevin Bacon-esque six-degrees-of-separation calculations at all.
In 1990, when I was 16, I played in a wind-swept junior tournament in Kennewick, Wash., and faced off in a doubles match against a team that included a prodigy three years my junior.
His name was Jan-Michael Gambill.
He would go on to earn a career-high ATP ranking of no. 14 and win three tour-level singles tournaments.
None of that mattered 28 years ago, of course.
I was just a 16-year-old who did not like losing to someone a lot younger than me, a kid who opted to “play up” in older age groups as a way get better competition.
We won the match against Gambill and his partner in a third set tiebreaker. I never beat him again.
Thirteen years later, in the quarterfinals at Doha in 2003, Gambill beat Roger Federer 6-4, 7-5.
Which means—in my mind at least—I have a one-step-removed win over Roger Federer.
When trading tennis stories with my Mom through the years, I would often recycle my story about beating Gambill and, in turn, having a quasi-win over Federer too.
“So, I have an indirect win over Federer too then,” my Mom reminded me, as she’d beaten me many times in the past.
A milestone win
Junior players with one or two tennis-playing parents always remember the first time they beat their mom. Or dad. Or both.
In the early-to-mid-1980s, as my interest in tennis grew, I was blessed with having two parents who were always-ready practice partners. I lost a ton of groundstroke games, tiebreakers and sets during those days. I couldn’t come close to beating either one of them for years.
My Mom was especially frustrating to play. Her down-the-line forehand was devastating, as I was unable to hit my one-handed topspin backhand early enough to get the ball cross-court and make her run. On any important point, she would drop shot me, forcing me to the net. I knew what was coming next: a deep lob that would completely befuddle me and my weak overhead. It was so frustrating.
The frustration proved to be motivating.
By 1986, I was able to construct a point just well enough to repeatedly pick on my Mom’s backhand. I came to the net a lot, forcing her to hit passing shots off her weaker wing. My serve got more powerful and my overhead improved. I also learned that my Mom was allergic to the net, so I started using the drop shot too.
That year, I finally picked up a win over my Mom at age 12.
She told me she was proud of me.
Then she told me she wanted a rematch.
Forehands and photo albums
During my last visit to see my Mom in March, we spent hours looking at old three-ring binders stuffed with family photographs from my youth.
As I narrated through the chronology of photos—the cancer robbed my Mom of the ability to say more than a word or two during her final weeks—I was struck by how many of the pictures captured a tennis moment. The sport was a big part of our shared lives.
One photo featured a close-up shot of my Mom hitting a forehand, her ever-reliable best shot. In the picture, her eyes were laser-focused on the ball, which was about to hit the sweet spot of her Prince Graphite, the classic frame with the crossbar in the throat that remains instantly recognizable to every tennis player from the 1980s era.
“No,” she whispered as I started to turn the page of the photo album.
She wanted to look at the picture of her playing tennis a little longer.
My Mom focused her eyes at the photo.
Then she smiled.
And so did I.