Top L-R, Dennis, Kyle, Mark, Eric, Matt and Serge.)
There’s a lot of clichés that come through my mind right now as I’m writing this, each one relevant to every situation that I have encountered through the past three weeks. I guess each cliché would just reveal itself when the appropriate time comes.
They say that third time is always the charm, and this was the case for me in terms of joining the tennis team here at The Culinary Institute. The first year, I had to leave for my externship in December. The second year, I came back unexpectedly to start my bachelor’s degree and had every intention to join… but they were full. The third time, nothing was stopping me. I picked my tennis racket up again, and went from there.
I remember the general interest meeting, about fourteen or so of us there… or less than that. Seven which consisted of this year’s team, two that had interest but had to leave soon, and two that, according to Matty, scared them off by serving too strong, making it impossible for them to return. There was that. But I remember trying to size up everyone because I knew that even if I hadn’t picked up my racket in some number of years to play real competitive tennis, I knew I could have beaten some of them. Partially because I had some serious belief in my mechanics, training, and whatever I did in California playing doubles in what was a tough league in high school.
Practise came along, each of us arrived as individuals. Some of us started playing scrimmage matches. Playing doubles, I was excited. At the same time, to be purely honest, was awkward. Would you really high five a guy who you just met five minutes ago? Is this a Carly Rae Jepsen song? I just met you, and this is crazy, you just hit a winner, so high five me maybe?
Then something weird happened.
It was a week before the Cooper Union invitational, and we started high fiving. Belief was slowly being instilled in the team. Ally put it perfectly, our weirdness started coming out. And we started appreciating each other for our quirks. Doubles parings for Coach became easier like someone pairing white wine with fish. Matt was with Ally, Kyle was with Jackie, I was with Megan, and finally, Eric with Mark.
Kaitlyn then came along halfway through the season the Tuesday after we got swept by Pratt, 9-0. Jokingly, Serge said that he had a certain bias against us and Kaitlyn might have a hard time being on the team. But, she just came in, she said hi and played tennis. She was paired with me for a doubles match against JB, a Dutchess Regular who played tennis with us every practice to keep the numbers even. We won the set at a clean 8-0. It was a pleasant surprise… she added something to the team. A spoiler alert, she would go on to win the number 6 tournament in Queens. Pretty amazing for a girl in a men’s league. The best part? She never really ruined the team’s dynamic. Rather, it added our strength in numbers, and the fact that she was very open and personable certainly helped.
After that came a series of close wins. A 5-4 win against Webb and Dutchess Community College. This was a time when Matt finally hit his Saturday classes and couldn’t play on Saturdays and often, we would find ourselves shorthanded. Playing without one of our captains and the team’s number one player is often a detriment, but with a stroke of luck and some perseverance, we just kept winning ugly. It’s what culinarians or pastry chefs do anyway, we get down and dirty for a living. In this case, we really don’t care if we win ugly.
Winning with such grit and grind was good enough for us to place third in the league, and nab us a couple of byes in the upcoming tournament in Queens. Kyle got one playing number 2, and Kaitlyn got one playing six singles. Most of us got through our first round matches cleanly and lost valiantly in close matches against Sarah Lawrence and Pratt. The only silver lining in this is that each player on our team made their opponent work or pout. Grit and grind, that really was our theme. Ultimately, for a bunch of individuals three months ago during that interest session, we tied for the second place in the tournament. Pratt simply swept the board that day as they are loaded with talent. No one would normally celebrate second. But in this case, we would take it any day of the week, especially from an odd combination of men and women in a men’s tennis league.
During our end of season banquet, Serge (another one of our coaches) set the record straight. We won second place by working hard, having faith in each other, and having fun. Because that’s what tennis, or any other hobby should feel like. It should not be an obligation. In this case, the tennis court became our second home away from the kitchen - a sanctuary in which we found ourselves releasing our frustrations after a huge workload in the kitchen or classroom. It became a place where much like the kitchen, everyone had something to be passionate about and had a blast in the process.
So, what’s the deal? It’s a lot easier for me to tell you that The Culinary Institute of America has a tennis team, and be really technical about it. Trust me, I tried doing it and it wasn’t quite as successful as I pictured it to be (as a photographer, pun intended.) It’s more fun for me to tell someone my experiences in doing something that I love while being paid. It makes me happy when someone comes up to me and goes "Dude! I've read your blog. I love it." It’s more fun for me to hear from someone that they have heard my story and got inspired or learned something new from it.
As I walked out of that dinner today, I hugged Serge and Dennis for giving me the chance to play in this team, prove myself, and meet new people in the process. It’s funny, really. To be graduating in seven days… these are events in life that I have to deal with again wherever I end up being. I have to prove myself in my new workplace and meet new people in the process. I’ll be alone again to begin with, sizing up my competition, asking myself if I could work circles around them. But as time goes on, I could only hope that I get my high fives along the way.
Did I mention that the Culinary Institute of America had a tennis team? The season starts next spring.