prayers for a tennis star

Published June 24, 1996 10:15AM (EDT)

When I was a teenager, I played in the Northern California Junior tennis
circuit, and there was a boy from my town, ten years older than I, who also
played on the circuit. There were lots of tragedies involving the kids
I played with in those days, because these were the '60s, so a number of
bad drug-related things happened to people I played tennis with. One of our
best players became a heroin addict, one jumped off the bridge, one died
mysteriously at Juvenile Hall, one drowned. But this one man was really
first-rate, good enough to tour after he left the juniors -- instead of,
like the rest of us, just hoping for a tennis scholarship to some decent

Instead of going off to college, he traveled around the world playing
for prize money. He went to Wimbledon when he was 18. He lost in the
first round of singles, but he got to the semi-finals in doubles. Then I lost
track of him. It wasn't until seven or eight years ago that a friend told me
that she had heard that he had been in a terrible car accident in Europe. He
had broken his neck, and it had left him paralyzed from the waist down.

I was totally stunned. This was such a handsome and kind young man,
and all this time I'd assumed he was having a ball as a touring tennis bum. I
felt the extraordinary fragility and temporariness of things. And then my
friend told me something just as amazing: that he was still playing tennis,
from a wheelchair. And from then on, every time I ran into this woman, I'd
ask her if she'd knew how this man was doing. She usually didn't know
anything new.

But off and on, for some mysterious subconscious reason, I'd remember
him in my nightly prayers, praying that he have a great life with lots of
love in it. I am not sure why I did that, but it is the truth; and that is
Part One.

Part Two picks up last summer, when I was traveling around to
tournaments in Northern California, for research into a book I am writing.
And at one of these clubs, I ran into my old friend, who this time did have
an update on our friend.

"I heard he just got a job as the teaching pro at a club near
Sacramento," she told me.

Wow, I thought -- isn't that fantastic, both that he's so gifted, and
that the club is courageous enough to hire him. Then I found in the listing
of junior tournaments for the summer that his club was hosting a big meet the
following month; and that he in fact was listed as the tournament director.

So another friend and I drove to his club, along with my boy Sam, who
was nearly 6, and who also prays a lot. All the way up I told Sam and my
friend the story of this man, about what he had been like as a boy, how well
he had done with tennis, the accident in Europe, and all the prayers I had prayed
over the years.

I didn't know if he would recognize me; but I knew I would recognize
him, partly of course because he might quite possibly be the only person
there in a wheelchair.

So we got to the club, and we headed to the clubhouse, and I started
looking around for this man, but I couldn't find him anywhere. Finally, I
asked someone standing nearby if she knew him, and she said, Yeah, sure,
everyone knew him; and she turned around and pointed to a man standing near
the snack bar.

"That can't be him," I said.

"But it is," said the woman. "He's one of my best friends."

"That's him?" said my friend. I nodded, staring. Sam stared. His mouth
was actually hanging open. The man at the snack bar turned in our direction,
and I could see that it was indeed him.

"Well, my word," said my friend. "He's doing very well."

I covered my mouth with my hand, totally shocked.

"That's him?" said Sam, staring at the man with amazement. I nodded.

"It's probably your prayers that straightened him out," said my friend.

I kept staring at him. "It's a miracle," my friend said. "Like being at

"Stop," I begged.

"Look at him now!" said my friend. "Going up the stairs!"

The man was bounding up the stairs, holding a clipboard. I stood for a
long time with my hand still clapped over my mouth. After awhile I walked up
the same stairs, with Sam in tow. We caught up to the man.

"Hi," I said. "Remember me?"

And he did. He could not have been warmer or more friendly. Sam gaped
at him. The man smiled nicely at him, tousled his hair.

I said, "I heard you were in an accident a while back."

"That's right," he said. "In Paris. I broke my leg in two places."

"You broke your leg?" I asked.

"Wow!" said Sam. And then he asked, "Which leg?"

"This one," he said, tapping his right leg.

Sam shook his head. He gazed up at the man. "You're a miracle," he
said, solemnly.

"Thanks!" said the man.

And I just stood there, marvelling that I am even allowed to drive.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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