Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul tries to conquer his fear of a LeRoy Neiman tennis print from his childhood.

Everything about January in New York City seems hard to me.  Especially tennis.  Not only is it wildly expensive to reserve an indoor court, but it’s even harder to figure out how to watch the Australian Open on television.  Is it already tomorrow Down Under?  Are they even playing live?  Do I stay up late to watch Serena or do I have to get up early?  Should I just DVR it and watch later when I already know the outcome?

Others might ignore all the complications and wait for winter to pass before hauling out the racquets.  But not me.  I’ve got a constant reminder hanging in my hallway, nagging me to find a court and work on my serve.  After my father’s death last year, I became the owner of his two garishly yellow and green LeRoy Neiman signed lithographs of tennis players en flagrante.  Those pictures have haunted me since my childhood.

Dancing under the watchful eye of LeRoy Neiman

As I danced around our ‘70s mod den when I was a kid, the prints stared down at me from the wood paneled walls, reinforcing my own awkwardness with the sport.  I would never be able to toss the ball as high as the man in mustard yellow who was perpetually serving on the left, or successfully rush the net like the little men squaring off on the right.

“Eyes on the ball, Paul!  Toss it higher!” my father shouted.

He would conduct drills with hundreds of balls on the court owned by neighbors down the street.  Embarrassed by the semi-public humiliation, I begged my father to build our own tennis court in our backyard.  I was sure that if I had a private court like Tracy Austin, my game would improve.  But nothing seemed to help.

My love-hate relationship with tennis continued through my life.  At one point, a decade went by when I never picked up a racquet.  When I finally got up the courage to try again in New York City, I constantly battled voices in my head telling me I would never be a good player.  That I would never serve like LeRoy’s jock.

So when I became the owner of those prints, I was more than a little nervous.  After transporting the lithographs to the Big Apple, I immediately took them to my neighborhood Turkish framer.  I was hoping he might be able to make them a little more accessible.

“Asking me to tone down the color in these prints is like asking me to work a miracle.  Costs extra!” he laughed.

The newly improved lithograph--a little less jarring

A couple of weeks later, I unveiled the reframed prints to Chef with some trepidation.

“I don’t know.  They bring back bad memories.  Maybe I should just sell them and pay off my student loans,” I said.

“You’re being very dramatic.  They’re just pictures.  And they look kind of retro,” Chef replied.

Maybe he was right.  It was time for me to stop letting that artwork have a detrimental hold over me.  So I hung one of them prominently in the hallway where I couldn’t possibly miss it before I head out to hit the courts.

This weekend, I played at a doubles party hosted by MTG, New York’s gay tennis group.  Things weren’t going well for me in my first service game—I was down Love-40 and getting tenser by the moment.  The voice of my father swirling in my head.  And then something clicked.  As I got ready for the next serve, I pictured the guy in the painting and rather than let it derail me, I let it propel me—and my ball.  It may not have soared as high as his, but it was a start.  I won the point and suddenly I was back in the game.  The next thing I knew, we were level at Deuce.

After about 11 attempts to close it out, I finally faltered.  But rather than beat myself up, I just laughed and shrugged it off.  I was once again having fun, loving tennis.  And for a guy in his 40s, that makes the score 40-Love.

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