Playing Ball: Facing the Unfamiliar

Friday, July 29, 2011 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1a The most articulate devotees of any sport don’t merely watch it or play it. They make it into a metaphor for life itself. Sports, it seems, can’t just entertain us or get us a little exercise; they must teach us something as well. Roger Angell writes about how baseball teaches even its best players about the inevitability of failure. Dave Hickey writes of the hierarchy-destroying power of basketball's structure. C.L.R. James tells us about the intricate democratic community created during a cricket match. That's chopped liver compared to what soccer allegedly does, though. According to one writer, the ball-kicking sport “explains the world.”

What does tennis explain? Many of its most articulate devotees believe that it reveals the world to be, beneath the thin, genteel veneer of civilization, a place or raw combat, a place where, when it comes down to it, we’re on our own. Tennis teaches us resourcefulness. It teaches us to be proactive and aggressive. It teaches us sportsmanship and obedience. It teaches us, first of all, to buy a can of balls before we get to the courts.

It also teaches us, as I’ve learned again this summer, how jarring it can be to try something new. In tennis, trying something new means playing a new opponent. This can make the sport, even for someone who has been at it for years, feel brand new again. What could be better than that? The problem is, “new” also means “unfamiliar.” Playing a new opponent forces you out of your comfortable rut, forces you to hit shots you normally don’t hit, move in ways you normally don’t move, re-learn to anticipate and strategize. As I said, it can be jarring, frustrating, a little scary. That’s why we get in comfortable ruts to begin with.

My tennis rut for the last four or five years years has consisted of four regular opponents. John, a crafty lefty who gets to everything. Don, a thoughtful tactician with a mean two-handed crosscourt backhand. Jimmy, who hits a forehand with such severe topspin that I’m forced to take most balls above my head. And Rich, a good athlete and solid all-around player who has made himself much more consistent in recent years.

Against all of these guys I know exactly what I need to do, and points and sets play out in familiar, almost automatic patterns. Against John, I try to work the ball inside out, to his weaker backhand; many rallies are decided by whether I can connect on an overhead (this was always a favorite shot of mine, but it has become much more erratic as time has gone on). Against Rich, who has a strong backhand, I try to hold serve, and then look for openings with my down the line forehand; we end playing a lot of tiebreakers. Against Don, the most philosophical of the bunch, I wait for his mind to wander for a point or two. He’s much tougher in matches that mean something; he saves his concentration and competitiveness for those. Against Jimmy, I try to keep my arm from falling off.

It’s a measure of how many distinct levels there are to tennis, as well as how difficult the sport is, that over the last few years I've found few other players who match up well with me. Guys fresh from their college teams are generally too fast, too good; while others who look like they can hit the ball during the warm-up turn out to be too inconsistent during points. (I hate playing rhythm-less, hit-and-miss, no-workout tennis; give me a pusher, and some exercise, anytime.) Other promising-looking opponents completely fold when the sets begin.

This month, though, I seem to have found a new opponent, Rob. We did two-on-ones drills with a mutual friend before trying some singles (maybe tennis is really a metaphor for something else: dating, and how hard it is to find the right match). Rob and I are about the same age and ability level, but I could see immediately that he brought a wild card to the game, something that my regular opponents didn’t: A live arm. He has a legitimate, good-athlete snap on his serve, a reliably authoritative overhead, a point-ending topspin crosscourt forehand, and, strangest of all these days, a very good topspin one-handed backhand. I had a hunch that he had played baseball, and I was right. But I was surprised to learn that he had been a second-baseman, a position that doesn't require a gun for an arm. I can only imagine what kind of arm you need to be a pitcher, or a third baseman, or a right-fielder, and what kind of serves those guys would have.

Rob and I have played just twice, and we haven’t worked up to sets yet. It was too bloody hot on one of the days we played to bother with anything overly competitive, so we played service games to 10. Even so, I felt like I had to find a new approach to tennis against him. First of all, he can hit aces, which will mean an adjustment on returns. He can take what would normally be rally shots against my other opponents and put the ball away immediately with his forehand. I feel surprisingly slow trying to catch up with those shots so far, but then again I’m not anticipating them or positioning myself for them yet; they seem to come out of nowhere. And on his backhand side, Rob likes to play a little Federer-esque short slice crosscourt backhand. I’ve had to run forward, bend for that shot, and try to guide it up the line and deep into the corner, none of which I’ve had to do on a regular basis in years.

So far I haven’t played well against him. My answer to his forehand has been to try to hit bigger on my own forehand, which has led, more than anything else, to errors. Wild, ugly, ball-landing-near-the-back-fence errors. This, I guess, is the typical first answer to the unfamiliar: trial and (ugly) error. I was hoping to get another look at his shots today, but it rained in Brooklyn this morning. Maybe next week. Maybe then I’ll start to find the right spot along the baseline to position myself for his forehand. Maybe I’ll start bending more easily and guiding that little approach up the line and into the corner with more pace. Maybe I’ll discover a serve that he can’t handle or a trajectory—high or low—on my ground strokes that he doesn’t like. Maybe he’ll start to miss. Hey, I’ll take that, too.

Whatever happens, I’ll have learned another lesson from tennis. None of us owns one game, just as we don’t own one personality. We change and emphasize difference aspects of our style with each opponent; we find different strengths and hide different weaknesses, with each person we play, with each person we meet. Tennis can get us in a nice comfortable rut, but it can also give us a chance to leave that rut and discover something new about ourselves.

*****

The tennis court isn’t the only place where I’ve been confronted with the unfamiliar this summer. I’ve also found it on the squash court. Normally squash is a winter game for me, one which I put aside when the weather gets warm. But this month the weather has been a little too warm for tennis at times. On a few of a our recent 99-degree days in New York City, when the sidewalks appear to sweat, I’ve opted to head back inside my air-conditioned gym and trade tennis racquet for squash racquet.

My opponent yesterday was a recent Wesleyan grad, Matt, whom I had last played, one time, six years ago, when he was a local prep schooler in Brooklyn Heights. (Matt, who started his first job this week, must feel like those days, his high school days, are from another lifetime. They seem like they could have been last week to me. I’m still in the same apartment and at the same job.)

Matt was a good college player who trained at the famous Heights Casino, an incubator of squash talent. In other words, to me, an entirely untrained hacker, he looks like someone who knows how to play squash. He hits hard, has clean shots, and most important, knows where to move and how to control the all-important “T.” That’s the spot in the middle of the court where the service lines come together. Plant yourself there and you’ll control the rally and make your opponent do all the running, the same way tennis players used to control points from the net. Against me, Matt pretty much owned the T, and the rallies; I owned the back of the court, which is exactly where you don't want to be.

I didn’t mind at first. I knew I was destined to lose, and running is why I play squash in the first place. I was happy to blast the ball with him and work up a sweat. But even when you’re playing for nothing more than fun and exercise, and even when you know you’re not in the same league as your opponent, losing seven straight games does get a little old. So I resolved to get him off the T one way or another and try to save face by winning one game.

Like a lot of tennis players who try squash, my best shots are touch shots—you need more stamina in squash, but you need to be more proficient with a racquet in tennis. So I started to drop shot Matt, and I started to win points. He said, after one of those drops, “You figured me out; you’re moving me forward. I play better when I’m set up.” I won my one game for the afternoon.

Surprisingly, controlling a few rallies and winning a few points didn't just give me more confidence, it actually made me faster. Late in the game that I won, Matt hit a perfect return, low and along the opposite wall from me. He’d been making that return all day, and I hadn’t gotten anywhere near it. This time, though, I felt like a new, much better player as I moved across to cut it off with one long lunge. I got to it and flicked a quick little drop shot back along the wall, a millimeter or so above the “tin” (the squash equivalent of the net). Matt couldn’t get to it. Instead, he turned around and said, “Wow!” We were both surprised. But why should we have been? That’s what any racquet sport, where it’s all up to you out there, will teach you. It will teach you that you can always do more than you think you can.

*****

Have a good weekend.

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