My tennis obsession

Prospect Magazine

My tennis obsession

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I’ve finally made my peace with this maddening, all-consuming game

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 BALL! Then: Step into the shot! Hit the ball in front of you! Get your racket back! But these clamouring edicts are an impediment to obeying them; they so clutter my mind that I might as well have strewn a clatter of gardening tools on the court itself.

Why is having hit the ball correctly thousands of times before never any guarantee of hitting it properly this time? That is the central puzzle of tennis, a mystery on parade at Wimbledon as well as in public parks. Even professionals will abruptly futz a shot they’ve hit dazzlingly since they were five.

Part of the answer is that there is no “this shot.” Any impression of having hit a ball before is an illusion. “Baseline forehand” is a crude umbrella under which cluster a constellation of infinitely various circumstances. Geometrical elements make every shot distinctive: angle, velocity, spin, and bounce. More interestingly, emotional variables pertain. How confident do you feel today? Did you lose the last point? Did you lose the last ten points? Are you still a little pissed off that your partner showed up 15 minutes late? Are you focused, or merely telling yourself to focus? That is, are you dwelling fully in the moment, or did you just start debating lamb patties vs haddock for dinner?

For tennis tantalisingly offers perfect inhabitation of the present tense, what drummers call playing “in the pocket.” During brief, intoxicating periods of hitting at the top of your game, the mental cacophony quiets, and there’s no longer any space between “telling yourself” to do something and doing it. This flow state seems like not thinking. In fact, it is perfect thinking.

Alas, then there’s the rest of the time—for me, most of the time. The remainder of any given session comprises varying degrees of disappointment in myself, lending tennis a potentially volatile character. To my chagrin, for years I despoiled many a voluptuous summer afternoon with anything from sullen dyspepsia to full-blown rage. I could grow so disgusted with my ineptitude that I’d begin to lose points on purpose—as punishment for losing the one before.

Were tennis a solo pursuit, temper tantrums would constitute mere existential waste. But one of the charms and challenges of the sport is that it’s played with someone else. The bond with that ally-cum-adversary across the net is so particular that Abraham Verghese dedicated an excellent memoir to the relationship: The Tennis Partner.

The implicit romance of the tennis partnership is consummated in my sixth novel, Double Fault, in which two professional players wed. The woman, Willy, is so heartbroken when her initially less accomplished husband first beats her on the court—on their first anniversary, no less—and later beats her in the rankings that she destroys both loves in her life: her marriage, and tennis. Given my self-destructive emotional history on court, it’s pretty easy to infer where I got the idea for the book.

Yet the seminal tennis partner in my own life is not my husband. I’ve played for 35 years with a man I met in graduate school, S, who doubles as my best friend in America. We do other things together, but tennis, and our mutual passion for it, forms the core of our friendship. (Although S is a whore, and plays with lots of other people, of whom I am prone to grow jealous.) When S lost a whole season to a dropped metatarsal, I was so bereaved I might have been limping myself. In kind, S is keeping tabs on my hamstring. His concern is selfish. I take that as a compliment: he’s been looking forward to playing with me. Which is astonishing, considering how ill-behaved I often grew in the olden days. S put up with grumbling, curses, equally scalding periods of total silence, balls thrashed furiously at the fence, and even, when my self-hatred spilled over the net, glares of unqualified loathing.

Inexplicably, a few years ago my rages lifted. These days I am cheerful on court, appreciative of my partner’s aces, and almost forgiving of my shortcomings. After blowing a sitter, I’m less apt to cuss than laugh. The makeover is befuddling. Though as a fiction writer I capitalise on the conceit that people are capable of transformation, I don’t really believe we can be born again. In real life, I find character depressingly constant.

Nevertheless, at least on a tennis court, I have profoundly changed. Every afternoon the sky is clear, S is free, and we meet by the bike racks in Fort Greene Park I regard as a blessing. If I have a pernicious problem with my forehand follow-through, I will continue to work on it, and exult in the occasions on which my follow-through is smooth. Maybe it’s finally got through to me that my remaining summers are terrifyingly few. At 54, I no longer take mobility for granted. In future if it’s not my hamstring it will be my Achilles, bursitis, or some scrofulous cancer. I’m actively grateful to still be able to swing a racket, to run full tilt for a deep corner backhand and make it about half the time.

I don’t credit myself for this reform. I didn’t “work on” my temperament. A tranquil, airy demeanour simply descended on me like a gift. Perhaps, with that quality of redemption I first identified in my father as a child, the ebullient spirit of tennis itself has finally worked its magic. Look, it whispers in my ear over Fort Greene Park in a sweltering July. The sun is high, and hot on your shoulders. The leaves of the maples are rustling. The sock of the ball in the sweet spot resonates deep in your diaphragm. Your feet are light. On breaks, the cold tap water in your rinsed-out Campari bottle tastes better than champagne. Your partner is, in his way, a kind of beloved. When you are finished, deliciously tired, you will sit on your usual bench and talk about your day. This is life, this is good life, this is as good as life can be.

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  1. June 24, 2011

    veena singh

    Tennis is a wonderful game but it is very costly.My son is learning it and i can tell you that i am struggling to pay tution fees.

    • June 26, 2013

      Robin

      Veena — Make sure you check out the programs offered by your city or county rec! My mid-sized town has produced an abundance of nationally-ranked players, and almost all were trained at “the city” courts.

  2. June 25, 2013

    Mark

    Boy, I should have written this myself. I grew up watching Borg and Clerc and McEnroe and Dent (fastest serve on the planet) at Longwood, then played in college, and to this day consider the first outing of tennis season (after the long winter) sacred. I still use an old Prince (the Chang version), the perfect combination of touch and power, an extension of the arm itself. And a successful second serve, after netting the first, will always be my favorite stroke. As a matter of fact, the Sampras second serve is the greatest stroke in the history of the game, even though I was a huge Agassi fan.

  3. June 25, 2013

    Tommy

    But it is boring! All courts are the same. All balls are the same. The lines are the same. You cant measure your progress except against others. The “tennis parent” is insufferable. You cant make a pilgrimage to play at say Flushing Meadow and actually enjoy it. Give me golf any day.

    • June 25, 2013

      paul

      But we’re talking about exercise here, too, for which golf (or bowling or darts) doesn’t qualify.

    • June 26, 2013

      John R

      Like a sonnet: codified form within which much variation provides beauty. And I’ve played many times at Flushing Meadow, enjoying it.

  4. June 25, 2013

    JT

    Tommy, if there ever was a ruin of a good walk, it is golf.

  5. June 25, 2013

    peter cheevers

    Yes, tennis is very enjoyable. However isn’t all sport, including tennis, no more than
    bread and circuses. Even since the ancient Olympic Games hasn’t sport been engineered
    by those in power to keep the populace quiet? No, I am not a conspiracy theorist.

  6. June 25, 2013

    Mark Kennedy

    Obviously, tennis, like most games, can be played and enjoyed at many different levels of competence. Here’s a philosophical question for tennis enthusiasts, though. What if you were playing, or trying to, with someone who absolutely could not return the ball? Time after time he tries and fails to knock it over the net, never succeeding even once. At what point do you say, ‘Okay, this isn’t tennis. In order to play tennis you have to be able to return the ball at least a little bit–or even just once.’ Your opponent responds, ‘Of course I’m playing tennis… what else should I call it? I’m just doing to badly.’

    Who’s right? Is he playing tennis badly? Or is he still building up to it, not yet playing tennis at all?

  7. June 25, 2013

    Tim Carter

    Tennis is a boring fucking game. Like golf, but you’re moving more.

    It’s like the Pong of sports. A ball going back and forth. Big deal.

  8. June 26, 2013

    Adam

    I would just say golf is plenty physical although not good for your sanity. It also allows people who have played other sports to play a competitive game and keep fit and play with mates of all standards due to the unique handicap system. As Mark said you can only play tennis with someone of similar level.

  9. June 27, 2013

    swarnaw

    Tennis is a wonderful game. my sister got more awards by tennis,
    thanks for your post.

  10. June 27, 2013

    Jae Han

    I relate to this article..tennis is a great game.. too many aspects to list.. a pure game that keeps one mentally, physically challenging..a game for life.

  11. June 28, 2013

    Luke

    My failure at tennis is one of the most searing heartbreaks of my life. My mother was a very strong player and attempted to teach me, but every time we played, I would suffer another humiliation. Later, I fell madly in love with a Dominican tennis champion, who taught tennis to expatriates. There was nothing in this world that I cared more passionately about at this time than becoming a good player. I took lessons from him at least once a week, maybe twice, but I could NEVER learn! I’ve wondered for years what caused that; lack of coordination, perhaps, since I’d barely played sports as a child. Then I thought it had something to do with my eyes, with depth perception. Has anyone out there experienced something similar? Have you discovered what went wrong? They say that we can accomplish anything if we are passionate enough about it, if we try hard enough, yet there was NOTHING I wanted more than to learn to play tennis, yet I COULD NOT!

  12. June 29, 2013

    Peter Flato

    Unlike golf with its “unique handicap system” tennis is a sport, not a game.
    There are ratings that lead you to play with people of similar skill.
    It depends on what you want….Exercise and competition or a stroll along a heavily fertilized manicured lawn, hitting a little ball, at your leisure.
    The course is same every time except they do let women hit a shorter tee shot and they do move around the pins.
    The expense of golf is enough to keep me away from it.
    Then the real part of golf…The 19th hole! Having cocktails..More social than tennis I will admit.
    I don’t dismiss golf but you can not compare the two.

  13. June 30, 2013

    Fred

    I am 73 and have played tor about 45 years. Tennis is clearly, unquestionably the finest and best fun, aerobic, sociable exercise widely available at a low cost to most of the world. Here in America it has begun to decline, leaving courts once full empty even on prime time saturday mornings. TV’s and monitors are to blame, I suppose.
    So, wherever you are I urge you to begin now and keep playing into old age, it will keep you from aging prematurely.
    Remember, watch the ball even as your racket head approaches to hit it and don’t hit it out, and always always give the benefit ot the doubt to the opposition.

    • October 22, 2013

      Petros

      Fred .. you are wise beyond your years….is it all due to tennis?

  14. December 11, 2013

    Bob Litwin

    I too was a frustrated player. I played in high school but not in college. I started to play some tournaments at 32. I couldn’t win much. Then I started to make progress winning matches in my section. But the losses were painful and the wins were empty because I never played to the level of my dreams. Then, one day, I wrote a story. A story of who I wanted to be on the court as a competitor. It wasn’t a story about forehands and backhands, of footwork, of strategy. It was about a person that I aspired to become.
    Here is the story:

    To be an extraordinary competitor who plays, in competition, at the high end of my skill and talent. To love the competition more than I love to win and to accept whatever the outcome with dignity and class. To compete in the moment, avoiding past and future tripping. To compete for each point. To compete with effortless effort. To be non judgmental of myself. To enjoy myself. To be enthusiastic. To be forgiving of myself for my inability to achieve perfection. To see the perceived pressure moments as the sweetest moments. To have every match be an experience where I grow as a player and a person.

    And then, after reading the story over and over again. After sharing it with anyone who would listen, I started to change. I focused on those parts of the story over which I had control. And I started to win. A lot. And big. I won a USTA National Championship. And then another. And years later I won the World Championships and became #1 in the World in the 55 and over.

    So try to stop telling yourself the stories of can’t and don’t and never will. Write a story of can and will do. Make it a great inspirational story. You may find that the game of your dreams is already within you and is just waiting for you to arrive.

    http://www.livethebeststoryofyourlife.com

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