Sunday, April 15, 2007


I Take a Dive for No Man (or His Wife)

There are many milestones in any athlete’s career, even if he is only an amateur playing a sport the general public associates with frail bookworms in white pants that show too much of the thigh.

In the approximately 18 years that I have played tennis, my watershed moments include the first tournament I won, the last match I played for my high school team, and the time I overcame a leg cramp to win a match. There was also my first on-court injury, which took place when I was 10 years old, and a certain parent of the opposite gender (whose name I will protect from the general public) hit me in the face with a Wilson™, leaving me with fuzz in my right eye for three days.

But this last week was probably the first time I’ve ever prevailed in a doubles match despite having a partner that didn’t want to win.

Near my place of employment at the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Seoul are a pair of courts, where the staff of our institute and the Adventist hospital, a sister institution, go to play on most nights and mornings. I’m free on Wednesday nights, so I went out by myself and waited to see who would arrive.

I was first joined by a man of limited English who identified himself as an employee of the hospital. Though about 20 years older than me and eight inches shorter, he practiced with me for about 30 minutes, even taking a turn attempting to return my hardest serves, which he mostly did with success.

Soon, we were joined by a middle-aged woman. I practiced against them both for a time, until we were joined by another man, who happened to be Pastor Kim, director of the SDA Language Institute system, and husband of the very same middle-aged woman.

He offered to play a match with us, the teams being myself and the hospital employee versus my boss and his wife. This was hardly the most intimidating team I’d ever faced, as both are in their 40s, armed with serves similar in speed to that of an elderly Floridian driving in a supermarket parking lot.

However, a strange effect had come over my partner. Whereas he’d been able to return nearly all of my shots with no trouble in practice, during match play he suddenly couldn’t put a ball onto the court. He would stroll to the ball as though walking to salad bar, and then calmly and with great purpose, drive the ball into the net over and over again.

We were behind 4-1 before it finally started to dawn on me: I think he’s afraid to beat Pastor Kim. His influence may extend into the hospital…

Over the next couple days I sought to confirm my opinion among those in the know. “Yes,” my girlfriend told me the next day, “sometimes people in Korea like to make their bosses feel good and so they let them win.”

“Pastor Kim likes to win,” one of my colleagues in the textbook development office said. “Many times the other players let him.”

This phenomenon is hardly limited to Korea. In September there was an article in the New York Times which described the way former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played squash while in office. He would invite his government underlings to play in the Pentagon basement, where he would not, as is the customary squash etiquette, get out of the way after his opponent’s shot, and thus block their path to the ball.

His lackeys would be under rights to call a do-over on that point, but apparently they didn’t. After all, Rumsfeld considered the sport to be his way of relieving himself of all the stress that comes with leading the world’s greatest military power into an unending military debacle, and any employee who questioned him on the squash court is likely to have lost his chance to ride on Air Force One.

What I’ve wondered since reading this piece is why anyone who had proved themselves able enough to get a job at the Pentagon would be willing to regularly take a dive just so that America’s worst post-Vietnam Secretary of Defense could feel better about himself.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know what it takes to make a tennis partner intent on losing to change his ways: you should be eight inches taller than that person and 20 years younger. After missing his umpteenth easy shot, I finally showed him a facial expression which suggested that, whatever the consequences of winning this match, he should try to do so lest a very large and unhappy foreigner follow him home afterward.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and there was sudden upswing in his performance. We eventually won, and all shook hands at the net afterward.

“Very good match,” Pastor Kim said to me.

“Come again next week,” his wife said to me.

“I’m sorry,” my partner said to me.

I told him it was okay. I just have to wonder what job is worth having if you have to lower yourself in order to make powerful people feel good. After all, if they have to beat their underlings in order to make themselves feel better about their jobs, they should pick jobs they’re better at.

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