Who knows where the love of baseball comes from. Bill’s kids didn’t have it, not even Paul. But most days after school, when he himself was a kid, Bill used to head over to the baseball diamond at the corner of Ferry and Union. There were two diamonds, facing each other, but sometimes if it was busy – a church league used the grounds – you wandered over to City Park across the road. There was no backstop there, and the rule was, if you hit it into the river, you were out. They lost a lot of balls and got wet looking for them: Eddie Kaiser, Bill Panofski (Big Bill), Steve Tauchman, Mike Schultz. But the river-rule never bothered Bill, he was a contact hitter. His high school coach once said to him, Essinger, you may be slow, but you sure are weak. He had quick hands, though, and played catcher for two years, when he was still a fat kid and before he started concentrating on golf.
Sometimes, when his own boys were young, Bill asked them if they wanted to watch a Longhorns game at Disch-Falk field – ten minutes in the car, there were always tickets. For most of their childhood, the Longhorns were pretty good. It was a chance to spot a future major-leaguer. Maybe he took the kids once or twice, but they sat there bored. Sometimes he played catch with Nathan in the backyard. Nathan had a decent arm. But the way childhood works, from one generation to the next, keeps changing. You try to recreate what you had but can’t overcome the resistance. There was a park, Adam’s Park, a short walk from the house, and he often spotted people playing basketball on the court by the fire station – there was a baseball backstop, too. But when you’ve got a hoop at home, a big garden, who needs to go out. His kids were rich man’s kids, which shouldn’t surprise him, because he was the rich man. They had no sense of community, of living in a neighborhood with other kids. And once Paul got hooked on tennis, he was happy enough banging a ball against the net Bill set up in the garden, or playing at Whitaker, by the law school.
It meant a lot to him to have a son to play ball with. Nathan had been aggressive but not competitive. He didn’t like losing and that’s how you always start out, by losing. How you finish, too. Susie did her duty at YMCA soccer but quit when she was ten or eleven; she didn’t want to spend her Saturday mornings out at Zilker Park when she could stay at home with a book instead. But Paul from an early age had a fixed expression on his face every time a game got played. If he didn’t win, you could see him afterwards, practicing by himself whatever you needed to practice, working things through. He was never especially communicative but if you paid attention like this he was easy to read, very single-minded. At four he was playing on Susie’s co-ed soccer team, some of the kids were twice his age, but he held his own. Bill stood on the sidelines watching, trying not to boast but also feeling a strong affinity for his son, sent out as it were into the world to do his business again, the business of childhood. Playing ball.
By the time Nathan left for Harvard, his little brother could challenge him at basketball, even though Paul was six years younger, still pre-pubescent and probably thirty pounds of muscle-weight lighter. They played in the backyard, after school, or sometimes, under the lights, when dinner was over. The only way Nathan could win was by backing him down, using his butt and his elbows – Bill sometimes had to step in. The court was poured concrete, covered in abrasive paint. Sometimes Nathan said, I’m coming down the middle, knee-first; if you want to stand there and take the charge, feel free. Not while Bill was watching, but he heard about it afterwards: Paul sometimes got hurt. Eventually they stopped playing together, which was a shame, because you never get back that intensity of relationship.
It transferred to Bill, who used to play tennis with his son on the university courts. Even when Paul was ten or eleven years old, Bill let himself go all-out. He used to be a decent player himself. Though his serve was soft, he had soft hands at the net, too, and liked to force Paul to pass him. ‘If you pass me, you beat me,’ he told his son. Paul hated losing, especially to this old guy sweating into his sweatband, with a straggly beard, a lopey run, hanging shoulders – his dad. Sometimes, when the shots weren’t falling for him, Paul would smash his feet against the hard court (jumping and then landing-kicking at the same time), to gee himself up. It was embarrassing to watch. These were semi-public courts, students used them, one of his colleagues might be playing alongside. But Bill had a thick competitive streak, too; it was like being a kid again, he loved going at it. As a father, you win for a certain number of years, and then, when the tide turns, it comes pouring in. You never win again.
Eventually the question started coming up, around Paul’s fourteenth birthday: how much of our lives are we supposed to rearrange for this one kid? It’s true (Bill remembered the conversations), Coach Marcello thought he needed to enroll full-time at one of these academies. Most of the best were in Florida. They could have sent him away. But in other respects, Paul was a late-developer, still a child, his mother’s son. Liesel put her foot down about sending him to boarding school; and they weren’t going to relocate either. Susie was finishing high school, Jean was just about to start junior high. Bill and Liesel had jobs and lives, they weren’t the kind of family that moves to Hollywood or Florida – the truth is, it was never under consideration. Liesel also saw the danger of letting just one part of his personality colonize the rest. The tennis-playing part. He was a smart kid, with an interest in art, in painting, like Susie, and a good eye; he could draw like a Polaroid. He needed to go to college, he needed to figure out for himself, at a reasonable age, what he wanted to do with his life.
When Paul dropped out of Stanford, Liesel was almost too upset to speak to him. For several months beforehand, he had been calling to argue it out with her, they fought constantly. For some reason, he needed his mother to consent to his independence – the package couldn’t be delivered without a signature. Which she refused to give; it clouded their relationship for several years. Then, when he made it to the quarters at the US Open, Paul felt vindicated and tried to explain this feeling to her, which started the whole thing up again. For Liesel it was an enduring disappointment that he should waste his life on a hobby. A bruise that doesn’t heal because you keep bumping into it. It seemed to her one of those things America had done to her children. Whenever she watched Paul play, the tension between her mixed feelings was almost visible. Because she hated it when he lost, too, and couldn’t bear that what he had turned out to be was a mid-ranking, top-100 professional. Who, at the age of thirty-three, needed to work out for a second time what he wanted to do with his life.
But for Bill, there was a special kind of national pride in having an athlete in the family. When your grandfather spoke no English, your uncles were in the grocery business, and your son, short-haired and handsome, appears on television as a tennis star, an ordinary American, some very deep itch is being scratched – a part of you that never expected acceptance has been recognized. Bill got phone calls from people who did not otherwise keep in touch, cousins and old fraternity buddies, after they saw Paul playing on ESPN or in one of those commercials. Sometimes offering advice: he’s got a beautiful backhand, but why doesn’t he come to net? His second serve is just putting it in play. And so on. For a while it wasn’t clear how good he would become, and then it was. He went up the rankings, stopped, and started going down. It was like watching the world conduct a highly refined and public experiment upon your son, using the best researchers and the most expensive equipment, according to which, at the end of a ten-year trial, his talents (and its limits) have been measured and graded to the decimal point. This is who you were, they tell him, when it’s over.
Feature image © Steven Pisano