First there’s surprise: That a tennis ball is so bouncy, for one. When I try to dribble it with my racquet, I can’t control it. The ball leaps back up, passes right by my strings, and reaches the peak of its bounce around eye level. I try to remember how I ever managed to keep these things inside the lines.
The next surprise is that the net is so high. After months of watching the sport from the regal bird’s-eye view of a television camera, I have trouble adjusting to it at ground level. On TV, you get the sense that the players are hitting down on the ball. If only it were true. This looks harder than I thought.
But surprise quickly turns to relief, as I take a few swings and succeed in getting the bouncy ball over the net and safely into the court. “Hey, I can still do this, it’s hard-wired into me.” I swing the same way I have since I was 13, make contact in the same spot, put the same amount of spin on the ball. If you want proof that the body has a mind, and a memory of its own, you can find it in the thoughtless precision of a tennis swing.
What comes after surprise and relief? I hate to say it, but for me it’s daydreaming; no wonder I never made it far as a player. I fall into the rhythm of the rallies, which seem bred into me, and which go something like this: Watch the ball and run to it like a very obedient dog, split-step, turn, swing, shuffle back to the middle of the baseline, repeat. As this becomes routine, I begin to settle in and notice familiar parts of my creaky but cool old Brooklyn tennis club, which hasn’t changed a whole lot since it was built in 1889. Above me is the window, in the apartment building that pushes up against the courts’ back fence, where last fall a woman who was holding a baby waved to me. Over there is the third-floor fire escape where a teenage girl spent much of last summer reading thick paperback novels with entranced, bugged-out eyes at the same time that she followed our matches below. On the other side of the subway tracks, there’s a large white house, a rarity in a borough that’s 98-percent apartments. It’s the same house that can be seen in a 1920s-era painting that hangs on the clubhouse wall, when the club’s small parking lot was filled with Model Ts and the players pictured on these same courts wore white shoes and flannel trousers.
I’m brought back to the present by a sound from the top floor of the apartment building. When I hit a good forehand, there’s a solitary clap from somewhere inside a window. Then another, after a good backhand. I squint up in that direction but can’t make anyone out. On the next rally, my opponent hits a hard, flat ball that skids off the baseline. I try a one-handed backhand and whiff, à la Roger Federer. There's no more clapping.
Music comes from the window instead. As usual for the neighborhood, it has the synthetic airiness of old disco, and it floats lazily over the courts. Eventually I recognize it as the Bee Gees' “How Deep is Your Love.” It sounds fantastic, the way disco, detested in my hometown and all over the Midwest when I was a kid, can only sound fantastic in New York City. I came here originally to go to CBGBs and write about punk rock, but when I got here I ended up understanding its philosophical opposite, disco, for the first time. Now, while I’m hitting, I remember a friend and I, on a hot afternoon in the mid-90s, driving through the city in his old used Cadillac, sitting back with the windows rolled down—you rolled them down—as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and, like an ocean-liner on asphalt, made the slow wide turn into the chaos of Atlantic Avenue, all while blaring Donna Summer’s 20-minute pulsation, “Try Me.” Only in this city could that scene ever make sense, and feel right.
We start to play a set, and I reach my next stage. Let’s call it the beginner’s luck part of the match. This is the blissful and temporary time when you’re just getting back into the sport, your expectations are low, and you can’t miss. I make every first serve. I make every forehand up the line. I’m even loosen up enough to hit my two-handed backhand past the service line. I’m good at this!
Half an hour later, I’m not loose anymore. My shirt is heavy with sweat and the skin on my face is starting to burn. I rush a forehand early in a rally, catch it too close to my body, and drill it into the middle of the net. A first serve catches the tape and rolls back to my service line. I suddenly remember how much despise having to walk forward to pick up a ball in this situation, and then head all the way back to hit a second serve. How nice it must be to have a ball boy there to gather it up and spare you this most aggravating and disorienting of walks.
My opponent, an old friend and regular partner, is getting more balls back than he normally does, and more than I think he should. I curl a forehand crosscourt and move forward. I think it’s going to be a winner and relax. At the last second, he stretches wide and gets just enough on the ball to send it high over the net and infuriatingly close to the baseline. I have to start over. I run around and try to hit a forehand, but his ball has no pace. I try, and fail, to generate it myself and end up blooping it feebly into the net. I stalk toward forward to get it. I curse under my breath. My skin stings more, and for the first time I can feel the sweat trickling over my eyebrows. What happened to all those daydreams and golden strokes of an hour ago?
Tennis happened, and that’s not such a bad thing, really. Where else can you go from irrational exuberance to irrational rage in the course of one nice spring afternoon? What started out as a pleasant hit is transformed into a life and death challenge within half an hour. Ultimately it’s more satisfying that way. My opponent keeps getting balls back, but I win the set in the end. I don’t do it by hitting many perfect shots, and my backhand goes back to being its old tight self. By the end of my first time out, I’ve reached the final stage: reality. Let the New York City tennis season—its moments of easy perfection, its airy disco soundtrack, its irrational rage, its mysterious spectators from the neighborhood, its flubbed forehands, its ugly wins and uglier losses—begin.
Let the Slam season begin as well. Starting either Friday or Saturday, I'll be writing from Roland Garros.