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Sister of No Mercy

Elina Frumerman

Growing up, I was humiliated by a nun. Normally, this would not distinguish me from hordes of other kids with bitter memories of sometimes harsh, habit-wearing women. But my comeuppance didn't take place at church or in parochial school. It occurred on an indoor tennis court. The perpetrator: Sister Andrea Jaeger. 

In 1977, my family moved back to Chicago following two years in Washington, where my father served in the Ford administration. I was a mildly promising 13-year-old junior player, and since few good players congregated in the city, my mother drove me out to a club in the northern suburbs one afternoon to set me up in a program where the competition was stronger. 

I didn't know it beforehand, but I soon realized I was facing a tryout, and the person on the opposite side of the net was a girl. She was no stranger. I had heard of the phenom with braces - who hadn't? Before she was a teenager, Andrea Jaeger was already beating the best juniors in the nation. By 14, she would be a full-fledged professional. She would skyrocket up the rankings to hit No.2 in the world by the time she was 16. 

Born three weeks apart, Andrea and I were peers. But inside the dimensions of a tennis court, I was not her equal. Though the original Wilson Ultra graphite she used was just a bit larger than today's squash racquets, the ball came off it with stunning power and precision. She hit with metronomic accuracy, painting lines and leaving me flat-footed or desperate to hit winners. Overpowering her wasn't an option. A late bloomer, I probably wasn't much bigger or stronger than she was. It ended quickly. The cocksure little girl clinically dismantled me 6-0, 6-1. 

This is where the story gets more complicated. At some point in the second set, Jaeger accused me of cheating. I don't recall the exact moment or the shot in question, but I vividly remember a brief argument at the net. I don't remember whose point of view prevailed. Play resumed. I continued· to get crushed. Did I make a mistake? Did my eyes deceive me, or did I wish a ball that caught the line to be out and call it so in a pique of embarrassment? Did it matter? 

I felt humiliated as we left the court. To add to my disgrace, Jaeger's notoriously hard-nosed father, Roland, barked to his daughter, "How could you let that kid get a game?" I hung my head in shame and figured I'd be relegated to lesser competition back in the city. 

In the grand scheme of childhood experiences, I can't say my run-in with Jaeger was particularly formative one way or another. She went on to enjoy a celebrated, albeit brief, pro career, reaching two Grand Slam finals before succumbing to chronic shoulder injuries at age 19. Since 1990, she has dedicated her life to helping seriously ill and at-risk children through her charitable organization, the Little Star Foundation. Last year, to much fanfare, she became an Anglican Dominican nun - Sister Andrea. 

My personal trajectory has been less public. In tennis, I improved enough to become a nationally ranked junior and Division I college player. After I graduated, I taught English and worked in Asia, spent two years in the shipping industry, and finally settled into my career as a journalist. About five years ago, I started covering tennis. 

It's not often that one gets to revisit a memorable childhood incident three decades later, but Jaeger and I crossed paths again when I was assigned to do a story on her for a national newspaper. As I prepared for our interview, I noted the irony that my own life that day had more ties to tennis than did hers. Jaeger seems to have maintained few friends from her competitive days and rarely plays the game anymore due to her injuries and hectic schedule. By contrast, I spend several weeks of the year at big tournaments, and I played competitively into my late 30s. 

I also knew I was not the only one with sour recollections of the young Jaeger. As her career briefly flared, she became known for arguing with linespeople and could be sulky on court. By most accounts, she was a moody child caught in a cutthroat adult world. In later years, she openly discussed the discomfort she felt as a youth, both as a junior and as a teenager trying to adjust to life on the tour. Had she changed, I wondered? Had I? 

I doubted she would remember our little confrontation after so many years and so many other controversies. Professionally, though, I was curious to know how someone who had undergone such a transformation would react upon being told this story. She had been crushing me in that match: How could she not find it in her heart to let go of one possibly close, or even incorrect, line call? 

When our formal interview was winding down, I said to Sister Andrea: "I'm sure you have no recollection of this whatsoever, but we've met before. It was back in the Chicago suburbs, when we were both 13 or so ... " I went on to explain in some detail the circumstances of the match, how she had drubbed me, and her accusation that I had cheated. I even recounted her father's comment from after the match. As I spoke, ]aeger's body stiffened. 

To be fair, my distant memory had blindsided her. It's hard to be confronted suddenly with an event you don't remember, especially if it's a somewhat embarrassing or compromising one. Jaeger laughed nervously, not quite sure what to do with the information I had relayed, and finally said, "It probably happened." 

Determined as ever, she challenged me. "Did you cheat?" she asked. I told her that I wasn't a cheater, but that in light of the situation, I could imagine wishing a ball out pretty badly. She countered by explaining that when she played against overmatched opponents, her dad had instructed her to try to win every point. She said her father also instilled in her the mandate that cheaters need to be confronted for their own good, since it leads down a slippery slope of sins. "If you cheat, you lie, and you steal," she said, "that's the same thing. I believe that lesson. If you see someone cheating, lying, and stealing, you go up and tell them."

Jaeger told me that she had taken that attitude to the pro tour, which is probably why she so often became entangled with linespeople. "I went into professional tennis and if I thought I was being cheated I would go over and say, 'Excuse me, that's not right, that ball was in or out.' If they said no, that was cheating. You can't do that. That's not cool." 

She relayed a story about a boy who had tripped her during wind sprints, denied it, and then admitted he'd done it when they met on a book tour she was doing years later. She said many other kids had tried to bend the rules against her and had come clean in ensuing years. 

The upshot: "I would do the same thing {today}," she said, reiterating her conviction about the nature of cheating. "It's an injustice, and that doesn't go well with me at all." 

The awkwardness of the situation grew as we talked. I agreed that real or perceived cheating shouldn't be tolerated. Yet I was also finding out that there was more than moral conviction in the way Sister Andrea didn't back down from her position. Her opinion was that, even if it were not exactly cheating, I had been wrong. It was odd and a little disconcerting to me that she didn't seem to entertain the thought that she was the one who might have been wrong. 

Granted, we would never establish the accuracy of the call, but she was no more infallible than I. The larger question was whether, back then, she should have just let it go, trusting that I had been right. Or, knowing that she was waxing me anyway, conceded the point. Thirty years later, the attitude drilled into Jaeger as a child remained right there, close to the surface of the adult. What had she learned in all those years about uncertainty, weakness, or even the simple fact that things aren't always as they appear? Is it possible that, as an adult who was aware of the downside of being a prodigy, the demands of her perfectionist father had put her under so much pressure that perhaps she could see an out ball being in? Hasn't Hawk-Eye taught us a thing or two about even a champion's hawkish eyes - and certitude? 

Jaeger said that her father had created a harsh environment based on his zero-tolerance approach to cheating and morality. It helped make Jaeger a champion, but also someone who was quick to judge and wedded to her convictions. Of her upbringing, she said: "If I cheated, if I lied, if I stole, I got it, big time." 

Jaeger was probably embarrassed by the memories I had rekindled, even if she remained unflinching. A few days later, in a follow-up phone conversation, she brought up our match. "We should go out and have our tennis outing again," she said. "Hopefully, there would be kinder words exchanged."