Playing Ball: The Rain Game

by: Steve Tignor | December 07, 2012

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In the spirit of year-end retrospectives, and because this dark and drizzly day in New York is giving me a sense of déjà vu, I’ll finish a slow tennis week with my favorite playing memory of 2012: a set in the rain.
By the time I woke up and looked out the window on that autumn Saturday morning, the dark clouds were already overhead. They had been forecast for the afternoon, but had—unfortunately, irritatingly—made their way to my Brooklyn neighborhood a few hours ahead of schedule. My friend and tennis partner John and I had hoped to squeeze in a match before the promised deluge. The two of us share a compulsive, weekend warrior's need to exercise on our off days. Without a workout, I get, for lack of a more sophisticated word, antsy. John might be worse. If I have to cancel on him the same day or the day before we’re supposed to play, he won’t hide his annoyance. “Ahhh no,” he groans, before immediately hanging up to try to find someone to replace me. I barely have time to tell him I’m sorry. But I don’t blame him. There are few things worse than getting bailed on at the last second. It's enough to ruin an entire day.
I called John and we both agreed that it looked bad, but that a trip to the courts was worth it. After all, what if it didn’t rain? Our days would be ruined for nothing. Plus, it was a warm fall morning. How many more would there be? (Quite a few, it turned out; perhaps one of the side effects of a hotter planet will be to make autumn, rather than summer, the prime season for tennis.) 
Halfway through my subway ride, when the train rose above ground to cross Brooklyn’s famously fetid Gowanus canal, raindrops began to pelt the car's windows. But there was no turning back now. John and I arrived at the club at the same time, just as half a dozen other members were getting in their cars to leave. A few hopefuls poked their heads out of the clubhouse, trying to find some evidence of a letup in the showers, but if anything they were getting stronger. You could hear the drops drumming the clay by now.
It was the clay, though, that was our one ray of hope: Unlike a hard surface, you can still run around on it when it's slippery. Four dedicated club veterans were doing just that on one court; even as the rest of the club cleared out, they stuck with their doubles match. That was enough for John and I. We’d come this far; we might as well hit as many balls as we could. 
Right away, from the start of our warm-up, the rain felt different—it felt good. I concentrated on the ball better, and played with purpose. Neither of us wasted any time as we moved around the court. Throwing up a service toss in the rain and reaching to hit it seemed defiant, in a childlike way. It was, after all, only water.
We played fast—10 seconds between points was about as long we took—and didn’t stop at changeovers. I was more aggressive than normal, and didn’t hesitate to serve and volley or chip and charge. The rain grew heavier with each game, as expected, and the clay began to soften. Finally, near the end of the first set, the baseline grew slippery. This only made me more purposeful; I took the ball as far up in the court as I could and followed it forward. It was a departure from my normal, safe baseline game, into the gunslinging, worry-free realm of the net-rusher—the rain had loosened me up and let me play a freer style of tennis. But with that freedom came risk. John, a baseliner as well, picked me apart with many of his passing shots.
By the time we reached 5-5, the drops were thumping off the clubhouse roof; even the old doubles diehards on the next court had had enough. My sneakers began to leave prints in the clay. Another 15 minutes and we would start to damage it. The club pro, who must not have noticed us earlier, finally walked over, leaned on the fence behind our court, and said, “Uh, in case you guys can’t tell, it’s raining out here.”
We stood like kids, reluctant to come inside. 
“One more game?” John asked.
We got a nod, and an eyeroll, in return. “OK, one more game.”
Walking out of the club a few minutes later, we congratulated ourselves on having found a way to get our Saturday workout in. I couldn’t tell what was sweat under all of the rainwater on me, but our turbo-set had made an hour of tennis feel like two.
The subway ride took me above ground again and back across the canal. The rain lashed against the windows and obliterated any view from them. The train went back underground, and I was at my station. The drops began to hit me again as I walked up the stairs to the street. I rooted around in my racquet bag for my umbrella, until I realized that I hadn’t brought it.  I had never even thought about using it while I was on the court. The water had seemed natural there.
Now the spell that our match had cast was broken. The rain didn’t feel good anymore, and there was no reason to defy it. I put my head down and ran home as fast as I could. 
On Monday, I’ll begin my countdown, with video, of the 10 best matches of 2012. Here are the answers to yesterday’s quiz
1) D; 2) B; 3) A; 4) C; 5) B; 6) D; 7) C; 8) C; 9) D; 10) C
Have a good weekend.
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