Playing Ball: Night Game
Three or four years ago, I traveled to Key Biscayne with a fellow New York tennis writer. Driving through the cluttered Florida suburbs along route 95 one evening, we passed a sight that was as welcome as it was startling: a vast outdoor tennis center, brightly lit and chaotic with players. Each of us was quiet for a minute as we went by, until my friend said, “Can you imagine being able to play tennis outdoors every night of the year?” It was the same question I'd just silently asked myself.
For most people reading this, that must sound like a rather hum-drum fantasy. “Yeah, of course, I play four times a week after work,” a typical tennis fanatic from most places around the U.S. might respond. I can remember being able to that myself for the first 20-odd years of my life in Pennsylvania.
The lights burned brightly all summer at the far end of our town’s park. Eight or 10 lighted asphalt courts were lined up next to three baseball fields and a bandshell. Summer concerts were held there, though it seemed that no matter who performed—old-time swinging bandleaders like Doc Severinson and Maynard Ferguson were the norm—the crowd would end the evening bellowing that traditional tribal chant of the Midwest: “Oz-zy! Oz-zy! Oz-zy!” I knew the stage better from my Little League days, when our “assistant coach,” a sadistic 20-something slacker with long blond hair who never took off his sunglasses, would yell at us to run “to the bandshell!” every time we dropped a fly ball in practice. At certain moments, there was no one left for him to hit balls to; we were all running to the bandshell.
Well, anyway, the courts sat in the heart of this nexus of summer-evening commotion. I played all kinds of tennis on them over the years. I practiced with my dad, I hacked around with friends in cut-off jeans who could barely get the strings on the ball, I won and lost tournament matches there, I hit serves out of buckets by myself, I dodged girls on roller skates circling the courts, I played doubles matches with friends where all we did was try to thread a lob between the two tree branches that hovered far above the court—we couldn’t leave until somebody pulled it off. As you can see, the park was mostly a spot for tennis of the most social and disorganized sort. The serious play went down earlier in the day at another, more sedate set of courts in a nicer section of town.
In the park, early in the evenings, there might be two Little League games going on at the same time, even as the tennis courts were overflowing with random action. Once, when I was 13 or so, a foul ball thudded down next to me while I was playing.
“Hey, kid, we need that ball,” one of the baseball players yelled to me, as if I had planned to put it in my pocket and take it home.
“That’s Steve Tignor,” another one yelled to his friends. I’d pitched on the same team with him a couple of years before. “He can throw,” he added. His current teammates seemed skeptical that I had the strength to get the ball all the way back to them, even though the field and the courts were about 50 feet apart. With two-dozen kids watching, I picked up the baseball and threw it high and lazily in their direction. It was a weak throw—after a year or so of tennis, I hadn’t anticipated how heavy it would be—and I cringed as it quickly began to dive. It cleared the baseball field’s fence by about a foot. The only sounds were a few scoffing laughs and grumblings of general dispapproval. No one said thanks. No one was very impressed. My baseball life was officially behind me. It was all tennis from then on.
This leafy, humid, buggy, artificially lit zone of hot dogs, Orange Crushes, concession stands, licorice, braces, peanut shells, skateboards, curse words, and wild pitches was a regular stop on the somewhat limited social tour of the area’s junior high students. Few of these kids had ever thought about picking up a tennis racquet; those of us who did play were figures of curiosity. My most vivid memory of this scene is of three guys, slightly older than me, strolling up to the fence and standing behind a cute girl who was playing with her friend. The dudes frowned silently behind her, their long hair in their faces. Either they couldn’t think of anything to say, or none of them wanted to risk venturing a line and looking like a moron if she ignored him. Finally, after playing three or four points while they watched, the girl looked back and asked, “Where are you guys heading tonight?”
The tallest snapped his head sideways to get his hair out of his eyes and said, “You know, we’re just gonna go wherever the wind blows.”
I’ve resigned myself to the idea that this world is a thing of the past for me. In New York, there are few lighted tennis courts, and they’re invariably booked. Even if you're lucky enough to find yourself on one, it won’t be for longer than an hour—not nearly enough time to try to send a lob in between two tree branches. The club where I play is jammed so tightly against a set of apartment buildings—you can hear silverware clink while you’re waiting to return serve—that any lights around the courts would blast straight through the residents’ living rooms.
But if you get there early, no later than 6:30 in July, you can squeeze in a couple of sets in fading sunlight. I did that for the first time all year yesterday, which is sad because the longest days, and seemingly half the summer, are already past us. Still, I drilled ground strokes—also a first this season—for half an hour and played nearly three sets of doubles. All five courts were being used, but the clubroom was empty and the place was peaceful. On the opposite side from the apartments is an outdoor subway line. Every few games during the evening rush hour you can see the rusted top of the Q train barrel past. As the airplanes once did at the U.S. Open, the train drowns out all other noise. It’s somehow soothing to play a point when you can’t hear the ball hit the racquet.
Above there was planes flying into La Quardia in the opposite direction from the train. The sunset made them pink. A chimney belched black smoke. Players from other courts left one by one. Their places were taken by a cat that likes to lie on the Har-Tru at night. We could hear a few crickets in the bushes, a rare sound in New York. Otherwise, with darkness creeping down the walls around us, the only signs of life in this particular center of the city were the politely enthusiastic sounds of our match—doubles is always social tennis, and the best method the sport offers for leaving behind a day at work.
“Hey, great point.”
“Let’s break ’em here.”
“That’s the way, nice and simple, no problem.”
"It's OK, it was the right shot."
“I’ll serve the ball up the middle and you move, it's easy.”
“Last game, guys.”
A well-struck ball smacked the net's wide white tape. You know the sound, it’s so solid and final, even though it really could have gone either way. When I hit a ball right and still hear it collide with the net, I snap my head up in frustrated surprise. But as long as the point wasn’t life or death, I can take some pleasure in that smacking sound. And when is a point life or death, really, when you’re playing tennis on a summer evening?