Sunday, December 2, 2007

Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play?

<---Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving
---->Travelogue #16: Flirtation, Painful Massages, and Language Barriers in South Korea

Two days before I left for Korea, I played tennis back home with my friend Matt. For an hour and a half we swapped strokes all loosey-goosey and casual...until things got serious. "This will be the last time I hit a tennis ball in America until, like, November 2008," I said a little too earnestly. "Here's to some good luck in Korea." (Yes, I really did say this. I'm the kind of guy who likes defining the moment as it's happening rather than waiting patiently for perspective on what said moment means. But that's a topic for another entry.)

So I began the rally. Back and forth the ball skipped across the net. I didn''t (and don't) believe in omens, but I would happily make an exception if I could leave the United States on a trail of Federer-like authority. I wanted to win the point.


Matt laughed, and it wasn't because I'd sprayed the ball well beyond the baseline; it was because I'd snapped my racket strings. On a could-be omen of a shot, my strings split apart.


I chose to leave my rackets at my parents' house rather than take them to Asia. This decision had nothing to do with superstition and everything to do with luggage space. Besides, I had no real expectations of playing tennis in Korea: Where would I find a court? With whom would I play? And wouldn't I be too preoccupied with work and the whole adapting-to-a-new-culture lifestyle to find time to hit balls?

As anybody who's ever felt passionate about sport can tell you, the itch never quite goes away. I'd heard murmurs of courts in Bundang, but because I'd never seen the facilities, I concluded the murmurs were badminton-related. Oh well. I figured I could survive a year without tennis. Maybe the popped strings were a warning after all. Or not.

Heyeon was a Korean teacher at my school until she quit three weeks ago. She's now preparing for a January move to Atlanta,GA U.S.A., home of my Alma mater. She's become a friend of mine. The reason for her inclusion in this tennis-focused essay?

She knows where to find tennis courts in Bundang.

On Wednesday, Heyeon was kind enough to walk me to these heretofore-only-murmured -about courts. To my delight, they were much closer to my apartment building than I had imagined: an eight minute stride from the lobby of Royal Palace to a wired gate, and behind it, three clay courts.

Heyeon and I walked down to them and turned right into a pro shop of sorts, a small shack-like building with rackets hanging on spikes and Korean ladies chatting to each other, some adjusting visors on their heads, others sipping mugs of coffee. That's when Heyeon sprung into action, using translation skills that would make a U.N. interpreter jealous. The chat between her and the Korean ladies went fast and furious. "They're saying the usual fee is $300 lifetime and $20 a month to use these courts," Heyeon told me, "but I told them you'll be here for one year, so they said maybe you can work something else out." I nodded along to the beats of their conversation. "They want to see you play," Heyeon said. "Now? I asked. I was wearing jeans, reasonably nice shoes, and a sweater. I was not in tennis attire. "Yes, now," Heyeon said. I looked at the ladies and their smiling faces. They were motioning towards the courts. "Okay," I said. "I'll play."

It was on: an impromptu showdown between one of the ladies and me. She bowed slightly to me and I bowed slightly back. She started the rally. What happened next was probably the worst shot of my tennis career: a long, loping home run of a forehand that landed about a dozen feet long. I heard giddy cackles of laughter from back in the pro shop. I stretched exaggeratedly, as if to assure the crowd that hey, I'm not that bad. I swear I'm not that bad!

Once I calmed my God-I'm-playing-tennis-in-jeans-and-I'm-doing-it-in-Korea! nerves, I began to redeem myself. Before I knew it, I was playing doubles, two Korean women versus another Korean woman and, well, me. These women could really play! They were far from podunk fairweather players; they were competitive and skilled serve-and-volleyers. My partner and I lost the set but I couldn't stop smiling through every single point, no matter the point's outcome. Heyeon cheered from the sidelines, saying she could tell I loved to play, that it was written all over my face. Awesome.

"Come back tomorrow?" said the captain of the league. "10:30?"

I came back solo the next morning and the morning after that one. None of the women spoke much English beyond "nice!" and "good shot!" I asked the captain if the league continued play through the winter. I did my best folded-armed impression of a man who goes brrr, but she still couldn't understand me. What I discovered was that while the women spoke Korean and I spoke English, we both spoke tennis.

15-30. Deuce. Out. Forehand. Hit to the weaker player. I did not need to vocalize these moments and strategies with my partner, for all we needed to communicate with each other was a nod, a fist pump, and the occasional supportive hand slap after a big point. A grunt after a bad shot means the same thing whether you're a thirtysomething woman from Bundang, Korea or a twentysomething man from Omaha, Nebraska.

By my third morning of play, I'd finally shook off my rustiness and was playing pretty well. My "nice shots!" and fist pumps and hand slaps increased in volume. I was playing tennis in Korea with ladies who a week ago would pass me on the street without a word. We weren't quite singing "we are the world," but we were bonding over rackets and balls. Tennis in Korea. It is on.

Forget about your omens.

<---Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving
---->Travelogue #16: Flirtation, Painful Massages, and Language Barriers in South Korea


Alex Pollack said...

Starting now, I'm going to occasionally use the comments section to include information I wanted to put in the original blog entry that, for whatever reason, didn't quite fit.

For this one, I wanted to mention the head tennis pro for these clay courts. Funny thing- for three days he was there, teaching private lessons on his own court while the ladies and I played. He had the same bored another-day-at-the-office expression that I've seen in pretty much every tennis pro back in Memphis,TN. The way he rolled out his shopping cart of balls like here-we-go-again ...made me smile with the feeling that worlds away, tennis pros are not only doing the same thing, but they're doing the same thing with the same looks on their faces.

Michael said...

That's too funny. Glad you found yourself a place to play tennis.

Sounds like fun...and maybe one of them will set you up with their daughter.

Jes said...

Those ladies are pretty darn cute. I think the Olympics committee would love this post, you know, the whole "athletic competition is the universal language" thing. (grin)