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My father wants the dragon to tower over me not simply to command my attention and respect. He wants balls that shoot from the dragon's mouth to land at my feet as if dropped from an airplane. The trajectory makes the balls nearly impossible to return in a conventional way: I need to hit every ball on the rise, or else it will bounce over my head. But even that's not enough for my father. Hit earlier, he yells. Hit earlier.
My father yells everything twice, sometimes three times, sometimes 10. Harder, he says, harder. But what's the use? No matter how hard I hit a ball, no matter how early, another ball comes back. Every ball I send across the net joins the thousands that already cover the court. Not hundreds. Thousands. They roll toward me in perpetual waves. I have no room to turn, to step, to pivot. I can't move without stepping on a ball—yet I can't step on a ball, because my father won't bear it. Step on one of my father's tennis balls and he'll howl as if you stepped on his eyeball.
Every third ball fired by the dragon hits a ball already on the ground, causing a crazy sideways hop. I adjust at the last second, catch the ball early, and hit it smartly across the net. I know this is no ordinary reflex. I know there are few children in the world who could have seen that ball, let alone hit it. But I take no pride in my reflexes, and I get no credit. It's what I'm supposed to do. Every hit is expected, every miss a crisis.
My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I'll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I'll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don't lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.
Hit earlier, my father yells. Damn it, Andre, hit earlier. Crowd the ball, crowd the ball.
Now he's crowding me. He's yelling in my ear. It's not enough to hit what the dragon fires at me; my father wants me to hit it harder and faster than the dragon. He wants me to beat the dragon. The thought makes me panicky. How can you beat something that never stops? Come to think of it, the dragon is a lot like my father. Except my father is worse. At least the dragon stands before me, where I can see it. My father stays behind me. I rarely see him, only hear him, day and night, yelling in my ear.
More topspin! Hit harder. Hit harder. Not in the net! Damn it, Andre! Never in the net!
Nothing sends my father into a rage like hitting a ball into the net. Over and over my father says: The net is your biggest enemy.
My father has raised the enemy six inches higher than regulation. If I can clear my father's high net, he figures, I'll have no trouble clearing the net one day at Wimbledon. Never mind that I don't want to play Wimbledon. What I want isn't relevant.
Hit harder, my father yells. Hit harder. Now backhands. Backhands. My arm feels like it's going to fall off. On one swing I surprise myself by how hard I hit, how cleanly. Though I hate tennis, I like the feeling of hitting a ball dead perfect. When I do something perfect, I enjoy a split second of sanity and calm.