Playing Ball: The Brain Comes Back

by: Steve Tignor | April 04, 2014

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Recently I returned to the tennis court for the first time in 2014. Below, in perhaps slightly exaggerated form, is what my brain had to say to itself that day.

I'm off the rest of this week, and will be back for the start of the European clay season in Monte Carlo.


First swing, no pain, feels good—freeing—to be back out here. How long has it been, eight months? Always forget how much I miss hitting a tennis ball until I’m in the sun, doing it again. The ball is always bouncier than I remember, too—how do you control this thing? But the warm-up shots are landing in the court. Like riding a bike, really, your muscles never forget all of those hours of practice/torture when they were 14. Time to take a little bigger cut on the forehand...

Wait, is there pain? I do feel something back there, but it’s in a totally different spot from yesterday. I can’t even remember where I felt it last year. Left side, right side, dull ache, or shooting pain: When someone asked, I never knew the answer. Maybe it was all in my head. Can’t worry about it forever. Can’t stretch forever. Can’t swing the racquet around in the living room and put it back in the closet forever.

And I'm just going to take it easy today, anyway. Probably lost to this guy two times in the last five years. He’ll know I’m just getting back into it, the result doesn’t mean anything. Though he didn’t ask how my back was, didn't mention that we hadn't seen each other since last summer. Barely cracked a smile at me, in fact. When I got here, he was even pedaling on one of those exercise bikes they have in the basement so he could break a pre-match sweat. Have I ever seen him do that before? Have I ever seen anyone at this club do that before? He looked pretty serious when we spun the racquet, too, like he was happy to get to serve first...

Anyway, who cares? It’s all about exercise anyway, right? When a tennis ball is in your hands, the world is in your hands again. It’s April, it’s Brooklyn, the sun is out, the sky is blue, the nets are up, the Donna Summer and Marvin Gaye are blaring through the neighborhood, and I’m running around again—isn’t that enough? 

Shanking a few balls, too, it’s true. That first warm-up serve didn’t even reach the net. Hacker on the next court watched it bounce off my frame and go straight into the Har-Tru in front of me. Hate that—why do people always glance over when you look like a beginner? Or is it only when you look like a beginner that they make it clear that they saw what you did? 

Jesus, take it easy. Now you’re competing with your opponent and the guy on the next court?

Time to get into the ready position, feet dug into the clay, this feels right, it's been too long. Racquet spinning in my hand again, too. Why do I do that? It doesn’t serve any purpose, but I catch myself doing it even in the middle of rallies. First goal of the season: Stop spinning your...whoa, his first serve just went right down the T, right into the fence. Aced on the opening point. Has he been working on his serve while I was gone? 

But the first contact is good. Nothing like a sweetly struck return in the middle of the strings, just out in front of you. Don’t have to swing hard, just smoothly; take the pace and send it back the other way. Absorb the pace? That’s what the commentators say, but is that really the right word for it? Anyway, the ball seems to pick up speed as it hurtles down the line. He can’t get to it. First winner of the year. Did the guy on the next court see that? Take a peek. No, of course not, he's pretending to look the other way.

"You spin me round round baby right round, like a record baby." How did that get in my head? And how do I get it out? This is why the 80s will never die; its songs leave scars on the brain.

Round, round, round, hold, hold, hold, hold: 4-4 in the first, break point for me. Forgot how different it feels returning at break point. Much harder to imagine going after the ball, even a second ball. Harder to get the racquet through as quickly; like playing underwater. The "haven" of deuce? Please. Lose this point and deuce feels like the pit of despair.

Second serve, he kicks it. He’s sneaking into net, I drop the return at his feet, perfectly placed. I’m going to break serve...wait, what just happened? The ball’s on my side of the net, spinning away from me for a winner. He’s come up with a stumbling, no-look, utterly lucky half-volley, like he always does.

“I knew there was a shot you hit that annoyed me,” I call out to him. With a smile, I think. A smile through gritted teeth. He lets out a stiff chuckle, like he doesn’t really appreciate the joke. 

Tiebreaker. Serve is loose now, the pain long gone, the ball’s not landing on my side of the net anymore. It’s the adrenalin, probably, like a painkiller that will wear off, but the back feels better than it has in months. My turn for an ace. Feels like magic. Next point is even better. Long rally, both of us digging, work it to his backhand, get a short ball from him.

I'm flying forward, sliding into the ball, coming over it with a forehand into the corner and following it in—this, every part of me suddenly remembers, is what tennis is about. The reckless abandon of chasing a ball, combined with the precision of trying to hit it to a spot. It’s like levitating, that's the only way to describe it. There's no easing back into a tennis match, and that might be the best thing about it.

Now, did the guy on the next court see any of that?

No matter, either way, it’s enough. I lose the set. My opponent acts as if he never knew I'd been injured. The hacker on the court next to us never sees me play even a half-decent point. But it’s enough. A tennis ball, and the world, are in my hands again. 

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