Playing Ball: Into the Swing

by: Steve Tignor | April 13, 2012

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Tennis-ball-rebound-1aEaster is a day of renewal, and you could feel that spirit in the younger, scruffier quadrants of Brooklyn’s Ft. Greene Park last Sunday.

Back was the longhaired girl in Chuck Taylors carrying a skateboard, walking quickly, smiling to herself.

Back was the young man laying flat on his back on the grass, in shorts and black shoes, his pasty white legs on display. He was shading his eyes from the sun and avoiding his friends’ game of Frisbee. There’s no sweaty, serious Ultimate version played in this part of the park. The tosses were deliberately lackluster, and usually followed by a giggle.

Back was the college-age kid with a beard and curly early Bob Dylan hair. He was wearing a dark red blazer and ambling very slowly, staring down through his black rectangular glasses at the ground beneath him. It was possible that he was coming from church and meditating on what he had heard there, but more likely he keeping another local tradition alive: the hungover walk of shame.

Back were the many dogs of New York City, tongues out. Back were the rad, wild-haired little kids on tiny bikes, chasing each other from one end of the park to the other. Back was the green in the trees, though most of the branches were still bare; the combination gave everything that ragged, work-in-progress look of spring. Back were the readers—no Kindles, just big, old, unwieldy paperbacks. And back were the tennis players, who filled the eight hard courts at the park’s center.

Unlike most public courts across the country, these are virtually always filled; the population density of the neighborhood sees to that. During high season, the sign-up system is taken seriously, and you can never stay on for more than an hour. But things were still mostly casual on this April Sunday. Mostly. Two guys walked onto a court where their friends were playing and proceeded to kick them off. One of the men getting the boot asked them, incredulously, “You signed up?” How could anyone bother to do that, today?

What does tennis, Brooklyn-style, look like? Shoes, some people play in shoes. Tennis dresses, not many wear tennis dresses. New balls, there aren’t many bright yellow new balls in sight; the flat, worn felt of the well-used ball is more common. Racquet bags, I didn’t see many racquet bags, just people holding individual frames. Even the two guys who walked up in new, collared tennis shirts and shorts were wearing running shoes. There’s nothing country club about tennis here.

As for the play itself, you can see a lot of junior lessons in these games. The strokes are remembered, the service motion is competent, the ball generally goes over the net. But you don’t see a lot of recent practice, either—inconsistency rules. Most surprising is the number of one-handed backhands; more than 50 percent of the players here have one. It could be an age thing, but I think it’s just that a one-hander is a simpler shot to coordinate than a two-hander.

Aside from that, backhands and forehands come in all varieties in the park. There’s the scooped one-handed backhand, which is a slice that never quite cuts through anything. There’s the upper-cut topspin forehand, an extreme, herky-jerky, unfinished version of the Western forehands the pros use. And there’s the totally open-stance, totally flat-footed, stick-your-arm-out-and-pray volley—it's amazing how often it works. A few minutes spent watching here is enough to make you appreciate all over again how hard it is, and how much practice goes in, to making a ground stroke into something even remotely polished and logical. It’s not easy to make it look easy.

No matter, this is Brooklyn, not Bollettieri’s. Some people play points and even sets, but most are content simply to hit back and forth, laugh at their mistakes, and spend almost as much time gathering up the balls as they do rallying with them—it’s us rec players who really need ball kids, not the pros.

The players here know how to play; you can see they have the grips and the muscle memories. But they’re mostly not here to compete, or even to work up much of a sweat. It’s spring, it’s sunny, it’s warm, it’s Sunday, it’s Ft. Greene Park on Easter. It’s a good day to lay in the grass, read a book, pet the dog, walk off a hangover, hit a ball back and forth, get into the swing.


Think I'll try it myself this weekend. See you Monday.

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