By Christopher Lancette
WASHINGTON – Cold chills shot up my spine the moment I spotted her on the court today at the Citi Open. I hadn’t noticed her name when the tournament announced the women’s draw but there she was standing right in front of me on court two: Lindsay Lee-Waters.
|Lindsay Lee-Waters – Photo by Romana Cvitkovic|
I was a brash young man of 27 during the summer of 1996 when I first met her. I was covering her Atlanta Thunder of the World Team Tennis league. Her last name was just Lee then. She was about 19. She had long blond hair that she tied up neatly in a large daisy on the day that I opened my mouth. I fancied myself quite the street hustler on the tennis court. I wasn’t ATP material but I certainly thought I was good enough to hold my own against a young female pro ranked around No. 100 in singles at the time – especially a fellow Southerner who probably weighed all of 120 pounds in the rain.
All my guy friends who played tennis always talked about how superior they thought they were to women on the WTA tour … that they could be even beat a pro woman despite the fact they were just weekend warriors like myself. I bought into the hyperbole and challenged Lee to a set.
Thunder coach Brian Devilliers and the Jensen brothers told me I was going to get humiliated, that I should just stay in press row where I belonged. I told them I was not scared, that I could do it.
My date with destiny arrived. Lee looked me with a great sense of kindness when she asked me if I really wanted to go through with the challenge. I think I was actually offended. Now I had to show her that good recreational male players were at least as good if not better than the 100th- ranked female pro.
I was so confident I would do well against her that I had invited some of my tennis pals to watch. This was my second mistake of the day but there was no turning back.
The svelte right-hander and I stepped on to the court. She served first and I felt a quick surge of confidence when I realized I was engaging her in good rallies. I would become the last person in the building, however, to realize what she was doing.
Lee batted the ball around with me and put her shots just within my reach to make me feel like I was accomplishing something. When she grew bored, she smacked a winner to end a point. It dawned on me that I was working mighty hard yet not producing no return on my investment. I hit what I thought were crushing forehands only to watch her track them down, put them back on me, regain her position on the court and make me pay.
The worst moment was still to come.
We started a rally. I was in center court and really fired up to seize the day. I was if nothing else going to hit a winner and earn one stinking point before giving up.
Lee hit a forehand that took me precisely three feet right of midcourt, then a backhand that took me precisely three feet to the left of it. She added more heat to each shot, dragging me exactly six feet to the right of center court and six feet to the left. I was mighty fast then but felt my heart pounding. She narrowed her line of fire and began running me one and half feet past where I had just come from.
The fatal moment unfolded in slow motion. I scrambled toward the right sideline to hit another forehand and looked up as I shifted my weight and began heaving myself back toward the other baseline. She was grinning widely and staring me straight between the eyes. Everyone, including me at last, knew what she was about to do.
Lee hit the ball as gently as if she were caressing a baby. I think the ball took ten minutes to go from her racket toward the gaping hole on the left baseline but there was not a thing I could do about it. I was spent. I shook my head as I heard my friends erupt in laughter.
My white t-shirt would have to do for a flag: I surrendered.
My friend George was the first to greet me as I came off the court. “Dude,” he said. “You just got beaten by a girl with a daisy in her hair!”
Sixteen years have passed since that drubbing. Lee went on to marry Heath Waters, become a mother of two and continue traveling the world playing tennis for a living. At age 35, she is still good enough to hover around No. 100 in doubles. A couple of breaks here and there and her ranking would be higher.
As she played today, I wondered if Lee-Waters remembered the day she faced me in Atlanta. After all, it was a huge day in my life – a defining and humbling moment.
|Lindsay Lee-Waters (Left) and Christopher Lancette – Photo by Won-ok Kim.|
“No,” she said, sweetly. “I don’t. I remember wearing the daisy back then, though.”
I recounted the story for her but triggered no memory. I had given her my very best but didn’t even earn a blip on her radar.
I told her how humble that day made me and how much respect it gave me for the women’s game. I asked her if she has provided other foolish men the same education she gave me. Is playing well against women pros as easy as guys watching TV might think?
“No,” she said. “If it were that easy, there would be more people on tour. Sometimes we make it look easy.”
I pressed her a little further. Ever the gracious Southern belle, she didn’t want to rub salt in my old wounds. Eventually, though, she shared that other men have met a similar fate. She is sometimes thrown in as a substitute in Atlanta’s most popular recreational tennis league (ALTA). “I didn’t know pros could play ALTA but my coach throws me in there. I play mixed doubles and guys … yeah; they don’t quite get it until they step on the court.”
Lee-Waters came up short in her doubles match today but she still flashed all the skills that kept me awake at night long after she thrashed me on the court in Atlanta. She smashed serves wherever she wanted them to go, ripped forehands up the line and feared nothing at the net.
She said her tennis career isn’t over. She aspires to accomplish more in doubles. She and partner Megan Moulton-Levy “are looking for that breakthrough. We’ve had a lot of close matches against the top teams.”
It would be bad form for a reporter to openly applaud for her when she does make her next surge up the rankings. Inside, though, I’ll be cheering. Lindsay Lee-Waters taught me a lesson I’ll never forget: My fellow rec league buddies need to stop puffing our chests. We can’t beat a Williams. We can’t beat Sharapova. We can’t even beat a woman adorned wih daisies.
Follow writer Christopher Lancette on Twitter @chrislancette.