Volume 13
An Online Literary Magazine
February 15, 2019


Trophy Girl


Tamara Adelman


At each tournament there’d been men who’d asked for my phone number, but I was not interested in them. It was the trophies I wanted.


fter I drove to Anaheim to lose my first match, it became clear to me that I needed more experience. A tournament was just an arrangement of matches, so I signed up for two more. My first win was against a girl who crumbled in a tiebreak. My second opponent of the day walked onto the court with a tennis bag bigger than any pro. She had so much stuff, she looked like she was staying for the summer, but to her credit, she used it all: the snacks, the sunblock, the towels, the inhaler, the score card. And she took her time using it all whenever we switched sides. I lost to her in a tiebreak.


It was 100 degrees in Calabasas during the third tournament when I won my match against a woman who had asthma and was having a hard time breathing due to fires in the neighboring county. I tossed the ball up high with my left hand to serve and saw a ring of clear smoke around the sun, giving it a haloed effect. I felt sorry for my opponent and hit the ball in the net. Then I took a deep breath and tossed the ball again, focusing only on the ball, and served an ace.


The day had gotten even hotter by my second match. My opponent was tough as acrylic nails and hit the ball back like she was sealing up a coffin. She must have been playing for years. She did not make many mistakes, and when she did she questioned every call I made as if she was not capable of hitting a ball out. The woman only hit three balls out the whole match.


I walked through the courts to report the score to the tournament director, and was stopped by two boys, about fifteen years old, who were watching a match. “Did you win?” one of them asked.


“Yes,” I said, then surprised myself by adding, “and it wasn’t easy either.” “It never is,” one of the boys said. His comment was weighted with years of experience even though he was so young. I thought of my grandfather who was a tennis player and who believed life was a battle. Finally, I understood what my grandfather was talking about.


I would be playing Stacy Ball in the final. The woman had a “bye,” which meant she didn’t have to play as many matches as I did. Stacy had won a lot of tournaments, and this was my first final.


I was suspicious of Stacy Ball because of her name and because she had scouted my match. She was wearing a blue tennis skirt with polka dots, and her body had no geometry to it—it had almost no shape at all, and she certainly did not seem athletic—and yet she spent the whole match hitting winners against me.


After the match, I sat on the bench with a towel around my neck, mostly for dramatic effect. Stacy Ball would be taking the trophy home that Sunday in Calabasas. I wished I had someone to comfort me in the loss. I was used to getting medals for finishing triathlons, and now there had been the promise of a trophy that had not come true. Had I known more at the time, I might have stuck around and received a smaller trophy than Stacy’s from the tournament director.


“Did you have fun today?” an official asked me on my way out of the courts.


“No, not today,” I said. But I smiled anyway because I had to learn not to be a sore loser.


I’d won two matches, and that was twice as many as before. I signed up for more tournaments.


At each tournament there’d been men who’d asked for my phone number, but I was not interested in them. It was the trophies I wanted.


My first trophy came in doubles.


I played a round-robin tournament next and was able to return the next day to beat the loser. I got a glass trophy for runner-up. I celebrated each tournament win with a steak. My coach said I would need to get a bigger bed after I said I’d been sleeping with all my trophies. They left me unwanting.


I played Stacy Ball again, and though I lost again, it was a much closer match. The next time it went to a tiebreaker.


“You didn’t move,” the official told me. My coach had told me to control the momentum of the match and slow it down, but in the process, I slowed myself down to a stop—may have to reconsider bathroom breaks between sets.


“I think she’s beatable,” I told my coach.


“Play the player not the person,” he said.


I picked up another trophy at the next tournament even though I lost in the finals. Amassing trophies helped with the losses, although a finalist’s trophy was smaller than the winner’s. My coach told me it took him four years to get a trophy. He told me about boys who got a second-place trophy and their fathers threw it in the trash. My own father told me he never lost because he didn’t want to come home and explain it to his father.


“You lost, what’d you do that for?” That was my grandfather.


No way was I going to throw any trophies in the trash. Even if I got something for nothing—if I lost badly, I still gave myself credit for showing up that day. The trophies meant something to me, and it wasn’t just how they looked. They meant something to me on the inside.


I think it’s harder for the men because there are more of them in the tournaments. Most of the women were in the leagues, I heard. I was in a league too, but I won those matches pretty easily because those women wanted to play more than they wanted to win.


I did hopscotch moves on an agility ladder. I did mountain climbers and side shuffles and jump roping. I ran sprints. I read a book called Winning Ugly.


The next time I saw Stacy, it was in another final. She played this one like she did the last, not taking any chances. I moved to the balls she hit as fast as I could, even falling once, but she was the kind of player who did not like to keep the ball in play, and I found the experience of losing to her again demoralizing. Stacy had learned to play without having to move. Movement was not her strength, and that became part of her strategy. She just hit a backspin ball that fell flat and low. I wanted to win, but I didn’t want to be like her. She was no fun to play with. Playing with her was like trying to have a conversation with somebody who answered in one or few words.


I looked at her as an assassin, but really it was a compliment that I was dangerous to her. She’d told me after one of our matches that I’d gotten harder to beat. She’d told me that her trophies took up a whole room. She told me that she worked 911 dispatch and was good at talking to crazy people after 2 a.m. Her father had been a cop. She was tough, she was a fighter, and she was good in emergencies. Tennis is a game of emergencies. It is constantly putting out fires.


I played three more tournaments. Stacy wasn’t there. Players had different styles; my own style was developing, and I found I adapted to the style of the player I played. Like the surface of water, my tennis was always changing. Sometimes I lost having played at a higher level, and sometimes I won just by pushing the ball back.


I had eleven trophies by now, and I didn’t care as much about losing as I had. I was serial about tournament play though—it was doing something for me.


“Trophies just sit on a shelf collecting dust,” my mom said.


I beat players who I had played before, and I beat them better with less margin. I won a few tournaments in my division and began to play up. When I lost to a player, I sometimes wondered if Stacy could beat them. She had set the standard for me. She won more than she lost. At the end of the year, Stacy got moved up to a higher division, and she didn’t win as much.


I also lost more matches. And I got more trophies. Because of the scoring, you don’t have to win the most points to win games in tennis. You only have to win the last point. And a winning shot doesn’t need to be an amazing shot. It just needs to be a good enough shot so that your opponent cannot return it. It is a game of imperfections and just good enough. It seemed the perfect match for me.


I checked the draw for an upcoming tournament. I would be playing a girl I had lost to before. Of course I wanted to win the match, but regardless of the outcome, life would be boring without competition.


I decided to play two tournaments over the next weekend. The tournament directors helped me with the scheduling. I drove to Oxnard and to Long Beach in one day, playing multiple matches but collecting just one trophy.


Though my trophies are not on display, I keep them close. They aren't about being a better player than somebody else, but they are good company.


Tamara Adelman is an ironman triathlete and freelance writer living in Santa Monica, California. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Forge, North Dakota Quarterly, The Storyteller, and Willow Review. Her essay “Rustic Canyon” made the Notable Essays list on Best American Essays of 2016.







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