EXCERPT: 'On The Line'

"At Wimbledon," he'd say, "the balls will bounce low, just like these special balls, so you have to be ready." Occasionally, we'd hit a ball into the woods or out onto the street beyond the fence, and we'd have to go looking for it before giving it up for lost. I hit more balls over the fence than my sisters—not by accident, necessarily, but by design. See, I discovered that when Daddy sent me across the street to collect the ball after one of my errant shots, it meant a break from the hard work he had us doing on the court, so I learned to play the angles at an early age.

Also occasionally, Daddy would add a new can or two to our collection, and that was always a real treat. Those fresh balls really popped. You could follow them all afternoon, up against the faded yellow of all those tired old tennis balls. It always felt like I had to bear down a little harder whenever a fresh ball reached the top of the pile and was put in play; there was a little more hop to it; it bounced off my racquet with a little more purpose and authority. Plus, it sounded great—the music of the game. I never liked to waste one of those new balls with a bad shot. It was like a missed opportunity. New balls are like that. To this day, whenever I smell a can of just-opened balls it puts me in mind of those new cans my dad used to bring out, when those brand-new balls made me feel like a real tennis player. They were so clean, so yellow, the felt so fine like the hairs on the back of your head . . . it was almost a shame to get them dirty. Of course, they all got dirty, eventually. Soon, they'd lose that fresh bounce and they'd get all dirty and there'd be no telling the new balls from the ones at the bottom of the pile—but that didn't mean we stopped playing. No, sir. It only meant we'd have to get all these other balls to pop with the same purpose and authority, until my father could get us a couple new cans.

That was the way of things for the first while. We developed our own little routine, our own little family dynamic, built around this funny little game. We were little girls smacking a ball around inside a box, that's what Daddy used to say. And, at first, that's all it was. But then we started showing flashes that we could really play, when I was about five or six and Venus about six or seven, so my parents changed things up on us. They went at it harder. They pushed us harder. That might have been their plan all along, but they didn't go harder until we showed them we were ready. And when we were, we went from playing just a couple hours a day four or five times a week, to three or four hours a day every day of the week. Some days, we'd even be out for two-a-day sessions, starting up at six o'clock in the morning before school, and then again after school, usually until dark. In the morning, we'd sometimes get to the court before the sun was all the way up, and Daddy would have us stretch or practice our swings until we could see well enough to hit.

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