Monday, April 16, 2012

No Sorries

I played mixed doubles last night for the first time.

It wasn’t exactly an accident, but I didn’t know until I got on the court.  I’d gotten an email during the day from Rachel, a woman I usually only play with in the summer.  She told me to meet her at 6 p.m.  When I got there, she was standing next to a tall, slim guy in his forties.  “Do you know Peter?”

I actually did know Peter, as he’s the husband of a friend of mine.  “I usually play with him,” said Rachel.  “Is it ok if you play with Joel?”

I nodded, sure, but what I wanted to say is, “Really? We’re playing with guys?”

As it turns out, I knew Joel, too.  I had played with Rachel once last summer against Joel and his wife.  Aside from pros stepping in during clinics, that was the first time I’d played doubles with a man.  And it’s a little different.

First off, men hit hard.  Fortunately, my Friday group hits hard, so I’m somewhat used to it.  But there is something different, almost ineffable, about the slam of a man.  The power is similar, as is the satisfied afterglow.  But if you pried open a woman’s brains and could actually read the thoughts in her head, that slam of hers might be accompanied by a “Take that!”, whereas a man’s thought balloon is almost certainly, “Crush! Kill! Destroy!” 

A woman’s slamming face is full of retribution.  A man’s is filled with glee.  It takes a little getting used to.

However the biggest difference is this:  Men don’t say “sorry.”

I’ve always known this intellectually, but I had never experienced it firsthand. Starting with the warm-up, hitting gently to each other across the net, it’s commonplace, if you hit too high or too wide, to express regret to your hitting partner.  In women’s play, that is.  Here, that was not done.  I was “sorrying” all over the place, and other than that, the court was silent.

We gathered at the bench for a quick drink before starting the match and I mentioned the phenomenon.  “Y’all don’t ever say sorry, do you?” (Sometimes I talk like I’m from the Deep South.)

I may as well have been speaking in tongues.  I could see them both trying to figure out what there might be to be sorry about and they were simultaneously drawing blanks.

“Women say sorry all the time,” I offered. 

Joel said, “Well, maybe if I hit my partner, by accident, I might say sorry.  But to those guys over the net…?”

And with that, I commenced upon my very first, sorry-free game of tennis.

It was sort of remarkable.  I felt exhilarated afterwards in a way I haven’t in a long time.  It reminded me of when I first started playing and just being on the court created boundless energy.  There is something very liberating about not having to say you’re sorry.

What do we women mean when we apologize every time we hit a ball that’s too high, too wide, too short, too hard?  When we’re rallying and warming up, do we mean “I meant to hit it right to you but I didn’t execute properly (sorry)”?  When we’re playing a game, do we mean, “I feel sheepish and slightly undeserving of the fact that I just hit an amazingly good shot that there was no way you were going to get (sorry)”?

Or maybe in all cases, we mean, “I just acted careless/reckless/thoughtless/selfish; I hope you still like me.”

If that’s what we’re saying (and I think it might be), it is exhausting.  The feeling that you not only have to play good tennis, you also have to make sure you don’t offend anyone.  That dynamic was completely absent last night, as these guys hit one brutally aggressive shot after another and not only didn’t apologize – they rocked a little fist pump afterwards. 

Joel hit one shot from the baseline that whizzed past Peter and literally knocked him down.  We all stopped for a second while he got to his feet and regained his equilibrium. 

He wasn’t hurt, he’d just lost his balance.  At that moment, even in my apology-free jubilation, I said to my partner, “I think you could have said ‘sorry’ on that one.”

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