It’s 6:30 a.m. The landscapers won’t arrive at The Lake Club Tennis Center for another hour. But I’m late, and it’s obvious. The six clay courts are already starting to look like frosting on a wedding cake. Josh Herb, the tennis maintenance assistant, has been here under the lights for who-knows-how-long, primping and grooming and sweating, despite the fact it’s cool.

“Early morning is the best time of day,” Josh says with an ever-present towel over his shoulder.

You think the courts just look this way, naturally? Nope. By the time the first players show up, Josh will have already used the Gator Rake (the tennis-court version of a Zamboni), inspected the underground hydration system, and swept the lines with the precision of an eyebrow pencil.

“The courts need to look new,” he says, handing me a line sweeper without saying what he’s thinking: Do not leave a granule of clay out of place. Josh doesn’t pause to appreciate his work. Not yet. He pulls stray tennis balls out of the bushes and blows the hard courts free of pine straw and dust. He empties trash by hand, as in, literally taking each piece of garbage out with his fingers to preserve plastic bags.

“Tennis is a clean game,” he says.

In fact, the first players to the courts will see what they always see: Perfection.

“I take pride in the aesthetics,” Josh says,“and this keeps me around sports.” He played rugby at Old Dominion and did five years of mission work in Hungary and South Africa, developing relationships around sports. Speaking of relationships …

Two players arrive. As if on cue, the first rays of sunlight squeeze between the trees and partially illuminate the courts. “This is when the satisfaction hits,” Josh says, watching from an inconspicuous overlook and wiping his brow.

This? Satisfying? I see … footprints.

Josh towels off his face and disappears into the shadows. He’ll be back.

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