Playing Ball: Thanks for the Lesson

Friday, November 29, 2013 /by

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in the States. The trip to the city where I grew up in Pennsylvania brought back the memory of an old tennis opponent.

*****

Anytime I saw Joe, anywhere in town, I knew what I was going to hear. Whether it was at the tennis courts where we played, or inside the Dunkin’ Donuts where he loved to shoot the breeze, or on his front porch as I walked past, he always greeted me with the same four words:

“You’re duckin’ me, lad.”

Every so often, I’d be stopped at a red light, and I’d see Joe’s car stopped at the same light across the street. Both of us would nod and try not to smile. We knew what was coming. As our cars passed each other in the intersection, he’d slow down, lean his shock of black hair out the window, and let me know, in case I’d forgotten, “You’re duckin’ me, lad.” 

We might have played each other the previous weekend, or even the the day before, but Joe had his own idea of what “ducking”—i.e., running scared—meant, and which one of us was doing the running. Basically, any time we weren’t on the court, it meant I was trying to avoid taking a beating from him. The line never failed to make me laugh, and I’m sure that’s why he said it. 

Joe had his own ideas about tennis in general. For one, he hated the serve and cursed its unknown inventor whenever he got the chance. Where was the stamina, where was the skill, where was the toughness, where was the manliness in winning a point with one shot? For Joe, tennis was a test of will, fought with forehands and backhands, with your legs and your lungs. The longer the war went on, and the more running that was involved, the truer the test was. “The baseline game, lad,” he told me whenever I suggested we play a set, “that’s real tennis.” We’d play to 21, but he would have had the game go to 100 if I’d agreed.

This was a warrior’s philosophy, and a noble one. Yet Joe admitted that there was a hint of self-interest in it as well. You see, he had no serve, and most of the guys he played did. It was the 1980s, a time when good recreational players still served-and-volleyed and chipped-and-charged. The best of them tended to be long and lean; with a nice kicker, a few smooth strides forward, and some old-fashioned skills at the net, they made the baseline a dangerous place for their opponents to stay. I wasn’t a net-rusher, but I could win a point with my lefty serve. Whenever I sliced an unreturnable ball to Joe on a big point, he’d throw his hands up, as if it just wasn’t fair.

Joe wasn’t long and lean, and he couldn’t get to the net in a few smooth strides. He was short and muscular, a fast-stepping, spiky-haired bantam rooster of an athlete who, if he could help it, never wore a shirt or socks when he played. He wasn’t a doctor or lawyer or banker, and it was hard to imagine him in the dining room at the local country club. When he was young, he had been a body-builder, and as far as I know his tennis game was self-taught. His strokes were plain and simple, straight back and straight forward, without an inch of extra backswing or follow through—not much could go wrong with them. He didn't get topspin on his shots, but he rarely missed and was never tired. Joe wasn’t elegant, but what did that mean when you were in a war?  

When Joe did miss, though, you knew it. Everyone within earshot knew it. He was famous around town for his volcanic temper—and volcanic is the only word for it. A few errors and he would his clench his fists until it looked he might pop a vein. A few more misses and the oaths, seemingly inspired by the Catholic church services of his youth, would start to flow. When he screamed “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” at the top of his lungs, you knew things weren’t going his way. One match of ours ended with Joe grabbing the chain-link fence at the side of the court and shaking it until I thought it might rip out of the earth. Another time, he walked off after smashing his racquet into a Pac-Man like triangle at the top.

Some people were surprised when they saw us playing. Our games, personalities, ages—none of them matched. But while he had never taken a lesson, and I had taken a hundred, Joe taught me a lot about winning at tennis. Mainly, he taught me that it wasn’t about shot-making; it was about everything else. When he hung with me in a baseline game, I wondered how it could possibly be happening. My shots were smoother, I hit deeper and with more spin, I was taller and younger. Yet I couldn’t shake the guy. And he loved it. When Joe would beat me, he would strut to the bench on the sideline, point his racquet across the net, and cry, “I GOT you, lad!”

As you might guess, he liked to play when it was hot. The hotter, the better. August was his month. I, on the other hand, didn’t like the heat, which was all the more reason for Joe not to let me duck him. One humid summer day, he ran me around long enough that I got dizzy. By the end of our baseline game, I was losing points as quickly as I could. After it was finally over, I dropped straight down on the court. I remember looking up and seeing Joe on the sideline bench. He had his head thrown back, and he was laughing. 

I couldn’t help, when I finally caught my breath, laughing with him. It was all part of the game, of course, and Joe was right—I needed to get in better shape. Afterward, he gave me a ride home. He put the air conditioner on full blast and the music at top volume, and played the song he always played: "Gold," by John Stewart (the 70s pop singer, not the Daily Show comedian). I have no idea why he loved it, but it was his soundtrack.

“People out there turning music into gold,” is the refrain. Joe sang along with it, and with every word of the song, as he pounded his knee to the beat. I sat in the passenger with my head lolled back. When I got out and started staggering up my driveway, he leaned out his window and said, perhaps with a wink, “Nice try, lad. Don’t worry, I’ll give you another chance. I don't duck people.”

Thanks, Joe, for making it tough, and making it fun.

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