Tennis

It’s 5:47 a.m. on what will be another blazing-hot summer day, but for some crazy reason there is a flurry of activity on the Amphi High School tennis courts. At the center of it all is a stud athlete who was born in Scotland back when Harry Truman was president of the United States.

This story actually starts with Yousef. Born in Sudan, he and his family had to go through Eritrea before finally making it to the U.S. Outgoing, almost too smart, and endlessly curious, he’s ranked third in his class academically and is also an outstanding multi-sport athlete.

Yousef has embraced the oft-given (but rarely taken to heart) advice to do high-school stuff when you’re in high school. The four years will fly by and when they’re done, you’re old for the rest of your life. To go along with his academic pursuits and various extracurricular activities, he decided that he wanted to try as many sports as possible while in high school. He’s an All-Southern Arizona soccer player, but he has also tried basketball and cross country. In the spring of 2020, he was on the baseball team when sports (and the world) got shut down by COVID.

This past year, he decided to try tennis. He went from zero to not-bad in a matter of weeks. But once you get a little bit good, you want to be real good and that’s when the hard work and the heartbreak become permanent parts of the equation. With a short roster, Yousef quickly became the No. 1 player on the squad, meaning that he had to play the best player from Sahuaro on Tuesday, then Canyon Del Oro’s best on Thursday. It wasn’t fun, but it was instructive.

He realized that the whuppins were probably going to keep on coming, but he wanted to do whatever he could in the short term to make them a bit less one-sided. The two-and-a-half-hour practices in the afternoon weren’t enough, so, with the number of hours of sunlight increasing as the spring season sprinted toward summer, he decided to show up to the school courts at sunrise to work on his groundstrokes and serve. He was surprised to find that he wasn’t alone.

Yousef recalls, “I got there one morning around 6 a.m. and there was this woman already there, hitting the ball up against the wall.”

They exchanged hellos, but that was it. Yousef went to a different hitting wall and got to work. But she was there again the next morning and the one after that. Pretty soon they got to talking and then both started working on improving his game.

“I was really surprised,” says Yousef. “She knows so much about tennis and I was surprised that she’s so good…” His voice trails off. His attempt to fix it came out as “She has lots of gray hair.”

He told his friends—some on the tennis team, some not--and pretty soon the number of members of the Unofficial Early Morning Tennis Club had grown to a significant figure. (Anybody who thinks that today’s high schoolers are all just TikTok-ing their lives away has to be impressed with young people who rise at 5:30 so they can put in 90-120 minutes of work on their game before the start of school.)

Even after the school season ended, they kept showing up—Yousef and Yoshi, Isaac and Leilani. They do it because they want to be really good next year, but they also feel that they owe a debt of gratitude to the Lady With The Hair, the person who has reined in Yousef’s focus and helped convince Yoshi to go out for the tennis team next year.

After Yousef told me the story, I decided to see for myself. And so I showed up a few minutes after dawn to witness the spectacle. And there she was with the wild gray hair in the style of Rosanne Rosannadanna. (Google her.)

She was an absolute whirlwind of activity, showing an elementary-school kid how to serve and then another first-timer kid how to hold a racquet. Leilani and Yoshi wanted to play doubles, so the Lady teamed up with a friend of hers named Marvin (who, as it turns out, was named after Marvin Gaye, making him the coolest guy in all of Tucson).

I told her that I’d like to write about her, but she quite firmly declined. She said that it was all about the kids. It’s no big deal that she’s out there at the crack of dawn playing the game she has loved all her life. What’s impressive is the young people out there defying the conventions of summer vacation.

So this is not about the amazing woman who will remain unnamed. But it sort of is.

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