I’ve always enjoyed a rigorous level of physical competition because it’s the truest way to test strength and power:man v. man. Up until this summer, I only assigned this idea to physical sports like football and basketball because it seemed more “manly.” But this summer, I tried something entirely new: tennis. In high school, I played football mainly because I liked running into people at full speed in effort to knock them on their asses. My perception of tennis players was of dainty athletes stricken with fragile frames because their evolutionary ancestors weren’t attractive enough to mate with the alpha males. I can soundly say after three intense months of playing tennis this summer, I completely refute this notion and despise myself for ever believing it to be true.
Tennis is a game of physical chess. A game that relies on the mind much more than the body. Football, admittedly, requires some level of intellect, but mostly, the quickest guy with the most creatine saturated muscles wins out. At the beginning of the summer, I was merely a recreational player, but today I stand before you as a pretentious poser.
I don’t remember how I become so infatuated with tennis, but I know it began with a friend of mine (let’s call him Marco for identity sake) pushing the idea on me. I obliged because I had grown tired of my rapidly declining basketball ability and I was looking for a way to highlight my athletic will and competitive appetite.
Marco and I rolled up to the tennis court in my 2002 Camry that night, blaring a little rap music, both smoking cigarettes with the windows down. We looked up at the tennis courts to see a group of players varying in talent and style while we choked down what remained of our cancer sticks. We were in the middle of discussing the merits of smoking before partaking in an athletic spar, agreeing that nicotine calms the nerves and therefore increases ability. Pseudo science at its finest. A 60-year-old toad of a tennis player who stopped his game and turned to us in the parking lot abruptly interrupted our conversation. He started barking at us with an acrimonious tone, but we couldn’t make out exactly what he was saying. I figured he was upset about the inordinate amount of decibels my system was pumping out so I turned the music down. After exiting the vehicle, he continued to make indignant gestures towards our presence. Was it the music? Was it the fact that Marco and I were smoking cigs in a public place? No - the headlights on my car, which automatically turn on after a certain level of darkness is detected, were affecting his ability to serve properly. We offered up a very sarcastic apology and proceeded to the court furthest away from this righteous tennis asshole. I already had a preconceived notion about tennis being a sport for elitist pricks and this old gee solemnly confirmed my notion. My enthusiasm for the sport was already eroding at the core, but after a few days on the court, it didn’t take long for me to empathize and fully understand why the old man was so upset.
During the first four weeks of my tennis career, Marco and I were playing with identical youth rackets from the early 90’s. The steel frame made for a choppy swing. And the strings, though presumably once taught as a drum, were sagging after years of use and storage abuse. My shots were guaranteed for as much precision as a Nerf gun. In addition, the balls we were using had seen better days. They had been purchased around the same time as the rackets and had a noticeable amount of family dog slobber on the once neon green (now a pale gray) tennis ball fabric. These balls had a more pathetic apex than a pogo stick that had been destroyed by an insistent overweight childhood friend. Regardless, the equipment limitations were not enough to stifle our obsession with the game, as we played up to 5 times a week over the first month. As our games progressed, we decided it was worth the investment to purchase some new racquets and some fresh balls. In effort to keep the competition as level as possible, Marco and I purchased identical Wilson racquets from Target. The packaging had a picture of Rodger Federer and touted specs that included “V-matrix” technology for a larger sweet spot, an enlarged head for greater power, and a convincing tag line that claimed the racket was ONLY FOR SERIOUS PLAYERS! I couldn’t charge that racket on my credit card fast enough. We also bought a couple of canisters of fresh Wilson tennis balls. I think I might be addicted to the sound the can makes when it is cracked and the rush of sulfur hexafluoride fumes that pollute my brain with a temporary euphoric ecstasy. These investments became the core catalyst in my evolution as a player. At this point, I figured tennis is as much about looking adequately equipped as it is about actually having talent. Now that I had my flashy racquet and a surplus of balls which I treated like Nelly treats his Air Force Ones (rock em’ once and leave em’ behind for the savages), my confidence began to swell.
On the first day of my tennis experience I showed up wearing a pair of basketball shoes, shorts that could have doubled as a pair of pants at the right outing, and a sleeveless Orlando Magic t-shirt. The shirt did not stay on my back for long because the hell-like heat of summer forced me to free my hairy torso to the public tennis community. Marco liked to play shirtless as well, so in every way, we were more suited for a game of pickup hoops than a tennis match. The other tennis players weren’t noticeably offended by our presence, but with a quick glance over the remaining courts, it was obvious to see that bare-chested tennis playing was not the status quo. (Unfortunately for everyone else I enjoy bronzing while swinging the racquet.) After our equipment upgrade, we began to change the way we dressed on the court. The standard uniform became modest shorts that were firmly stationed one inch above the kneecap, pristine white tennis shoes that were tended to on a nightly basis with a spare toothbrush, and a white collared polo shirt. The old adage for success in the business world is “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” We applied this concept to our tennis game, and although we were playing at public course, our combination of class and flash stood out like players who were worthy of a country club invite. (Almost all of the points that have been scored on me this summer have come from the result of my incessant day dream in which a person of nobility notices my apparent knack for tennis fashion and calls me a “helluva ball striker,” which subsequently leads to a invite to his country club where I am treated to dinner and offered a large sum of money and/or a job.)
Tennis is a simple game on the surface, but underneath lies an abyss of dynamic ethical codes and eloquent etiquette. It’s not like a game of bowling, where the only rules you need to know are don’t wear your street shoes on the alley and don’t ash your cigarettes in the finger holes of your opponent’s ball. No, tennis is much more complex. It can take decades, even a lifetime to fully understanding the ins and outs.
What I have learned
1) Its not appropriate to return a serve that is close to being out and then calling “OUT” after seeing how poor your return was.
2) Say the score after each point, always. Scoring discrepancies may start with an inordinate amount of quippy Frasier humor but they always escalate to fist fights.
3) There is no place on the tennis court for trash-talking or even playful banter. The only appropriate exchange between two players is a congratulatory statement after a nice shot when the ball is no longer in play.
4) Profanity does not belong on the tennis court. It took me a while to get over this because I like to release my frustration with a loud “Fuuuck” followed by smashing my racket repeatedly into the concrete and chain-link fence.
5) Keep the ball in your court by any means necessary. There is nothing worse than having a distant player’s ball roll onto your court in the middle of a serious volley. An awkward exchange always follows were the culprit tries to apologize and the victim is forced to hide their anger with a bevy of niceties.
6) It is not appropriate to yell out “Deuce Deuces Gleaming” when the game reaches its end-point tie. Most players will find you ignorant and miss the obvious reference to rap culture’s obsession with 22-inch rims.
7) Bending over to pick up a tennis ball is a tell sign of an amateur tennis player. In order to be taken seriously you must master the “foot scoop” , which involves pinching the tennis ball between your racquet, and the arch of your foot, and swiftly popping it up into your palm in a fluid motion. The foot scoop takes a level of dedication and hand-eye-foot coordination but the dividend you will receive in the form of respect from seasoned players is uncanny.
Not only did I enforce these rules within my own game, but I also found myself becoming wildly frustrated whenever someone on a different court was not following them. I hated when I pulled my racquet back in effort to deliver an ace of a serve and a ball rolled into my court, or a car alarm would go off in the parking lot, or (god forbid) the slightest glimmer of sunlight blinded my concentration. I remember a time (actually the last time) that I played golf with my grandpa when he flipped out on me for moving during his back swing. (I was a pubescent 12-year old and I had a perpetually itchy crotch.) But frivolous excuses do not matter to someone who has already invested their life into the prestige and etiquette of a sport. I now fully understand why that old man was upset at me for leaving my headlights on while he was trying to serve. To him, I was an amateur punk who had no respect for the years he had put into his game mastering his cross-shot, his drop shot, his look, and even his ability to hide the presence of immense perspiration under his flesh cavities. I know I have only been playing tennis for three months, but I now embody much of what that man stands for. I wanted people to respect my need to maintain the games’ prestige. Tennis has no place for punks. Come ready to play the way tennis is supposed to be played: with class and dignity.
But I now stand before you (or write before you) as a changed man. Not only has my idea of tennis as sport drastically changed, but also has my lifestyle. It didn’t take long for me to buy into the vanity of the sport and for me to become complacent with myself as a player both in appearance and ability. This all changed the other day, however, when I realized I was nothing more than a poser giving the appearance that I had any real skill. Marco and I were approached the other day by a shirtless tattoo riddled individual named Victor. He looked and dressed like I had only three months earlier and I instantly disregarded his dedication and respect for the sport. He came onto the courts alone and asked to play with us. We obliged out of common courtesy (and curiosity for that matter) and attempted to play him 2 vs. 1. Simply put, Victor destroyed us, and he did it with flash rather than class. The array of shots he was able to hit was unbelievable. At one point he returned a deeply placed forehand shot with a between-the-legs hit that had velocity and precision. I was in awe of the way he could hit the ball with a breadth of spin and speed. He beat us 6-2, with the only points scored on him coming from the result of double faults while he was literally trying to knock the cover off of the ball.
I stood there feeling absolutely defeated. Victor exposed me a for what I was: a tennis player who looked the part, but had no real talent (reminiscent of my 12-year old skate board posing self when I attempted to 50-50 grind a 3-inch pipe in my driveway after being challenged by a group of serious SK8ers. I racked my back, my sack, and my dreams of being a talented border all in matter of seconds. It didn’t matter that I had a pair of red Chad Muska skate shoes with a stash pocket in the tongues, or that I had a 200 dollar board/barring/truck set, I was a poser and in that moment I was exposed as a fraud.)
I fully expected Victor to treat me with disgust and with a thug-like mentality after he robbed me of my confidence momentum and complacent attitude (A heist on par with when the World Wildlife Fund stole the WWF acronym, thus depleting the seemingly unstoppable entertainment mogul Vince Mcmahon from defining the 21st century with a wrestling zeitgeist. If it wasn’t for Harry Truman we’d all be speaking German or Japanese right now, and if wasn’t for the World Wildlife Fund we’d all be piling into retro-fitted football stadiums to watch our favorite “athletes” tackle, grope, and fondle each other while wearing lycra g-strings.) But he could not have been more kind in his post-game chatter. He told me that he had been playing for a long time and that he thought I was good. He said I had a lot of potential if I just kept at it, benevolent words of encouragement from the man who just shattered my dreams. I realized tennis is not about etiquette and vanity, but rather it is about having fun and doing so however you deem necessary. The next time I came to the court I ripped off my shirt (collars are nooses), cussed like a Kid Rock song (before he turned into a CUNTry singer), and had the time of my life.