Playing Ball: The Nets are Down

Monday, September 21, 2009 /by



For dedicated players, the words “tennis season” have no meaning. The enthusiast may move from outdoor to indoor courts and back again over the course of a year. He may play three times a week in summer but grudgingly cut it down to just one sweaty evening hour in winter. Or he may be one of the lucky ones who makes his home in a place where you can go at it from morning 'till midnight for 12 months a year. Whatever the case may be, the season never has to stop for most tennis addicts.


I used to be a year-round addict myself. Each spring I made the delicate transition well known to anyone who lives where the weather gets cold. I left my indoor club, where the conditions were controlled and the ball made a satisfying thud when it hit the strings, and returned to the outdoor public courts in my neighborhood. “The nets are up”: It was a wonderfully concise phrase—no more words were needed—usually heard out of a car window or from the church pew behind you or at the movie theater or in the parking lot at the mall. It sounded like a cause for celebration, and it was, except for the small fact that I knew I was going to play much worse for at least a week. The thin spring air, the iffy, chilly wind, and the pale sunlight in my face wreaked havoc on all my shots, particularly my serve. The worst part was the sound, or lack thereof: Without the echoing thud that the indoor club provided, my first serve seemed to lose 20 m.p.h.

The m.p.h.’s came back over the summer, as the air got thicker, the sun grew stronger, and I became accustomed to the crisp ping that a serve makes outdoors. By September I didn’t want to go back inside. The transition only made me think of the long winter ahead, so I stayed outdoors as long as I could. I can remember having trouble calling lines because there were so many leaves on the court. The wind returned in the fall, and the sunlight grew paler every day, but I liked playing tennis then. The cold air required a sweater, but it also inspired me to try to keep the points short.

That's all changed for me. Now my tennis is condensed into a recognizable season that lasts from early May to early October. In colder months I switch to squash, a game I picked up 10 years ago because of the difficulty I had finding an affordable way to play tennis in New York. Squash is cheaper than indoor tennis in the city—pretty much anything is—and, as I’ve written here before, I’m hooked on it. My tennis season is made even shorter by the lack of lights at my club; there are only two months when I can play for a significant amount of time after work before it gets dark. Those days are long gone now.

My playing season feels the way I imagine summer itself feels in England, or somewhere similarly northern and sun-starved. For most of the year, it hibernates; from December to March, I can’t picture what it would be like to be outdoors without a heavy winter coat, let alone running around on a tennis court in shorts and a T-shirt—the idea seems like pure fantasy. Then, against all odds, the air gets warm enough to begin doing just that. My tennis life blooms again out of nowhere, rises to a brief, sunset-filled peak from late June to the middle of August, only to close down in chilly darkness just as quickly. The endpoint is never exactly the same, but this past weekend was a significant marker. Despite sunny skies and 75-degree temperatures in New York, I opted to play on the little boxy white squash court at my gym instead. Maybe it was the post-U.S. Open crash, a time when the mind, or at least my mind, has taken in as much tennis as it can handle for the moment. Or maybe it was because the date was Sept. 20, the official final weekend of summer. I’ll play tennis a few more times, but I’m already reminiscing about the brief season just past, wrapping it up in my mind.

What will I remember from 2009? The sky above my club, for one: In New York, we only see the sky as a long thin rectangular strip between the buildings—some colossally high, others three or four stories—that tower over the street we’re walking down. Half of my tennis club is ringed by four-story apartment buildings, but the other half is much more open. There are subway tracks, and just beyond them a neighborhood filled with detached, two-story, century-old houses. You can see the same houses in pictures of the club from the 1920s, along with Model Ts in the parking lot and long trousers on the courts. Compared to the view from a typical New York street, the sky here is a spectacular vista. You can see what’s hidden from you most of the time: cloud formations, the path of the sun as it sets, and airplanes, one after another with almost no break, heading into La Guardia.

Another memorable vista is the first view of the club, which is in an unusually urban setting for tennis, from the subway. After work I would take the train from Manhattan, my racquet bag bouncing off people as I found a place to stand. The slow, grinding cars lumbered over the Manhattan bridge, where you can see all of downtown to the Statue of Liberty, and then back underground, through the heart of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and outdoors again. As I got off and walked toward the station exit there, hurrying to make sure I got a court, I could see the trees along the tracks ahead where the club sits. That sparking green in the middle of the decaying city always feels like a secret. This is the best essence of a club.

I’ll remember this season’s early promise, much of which would go unfulfilled, as every season’s early promise tends to do. I started by winning a few doubles matches in June with a new partner. We liked the new combination, we traded high-fives after overheads, and we talked about getting a regular, once-a-week game going. It fizzled in about three weeks. Between long office hours, vacations, injuries, and other random events, it’s hard to get four working guys together one time over the course of an entire summer, let alone once a week. This is even more difficult in New York, where most people work into the evening, and where getting around in general is a hassle—I can’t imagine there’s another place where plans are canceled as often as they here. By August, we’d given up.

Speaking of August, I’ll remember the middle of that month, a point when there was just enough light to squeeze in an hour of tennis after work. By the end of each session, the lights in the apartments surrounding the club would come on and you could see into each cozy living room as you played. One night a woman came to her window holding her baby. When I looked up, she waved the baby’s hand at me. On other nights, a young girl would pull a chair onto her fire escape directly above one of the courts and watch while she did her homework.

I’ll also remember, with regret, my two-handed backhand. I always do. As a kid, this was my best shot. I play tennis left-handed, but I bat and play golf right-handed. Like Jim Courier, my two-handed swing is a little like a batter’s in baseball. I was strong enough to hit it well as soon as I picked up a racquet; my forehand, by contrast, began as my weak side, and I labored over it for years. The upshot is that my forehand, so carefully constructed, rarely breaks down when I’m nervous, while my backhand, which I never gave a thought to, goes haywire at all the wrong times.

My temporary solution to this painful and mysterious dilemma has been to learn a one-handed slice. I say temporary because every summer I start by vowing to bring back my two-hander full time. Then I find myself in the middle of a match and immediately reverting to the slice. While the shot has been a nice addition—few things feel as good as buzzing a slice backhand down the line for a surprise winner—and has brought me closer to the old wood-racquet spirit of the game, it is also very attackable. Playing me is pretty simple: Hit to my backhand. If you want to mix it up, hit high to my backhand.

This year I managed to crack a two-hander worthy of my junior days. It came, naturally, at the end of a blowout set, when I had nothing to lose. I saw a high-bouncing short ball, took it on the rise, and before I could think about it I’d connected perfectly for a crosscourt winner. It was a bittersweet moment: The shot itself felt like a brief trip to tennis heaven, or at least to the mythical Zone; I hadn’t even swung hard to get maximum velocity. But it almost felt too good, too easy, too natural. It made me think of my two-handed backhand less as a simple shot than as a lost part of myself, a missing limb. You know how the pros signature shots’ are so recognizable they almost seem to take on lives of their own? That’s how I felt about my backhand. I tried to revive it again all summer, but it never came back to life.

But I won’t get morbid about my backhand, really I won’t. It was a good season. I ran a lot, slid a lot, hit a lot of good serves, and reached a level that I'd like to think isn't too far below where I was 20 years ago, when I was on the court every day. You really can get better at certain parts of the game, even running. I track more balls down than I once did, simply because I believe I can; it’s a lesson learned from squash, where you’re expected to get to every single shot. And being back inside the closed confines of a squash court yesterday, I was reminded of how open a tennis court is, how much a part of the world it is, and how liberating it feels to rejoin that world each spring.

One moment from the summer sticks with me the most. It was early August and my friend Jimmy and I had finished playing, sweeping the clay, and doing the lines just as it was getting dark. We sat on the clubhouse steps, not saying much. I was thinking how incredible it was that it was already this dark this early in the year. Could I really see the end of the season on the horizon, just as August was beginning? Jimmy must have been thinking the same thing. He looked up and around and said, “We don’t get enough of these summer nights.” 

Right now, feeling a cooler breeze each morning on the way to work, I know he was right. But I can’t quite mourn it, because I feel lucky to have the memories I’ve preserved here. To be able to flash back on a few months of buzzing slice backhands, 9:00 P.M. sunlight, waving babies, rapid-fire doubles points, sliding gets, roaring subway trains, and a few perfectly struck balls here and there, to see the summer as something luminous and temporary, feels fortunate. The tennis season isn't long for me anymore, at least according to the calendar, but it lasts all year in my mind.

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