Tennis, Anyone?

Obsession and regression



Phillip Lopate’s last “Full Disclosure” column appeared on May 26. For the next several weeks, we will republish our favorites from this year.

Everyone should have an activity or hobby they’re not very good at. Mine is tennis. It is quite educational, especially for someone like me with a superiority complex, to struggle for decades trying to acquire a skill without ever rising above mediocrity. I used to tell myself that I had simply started late, in my 20s, having had no tennis courts around me as a boy growing up in ghetto Brooklyn. According to this excuse, what counts are the thousands of balls you hit mindlessly before you go to college, which get converted into “muscle memory.” But surely, having played at this point for decades, I should have compensated for that early deprivation by now and acquired that blessed muscle memory. No, what I lack is talent. Also, the sort of physical intelligence that athletes have, that allows them to dart for the ball as soon as it leaves the racquet or bat. Instead I wait for it to land some distance away and then lamely run after it. Often I tell myself that it’s too far away, I’ll never reach it. Though I’m fairly consistent at returning the ball, and don’t usually double-fault on my serve, I play too cautiously and unaggressively. It’s rare that I smash winners; I wait for my opponents to mishit, and when they don’t, I accept the defeat as preordained. No tennis teacher has ever been able to recalibrate my fatalism.

I have been taking tennis lessons off and on for most of my adult life. There was the vain teacher, Hal, God’s gift to women, who boasted that he used to spend several months in Costa Rica giving lessons and bedding his students. He never bothered to tell me I was hitting the ball too flatly. There was Francis, the Sri Lankan, a lovely, pudgy middle-aged family man who taught me to take the ball “on the rise”; the only problem with him was that his accent was so thick, I could never make out what he was saying. My favorite tennis teacher of all time is Todd, with whom I have been taking lessons the last four years. I like him best because he has a good sense of humor, tolerates ineptitude, is gifted at breaking down the mechanics, and treats tennis as an opportunity to have fun, not a matter of life and death. During breaks we discuss politics, usually agreeing, and we tease each other; he pretends to be inarticulate and inept, and I pretend that I am going to rough him up. Often he will compliment me with “Excellent shot!” or say “Good work!” at the end of the hour. Sometimes, though, he slips and the truth comes out. Last week I thought I had played rather well, and I asked him “How do you think I did?” He got a distracted look in his eye, as though he wished I hadn’t cornered him, and said: “You were okay. But you need to follow through more, and speed up your swing.”

My heart sank. I realized how hopelessly incorrect my form must look to him. I felt sorry for him, suddenly equating his situation with a violin teacher who knows his student will never be able to play in tune. From my end, I value his approval immensely. That he sees me for an hour a week makes him, oddly enough, one of the most important people in my life. Having pried, I know a fair amount about him: he studied Russian literature in college, decided to play tennis, never got very far on the professional circuit; his parents, academics, divorced; his father is dead, his mother old and frail, and he flies home to the Midwest periodically to visit her; he plays in a rock band on weekends, seems to be unmarried, is approaching 50. Beneath his jesting exterior I sense melancholy, but perhaps I am merely projecting from his circumstances. You would think a study of Chekhov and Gogol might have prepared him sufficiently for life’s disappointments, such as having mediocre pupils like me.

He has been trying to get me to hit the ball with more spin, by keeping it on my racquet longer and “brushing” it, whatever that means. Sometimes I do it accidentally, and he thinks I am getting the hang of it. From the other side of the net he will pantomime what I should do more of, indicating why the shot went wrong. “Use your words,” I tell him, like the English professor I am. I must find some ways to assert my superiority.

This week I tried harder to concentrate on following through and hitting with pace. I went for angles more. His response was more encouraging. In truth, I think my game is sharpening a little, by infinitesimal degrees. It’s becoming cagier, if no more powerful than before. By the time I reach 100, I should be able to summon the nerve to enter the club’s senior tournament.

They say the only way to improve your game is to hit with players who are better than you. What the cliché doesn’t say is that it can be excruciatingly humiliating for you and excruciatingly frustrating for the other players. Every year, when I vacation in Vermont, I fall in with a bunch of tennis players, retired for the most part, who are all far more agile—they were, let’s say, on their college tennis team and remain remarkably fit—but who let me participate out of basic kindness. This year, at the beginning of the daily fortnight sessions, I was terrible. I had regressed, and to see the look of chagrin of my doubles partner’s face when I misplayed a ball made me think of giving up the sport forever. By the end of the first week my reflexes had picked up, or maybe my muscle memory had kicked in, and I was able to hold my own. Toward the end of my two weeks, they were anointing me Most Improved Player. This was not the first time I had been so designated. I get it that you can only be “most improved” if you were lousy to begin with. But I will take that accolade, and hope to build on it in the coming year.


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Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.


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