I was 10 years old when I first saw it for the first time. I’d seen it before, but not the way it’s meant to be seen. This time, I saw it. Flipping channels from The Weather Channel to ESPN, the satellite picture went clear. Marcos Baghdatis vs. Marat Safin. The back and forth, the freedom, the solitude, the equipment. I had been watching the weather channel, praying for a snow day in the 4th grade, when I had gotten bored from commercials. The snow day didn’t happen but who cares. I’d found something I had to try. There was no way I wouldn’t fall in love. I just knew it. But what next?
“Dad!” I yelled after the conclusion of the match.
“Can you take me to that wall at Pepplepocket Park?” He thought for a minute. Was he not going to take me?
“I’ll tell you what..I’ll take you Saturday.”
Saturday? Saturday! I couldn’t wait and scavenged the garage for equipment in preparation for the weekend. I was dreaming. I picked up a 23’ Andre Agassi Junior racket. I shut my eyes and I was in Australia for the Open. The crowd screaming and Marat Safin across the net. The lights caused a surge of adrenaline to my young mind and soul. I was a warrior. But where was Bagdhatis..I guess I took his place in this dream. It was my dream after all.
Saturday came and I was in love. Tennis was the first thing I ever loved. And boy, was it sweet. The next steps came. Lessons, tournaments, more dreams. I was on a clear path to truly becoming something that I had felt since I accidentally flipped channels to the 2008 Australian Open. A tennis player. But like any person in the beginning stages of a relationship I had no idea of what was to come. Nobody told me the things to watch for, what to avoid, what to focus on. I had a vision of life where tennis was the center. And the ball was in my court. My falling in love that night in 2008, led to the story of a boy who experienced some of the best times of his life, but also the worst. I had good coaches and bad ones. I had the best time of my life at some tournaments and I felt the loneliest I ever felt at some. The worst coaches got me to believe that tennis was everything. They taught me to believe that results were everything. There were lonely nights outside of the tennis center in my car, there were nights when I had a friend by my side in that car and we dreamt of something more. My best friend Corrie and I, have been through hell and back again in this sport. We’ve gone through love, loss, loneliness, joy, fear, and pain. He was often the guy who I’d take long drives with to College Park and come back late at night. We reflected a lot as we had a lot of the same coaches. I want the next few blogs to be about these experiences I had. They truly shaped me.
I went through my first coaches rapidly. I couldn’t get enough of the game. I even damaged our garage in my childhood home by imagining I was Pete Sampras in the U.S. Open. It is still a sore subject today. My first coach was John Witkowski who taught me to love the game. But not love it for the results…he taught me that it was fun! That phase quickly passed and I desired to have more than just fun. I wanted to win. Maybe I could get a college scholarship?
That’s when I met coach Frank.
I went for a tryout with Frank to get into his academy. He was a black man with dreadlocks and an accent. “Where are you from?” I asked him nervously. “The best country in the world! Ghana. And one day, I’m gonna win the lottery and go back!” I chuckled. I didn’t really believe him. Over the years, I developed a relationship with Frank and he was the first man I looked up to who loved God. Frank came up as a junior in Ghana and walked five miles to get to the courts, and five miles back. He played barefoot on the hot pavement as a kid. Tennis was his only chance to get out of his home country. There is a story of him playing in Wimbledon and getting sponsored by Wilson. The company wanted to sign him and all he had to do was put “Wilson” stencil on his racket. Frank refused. He told us how his positive outlook had gotten him there and how he had always put a smiley face stencil on his racket. And as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I have fond memories of long practice sessions with Frank, him blasting Bob Marley from his boombox. The sunset in the distance and my soul merging with the court and my racket.
I learned so much from Frank and never really got to show him how much he meant to me. I left his academy to move on to what I thought would be an opportunity to train with better players. Eventually, Frank got tired of waiting to win the lottery and took his fate into his own hands. When I was 13, Frank moved back to Ghana to be a missionary. I went to his going away party and saw him for the first time in a year. He was shocked to see me and embraced me with a hug. “I never thought I would see you again!” he said. Maybe I had made an impact on him too? I cried for hours that night. And when I didn’t think I could cry anymore…a new wave hit. He was the first man who had shown me what it meant to truly live from a higher place. I tear up as I write this because Frank was that moving to me. He told me not to care what others thought. He gave me a binder of pictures of people in his home country without basic things and whenever I complained, we went over it. Bob Marley was his anthem and the mantra was one love. Frank loved tennis. But what really mattered was he loved me. I love Frank.
I recently googled the name “Frank Ofori” and found that he has just returned to tennis after 7 years. It made me smile. I know that there is a kid in Ghana right now, hitting with Frank as the sun goes down. Bob Marley on the radio and smiley face stencil on the racket. Whoever that kid was before, doesn’t matter. Whoever he is…Frank loves him. He loves everybody…just like his mentor.