Playing Ball: The Writer's Racquet

Friday, January 03, 2014 /by

The racquet I grip and hold in front of my face has a hole in the middle of it. A string broke in July, the last time I hit a ball. Since then I’ve snipped a few more of the blue polyester mains and white synthetic crosses near the center. I think, though I’m not sure, that this will cut down on the tension and keep the frame from warping before I have it restrung.

If I have it restrung; sometimes I wonder if the day is ever going to come. I’ve haven’t played any tennis, or any of my favorite winter sport, squash, since the hot day this summer when I bent down for a volley and, not unlike Alice in the Brady Bunch, never got up. I made it back to the baseline to serve, but couldn’t bend enough to start my motion. It may have been a comical sight, but the pain in my back was no joke. It has lessened over the last six months, but despite daily doses of stretching, strengthening, heat, ice, and Aleve, never disappeared entirely.

So now I swing my tennis racquet in my apartment, slowly and carefully enough not to hit a wall or knock over the Christmas tree or snap a Pepper Adams LP in half. But this doesn’t mean the frame, a throwback 89-inch Yonex I picked up two years ago and never put down, is useless to me. It doesn’t help me play tennis these days, but it does help me write about the sport. Spinning and swinging the stick as I walk from one side of the living room to the other serves the same purpose that smoking a cigarette serves for other writers: It allows me to do something as I do nothing, to keep the body, and thus the mind, in motion even as I take a break from the (relatively) hard work of thinking up sentences.

Yesterday was my first day back at this work in two weeks. By which I mean, it was the first day in two weeks that I sat at my desk and used my laptop, rather than lying on the couch with it on my legs. During that vacation, I didn’t pick up the Yonex once; it leaned against the wall untouched, unneeded, unnoticed. But as soon as I sat down and started typing again yesterday, I had to pick it up again. Some writers, as I said, need to smoke; John Updike, even after he supposedly “quit,” would look down to find his ashtray somehow overflowing again at the end of the day. Other writers go out for a walk or a jog; Don Delillo used to run around a local track every afternoon. Jack Torrance, the ill-fated writer played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining, hurled a tennis ball against a wall to get the tension out. The idea was Nicholson’s, but it obviously didn't help Torrance.

It seems we can only sit and write straight out for so long. Most of us need to walk away, take stock, let our mind rest. For me, the need for a break doesn’t come at any logical moment, or after any regular period of time. It’s almost out of my power. Even when the words are flowing well, I’ll suddenly find myself standing up, pushing my chair back, reaching for the racquet, and walking toward the window at the other end of the room. On most days, when I get there I see another man sitting at a desk at his window in the apartment across the street. He also appears to be writing at a computer. Maybe I’m paranoid, but he doesn’t seem to take as many breaks as I do. He even grins as he works. (On second thought, maybe he’s not a writer.)

I spin the Yonex in my hand and look out the window. Today there was new snow on the street, settled in immaculate little Judd-like white boxes on top of each step and window ledge. Even after six months away from the court, my grip goes straight into the semi-Western I’ve used since I was a kid, and which still feels inexplicably just right. Call it the tennis player’s version of a security blanket, or maybe a pistol; I feel more powerful and connected to the world with a racquet in my hand. It’s been that way since I was a teenager and I walked around the house doing shadow serves and forehands all day, pretending that I had match point on Boris Becker in the Wimbledon final. It was so long ago that in my daydream, I won the last point by serving and volleying. (As I recall, I put an overhead away at 8-7 in the fifth set and dropped straight into a properly Borgian kneel down.) In those days of rampant tennis obsession, even when I didn’t have a racquet, I would still wander from kitchen to living room making short forehand and backhand motions with my forearm.

Now I don’t daydream about Wimbledon when I swing the racquet. It’s enough just to feel like I'm playing again. I put my foot at the end of the carpet and pretend it's the baseline as I reach up for an imaginary serve. I whip up through a perfect one-handed topspin backhand, something I’ve never actually done on a court. I bounce my palm against the strings, anticipating the pinging sound you get from a racquet that’s tightly strung. For now, with the strings snipped at the center, all I get is the dead, deflating sound of no tension at all.

Someday this Yonex will hit a ball again. Someday I’ll use it to come up with a perfect one-handed topspin backhand—I’ve had more than enough practice in my apartment. For now, though, the racquet may be even more valuable. It got me back into my chair, back to my computer, and back to finishing this piece. Hopefully it will keep me going through another long season.

*****

Have a good weekend.

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