Playing Ball: Hacker's Diary

Friday, April 27, 2012 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1aThey’re called journals when adults write them; diaries when little girls do. Whatever you want to call it, here’s one from a recent afternoon on a tennis court.

Wind, swirling so hard that one half of a nearby tree is moving in one direction, while the other half is moving in the opposite direction. The first warm-up balls hang in the air and vibrate like knucklers. Only piece of advice I know for a windy day: Hit down the middle. It worked once in a tournament match. Beat a better player; he was red-faced, screamed, “All this guy does is hit it down the middle!”

Spring high school matches, the school was on a hill, the courts seemingly in a wind tunnel. If the ball got away, it could end up eight courts down. Best tennis-in-the-wind story is DFW’s, about he and a buddy getting lifted off the ground and blown into a fence in the midwest. Did that really happen? Can you trust a novelist not to put a little fiction into his non-fiction? Great image anyway, two guys and the ball all sailing into the fence face first.

First practice ball always looks great, first swing feels good, but there’s that lingering question in the body: Do I really want to move my feet, lift them up and down, get on my toes, take little steps? Wouldn’t I be happier not doing any of those things? I don’t think I could make my living forcing myself to move my feet everyday. It’s one thing when it’s supposed to be fun, must be another when it’s work.

If we were to track our mind over the course of a day, or have someone track its emotional ups and downs, we would be probably surprised by how far it dips and how high flies and how often it goes to extremes—Augie March died in his head every day. Tennis makes this more obvious than anything I know. Rationality takes a leap out the window.

When I lose the first game against my opponent, I immediately think that I have to win a game ASAP, or I could lose 6-0. I win the next game. At 1-1, I have a break point. Now my mind races ahead and imagines what it will be like if I win the set—I've gone from getting bageled to winning it in the course of three minutes. The same thing happens when I'm watching. If Nadal hits a ball in the net in the first game of a three-of-five-setter against Djokovic, I think he’s in trouble. That is, until Djokovic does the same thing on the next point; then he’s the one who’s going down, for sure. The problem for me is, when I begin to imagine winning the set, I also begin to imagine having to serve it out. Which makes me too nervous to break in the first place.

Key to the service toss: Don’t worry about where it goes; just go get it and try to hit it in. Saves a lot of time. You’ll never put it exactly where you want to put it anyway. For all of the advice I've been given on serving, I still haven’t figured out a rhyme or reason why one first serve goes in and another flies five feet long or lands in the bottom of the net.

Every so often, I connect on a forehand that finds the corner and skids past my opponent for a winner. For a second this seems to be the best feeling possible in tennis. Then, on the next point, my opponent sends a routine ground stroke wide. How can this feel just as good as hitting a winner? I haven’t done anything except watch it go out? But it does—knowing someone else can screw up is a relief. And winning, I guess, is everything, no matter how it happens. We take satisfaction anywhere we can find it.

Thinking of a guy I used to play. When he would go up, say, 40-15 in a game, and I would win the next point to make it 40-30, he would make sure that he said the score—40-30—to remind us both that he was still ahead. He did this even when I was serving. Wow, that was annoying. So annoying I can't forget it five years later.

Talk about no rhyme or reason, there’s always a memory that stays with me while I’m playing, one that seems to come from nowhere and has nothing to do with tennis. This time the word “Phlogiston” gets into my head and won’t leave. It’s a discredited scientific theory—of something, I can't remember what—that I studied in a history of a science course in college. A friend and I would go to the library to study and end up spending most of the evening pronouncing it back and forth like Adam Sandler’s Cajun man: Flow-gee-stan. Had us on the floor—or, at least, laughing a lot. Somehow we both passed the class; good thing it was a gut class for English majors. I can’t figure out why that came back to me today. But if I were to do an interview after the match and was asked what I’d been thinking about, I’d have to say, “Phlogiston.” Do the pros ever think these things? The closest I can remember is hearing Federer say that, as the fifth set of the 09 Wimbledon final with Andy Roddick kept going on and on, he imagined them both playing until they had long beards.

The best lesson? Watching the pros. Before playing, I saw Rafael Nadal bury his crosscourt forehand for half-a-dozen winners, then went out and found myself going after the same shot and hitting it well. I’d even internalized the footwork for the stroke. How well I imitated it is another story. When Boris Becker won Wimbledon at 17, I suddenly found myself with a much more pronounced knee bend in my serve, like his. I didn't even know it until someone pointed it out to me.

My backhand, it’s going in: This is progress.

By the middle of the set, I know why I’m here. I want to run now, and sweating feels good. The edge that builds up over the course of the day, the inertia and anxiety and laziness, is wiped away on the court. I’ve even forgotten the wind.

At the end of a close set, there’s the handshake:

“Good one.”

“That was fun.”

*****

Have a good weekend.

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