My tennis obsession

I’ve finally made my peace with this maddening, all-consuming game
May 25, 2011

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.