I played tennis with Hazel Wightman one April day, not long before she died. She was old then. 87. and I was still a teenager. We had never played together before, and when I came into her house that day, it didn't seem likely that we ever would. Mrs. Wightman was lying on her bed. and she apologized for not having enough energy to sit up. She looked very feeble, and she sighed when she told me that she hadn't picked up a racket in months.
The walls of her bedroom were cluttered with photographs that covered 70 years or so of a tennis career. In some, a young Hazel kissed celebrities, and one showed a broad-shouldered girl on a tennis court, rushing the net, racket raised menacingly. I kept staring at that picture because it seemed more real than the wilted figure on the bed. Mrs. Wightman followed my gaze. "I look competitive, don't I." she said. "Well, I was. People say I was the first woman to come to the net, and someone asked me once how I learned to volley. I said, 'What's volleying?' I didn't know what I was doing: I just did it."
Mrs. Wightman pulled herself up on one elbow and furtively touched her face, murmuring that she had grown wrinkled in recent years. "But I was never very pretty, you know," she said. "I was always too short and stocky. It never much bothered me." Without the seductive eyes of Helen Wills or the long-legged glamour of Sarah Palfrey, she relied on her unpretentious warmth and energy to draw fans. Once she had a match delayed for 15 minutes because she was nursing a baby. The first of her 44 national titles came in 1909, and the first of five babies in 1913. She initiated the Wightman Cup tournament, an annual British-American competition that she hoped would bring respectability to the women's game.
"You're young." she said to me now, "but let me tell you this. Tennis has changed. In 1906 I was offered $300 to play, and I didn't understand what that meant. It made me cross, because I was playing for fun. The new girls like Chrissie and Billie Jean and Ginny are lovely, but I wonder how long they'd enjoy the game without those $10,000 checks."
She struggled to sit up, and I noticed that her eyes were gaining animation. How long had it been since Hazel Wightman had spoken about tennis? She looked at me wistfully. "I had such joy running tournaments for children. I'd buy 14 pounds of cookies and have extra candy bars for the winners."
There was a book at her bedside by Billie Jean King, and she gestured toward it disdainfully. "These new pros make the game too hard." she said. "They have so many rules that nobody can be natural anymore. Once I won the third round match of a championship without losing a point, and I didn't even know I had done it until afterward. I wasn't trying for the record; it just happened."
She had many stories, but kept pausing to ask about me. Did I play tennis? I mentioned my summers at tennis camp and my winters of indoor lessons, but said I still wasn't very good. "That's because nobody knows how to teach anymore," she said, her voice rising. "You have to discover your own rhythm, and when you do, it's the easiest game in the world." Then she smiled for the first time. "Go get a racket. I'll show you."
I found five or six discolored rackets at the back of a closet and pulled them out. Mrs. Wightman reached for one and asked me to help her lace on a pair of sneakers. Secure now in her rubber soles, she stood up. "Follow me, dear," she said, and with a crutch in one hand, and a tennis racket and cane in the other, hobbled outside.
We walked toward the garage where so many young pros had practiced, and there was urgency in her voice as she began to expound her doctrines of the game. "Here's the first principle of tennis." she said. "It's your thinking that counts most. Forty-love is no lead unless you think so." She opened the garage door and looked around, then put down her cane and hit a wobbly ball against a backboard, which was all there was to her court. "Here's the second principle of tennis. Just get the ball over the net so your opponent can lose the point." She dropped the crutch and began hitting more steadily. The balls came plopping back at her feet, and her old face began to glow with an almost-forgotten pride. "It's so easy! I can hit the ball a thousand times and never miss!" She glanced over to where I stood. "Here," she said suddenly. "Let's play a game."
Someone had once told me that it's bad to meet your idols when they're old, because they'll have dwindled by then to human scale. For a moment I didn't know how to play against Hazel Wightman. To want to win seemed vainglorious, but not to try would be worse. We faced each other across the garage. She began tentatively, but in a few minutes she was hitting every ball that came near her. She yelled at me if she had to run and reproached me for my unnatural swing. "Forget all that modern teaching you've had! Ready, wait, HIT! Ready, wait, HIT!"
All at once I realized that the choice to win or lose wasn't mine. Mrs. Wightman's eyes were shining. With racket in hand, she was once again alive.
I don't know how long we hit those balls—maybe 15 minutes, maybe an hour—but Mrs. Wightman didn't miss one shot that came near her. With each swing she was battling the newfangled pros who didn't understand the Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman method of better tennis and better life. She hit one ball that went soaring past me, and when I looked up to smile, she put down her racket and called that we had played long enough. I went over to take her arm, and she leaned heavily on me as we walked back to the house. "I'm glad we played." she said. "I've gotten too lazy lately. You have to keep active to be happy."
The sun had settled a bit when we got inside, and Mrs. Wightman sank into a deep chair. She offered me fudge and a few more memories, but mostly we sat quietly in the darkening room. She had dropped her tennis racket somewhere, and as I looked at her now, I saw an old woman, far too frail and withered to play a game. Her housekeeper came by and suggested that it was time for Mrs. Wightman to return to bed.
I'll never know what inspired Mrs. Wightman's sudden strength that afternoon or why, once our game was over, she faded so rapidly. I saw her only once afterward, but she was in a wheelchair then and we barely spoke. After a cursory greeting I walked away, preferring to remember that one special afternoon when the old champ was active and a young admirer learned her lessons.