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September 19, 2015 04:39 PM

Toby Smith finds out if he is any better than an 86-year-old

Humiliation is good for the soul.

Whoever said those words did not know the first thing about failing miserably in public.   

Last summer, you may recall, I challenged a 9-year-old boy, who stood just inches above the net, to a singles match. That boy, Albuquerque’s Jack Hubbard, had recently won the singles and doubles at a regional tournament. Piece of cake, I thought, and I even agreed to play him by the USTA’s 10-and-under rules. That meant using short rackets, orange balls and an abbreviated court.

Young Hubbard didn’t simply take me to the cleaners.  He gave me a power wash.

That yellow junk on my face? That’s the egg I have worn ever since.

Jackie1Having learned a hard lesson from that encounter, you might wonder why this summer I put the same challenge to a woman who is well into the eighth decade of life. Like watching “The Bachelorette” or eating turnips, there are some things on this planet that simply cannot be explained.  

This past July, Jacqueline “Jackie” Tommelein, all 100 pounds of her, participated in the National Senior Games in Minneapolis. There she captured two gold medals in the 85-to-89 division, one in women’s singles and one in mixed doubles.

Though amicable, Jackie is not a chatty woman and at times can display a European bluntness. For instance, I asked her when she was going to be 87.

“Next year,” she said.

gold_medals_(2)During an interview at her home, Jackie showed me her two golds. They are bigger than coasters and weigh about two pounds each.  The medals are not meant to be worn around the house. Somehow, I convinced Jackie to hang them around her neck and even step outside.

Modest fellow that I am, I did not tell Jackie that I too had won a gold medal. This occurred in 1991 at a cow chip tossing contest held in Las Vegas, N.M.  OK, it wasn’t exactly a gold medal; it was a brass strip affixed to a square of plywood. Upon this square was glued an actual pasture pastry of good size and heft, spray-painted gold. Some years later the mounted cow chip fell off the piece of wood. To my wife’s immense joy, I threw both items in the trash. I kept the brass strip, however. You never know when you might need to show off something lCowchip_winner_(2)ike this.

Though 18 years in age separates Jackie and me, I discovered from my interview with her that she and I had many things in common, besides striking gold. Here are a few:  

Jackie is a native of Belgium. I once ate a Belgian waffle

Jackie was born the year the stock market crashed. A year ago I was in a car crash.

Jackie speaks five languages. I speak three: English, Baby Talk and Pig Latin.

Jackie lived and worked in New York City in the 1970s, as did I. For some strange reason we never met.  

I told Jackie that I’d like to play tennis with her. I refrained from telling her this would be a serious match.  Jackie shrugged, which she does a fair amount.

We agreed to play early in the morning, at the Albuquerque Academy. There would be no one on the courts then, Jackie said, and it was near her house. The night before the match, I asked my wife if she wanted to come along and watch. She declined and mumbled something about going to a sale at Family Dollar.

Jackie usually plays women’s doubles on Tuesday mornings at the Academy and at Highpoint several other days of the week. She is a 3.5, she said.  As we warmed up, I clearly felt like a 1.5. I had not played a game or even rallied since the previous summer.  That said, I was banking on my game to rise from the ashes. Itway adhay etterbay.

At the National Senior Games, Jackie had played only three singles matches and three mixed doubles matches. There simply were not enough tennis competitors in her age group. All her matches were eight-game pro sets.  

Were any of those matches close? I asked.

Jackie shook her head. They were about as close as Albuquerque is to Minneapolis. In other words, not close at all. By the way, the distance between those two cities is roughly 1,200 miles. Jackie drove there and back in her Volkswagen Golf.   

To sum up:  Jackie spent five days at the National Senior Games. She played approximately two hours of tennis in all. She wanted to visit the Great Lakes. Thus, on the return to Albuquerque she made a side jaunt to gaze upon Lake Superior. She put approximately 3,500 miles on her VW.

Was all that worth two gold medals? I asked.

Jackie shrugged.

By the time I reached the Academy courts, the temperature had hit the mid-80s and was inching northward. Before we started, I tried a bit of psychology. I told Jackie that I’d had a nasty big toenail removed a few weeks before, which was indeed true.  

Jackie wasn’t impressed. In fact, she replied with what may or may not have been her own bit of gamesmanship. “I hurt my back.”

What happened? I asked  

Seems she was pulling weeds from her backyard.  When she had filled her garbage can full of weeds, she tried to pick it up. Whoops.  

In keeping with the National Senior Games, we decided to play one pro set, or rather I decided.   

Right away I could see that Jackie was quite good at keeping the ball in the court.  She was equally proficient at putting the ball where I wasn’t, especially with her one-handed backhand. She didn’t hit the ball hard, because she didn’t need to.

Jackie won a game and then I won a game. This continued for a while. My shots went in by luck. Again and again her shots caught the lines. No luck involved there. Inexplicably, I managed to get to six-all. That’s when Jackie’s Tuesday morning doubles players arrived.

I was breathing hard at that point. My face dripped like a sprinkler and my damp shirt clung. “Why don’t we stop here,” I suggested.  “Your friends will want you to join them.”

Jackie, fresh as the morning dew, shrugged once more. She could easily have played 20 or 30 more games, I sensed.  A tie seemed to me far better than I had any reason to hope.

That night, I received this brief email from Jackie: “Thanks for the tennis – a good workout.”

Her much-too-kind words glowed on my screen. Just like a gold medal.

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