Book Excerpt: Norah Vincent's 'Self-Made Man'

As men they felt compelled to fix my ineptitude rather than be secretly happy about it and try to abet it under the table, which is what a lot of female athletes of my acquaintance would have done. I remember this from playing sports with and against women all my life. No fellow female athlete ever tried to help me with my game or give me tips. It was every woman for herself. It wasn't enough that you were successful. You wanted to see your sister fail.

Girls can be a lot nastier than boys when it comes to someone who stands in the way of what they want. They know where to hit where it'll hurt the most, and their aim is laser precise. One summer when I was a maladjusted teenager, I went to a tennis camp in New Jersey that catered largely to rich princesses and their male counterparts. Most of them couldn't really play tennis on more than a country-club level. Their parents had sent them there to get rid of them. They just stood around most of the time posing for one another, showing off their tans. But I'd had a lot of private coaching in tennis by that time, and my strokes were fairly impressive for my age. I took the tennis pretty seriously.

As for posing, I looked like I'd been raised by wolverines.

The instructors used to videotape each of us playing, so that they could go over the tapes with us and evaluate our techniques. One day, my particular class of about twenty girls was standing around the television watching the tape, and the instructor was deconstructing my serve. He'd had a lot of negative things to say about most of the other girls' serves, but when it came to mine, he raved unconditionally, playing my portion of the tape over and over again in slow motion.

At this, one of the prettiest girls in the group, no doubt exasperated by the repetition, said, loudly enough for everyone to hear: "Well, I'd rather look the way I do and serve the way I do than serve the way she does and look the way she does."

Now that's female competitiveness at its finest.

But with these guys and with other male athletes I've known it was an entirely different conflict. Their coaching reminded me of my father's, whose approach to fatherhood had always been about giving helpful, concrete advice. It was how he showed his affection for us. It was all bound up in a desire to see us do well.

These guys' attentions were like that: fatherly. And it really surprised me coming from members of opposing teams, since this was, after all, a money league. But they seemed to have a competitive stake in my doing well and in helping me to do well, as if beating a man who wasn't at his best wasn't satisfying. They wanted you to be good and then they wanted to beat you on their own merits. They didn't want to win against a plodder or lose to him on a handicap.

But my game never got consistently better. I'd have good frames now and then, but mostly I hovered around an average of 102 and learned to swallow it. So did the guys. They knew I was trying my best, and that was all that really mattered to them. As with everything else a little odd or off about me, they accepted my clumsiness with a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say: "That's just how some guys are. What are you gonna do?"

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