The day didn’t start out all that great. We had our uniforms, matching hot pink outfits from the clearance rack. We thought it would be funny looking. But it was a little too funny if you know what I mean—little girls extra large wasn’t cutting it. However, we did match and that was what we were going for.
We were competing in the annual Woody Open, a retro, wooden-racket, mixed-doubles tennis tournament that our friends invented a few years ago. It started with just a few of us—wearing headbands and shorts that exposed the whites of our thighs, whacking balls with rackets that made it feel like you were playing in slow-motion and had lost all hand-eye coordination—it now was an “event” with sponsors, a sound system and goodie bags. It was so big our friends who founded it couldn’t play any more because there was too much managing that needed to happen. This year, forty teams had entered. If my math is correct, that’s like eighty people.
And Lia and I were two of them … two of the worst. I had played in high school back in the early nineties and not much since; Lia had learned how to grip a racket a week before last year’s tournament and … not much since. We considered ourselves comic relief for the other contestants. The pink unies were our only strategy. We called it “the fear factor;” maybe we could scare people into losing concentration or, better yet, frighten them into forfeiting …
The tournament format ran like this: a preliminary, four-team/four-game round-robin followed by a single elimination tournament comprised of the ten round-robin winners and the six highest scoring second placers. We were glad to have three games.
After the first point, I was wishing there was no such thing as a retro-wooden-racket-mixed-double-tennis-tournament.
Our opponents served to Lia first.
“Just try to make contact,” I instructed from my ad-court position.
Lia crouched. The serve went wide.
“Just a bit outside,” I said, and the fella across the net bounced the ball to make ready for his second serve.
I looked over to Lia … she was gone.
She had left the court, entered the court beside ours, interrupted their point, collected the errant first serve and was walking back to her crouch position.
“Lia! What are you doing?” She looked at me not understanding.
I shook my head and waved to the guy on the other side of the net: “Hey, take another first serve.”
Lia raised her eyebrows in confusion.
“Lia, you don’t fetch balls between serves. That’s not proper tennis etiquette.”
Lia turned red and teared up. The guy served. Ace. Lia’s red face mutated from embarrassment to anger.
“Oh boy,” I muttered under my breath.
We lost the next eight points, but by the looks of things I was going to be losing a lot more than a tennis match. It seemed this day was over before it started. Lia hadn’t acknowledged my existence since that first fault, but I knew what she was saying, and it wasn’t good.
I decided to forget about her and took matters into my own hands. I played dirty. I only hit at the girl; but not just that, I hit mean shots, shots at her feet, shots out-of-reach, shots I had to grunt to hit. I dove in front of Lia to strike the ball. I stole a volley from her. I basically played singles.
Lia—I was afraid to look, but I could feel—was flaming-hot mad. But we won the next two games to squeak out a tie.
We walked off the court, stood in the grass and Lia tore me a new one.
“Why did you have to embarrass me like that?” she cried. “This could have been a great day, and you ruined it …” Words I didn’t know she had in her began spewing from her lips. Gestures I didn’t know existed or could be used in that way shot my direction. Fortunately, she chose to use her fist not the wooden Chris Everett Wilson to express herself.
I said, “I’m sorry” a thousand times in four languages, including sign. By the time her tirade was over, we were panting like dogs, exhausted and spent.
“Should I pack up our stuff?”
She pointed her finger at me and lectured: “No, you’ve embarrassed us enough today. You’re going to go out there and play tennis whether you like it or not, and you’re not going to say another word.”
Our next opponents were waiting for us.
By some miracle, we tied them, too, and the next, and—crazy as it sounds—we won the last, which by an act of God amazingly sent us to the tournament as the sixteenth seed!
Lia actually smiled!
Things between us started changing. We began talking to each other with civility. We high-fived. Even smooched once or twice. It felt like … I don’t know…love. We had failed at it, love that is, in a million ways; I had humiliated her publicly; she had failed to understand my perspective—and yet, God for some reason had chosen to redeem the day.
The next thing we knew we were playing against our friends the Kobergs. They were our tennis nemesis, having beaten us, oh about the last hundred-and-eighty times we’d played.
And wouldn’t you know it, they lost.
In the quarter finals, we played a guy who was better than me and a gal who was better than him. They won the first seven points before giving us a couple to make us feel good, sort of the way a cat toys with a mouse. In the second game, they let us get to deuce before finishing us off by hitting a wicked shot at Lia, which magically she hit back for a winner! The forming crowd roared. At ad-out they chose to attack Lia again, and again Lia volleyed it for the game. Our opponents were shocked and before they snapped out of it, we had stolen the match.
Here we were—a couple hours ago not speaking to each other, wishing we had taken separate cars—now in the semis with a cheering section. It was a Cinderella story like none other. A little bit of grace. And a little bit of magic. And all of it unmerited. And believe it or not, we beat the tennis-pro and his league-playing wife to make it to the finals, which we might have also won had it not been that we faced that very first team we played in the round robin—and they decided to play dirty …
Lia and I hugged at the net after shaking the victors’ hands.
“Ned, this was the greatest day of our marriage,” she whispered.
As we held each other at center court, I flashed back to our wedding, our honeymoon, all the great days we’ve had between then and now.
“Really?” I said.
What made the day so great? Was it the hot pink shorts? Was it the fight? The making up? Was it the winning? Was it the gold-spray-painted, broken-racket, runners-up-trophy we took home? No. It wasn’t even love, nor the fact that, in my case, it fortunately covers a multitude of sins. If I had to put a finger on it—I’d say the day was great because it was a clear sign to us of God’s unmerited favor.
Nothing we wore, we said, we thought, or we did that day earned us an ounce of God’s love. It wasn’t the power of our love working within us that transformed a better-off-dead-day into day-for-the-record-books. It was God’s power. For some reason, God redeemed the day. We didn’t deserve such a gift, and it was that unmerited favor which compelled Lia to make such a bold claim. His unmerited favor that made it the greatest day.