serve!

Strategies for the out-maneuvered tennis player.

All winter long, I’ve been thinking about it, plotting my revenge. There is more than pride at stake. It is a matter of athletic philosophy.

Off the court, Stan is my friend. On the court, Stan is my opponent; he has become my enemy. Stan and I have distinctly contrary approaches to the game of tennis: For him, tennis is primarily a splendid form of exercise which also happens to be a game; for me. tennis is a splendid game, which also happens to be a form of exercise. For him, the success of a tennis match is measured in the loss of water weight (in one three-set mid-July marathon match last year he scored his greatest triumph by dropping two pounds). For me, the success of a match is measured only in the final score. Playing tennis with Stan last spring and summer, I became increasingly distressed to realize that Stan would not care if he lost the match as long as he lost weight. What made it unbearable was the fact that he always won. Always.

Stan took the joy out of tennis. I can’t forgive him. I have not played all winter. I have only plotted my revenge.

As tennis antagonists, Stan s and my roots go deep. I began playing tennis as a child, at age 9. I played against my father, who was good and taught me well, the proper strokes in the proper form. I never became obsessed with the game, and, being basically lazy, I never attacked the sport with any great diligence or harbored any lofty notions of athletic supremacy. But I loved the game and improved in random spurts, once even winning a YMCA tournament. My interest carried sporadically through high school where I even played on the tennis team. Still, my game was not passionate; I joined the team mainly to get out of sixth period. 1 was definitely one of the team’s lesser lights, though one afternoon I played out of my mind and beat the number-one seed at Jesuit on his home court, much to the disbelief of my coach, who hadn’t even bothered to watch the match. In college, my tennis game generally deferred to the sports of Frisbee-throwing and sitting under trees, but since then I have occasionally pulled out the Wilson Jack Kramer Autograph and dusted off my game. It was always fun, until I encountered Stan.

Stan is a tennis convert. He has no tennis history. His athletic heritage lies in stickball in the schoolyards of Brooklyn. Tennis was for the rich sissies over at Forest Hills. Like countless others, Stan rode in on the wave of tennismania that engulfed America a few years ago. For Stan, tennis was simply more interesting exercise than sit-ups. He went out and bought a very nice Wilson T-2000 metal racket (another point of vicious contention: my wood vs. his metal), bought some nifty red wristbands – one for each wrist – bought some spiffy cream-colored tennis shorts and a cream-colored shirt with handsome red and brown striping along the shoulder ridge and down the sleeve. He dressed his feet in two pairs of socks (first a pair of regular whites, then a pair of thick over-the-calf socks with red and yellow stripes at the top) and a pair of white leather tennis shoes with specially contoured soles and marshmallow interior padding. With a squirt from his Gatorade squeeze bottle, Stan hit the courts and started hacking away.

It was Stan who first challenged me, last spring. As we warmed up, I was confident, even cocky. A mismatch. No need to be modest about it – I play a much prettier game of tennis than Stan. Despite my faded red T-shirt that flared out at the waist, despite my stringy blue jean cut-offs, despite my tacky Dallas Black Hawk wristbands, my form was elegant: stinging forehand, fluid backhand, powerful serve. A little rusty, but ready. I bounced aggressively in Fred Perry tennis shoes, my one real piece of tennis equipment (which I bought because I liked the design on the side), rubbed my fingers over the yellowed throat of my Jack Kramer Autograph, and shouted to Stan, “Go ahead. You serve.” Fred Perry, Jack Kramer, and I got whipped, 6-1,6-1.

Stan is a “retriever.” His strokes are pokes, chops and stabs, but he always gets to the ball and always gets it back. He hits his backhand like he’s playing ping-pong, but it always makes it over the net. He serves with a wind-up that would make Luis Tiant cringe and his second serve floats over like a badminton birdie, but he never double faults. It is maddening. And worse, he is always exercising. Running from corner to corner, running to retrieve stray balls, running to the towel draped over the net to dry his hands, even running to his Gator-ade between games. And always sweating, sweating, sweating. And losing water weight, losing water weight. It wouldn’t have surprised me to have found a test tube strapped to his ankle, gathering sweat like a rain gauge. Running and sweating, running and sweating. And winning.

It was too much. I got better over the course of the summer, he got better too. So I found myself turning desperately to an unabashed tactical game. At first it was sporting: lobs and drop shots in a futile attempt to run him to death. Then it began to get nasty. Between points, I found myself returning balls to him just out of his reach, sending him scampering to the fence to retrieve them. I used the contact lens trick to try to upset his rhythm and to conserve my own strength: “My contacts are blurry. Sweat in my eyes. Gotta fix them. Sorry. Just a minute.” I ultimately abandoned this ploy after he seized the psychological advantage by running in place while I fiddled with my eyes. To disrupt his unwavering concentration, I tried asking the score a lot, usually at the top of his service motion. “Forty love, ” he’d answer without flinching. I tried asking annoying and distracting personal questions between games: “Aren’t you going to fix that obnoxious rattle in your car?” or “Isn’t it embarrassing to sweat so much?” “No,” he’d reply. At that point I thought about spiking his Gatorade with morphine.

Then it happened. It was late in August. He had won the first set 6-4 (the 6-4’s were devastating) and he was leading in the second set 5-0. In the sixth game, at match point, I lunged for one of his dribbling backhands and managed to slice the ball back just over the net. Stan was caught near the baseline, impossibly far away, but put himself in motion, long legs churning, and, at the last minute, threw himself, racket extended, at the dying ball. The ball squibbed off the end of his racket, over the net, and into my court as I stood staring in helpless agony. 6-0. Stan picked himself up off the court, flicked the dirt off his cream-colored shorts, and said, “Whew. That was quite a workout.”

I threw my Jack Kramer over the fence.

We haven’t played since. But I’ve thought about it all winter. I’m going to make a comeback. I have to. First to ease the ache of losing and the shame of ignoble tactics. But more than that, it’s a matter of principle. Tennis is not exercise, tennis is sport. Jogging, swimming, biking, hiking – those are exercise. They’re boring and I don’t like them. So I have a mission. I must do my part to keep the glorious game of tennis out of the clutches of gear-and-equipment zealots and water-weight cardio-vascular freaks. I can only do that by beating Stan, who exercised the fun right out of my tennis. With mission comes passion. I intend to return to the court with a desire that can’t lose.

But just in case, I’ve started joggingand pretty soon I’m going to lay out 95 bucks for the Head Guillermo Vilas model with Imperial gut strings.

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