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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg


For almost 40 years we have been putting smiley faces on

rackets.  Let me correct myself.  Steve has been putting smiley faces on rackets.  When he took control of the ink stencil pen, no one could wrest the thing out of his hands.  When he had to miss a day due to illness or another commitment, he would hand the ink stencil to me as if he were handing over Excalibur or the Olympic torch.  He would say, “Do you know how to do this?”  And, though I had done this many times before, every, single time he would give me “The Lesson”.  “The eyes go in the center of the racket because in a human head the eyes are in the exact center.  The smile must go from eye to eye.  The eyebrows – that final TLC touch – must express whimsy.”  I would say, “I’ve got it, Steve.”  But if I didn’t say it with enough conviction, he would hold back until he was convinced.  Then he would reluctantly pass the torch and make me practice in front of him on a blank racket.  When he was satisfied, he would walk away, looking over his shoulder as if he were still not sure I was up to it.

Because of this, I took my duties seriously.  Seriously.

When he first started putting smiley faces on rackets my honest thought was, “Are you kidding me?  I’m not putting that on my racket for the world to see.  It’s goofy.  People might make fun of me.”  It took me years to go from, “No, thanks” to “Huh, I think I like this” to “Well, let me show you my smiley faced racket!”  Now I play with it wherever I go:  USTA matches, Sunday doubles workouts, hitting with friends.  And people sometimes give me strange looks.  Which just makes me smile.  Because I don’t care what they think.  Not in a bad way, in a good way.  Like dying my hair purple because I want to.  (Alright, I’ve never dyed my hair purple – I don’t have enough left on top to dye now, anyway).  I do it because I believe in our philosophy that tennis should always be fun and that it is always my choice to implement the Three Crowns of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship.  Not that I always succeed at this, but that it is a conscious choice to work at it.  Looking at the smiley face reminds me of both.

I realize it’s not for everyone.

But three encounters last camp said a lot about letting people decide.  The first night, Barb (who has taken over the esteemed role magnificently since Steve passed) was putting smiley faces on the rackets.  One camper came over to me and held the smiley up.  He said, “I refused last year, but got one right away this time.”  (He is also the person who said to me at the end of camp, “Sometimes you seeing the good in things really ticks me off”, so there’s that.  One thing at a time…).

Then, a camper who had decided not to go with a smiley on her racket all camp, approached me and said, “I’m ready.  Give me the smiley!”  (She was about 10 years quicker on this than I was).  I walked to another court and she tracked me down, held out another racket, and said, “Hey, you didn’t do my spare!”

And, speaking of smiley faces, “Jennifer”, who has a wonderful, skeptical, dry sense of humor pulled me aside and said “I don’t smile.”  I said, “I noticed.”  And gave her a wry look back.  Then I said, “But I see the humor in you, you just show it differently.”  She then allowed me to refresh her smiley face on the racket, and at the final program, as the staff was singing their goodbye song to the campers, I looked over at “Jennifer” and she was smiling from ear to ear.  Or is that eye to eye?  And she had her arm around her buddy.  Oh, my.

It is in our unguarded moments that smiles sneak up on us (or smiley faced rackets), capture us, and then leave us in a burst of light to share with the world.  That burst of light has an energy unlike any other.  A forced smile has a pain and resistance.  And rightfully so.  No one wants to be coerced.  So how do we get to genuine smiles?  One word.  Trust.  If I am with people I instinctively trust, I show myself.  If I am in a place of safety, I show myself.  If I know that no one will make fun of my teeth or my crooked grin or my dimple, I show myself.  And my smile.

At TLC, for better or for worse, we try to show ourselves.  I hope it is out of trust – and fun – that others join in the party.  Here’s hoping your day has at least one smile (or one smiley faced racket).


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