FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Botswana, Tennis

Sep 1, 2008
2008 / September 2008

I’m not sure what this is. a confession? A shameless brag? A regret? Whatever it is, it is true: I was once an international tennis player.

I would prefer to leave that statement unadorned; a simple truth that instantly groups me with the likes of John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Rafa Nadal. Period. Nothing more to say.

But there are inevitable follow-up questions. When? Where? How? With each response, my sporting prowess loses some of its luster. Far be it from me to shatter illusions. If you would prefer to regard me as a tennis god, stop reading.

For those who choose unvarnished reality above legend, here are the answers: 1982, Botswana, by chance. Now for the story that threads them together.

I was 15 years old, attending boarding school in England. For vacations I flew to my family home in Gaborone, capital of Botswana, and occupied the empty weeks playing tennis. When my visit coincided with a tennis tournament at the local sports club, I entered my name.

In the early 1980s, tennis was undergoing a transition. The traditional wooden rackets, which required fearsome presses to prevent them from warping, had given way to radical alternatives made from aluminum or graphite. Tennis rackets were suddenly cool, the equivalent — for a foreign teenager in Botswana — to today’s obsession with the latest cell phones.

I pestered my parents, they bought me a secondhand graphite racket, and I used it to battle my way into the quarterfinals. It was then that the news spread that all of the semifinalists would automatically qualify for the Botswana Under-16 team for a tour to Zimbabwe.

No prize could compare. Not even the millions on offer to today’s top players. I was one match away from earning a blue tracksuit emblazoned with the name of my adopted country. It was a reward beyond monetary value.

You already know the outcome. After a sleepless night, I took to the court. It was a ferociously hot day and I felt my energy wilting with every point. Fortunately, my opponent wilted faster, and I won through in two sets. I was soundly beaten in the next round, but my goal had been achieved.

After triumph, disappointment. Although my place in the national squad was formally announced in the local newspaper, the dates of the tour clashed with my return to school. I argued my case with my parents, but schooling took precedence. I enviously waved my teammates off, then embarked on the long, lonely journey back to England.

A year later, I entered the tournament again, and by chance I was drawn in the first round against the top seed, a Zimbabwean 14-year-old called Byron Black. He was destined for a professional career that would include quarterfinal appearances in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Even in 1983, there was a buzz about him. When I crouched down to face his opening serve, I knew that I was about to test myself against the best young player on the entire African continent.

He hit the ball. I heard it, but didn’t see it. 15:0. The pattern was set. In the short course of the match, I considered it a victory of sorts that I was able to win two points. Mostly I ran after shadows and swiped at fresh air.

So although it is a statement of fact that I earned selection as an international tennis player, I merely reached the foothills of the sport. Against Byron Black, I glimpsed the summit — and it was a long way up indeed.

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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