Heat, Humidity, No Deterrent for this (Crazy) Tennis Player

I have been playing a lot of pretty good outdoor tennis. It is crazy to do in the heat. It is not good for my skin. But I don’t see how you play tennis this sunny summer without getting sun. I finally found a relatively comfortable sun protection shirt, made in Australia. I wear SPF gloves. I use sunscreen. It is my therapy and so I continue to do it.

My United States Tennis Association team needed me to play singles in a match. I used to win at singles but have played doubles for years. When I was practicing on courts near my house, I told the coach running the summer tennis camp that I was nervous.

He said, “I always tell people, 'You’re a tennis player, not a singles or doubles player.'" That made an impression.

Bounce, hit

Out on the court, I said “bounce, hit,” a method I learned from reading The Inner Game of Tennis. It helps quiet mental chattering, improve focus, and calm nerves. Think of it as the tennis equivalent of taking it one step at a time, an approach that is also beneficial when applied to cancer treatment. (And to life in general.)

I reminded myself that I was strong.

We played up to the end of the two-hour limit. I have to admit that by the end, my back was stiffening up. But I kept bouncing on my toes. I won in two sets. (You have to win two out of three.) I was exhausted and exhilarated.

With temperatures and humidity in the 90s, four days later I played an hour-and-a half of doubles in the morning with friends. Then came two hours in the evening of winning doubles in a league match.

The sweat was dripping off me. My clothes were soaked. This is probably not everyone’s idea of fun. It might even be someone’s idea of crazy. I was careful about staying hydrated, so, at least in the short term, nothing bad happened.

Tennis has helped me recover from leukemia, and I’m not going to let a little heat and humidity keep me from it.

When I decorated my hospital room in the spring of 2003, I placed a can of tennis balls on my windowsill. It was a reminder that I would be back on the court.

That moment came sooner than expected.

A bout of pneumonia

That August, my team would travel to a tournament in Portland, Maine. My doctor said I could go. He said that if I felt OK, I could play. Nobody thought I would.

I had gotten a fungal pneumonia caused by Aspergillus, a common mold. I needed lung surgery. But I had low platelets and needed to make more, to insure proper clotting. (Transfusions had failed to give me a “bump.”)

To keep up my strength, I had walked short distances and played some tennis. An anti-fungal drug kept the pneumonia in check.

All of a sudden I found myself on the court with my longtime partner.

I joked that maybe I should remove my scarf and intimidate our opponents with my bald head. I wore the scarf. Hitting the ball for an hour-and-a-half, I was an athlete, not a patient. I hadn't expected much, but we won.

Two weeks later, I was back in the hospital for lung surgery. The memory of our Portland trip helped sustain me through the difficult recovery at home. Then I returned to the hospital for my last, strongest round of chemotherapy, followed by my stem cell transplant. This time the balls on the windowsill were from our match. I still have those balls in my closet.

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