By Alexandra Dell
I picked up my first tennis racquet at age three. It wasn’t by choice; it was just one of those things my father, Donald Dell, a former Davis Cup captain, was hell-bent on “exposing” me to. But considering that tennis was his job and I had been traveling to pro tournaments with him and listening to the smacking of that yellow ball, like popcorn popping, since I was born, I was pretty sure I already had been “exposed.” When he gave my sister, Kristina, and me child-size Jack Kramer racquets for our fifth birthdays, Kristina held hers up, wrinkled her nose, and said, “How about a pony?”
I resisted learning the game from an early age. Instinctively I knew that for me tennis was never going to be about the simple joy of whacking around a fuzzy yellow ball. Instead, it would always be tied up in family expectations.
After a year of disastrous lessons and family rifts, my father decided my sister and I needed a real teacher, someone we would listen to. He called up the Terminator of tennis pros, the legendary Nick Bollettieri. Sending your kid to Nick to learn tennis is a bit like sending your little tumbler to that burly gymnastics coach with the handlebar mustache who gives little girls bear hugs while he makes them into Olympic champions.
We met Nick at the Colony, a tennis resort near Sarasota, Florida. When we arrived, we found him finishing up a lesson with Carling Bassett, a leggy blond knockout from Canada. Nick was pushing my dad, by then a sports agent, to represent her. She would be going pro within the year, Nick told us. He ended the lesson by having Carling hit a series of overheads, a showboat-type shot he had chosen to display her graceful form and golden potential. She would up and hit every one into the bottom of the net.
For a second, I felt bad for her. The chance to pity the beautiful, awe-inspiring Carling Bassett, if only for a moment, made me feel like a winner, and I loved her for it. I wished she would keep missing, to bring down expectations, so that when I got out on the court I wouldn’t look so pathetic, but I knew that the alien who had possessed her arm would give it back at any moment.
“Carling, daddy’s darling, what is going on, dear?” Nick yelled from the baseline. “Donald, I didn’t teach her that one!”
Nick had his sunglasses on and his shirt off. When he did wear clothes, they had his name emblazoned on the front so that he was a moving advertisement for the Bollettieri Tennis Academy. He was a bronzed marketing genius with a little sprout of a mustache and brown hair. The irony was that he could teach the perfect strokes, but he couldn’t hit that beautiful topspin forehand he taught and he never actually played with any of his students. Instead, he would squat like an umpire behind the baseline to get a full-body view of his player, yelling catch phrases in his raspy voice: “Cen-ter, cen-ter! Easy, dear! Eye on the ball, dear! Head up! Pret-ty! Move your feet! Ea-sy, ea-sy! Cen-ter! That’s right, dear!”
Nick coached Carling out of her little slump right back to perfection. She hit a few winners and then called it a day.
“Ohhhh, Donald, in all my days, I’ve never seen a kid like this,” Nick said, retreating to the sidelines for a cup of water. Nick spoke only in superlatives. “This kid’s gonna be great. Number one. And I’m not talking Canada. The world, Don, the world. They just don’t make ’em like this.”
My father kept nodding as if he had strapped on a bobble-head.
“She could make the cover of Playboy without her racquet, Don,” Nick said. “Ah, I knew that would get you.” When he ran out of Carling compliments, Nick turned to my sister and me: “So let’s see what you’ve got, kids.”
Kristina and I walked to the baseline in our matching Superman sneakers that weren’t even tennis shoes, dragging our racquets on the ground behind us. Nick wanted to teach us together; he thought we could learn by watching each other. I wanted to tell him that you can’t learn by watching someone else who can’t play, but I thought it was best to keep quiet. After a swing and a miss again and again, he told us to move up some on the court.
“Easy, dear. Eye on the ball, dear. Pret-ty. Pret-ty. There you go. Uncle Nick is right behind you.”