Playing Ball: Going Public with It

Friday, April 12, 2013 /by

April is undeniably cruel to New Yorkers; cruel in the way that it dangles a better future in front of us—sunshine and 70 degrees, T-shirts and open windows—only to snatch it back with a blustery snarl and a lash of cold rain to the face. Pulling back the curtain in my living room this morning, I knew I was in for a full day of the latter. Brooklyn’s sky was gray, its streets were slick, its people invisible under black umbrellas. The clouds looked like they were here to stay. I closed the curtain again. Opening it had made the apartment darker. 

This was an especially bitter pill to swallow after what we had glimpsed earlier in the week. It was only Tuesday that all nine million of us had been led to believe that winter, which had clung to the area well beyond its supposed March closing date, was finally blowing away for good. For that one shining afternoon, the sun was bright enough and the air warm enough that you felt lighter as you walked from place to place. Brooklynites, liberated from their brownstones and one-bedrooms at last, filled up the sidewalks and little parks in my neighborhood. Twice I heard people walk past me and say, as they smiled into their cell phones, “Yep, I took the day off.” The jingle of the ice cream man was back. The girls had traded their tall rain boots for...bare feet. With my living room window propped up for what felt like the first time all year, the sound and feeling and dusty light of spring flowed indoors as well. 

It was enough to inspire my favorite musical transition of the year: The jazz records I’d been playing in the background for months went back into the record case on the wall; the rock records that had been gathering dust all winter were pulled out and lined up, with anticipation, next to the turntable. The Ramones flat, driving “Rockaway Beach”—“Chewin’ out a rhythm on my bubble gum/The sun is out, I want some”—an anthem of summer democracy, about taking the bus to the beach, couldn’t have sounded much better. As the vinyl spun and crackled, you could believe that the Rockaways, ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, would rise again.

By 2:00 that afternoon, it was time for another favorite annual transition: A trip to the great outdoors, by which I mean the year’s first trip to an outdoor tennis court. A regular squash partner of mine and I had one booked at the park a few blocks away. This was a change of pace for me; since joining an outdoor tennis club in Brooklyn 10 years ago, I had played on public courts here only sparingly. 

It didn’t take me long to remember why I had made that move a decade ago. When my partner arrived, a couple of minutes before I did, another local hacker had already claimed our court and was unzipping his racquet bag. My friend, who had gotten up at 7:00 A.M. that morning to book it, walked over and said, gingerly, awkwardly, “Uh, I have this court.” 

“What do you mean?” was the answer.

“I signed up for it.”

From there, as you might expect, an argument ensued. It's one that might be repeated on the overcrowded and often overheated tennis courts of New York City 20 times each day. The man began by claiming that he hadn't known that there was a sign-up sheet. When it was placed in front of him, he backtracked a bit and admitted that, yes, come to think of it, he had heard a rumor of the sheet's existence before. Still, he said, referring to the process of reserving a court in the morning, that he “didn’t think that whole thing started until May.” When it was pointed out that the the sign-up sheet itself basically proved that the whole thing did indeed begin in April, he walked to the side of the court, silently put his racquet back in his bag, and walked off. But not before getting in a few grumbles and head shakes with some people he knew who were playing on the next court. The New York tennis season had officially begun. 

As I took my first swings, it all came back to me. There was the worn-green asphalt court, with a river-like crack across no-man’s land from one doubles sideline to the other; it had even sprouted tributary cracks in the vicinity of the net. There was the wind blowing in from next-door New York harbor, through the court's screenless fences. There was the low spring sun that covered everything in glare. And there was the noise—of trucks bouncing on potholes, jackhammers drilling up pavement, helicopters clattering their way to Manhattan, ships and ferries announcing their entrances into the harbor, and grunts and shouts from the playground basketball game going on a few feet behind me. This was concrete jungle tennis, a sonic assault. Flushing Meadows seemed as quaint as the most secluded country club by comparison. 

Speaking of clubs, I wanted mine back, I wanted to be there, halfway across Brooklyn, quietly closed off from the city behind a set of apartment buildings. It’s not fancy or exclusive—you bring your own towel, and lunch, if you want it, is a burger grilled by the groundskeeper for a dollar. But only now did I appreciate the walls around the courts that kept out the wind, the trees that hung over them and kept out the sun, the little cinder-block clubhouse showing the Tennis Channel on a big-screen TV. And most of all the Har-Tru, which didn’t make my knees creak just looking at it, the way these hard courts did.

How were my first shots, in the sun and wind and noise? They floated and knuckled in the breeze a little, and didn't fly as fast as I intended. It’s still amazing to me how hard it is to generate pace when you go from indoor courts to outdoor. Moving on the hard surface was an adjustment as well; what could be accomplished with one long, smooth, slightly lazy slide on clay required five squeaky little stutter steps on asphalt. As for the balls that hit the cracks and bounced straight up in the air—I thought I’d left those behind on dirt.

After a few minutes, though, it was clear that most of my game was still in order. The forehand still had topspin and the slice still stayed low—except when it popped up. The second serve kicked, even if I couldn’t buy a first one. My game hadn’t vanished over the winter; its strengths and flaws are too ingrained. Even my frustration at its well-known imperfections were the same as always. By the end of an hour, I was back into the competition, enjoying the exercise, and threatening to bounce my racquet on the court after dumb mistakes. 

I was feeling a little more at home, too. Public courts, often cracked, were where I had learned tennis, and spaces like this one were where I had played it as a kid. In the evenings, under the park lights, amongst the gnats and mosquitoes, Little League games had gone on next door; foul balls would land with a thwack in the middle of our doubles matches. A crew of teenage girls circled the back of the courts on roller skates; if you timed a moonball right, you could push your opponent back into their path as they passed. Other kids, after a trip to the concession stand, leaned into the fence to watch us play, sipping Orange Crushes. They mocked our misses. We aimed our serves at their fingers, which curled around the fence’s wires. 

Much later, when I had moved to New York, I went with a friend to Long Island to play at his hometown tennis club. This was a proper East Coast club, with a long line of well-watered Har-Tru courts that looked like they hadn’t been touched in a week, and pitchers of ice-water set out for the players. How often did they have to replenish that ice, I wondered. It was a good afternoon of tennis; he hated playing on the thin, bumpy, dusty clay in Riverside Park in Manhattan, and now I could see why. There wasn’t a bad bounce in sight here, or a jackhammer to be heard. 

Walking down from the club afterward, I spotted a couple of public hard courts next to a soccer field at the bottom of the hill. They had no groundskeeper and no pitchers of ice water. The kids on them carried skateboards, not racquets. My friend, a Wall Streeter, didn’t seem to know they existed; I’m sure the thought of playing on them had never crossed his mind. Part of me envied him his youth spent playing at his club, instead of the park. But part of me didn’t. He was impatient and irritable, someone used to good things. He was annoyed by the public world around him, by anything he couldn’t control.

My match this past Tuesday was over at 3:00. I ended with a backhand winner and decided to quit while I was ahead. I wondered, for a second, why there hadn’t been more great players from public parks in recent years—having to ignore the distractions and the bad bounces to play your best tennis should, in theory, make you stronger. 

Who knows, with this weather, when outdoor tennis will happen again. It’s still gray as I write this, but today, for the first time, I noticed there are tiny green buds at the ends of the branches outside my living room window. You need sun and rain, after all, to make a spring. Everything here, tennis game included, feels like it's getting started.

*****

Have a good weekend.

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