Playing Ball: The Pleasure of Effort

by: Steve Tignor | April 10, 2009

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Tennis-ball-rebound-1a In between New York City and Williamsport, Pa., the town where I grew up, there’s a village with the less-than-poetic name of Turbotville. It sits a few miles west of Millville, a little north of Danville, and something more than a stone’s throw south of Montoursville. But that’s just what the map says. When you’re on Main St. in Turbotville, population 691, with nothing but blinding sky and flying clouds as far as the eye can see, you know you’re in the middle of nowhere.

When I was a kid and obsessed with becoming a successful junior tennis player, I visited the village for some forgotten reason. Maybe there was a fair, with funnel cake. Maybe it was the Turbotville Firemen’s Carnival, which, according to Wikipedia, is held the first week in June and “has a variety of foods, games, and musical acts. Throughout the week a Pet Parade is held along with other activities.”

Whatever it was—I don’t remember a pet parade, fortunately—what sticks in my mind was the sight of red-clay tennis courts in the local park. At that point I may have only seen European-style dirt on TV, so this was a stunning discovery. Red clay in Turbotville? It’s so stunning to think about now, in fact, that I doubt it was true. Going back to Wikipedia, there are apparently tennis courts in Turbotville’s park, but something tells me the red clay part was either a trick of the sunlight that day, or an invisible layer of crushed brick that my imagination added later. One thing is for sure: I wanted it to be there.

My earliest recollection of playing on red clay—this memory is undoubtedly true—came in another town that, while larger than 691 people, was still about as far from Paris as you could get: Lancaster, home of all things Pennsylvania Dutch. Each year a Middle States junior tournament was held at a tennis-and-riding club in the outskirts of the city. To get there you drove into a secluded, woody area, turned right onto a small pathway, and encountered eight (or more) red-clay courts that looked as if they could have been airlifted from Roland Garros. Again, this part of the story may be wishful thinking on my part, but I do remember how exotic those courts looked deep in the heart of horse country.

For me, as a tennis fan from deep in the heart of the U.S., the surface’s color and texture conjured up locales with fabulous names like Monte Carlo, Rome, Paris, even a place called Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. I had no idea what or even where that was, but it sounded more intriguing than Indianapolis, Indiana, where the U.S. (green) Clay Court Championships were held in those days. This was the era when tennis had gone multicolored. The fusty all-white look was being abandoned, and there were pink, purple, and two-toned balls mixed into my practice hopper. On the one hand, the color of Euro-clay fit with that progressive, tennis-boom spirit. But at the same time, red clay was a naturally occurring phenomenon. It was the furthest thing from a gimmick; clay was already part of tennis’ tradition, and one that made the sport seem uniquely democratic. Clay-court tennis was a second version of the game that upended the rules of the one everyone knew and rewarded players with different strengths. How many other sports are that flexible and varied?

The tournament in Lancaster was an important one. It attracted solid players from the Philly suburbs, the Middle States in-crowd. A few were more than solid: one year Lisa Raymond was the first seed in the 10-and-under girls when I was playing the boys 14s. At 13, I was on the fringe of this scene, an outsider with the wrong warm-up suit—it wasn’t shiny—and racquet bag who couldn’t even contemplate beating the kids whose names I read in the MSTA sectional rankings. By the next year, I was one of those kids with a ranking, but it was still a shock. I’d lost and lost and lost and lost when I was 13, and then suddenly, at 14, I'd won. For months, all the practice time I’d put in—I would never practice harder than I did in those years—had seemed pointless, and then overnight it had all paid off. Just as important, I’d earned my way out of the social fringes and into a shiny blue warm-up suit.

But there were levels I would never reach, and they were already in evidence in the 14-and-unders in Lancaster. One afternoon I stood next to the father of one my friends while we watched his son warm up. His opponent was an oversize 14-year-old man-child who was highly ranked in the section. In my mind, he sports a beard, but I’m not sure that’s true or even possible.

“That guy’s an animal,” the father said after watching the kid send a warm-up overhead two inches from his son’s head. The description stuck. There was a certain class of powerful Middle States players, all a year or two ahead of me, that I would always refer to as “The Animals.” It’s probably not a coincidence that I would never beat any of those guys, even years later when I had improved enough not to be intimidated by them.

Clay courts Where was I? Dirt, right. I liked it from the start. Unlike a hard court, you dug into clay, and it stayed with you, it was evidence of effort expended. After a match, you found red splotches scattered on your shoes and shirt—how did they get there? Not only could you slide on it, but you could control how far you slid. It also suited my baseliner’s (pusher’s, if you will) game. I wasn’t fast, but I was willing to scramble and hit the ball back a hundred times if that’s what it took. It seemed studious to play that way, which I thought was cool. 

But the surface also brought out anger—made me see red. In the semis one year, I played another Middle States friend. It was a humid and sunny summer morning, and by the end of the match, which consisted of many long rallies that took us all over the court, I had decided that I hated this kid. Each point was personal, and each one I lost produced wild frustration and brought me to the brink of tears. For better or worse, it worked. I won easily, but I came off the court with an appropriately beet-red face. I’d learned that clay, and the effort that it required, could make your blood boil.

But if the Lancaster dirt required extra work from you at times, it could also inspire it. When I was 14, I played a first-round match on a far court on a late Friday afternoon. I didn’t know my opponent, which meant that I couldn’t possibly lose—this skinny kid wasn’t part of the in-crowd, how could he be any good? I soon discovered a flaw in that reasoning: The mystery kid never missed.

Studious grinder that I was, I could imagine only one way to counter my opponent: by never missing either. We looped balls back to each other as the sky got dark and the other courts emptied. My memory of the points consists of both of us loping back toward the fence, hitting a monster moonball 20 feet over the net, and loping back up toward the baseline so we could do it all over again. This might sound casual, but every one of those moonballs was nerve-wracking and exhausting. Appearances aside, playing not to miss is the least relaxing and most strenuous approach to tennis. An older junior—an “Animal”—peered through the fence at us for a second and walked away saying to his friend, “It’s like the French Open out there.” It may or may not have been a compliment. I would end up winning the first set in a tiebreaker, but it took so long—more than 2 hours—that the light had died and we had to go indoors, where I won the second set 6-3.

The memory of this match is paired in my mind with a memory of very different afternoon from the same period. That summer I was playing two-man football in a backyard down the block. A friend and I were up against two older, bigger kids, and were getting our a---es kicked. But as they knocked us over for the 10th time and spiked the ball in the end zone, we decided that we were going to find a way to beat them. As they cruised around the yard, laughing, we began to play with maniacal effort. The more we did it, the more fun it became to throw all caution and doubt and even thought to the wind. We amazed ourselves with what we could do—suddenly tacking someone 5 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier was no problem. The most memorable moment for me came when I was playing defense and had been faked out by one of the older guys, who had the ball. I’d fallen down while he’d trotted toward the end zone. Rather than let him go, I got up and charged after him. Just before I got to him, his teammate turned around and yelled, with some fear in his voice, “Here he comes!” I must have looked like I’d lost my mind. I wrestled the kid with the ball to the ground in one fell swoop. It was fantastic, but it was too late. He'd crossed the goal line by an inch. We didn't care. My friend and I traded high-fives anyway. At that moment, trying and losing seemed so much more honorable than winning.

The feeling I had when I was running across that backyard, of crazed exertion for its own sake, is the same feeling I had on that distant tennis court in Lancaster, though the exertion was far more controlled and interior there—that’s the difference between football and tennis. It’s the way I always want to feel, though I rarely have the energy to make it happen. It may explain my current addiction to squash, which, like clay-court tennis when it's played well, allows you to create points that turn into multiple points in one—you run up, back, side to side; you slide; you get one more ball back and then do it again; you think the point is finished and then you have to start it over. 

The pleasure of playing quality tennis on clay comes from winning. It comes from competing. It comes from effort for its own sake. It comes most of all when you find yourself running from behind the baseline at full speed to track down a drop shot, sliding recklessly toward the ball, and seeing a look of surprise and fear in your opponent’s eyes that says, “Here he comes!”

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