Saved by Tennis

Being a school pupil in my communist country was almost the equivalent of building a career in our days’ modern society. We had a very busy calendar and schedules that we were not allowed to miss. Moreover, we were highly encouraged to compete against each other, and teachers made sure that everyone knew who their favorite pupils and darlings were. The rest almost never counted; they were merely tolerated. These kids were always children coming from poor families or families with no particular higher education, so they were treated with ignorance. Potential was not something that was considered a thing to invest in. The measurement of a child’s worth was the parents’ social status, that is all.

Besides belonging to a communist organization and having classes every day, sometimes also on Saturdays, we had a series of commitments that we had to attend to. We had workshops every week that were gender divided. Girls learned domestic tasks, such as sewing, knitting, stitching, and even cooking and boys learned how to use a toolkit to repair different things, such as radios, bicycles or tables and chairs.

I hated those hours from the bottom of my heart as I was not particularly endowed, either with special skills and desire and delight towards such occupations or was I patient enough to give myself a chance to produce a presentable result. My mom still has a piece of my handywork somewhere in the kitchen, an embroidery (if one could call it that) with a wannabe flower on it. I cannot help but think about the painful hours filled with tears of boredom and frustration to produce it every time it pops up somewhere. It brings up almost nightmare-like memories seeing that piece of embroidery.


It was also mandatory to choose at least one course in any kind of fine art to encourage or develop existent or non-existent artistic talents. Some children chose sculpturing, singing, dancing. I remember I choose drawing, even if I had no interest whatsoever in drawing things, but it was a quite easy course to attend every Thursday afternoon with a pleasant, quiet teacher. And I was in the school choir, too, singing patriotic songs in the most unusual places, like outside in the snow wearing a skirt and a blouse.

We also had seasonal work to attend to for our homeland in the form of a cooperative. This meant that depending on the season, we had to work around two weeks in a row on the fields. For example, in autumn we were taken to the cabbage or corn fields by busses and had to do physical work from morning till the late afternoon such as picking and cutting cabbages or trimming corn. It was child labor in disguise.

All these activities were mandatory and missing them was only possible if you had a medical certificate. Or, and this I found out much later as I was already in the situation, if you were part of a sports club and on your way to become a professional sports person.

When I turned seven, my father, who was fascinated by tennis and thought highly of it (it was considered an elegant sport for the privileged), enrolled me to the local tennis club. This was a dramatic process as being an only child to my parents I always sought the company of other children and loved being surrounded by many of them.

Tennis was definitely not a team sport and I longed for playing basketball or handball, just like my friends did. There were many tears from my side and a lot of arguments for tennis from my father’s side, such as team sports were dangerous for a fragile girl like me, and I lost the battle. I had no choice but go and play tennis. Anyway, this was the only thing my parents ever forced me to do, and I am thankful for it, also for the tennis years as they contributed to the person I am today.

My first tennis racket was too big for a seven-year-old, but back in those days there were no tennis rackets or balls made especially for kids. It was made from wood and was quite heavy for a child’s wrists, but there was no other choice at the beginning. Aluminum rackets were a rarity and were quite expensive, so people invested in them only when they were a hundred percent sure that the child had talent and wanted to pursue a career in tennis.

This was the same with me and my family. I had played the first year with the wooden rocket. As soon as it was clear that I had talent and I was officially registered for the national tennis club (which meant participating on tournaments all over the country), I received my first Fischer aluminum tennis racket. I was so proud of it and playing with it made my life so much easier.

I only realized that I had been privileged as a professional tennis player the moment I received the news that my classmates were yet again taken to the fields and I was excused. I had been mentally preparing for the physical work for days and somehow was looking forward to it (it was almost like an adventure to us). Suddenly, I could stay away and go attend my tennis classes instead.

I was not only privileged with field work, but the communist government paid me monthly a very nice sum of money that other kids did not have. The fact that there was almost nothing to spend it on is another story.

On occasion, I would receive larger amounts of chocolate that was never available in the empty stores, as the government believed that calories in form of chocolate were a must for its talented sports children.

Slowly I got used to being on tournaments with other five children from my town who were also members of the national tennis club (we were two girls and four boys), sleeping in hotel rooms, eating in half empty restaurants, and drinking as much Pepsi on the tennis courts as I wanted (Pepsi was also a privileged beverage for privileged people and was not to be bought in stores).

Still, I was torn. It felt good to be part of an exclusive club, but I missed my friends. I did not have such a good connection with my tennis mates because the only other girl was five years older than I was and the rest were boys who were not interested in the company of girls.

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