Playing Ball: When the Wall Fell

Friday, November 20, 2009 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1a This month the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Do you remember where you were when it happened? I have no clue myself. My only explanation is that I was in college.

I was spending a semester at Pomona, a liberal arts school in the dry hills east of Los Angeles. The fall of the wall, the raising of the Iron Curtain, the execution of Ceausescu, the Velvet Revolution: I knew all of it was happening, and I knew that it was thrilling and utterly improbable in equal measures. This was a revolt that seemed to have been devised and carried out in about 30 seconds—history hadn’t changed, hadn’t changed, hadn’t changed . . . and then it had all changed at once. Everything I’d known about the world for my first 19 years was gone.

But the upheavals of 1989 existed at more of a remove from my daily life than they would if they were happening today. Anyone who remembers being in college knows that your priorities get spun in circles and turned upside down during those four years in ways that are incomprehensible to most adults. Including me. These days, on my way to the gym, I pass a small university in Brooklyn. In front of one of the dorms, no matter how cold it is, no matter what time of day it is, I never fail to see kids hanging outside the front doors in pajamas and flip-flops, bleary-eyed and smoking, hugging and texting, looking as if time has lost all meaning for them. Which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that they have so much of it on their hands. It almost seems like a cruel trick to play on young people, most of whom have had their youths regimented to the millisecond.

Time-management wasn’t a problem for me at Pomona. I was a junior in the fall of ’89, there for just one semester in an exchange with my normal school. California had seemed more my speed as a 19-year-old than typical exchange destinations like Grenoble or Glasgow. What I didn’t expect was that my outsider status at Pomona would motivate me in new ways. On my own, I could create my own priorities and interests, my own regimented schedule, without having to worry about the judgments of anyone around me. I had all that time on my hands, but I didn’t have to waste any of it creating a campus identity for myself or whiling away the hours smoking and hugging in my pajamas.

I could spend an hour in the library tracking down and poring over a book of criticism or poetry—or my bible of that moment, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas—that had nothing to do with any of my classes, and not have to run into someone who would call me a slacker for it. It was these deep-library discoveries, which expanded on my natural interests and inclinations, that made me want to write in the first place. I could also meet people from varying spheres of life around campus—frat guys, prep-school snobs, black-shoed Lou Reed fanatics, caffeinated literary types, grizzled Deadheads from the desert, fellow Spy Magazine obsessives, people who liked to play Centipede, even regular Joes with no distinctive traits whatsoever—and feel free to hang out with them without making any social statements or offending any friends. If I happened to hear Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”—my anthem of the moment—blaring across the campus from a dorm window on a warm night, I could knock on the guy’s door, whoever he happened to be, and stand in his room with his friends and listen to the song until its end, all of us with our hands in our pockets, tapping our feet and nodding our heads slightly, smiling at the genius of Robert Zimmerman. Then I could leave without saying a word. Or, on a weekend afternoon, I could pile into a van another set of kids and go to the beach. One of them, a barrel-chested, wild-haired hippie with a perpetually beatific grin, would demand that the rest of us run, bellowing, straight into the cold October Pacific water with him.

What I did more than anything, and as much desire as I have before or since, was train for tennis. In the past, I’d never been able to lift weights for more than a few minutes without feeling both self-conscious and totally asinine. But I began to look forward to the painful strain of it that fall. I’d never considered getting up at 8:00 A.M. to do crosscourt drills before I went to class. But I learned to love this as well, the satisfaction of getting a jump on the morning. Part of it was the freedom I had to make my days up; another part of it must have been the weather. Even now when I make my annual pilgrimage to Indian Wells in California, the sight of blue sky and sun outside my window when I wake up is enough to pull me out of bed on the spot. (Such is not the case in Brooklyn right now, where I wake up to the sight of newly bare trees and ever-grayer skies.) That early day satisfaction in California was particularly acute on weekends, when, on my walk back to my room, I’d pass the large TV in my dorm's lobby. There I’d see a dozen guys slouched on various couches, watching football. This was how I’d spent innumerable weekend days in the past. Now it seemed like a criminal waste of time.

I played mostly with Paul Cross, who was Pomona’s No. 1 and was ranked in the Top 5 in Division III. (I was somewhere in the teens or 20s at the time, I think.) He was a funny black-haired frat guy and a good athlete. We worked hard that fall, emphasizing the drudgery: crosscourt drills, volley drills, practice sets, and the dreaded I-go-crosscourt-you-go-down-the-line baseline death march. It was all made bearable by the bright sky and Southern California’s trademark bald brown hills, which rose in the distance and looked extra-terrestrial to me. (I think they reminded me of sets from the original Star Trek.) Now I knew why California had produced so many legendary tennis players. Not only could you play outdoors all year round, but the sunshine, seemingly cranked up by a weather machine each morning, could make even the most arduous aspects of practice enjoyable.

On many evenings, after class and dinner, I came back to the empty courts to run lines, one more part of the typical tennis regimen that I’d largely ignored out of laziness. In this drill, you start on the doubles sideline and sprint back and forth to each of the other lines across the court—near singles sideline, service T, far singles sideline, far doubles sideline—for however long you can take it. I started around dusk, which cast a blue glow on everything around me. The music on my Walkman was always the Clash’s London Calling; I’d recently graduated from their trebly, croaking first album, which had finally died in my tape player from overuse.

London Calling was better college music anyway; by which I mean, girls liked it. At Pomona, I’d put the CD in at a friend’s party and immediately found myself in a fervent conversation with a brown-haired girl in black Chuck Taylors who seemed to like the Clash to the exclusion of anything else on earth. I used to cringe when I’d remember what we’d said, things like, “‘Death or Glory’ is so amazing.” But now, when I hear the brisk drum roll that opens “Spanish Bombs,” when its ringing opening guitar lines come in out of nowhere on my IPod as I’m walking around Manhattan, the memory of us leaning awkwardly against a movie poster and holding beer cups in that dorm room in 1989 seems almost poignantly cool. College may turn your priorities upside down, it may turn you into a flip-flop-wearing hug machine, but it also surrounds you with youth and music and possibilities and the future in a way that's never repeated in your adult working life.

The Clash were perfect for running lines as well. London Calling was long, there were no songs you needed to fast forward, and there was that moment at the end of “Rudie Can’t Fail,” one of the most glorious in rock, when Mick Jones interjects a new, expansive tempo with his voice: “Rooo-deee can’t fail!” It always happened just as I was starting to get tired, and it always inspired me to pick the pace back up.

I went back to the East Coast and my regular school, Swarthmore, the following spring. Our tennis team was ranked No. 2 in the country in Division III, and we were going to host the NCAA Championships that May. We’d lost in the final the year before, 5-4, to UC-Santa Cruz. I hadn’t played well, or anywhere close to my potential; I hadn’t practiced hard. I'd lost my singles match in the final, then snapped out of it in time to help my partner and I win in doubles. But it was too late. I sat in the stands above the famous courts in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where we playing the nationals, and watched our No. 1 doubles team lose in three close sets. I knew it had been my fault.

The next spring, when I got back from Pomona, I would have my best college season, winning most of my matches at No. 2 singles and doubles. The foundation I’d put down in the fall had supported me through the year. Whenever I get annoyed at hearing the pros complain about the lack of an off-season, I remember how that full fall of workouts and practices at Pomona stayed with me, how it continued to help my game seven months later. There’s no question that a longer off-season would improve the quality of pro tennis.

At the NCAAs, I reversed my performance of the previous year by winning all of my singles matches. The team had been going through two-a-day practices for weeks before the tournament, and by the time the event started the ball looked like a basketball to me as it came over the net toward me. We reached the final again in front of our home fans. Waiting there for us again was Santa Cruz. It rained the day of the match, so we had to play it at a nearby indoor club. We thought our home-court advantage was lost, but hundreds of students showed up anyway. We could hear them banging on the glass whenever we won a point. I won my match at No. 2, and we swept to a 5-1 win and the D. III title. The memories of the previous year’s failure had been wiped away. At a time when the political world around us was completely new, an old fact had been confirmed for me: Success, winning, excellence—it’s a process. You really did have to sow before you could reap, but that heightened the satisfaction in the end.

That evening we received the winner’s trophy at a banquet for all the teams. It was the same brown, rectangular NCAA plaque that the college basketball champs hold up each year on TV. We walked back to our seats slowly, smiling, trying to get the most out of the moment, a little stunned that a seemingly impossible goal had been accomplished. Sitting in the aisle near our table was Paul Cross. He didn’t look up as I approached. Pomona had been upset in the first round, and he was slouched all the way down in his chair. As I got closer, he raised his forearm and put his hand up at the side of his face, like an Indian saying “How.” I wasn’t sure what he was doing at first, and he still hadn't glanced at me. But from up close I could see that his lips were set in a crooked, rueful, sincere smile. He knew I was coming. He was giving me a high five.

***

Have a good weekend.

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