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By the time I had swallowed my heart back down to where it had come from, it was tennis time. My big moment. My time to kick rear and take a chief executive name. The moment I had trained for—well, at least had hit a few balls for—under the canny eye of Rusty Dyer, my home pro at the Shipyard Racquet Club in Hilton Head, S.C., had arrived. We had worked assiduously on my singles game and on a double-fisted backhand return. "When the President serves that lefty floater, go ahead and crush it, and he's history," Rusty had said.
Now, Rusty may be history. First, tennis time consisted only of doubles, which was a big disappointment to me because after that remark about a ball machine, I wanted POTUS bad. Next, although he's a natural lefthander (he throws and writes lefty), the President plays tennis righthanded. Finally, I never got on the opposite side of the net from my intended victim because POTUS chose me as his partner. Moreover, he actually announced he was making us the favorites over Marlin Fitzwater, his press secretary, and Dorrance Smith, the former executive producer of ABC's Nightline, who joined the President's staff earlier this year.
"I apologize for the Ranking Committee's long delay in according you the proper respect," POTUS said as I ripped topspin drives, nonchalantly blocked volleys and moved like a gazelle during the warmups. Little did the President know that when the bell rang, by characteristic rote, I would turn into tennis's most pathetic hound.
To make a sad story short, I opened the match by losing my serve after being up 40-15. We broke Fitzwater back, but then the President dropped his serve. I held for 2-3, but that was the last game we won in the first set. Smith, 40, was a ringer. He was obviously hired by the White House to play DTHM (designated tennis hit man) as much as to improve the President's media relations; Smith hasn't missed a ball in two or three years. Even Fitzwater, who's as affable as he is burly, kept slugging deep returns that POTUS and I could do nothing with.
As for the President, he kept warning me about his "no serve," which turned out to be a lunging, soft delivery. "Screwed up as a youth," he said. "In those days you weren't allowed to be lefthanded. When my mother switched me from being a lefty, I was without any natural motion." If that had made any sense, I would have asked Dorothy Bush, 90, about it, because she was sitting courtside—which by the way was also oceanside—and was fresh as a summer day in a gorgeous pink flowered dress and straw hat.
As my "nerves factor" lessened in the second set, our team came on. I lucked out on a couple of power and touch plays, to which the President responded, "Stradivarius! Mr. Smooth! Way to go. You're playing them like a Stradivarius!" Once, after I had fooled Fitzwater with a move at net, he screamed, "Totally outsmarted me; I hate when that happens!"—as if it had been happening since the Bush house on Walker's Point was built by the President's grandfather in 1903. Another time POTUS, moving in on a setup overhead, cried out at Fitzwater, "Marlin! Surrender or throw down your arms!" Then he crushed the ball inches from Fitzwater, who already had taken one nasty tumble scrambling after a presidential smash. My partner, facile at net, with wondrous hands, started to knock off backhand angle volleys that Stefan Edberg would envy. POTUS is so eager to rush in and volley, in fact, that probably his biggest weakness is getting caught in no-man's-land, where he is forced to swing up, resulting in weak lob volleys that his regular opponents gobble up as if they were vegetarians and Bush's offerings were delicious broccoli stalks.
Nonetheless, the President's shouts at Smith and Fitzwater of "Power outage!" after their weak shots, and at me of "Inundate them!" (before my first serve) and "They can't handle Hoyt Wilhelm!" (his name for my second delivery), spurred us on to a 5-4, 30-all lead on Fitzwater's serve. At that point, paradise. Simply put, off a first serve I took my sweet time and blasted the alltime best forehand return that any human being has ever blasted, if I do say so myself. "My man!" the President said. "The Hilton Head stylist!"
After this career shot screamed down Smith's alley, we had set point. It was my finest hour on any field of battle. Surely, now we would prevail, and I could walk off the court secure in the knowledge I had helped give my commander in chief at least a split.
Then, paradise lost. On the next point POTUS went for one of his patented lob returns—talk about power outage, who did the President think we were up against, Mike and Kitty Dukakis?—which Smith corralled and bounced halfway to Canada. "Was that a set point?" Smith asked slyly.
Only then did it dawn on me: Was it possible the President didn't even know it was set point? I didn't hear him respond to Smith. Rapidly we lost, oh, it must have been 10 points in a row. That's all. And the momentum changed. That's all. And somewhere in there I choked my fanny off, whiffing that vile overhead, which I will remember until the day I die.