I’ve finally made my peace with this maddening, all-consuming gameby Lionel Shriver / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
From running all winter, I have a hamstring injury. Recent efforts to rehabilitate the muscles have been laced with hysteria. Trying to keep my thigh warm, I wear three pairs of cycling shorts under my jeans all day, and I wear all three pairs to bed. This hysteria has nothing to do with yearning to return to my regular running course along the Thames, mind. No, I have a deadline: 15th June, when I fly to New York for virtually the exclusive purpose of PLAYING TENNIS.
The sport may not quite constitute my reason for living, but it comes close. My father taught me to play. He was a restless, ambitious man who squandered little time on family outings. The exception was tennis. About once a week in summer we’d decamp to nearby courts, where my father’s type-A personality eased to the far end of the alphabet. No longer tense, irritable, distracted, he became patient, graceful and relaxed—almost languid. So from the start I associated tennis with redemption. Within that charmed rectangle lay an alternative universe where the cares and anxieties beyond its perimeter vanished.
In its rudiments, tennis is sublimely simple, and the uninitiated might reasonably be baffled by what is so compelling about repeatedly batting a pressurised sphere across a divide. Yet manipulating a tennis ball is nefariously subtle and addictively difficult. On a summer’s first day of play, I never know if the deadly flick of my wrist on the forehand’s follow-through will plague me for half an hour or the whole season.
As a physical experience, tennis is uniquely satisfying. I’d never slander scrambling for a dastardly drop shot with the onerous label “exercise,” though finishing two hours of rallying wilted from exhaustion is part of the satisfaction. It’s fabulous to be able to thwack anything that hard, over and over, and not get arrested. The twang of the ball on the strings delivers the same percussive gratification of plopping a stone into a pool, popping a fresh pea pod, or snapping together the components of a new computer printer without breaking their plastic tabs.
The game may be as mental as it is physical, but playing it well entails making the brain shut up. At my worst, my head is crowded with imperatives—first and foremost, though you’d think this would go without saying, WATCH THE…