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From U.S. Open to empty nest

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QUEENS, N.Y. (PIX11) — My only child–a son named Anthony–packed up his T-shirts and tennis rackets and brand-new Apple computer and moved away to college this weekend.

It’s the first time, since he was 14, that he won’t be a ball person at the U.S. Open Championships, which start this week in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

 

Anthony was pro-active in getting the job, which required three rounds of try-outs in early summer 2010.

It certainly wasn’t a total “glamour” position–even though the Ralph Lauren ensembles, sneakers, and jackets were a nice perk.

“It’s tough,” Anthony explained to me.  “It’s really hot out and you sometimes feel like your skin is burning.  You have to stay still during the points.  You might be able to wipe your face with your shirt, between points,” he recalled.

I remembered watching proudly from the bleachers, on the outer courts, the first year Anthony did the job.

And I was impressed with the discipline the ball persons had to exhibit: standing straight before, and during, each point–and then springing quickly into action to retrieve the fly-away balls for the professional players. Not every pro was polite.  One complained about the way Anthony handed him the towel, before he wiped the sweat from his brow.

But there were amazing highlights, like “getting to do a match in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Opening Night 2012,” Anthony said.  “It’s such a bigger stage, with double digit thousands of people looking on.  More cameras.  More flash. Kim Clijsters won her first-round match that night, and she was really nice.”

It was my son, at the age of six, who encouraged me to take up tennis–when I signed him up for classes at our local club.

“Why don’t you take lessons, too, Mom?” he asked.

I was 43 then and hit for thirty minutes a week, for two summers.

Finally, the tennis coach suggested I might improve a bit more if I actually competed against other players!

Anthony, meantime, was being strongly encouraged by his dad to focus on other sports, like baseball and basketball.

Because he was a good kid and wanted to please his dad, tennis took a back seat for a number of years.

Anthony became a catcher in Little League, where his throwing arm would later help him secure the slot as ball boy at the Open.

He also developed a sweet, three-point shot on the basketball courts.

Anthony’s mom, meantime, caught tennis fever at the age of 47, participating in multiple drills a week–and joining the ladies’ tennis team at our club in Queens.

Anthony, then 10 years old, would come to my team matches and patiently watch the outcomes.

When I was 49, our entry-level “C” team won its division over 16, other clubs–and I felt like we’d won a U.S. Open title!

Anthony recently observed about my passion for tennis, “I thought it brought you happiness, because when you did well, you felt like you accomplished something.”

During those years, it was my intense hope that Anthony would, one day, get to follow his passion for tennis.

He was 11, in 2007, when he attended his first matches at the Open, in Arthur Ashe.

James Blake was one of the great, American hopes at the time.

“They had the J-Block, Blake’s loyal friends and fans,” Anthony remembered.  “They’d be the loudest people in the place.  They were really entertaining.”

When Anthony was 12, a tennis friend secured tickets for the quarter-final in Ashe Stadium, with then #3 ranked Novak Djokovic taking on American, Andy Roddick.

“That was the closest I ever sat to the courts in Ashe,” Anthony recalled, “eight rows from the baseline.”

Anthony recounted his thoughts about the two rivals.

“Their level was in a different stratosphere,” he said.  “You saw all of their hard work.”

Djokovic ended up winning the 2008 quarter-final in four sets: 6-2; 6-3; 3-6; 7-6.

Anthony spent his high school years training hard for Varsity basketball, which made his father very happy, but his biggest thrill came each spring, when he could focus his energies on tennis for three months.

Anthony was named “Rookie of the Year” on his tennis team, during freshman year at Saint Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows.

The coach honored him as Most Valuable Player the following, three years–when he played “First Singles” for the team.

But his playing still needed some polish.

Finally, right before senior year started in 2013, Anthony gently told his father he wanted to train for his tennis, year-round.

He had hopes of playing on a college team.

His dad respected Anthony’s wishes.

“I like, on the days I play well, the feeling I get,” Anthony told me, as we watched the qualifying rounds in the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center this past week, his final week home, before leaving for college.   “You feel connected to the ball.  The racket feels like an extension of your body, on a good day,” Anthony said.

We talked a bit about our shared love of tennis.

“I was happy you played,” Anthony told me, “because it was a connection.  We would watch together.  You would understand it.”

On Friday, the day before he left, Anthony went with friends to another qualifying round and pleased me mightily by observing one, tiny detail about Irish tennis player, James McGee–who made it into the main draw.

“He was wearing a wristband with the colors of the Irish flag,” Anthony related to me, “green, white and gold.”

It was a detail that delighted me, since both of my parents were born in Ireland.

My son spent Saturday night in his new home–a college dorm–and I texted him Sunday, instead of calling him, hoping he would appreciate my attempts to let go a little bit.

The last I heard, he was hitting the courts with his new dorm mate–a fellow player from the college team.

Anthony has three posters on his wall–and one shows Arthur Ashe hoisting the trophy at the U.S. Open in 1968.

“Success is a journey, not a destination,” the poster says, quoting Ashe.

But here’s Ashe’s follow-up quote, not featured on the poster: “The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

I am grateful that my son is doing what he loves now.

And in doing so, I hope that Anthony’s journey will teach him that, even if he fails at some things, the successes will taste that much sweeter, when they come.