I still do that, by the way—head out to practice at first light. It's my favorite time to hit, because everything's so quiet; you've got the whole day in front of you. I hate getting up early—really!!!—but I push myself. You can put in a full day's work before your opponent even gets out of bed, and that can give you an incredible psychological edge to carry into your next match, knowing you're fully prepared, knowing the other girl is sleeping in while you're out there sweating. And in those moments when I'm waiting for the sun to finish rising I'll think back to those early mornings on those public courts in Compton and Lynwood, keeping busy until my dad gave us the nod to start playing.
It got to be a grueling schedule, but none of us really minded it. Or we hardly noticed. We were all together. It was what we did, that's all. We didn't know any different. We didn't have a whole lot of friends outside of school. There was only time for each other, for tennis. My dad tried to make it fun for us. Every session had a theme, a structure. He'd set up all these creative games, with cones placed around the court, and there'd be a series of challenges we'd have to meet. Sometimes he'd put up little messages or sayings on the fence around the court to help motivate us, or maybe just to make us smile. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
You are a winner.
Say "Thank you."
(This last saying was one of his favorites.)
He'd write out these empowering messages on big pieces of paper or oak tag, or sometimes he'd have us write them out. Then he'd hang them up all around the court. If there was a theme to one of his sessions—like "Focus"—all the messages would have to do with the theme. He really put a lot of time and effort into this part of our training, because he believed it was important. He wanted these messages to resonate, for the visual image of the word to linger in our minds long after we'd left the court. Years later, when we moved to Florida, he had some signs made professionally, with his most effective messages—and those he put up permanently.
Basically, he was fooling us into thinking we weren't working, with all those games and messages, but after a while we caught on. We didn't care, though. We didn't mind working hard. I mean, we were kids, so of course we grumbled from time to time. Of course we did our little celebration dance whenever it rained, because that meant we wouldn't have to practice. Of course I hit a ball or two over the fence to buy myself a break while I went to retrieve it. But it wasn't so bad. Every now and then, my dad would reward us with some time to play in the nearby playground, or in the sandbox. That was another great treat for us girls. I used to love doing cartwheels. Whenever I had a five-minute break, I'd be in the grass alongside the court, flipping around. I spent a lot of time on the monkey bars, too, as I recall.