Some of my friends are as crazy about tennis as I am. To wit:
I'm the kind of woman who could make Emily Post turn in her grave. Two decades working in the macho-minded record business followed by the birth of two boys kept me too busy to ever learn polite etiquette and dainty social skills. Hence, when the day came that my kids were finally old enough to spend the day at camp I panicked.
Alone, in my newly acquired Long Island summer home, I realized in my 40-plus years I had never learned how to chitchat with other women. So, in the summer of 2003 I began my foray into the social and political world of tennis.
After substantial encouragement from the local tennis pro, Bob, I quickly learned some basics and found myself able to get through a game of doubles and meet some of the other tennis ladies. This was perfect. I was socializing in a way that required no real conversation. I smiled a lot, shook hands and then went to retrieve the boys. I could meet people without engaging in chitchat, something I will never master.
The next summer I returned to the house and to tennis. I made some more progress and Bob introduced me to a woman of similar abilities. She and I started playing singles together. This was quite different from doubles. The only thing the two games have in common is that they use the same equipment. The thinking, the stance, the attitude is as different as walking is to marathon running.
We were very civilized, both of us hitting nice, slow, high-arcing ground strokes, back and forth until one of us finally made an error. So encouraged, I decided to try and continue playing back in New York City during the rest of the year.
By this time, I want to master this thing. I start playing three times a week, dragging myself uptown, the house is a mess, there's no food at home, but damn it, I'm going to learn this game. And learn I do. I'm thinking about it when I'm off the court and visualizing myself on the court, and practicing "air strokes" at home. I get into a rhythm, I have a clinic, I join the round robins and start setting up doubles games with people I'm meeting there. Keeping up a tennis game in Manhattan is no easy feat—limited space means expensive court time, so I'm pretty much sticking to doubles in the city.
Two summers after I started out, I find myself on the court in a doubles game with the woman I started out with on singles. She doesn't keep up the game over the winter, so it's like learning to walk all over again for her. Oh my god, I'm thinking, what's wrong with her? All she can do is lob that ball; why doesn't she get to the net? I'm getting more and more frustrated, but I know this is a polite sport and I would never, ever let her know how angry I am. I'm realizing she has no idea that she has to get to the net to win and now I’m thinking maybe she's scared. Yes that's it; she's scared to come to the net. She feels safe back there doing her same old boring lobs. She and I lose every game that summer in the little inter-club competitions we play in. She doesn't seem to care. I care. I don't want to lose.
And I'm losing because of her.
I begin to yearn for tough-minded singles games. I opt only to play singles with people a step up from me. I've become obsessed with finding 3.5 players to my 3.0. I've become obsessed with my tennis skirts. My husband is horrified: Who have I become? I don't know myself, but I can tell him this: it's not some wimpo doubles loser.
With singles, I am master of my own domain. My wins are truly my wins, my losses, mine. Why? I own my game. Yes, I'm exhausted from two hours of non-stop running, and I can't just scream “yours” when I'm too pooped to go for the ball. I fight through summer humidity; I fight through aching muscles, to keep on playing. Win or lose, I'm out there, dependent on no one else. I’m still socializing, but I’m never having to say, “I’m sorry.”
Now, back in the NYC doubles circuit, I have a revelation. It hit me the other day, when I was up at the net poaching into my partner's territory to get the short ball, that I have to take into account what HER feelings will be if I screw it up. I resent that. I want to go for what I want with no thought as to anyone else out there. But as I hit a disappointing volley, my brain now flashes to what is going on behind me with my partner. Did she switch? Should I have shouted switch? Was she going to go for that short one? Is she angry? Is she making faces at me behind my back? My attention is now completely off the game but centers on my relationship with my partner. Wait, isn't this tennis supposed to be my escape from the messiness of interpersonal relationships?
I finally understand why I’m so drawn to singles. It's not just that I can own my game in singles, it's that I don't have to be nice. I don't even have to pretend to be nice. I can be as blatantly competitive, ball-hogging and relentless as I want to be with no apologies.
I run to poach that short ball. But I dream of those summer days of singles, glorious singles.