Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Playing Ball: Sport of a Lifetime
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Playing Ball: Sport of a Lifetime 06/03/2008 - 6:38 PM

Tennisballrebound1aLet me take you, however briefly and perhaps against your will, away from the vast red-clay arenas of Paris to five cramped gray clay courts deep in the outer boroughs of New York. There are no beautiful people in the stands here—there are no stands at all, even if there were beautiful people available to sit in them—and nothing approaching a professional player sliding back and forth along the baseline. “Slipping” is what we learn to do on these courts. Nevertheless, this is my tennis club, and it’s where I spent Saturday morning kicking off my playing season.

This year, the first day out for me was split between celebration and trepidation. Not only had I not played any tennis, I hadn’t undertaken any serious exercise since I pulled a hamstring back in January. In recent years, I’d been unable to make it through even half of a weekend day without working up some kind of sweat. Otherwise I’d begin to feel unaccountably irritable and sluggish. When the reality of my injury set in, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to make it through three weeks, let along three months, of weekends without any exercise. But like anything else, I got used to it with time, even if it was against my will. By April, as I strolled around my neighborhood or went to a museum, I began to wonder how I had ever had the energy or initiative to get up in the morning and practically kill myself on a squash court.

One problem I did have, and this may be the worst aspect of not being able to play your favorite sport, is that I lost touch with the group of friends I had built through competition. I’ve always enjoyed making the spring transition from my squash friends to my tennis friends, but this time I lost all those squash partners four months early. At first there were emails wishing me well and wondering when I’d be back. Those dwindled to a trickle of, “Hey, this must be serious!” or, alternatively, “You always were kind of soft…” Then, nothing. I didn’t blame anyone. I don’t email injured tennis or squash partners much either. But cutting out a third of my social contacts seemed about as bad for my health as drinking Bloody Marys on Sunday mornings instead of getting my cardio.

As you might guess, by this past Saturday I was more than ready to play some tennis, or at least to talk to people who could play tennis. I went to the club with a regular opponent, John, who I’ve described here in the past. He’s a university administrator in his late 50s, a natural athlete—he played basketball and tennis at Brown—and born tennis player who can keep up with guys 20 years younger (or at least he can keep up with me). He didn’t know I’d been injured, and I thought I would shift all the pressure in his direction when I told him I hadn’t touched any kind of racquet in four months. He didn't seem too phased by this information.

Of course, this was just a pick-up match, so why would there be any kind of pressure for either of us? We spent 15 minutes meeting with other old friends at the club. Is there a better feeling than getting back together with an old crew, whatever sport you play or activity you do together? When I shook his hands with one old friend, Don (who has also been described on this blog), I had an immediate flashback to one of my great moments in tennis. A few years ago, he and I had been two of the quarterfinalists in the club’s championship tournament, which is held at the end of each summer, right after the U.S. Open. The four quarters went on at the same time, on a brilliant, sunny Saturday morning. Don surveyed the four courts, looked over at me on the next court, threw his arms up, and announced with a grin, “We've got all the big guns out today!” He was right, for the first time that year, all the club's best players were crammed together and warming up at the same time. It was a local Murderer’s Row, and I admit I was proud to be a part of it. Such are the small but very real pleasures of camaraderie that come with being a member of a tennis club.

The place itself has been fixed up a bit this year. There’s a new 52-inch flat-screen TV, which was tuned to the French Open on the Tennis Channel on Sunday. Every year I’m reminded when I play of just how long the matches are in Paris. I watched a set of Monfils and Melzer, went out and played for an hour and a half, and came back to watch some more. I left during the fourth set and got home to watch the end of the fifth. How do those guys do it? How many momentum swings must there be in a five-setter on clay? It almost seems like you have to win two matches to get to the next round.

John and I finally made it to our court, and I felt good from the first warm-up swing. Tennis: sport of a lifetime. My forehand, from backswing to follow-though, came right back to me without the slightest thought. There are other "sports of a lifetime," obviously, golf being the prime example. But is there one that gives you such a variety of hard-earned satisfactions and happily familiar sensations? You can carve a slice backhand, snap down on an overhead, find your little-step footwork rhythm again. Then there’s that strange and slightly unnatural moment when you step to the baseline to serve and toss the first ball into the court. For the first few minutes, having to keep my feet back as I stretch forward makes me feel like I’m diving off a cliff or jumping into water.

There are also, admittedly, less satisfying sensations, like sending three straight half-volleys off the frame. But we’ll forget about those for the moment. Like I said, why would there be pressure on me today? There was none at the start of the match, so naturally I came out of the box playing well. Everything was dropping in for me, and John was missing by inches when he did get opportunities. I went up a break and then, out of nowhere, the old feeling came back: nerves, real nerves, as if I were in the final of an important tournament and playing in front of a crowd. Why, I wondered—why does this always happen?

I had an answer this time. I realized that I wasn’t nervous about losing to John. I was nervous because I didn’t want to blow a lead. It was clear to me that at this stage of my tennis “career,” my battle is with myself. It may be the most crucial battle in tennis—not to choke. In our heads, choking is not just losing to an opponent, it’s a sign of weakness beneath the surface, something fundamentally flawed in our makeup. It’s even more humiliating than simply being inferior to your opponent. If you get blown out, you just weren’t as good as the other guy, which can be excused in a million ways. But if you choke against another player, it means that at some level you feared him. This is something no one wants to admit, let alone have to find an excuse for. To choke is to be exposed.

Of course, it’s all nonsense. As we know, everyone chokes. John McEnroe has said it happens every time he plays, and even Bjorn Borg, after staring steely-eyed through a five-set Wimbledon final in 1979, said he could barely hold his racquet as he served for the match. Winning while choking is what tennis is really about. I managed to get through any nerves I had on Sunday, with some timely help from John, who played worse as the day progressed.

Winning helped, but it was the rush of playing and competing that made my day. Jogging has its physical satisfactions, but they don’t compare to what a competitive tennis match does to your muscles and your mind. It’s also a different, more draining, and ultimately more exciting feeling than the one your body goes through when you hit or drill. After the match, I immediately went to sit down on the sidelines. I was breathing hard, sweat was pouring into my eyes, and my stomach was slightly upset, as it usually is.

How could I have ever gotten used to not doing this?


Posted by Ozone 06/03/2008 at 07:06 PM

Due to various time pressure reasons, and other reasons, I have stopped playing tennis for a while.

I was a die hard guy, who used to find some time to play, amidst everything I had to do. I have a family and 2 small kids, busy work etc. And some minor injuries as well caused my stoppage...

Initially, it was tough to resist not going to play, when I tried to stop playing, to focus on other things.

Eventually, I got used to not going to play, and now I am out of shape quite a bit and out of touch.

Since then, every now and then, the thought crosses my mind to go back and start playing, but somehow I had lost my earlier extraordinary enthusiasm.

This article made me think back and i am going to go and try to get back on the court, at least for a starter, if possible within the next few days.

Thanks for this writeup...Nice.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 06/03/2008 at 07:56 PM

Haven't had time to absorb the whole piece yet, but am looking forward to it.

Ozone... I do hope you'll rediscover your passion for the game. It's such a great way to stay physically active (beats the hell out of running in the asphalt jungle or sweating profusely while sitting on your bum in a spinning class. Fresh air, sunshine, a good friend, and the sounds of birds and children playing in the plaground beside the courts. Who can beat that? Add the sound of a crisply played forehand drive, and its as close to mheaven as I suspect we'll get on this earth. Best of luck to you. Kudos for giving it another shot.

And thanks, Steve, for inspiring another reader to get back to the greatest sport of all.

Posted by KP 06/03/2008 at 08:19 PM

I apologize for being off-topic, & for asking a question that may have been asked before, but does anyone else notice what the FO is doing on their website concerning match stats?

for every match on the site, they aren't providing winners, but are just adding up the total amount of points won on serve by either player & saying that that number is the 'winner' total.

You can see for yourself, they have 'points won on 1st serve' & 'points won on 2nd serve', & are just adding the 2 for winners!

Steve, I hope neither you are any journalist is using these stats for your articles, they are incredibly inaccurate(unforced errors as well, no match on that site is close to the stats that espn or TC is showing)

for a laugh look at the stats for Falla-Karlovoc, Spadea-Benneateu, Chardy-Almagro, Almagro-Murray, Chela-Isner, Monfils-Melzer, Moya-Schwank, Blake-Gulbis, they make no sense. nor do any of Nadal's numbers, they are claiming he's making 2 winners a game!

Posted by randomtester [K]ProStaff 06/03/2008 at 11:38 PM

For me, one of the very best posts in a while. The way you describe it feels the same way for me every summer and winter when I am off from school and can finally go out and play whenever I want. 2 more weeks and I can finally hit the courts with abandon again!

Posted by ata08 06/04/2008 at 12:03 AM

you can take me anywhere you want...

(wonderful post...)

Posted by Ozone 06/04/2008 at 02:05 AM

Thanks Slice-n-dice.

From your posts, I know you are a player and an avid follower of the game.

Yes, nothing like the smell of the new balls from a freshly opened can, the greets you get from the guys at the court "hey, where have you been all these days" and "welcome back" and nothing like a good old fashioned "kick in the butt" that you get from that guy whom you expect to win against, when you get back to playing after such a long time, that in out of shape condition....;-)

I cant wait...and the way Gulbis and Novak are pounding the ball, it is very tempting to go out right now...

Posted by Chloe02 06/04/2008 at 03:50 AM

As I'm a die-hard tennis playing fanatic, thanks Steve for a little slice of the real life of tennis as played by millions of us around the world.

One thing I would add to your experiences is the fun to be had being involved with kids who are learning to play. I look after the tennis team of 11/12 yr olds for our club - schlepping them to matches, dealing with the tantrums and the losses, trying to motivate them, stopping the on court squabbling between two guys who are supposed to be a doubles team (I finally sat them down and explained about trying to work together against a common foe like being in the Alliance against the Horde in World of Warcraft).

So if anyone has any doubts, get out and start playing today (but don't miss the Fed/Gonzo match!)

Posted by DavidG 06/04/2008 at 04:02 AM

As usual, your writing holds up nicely, but with the F.O. peaking right now, your timing is way off.

Posted by PaulC 06/04/2008 at 11:11 AM

Great write up. I find I have 2 modes: full killer mode and full trepidation mode. Nothing in between. I don't always win in full killer mode, but I almost never win in full trepidation mode.

Posted by nica 06/04/2008 at 06:26 PM

Good that you are back playing Steve. I wish I had learned to play tennis as a kid, but regardless I am glad I found the sport of a lifetime.

You hit the nail right on the head when you said "my battle is with myself." I think this is universal to tennis players whether they are weekend warriors to the pros.

If Federer and Nadal meet again and Federer happens to get the lead he will have to battle the demons of "Am I going to blow this lead again?"

Posted by Rick 06/05/2008 at 09:18 AM

Nice article. I was hard core for many years but most of my regulars moved on or away and I didn't play for roughly 4 years. I've since started up with a neighbor and now I find I completely lack any competitive drive. Whereas before I would die to get to the last return now I seem to be content with a "nice shot".

I might be age (58), I don't know, but while the striking of the ball is still rewarding, the thrill of the hunt is gone.


Posted by Tom in Smalltown 06/05/2008 at 01:47 PM

With right knee supported (surgery), right elbow protected (tendonitis from trying to burst back into the game three years ago), right wrist wrapped (congenital defect that has taken many in my family), I now hit the ball almost every day with my eleven year old. I always choke as we play mini sets, and I've managed to pass on the skill to him, though his choking displays have less flourish than mine.

Good article.

Posted by Christine C 06/05/2008 at 02:00 PM

Great article Steve. Glad you found your desire again. I'm getting back into my desire of choice (yoga) again anmd even though it's hard it feels great. hope this article inspires others to do the same

Posted by Jeff in Rochester 06/05/2008 at 07:38 PM

The hamstring has been a regular "stopper" for me over the years also for a few weeks or so but I also look forward to the first day out on clay every spring. I got to wear spandex thru June to avoid it acting up again and seems to work...........the new injury for me is the quad.......I'll take a hammie over a quad any day!! My new rule of thumb...........NO CLAY COURT TENNIS UNLESS IT IS 65 DEGREES OR HIGHER!

I get to NYC about four times during the summer and usually play at Central Park.........but the courts are really dry........don't think they water them much. I think I'll write Bloomberg to get some hydro courts installed there...........or Dinkens might have more pull with tennis as an ex! Any other suggestions when in the city?

Posted by JillfromNY 06/07/2008 at 12:16 AM

I enjoyed reading this very much. Basically, I stopped playing tennis when I left high school. As a woman, it's hard to find age-appropriate partners who really want to play (as opposed to just hanging out and looking cute in the outfits). I'm a runner now, and luv it. The solitude of the pursuit fits my personality, but I do miss the days of tennis play.

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