Today I’m discussing a new tennis memoir, Late to the Ball (Scribner), with its author, Gerry Marzorati, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine who writes about the sport for NewYorker.com. In his book, Marzorati talks about what it's like to learn the sport later in life, and what it can teach us about ourselves.
Book Club: Late to the BallBy May 17, 2016
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Book Club: Late to the Ball
A discussion with the author of a new book about taking up tennis
Published May 17, 2016
Last year a regular tennis partner of mine asked me, "Why aren't there more books about playing tennis, and what it means to us?" I wondered, too, especially when there has been so much writing about golf and the mania it inspires among its devotees. So I was happy to read your book, which is about your transition from tennis fan to tennis player at the relatively advanced age of (almost) 60. I think your perspective will be interesting to longtime players, because you remind us of what made us into tennis obsessives in the first place.
I'm 47, and have played since I was 8. I quit all other sports to concentrate on tennis at 12, and, aside from a brief period after college when I was tired of the game ("burned out," as we used to say of teen prodigies), I've never stopped. So for me, to play now is to constantly compare myself to how I was when I was younger. That has its obvious downsides; I'll never be as good as I was when I was practicing every day, sometimes twice a day, in college. But it has its rewards, too. I know my limits, and can take satisfaction in reaching them and, once every summer or so, exceeding them.
I liked your description of sitting alone and watching a live match at a pro tournament: It makes you "exuberantly content." I know the feeling. In going from fan to player, what surprised you most about the sport?
As a devoted reader of yours, this is an exciting opportunity for me to be in a conversation with you about tennis.
I, of course, have never—or never yet—had that feeling you say you do, that I'll never be as good as I once was. I hope I get to be on court when I am 75, lamenting that I would have gotten to that drop shot when I was 63!
You asked what surprised me most about going from being a fan of tennis to a player in late-middle age. I knew it would be difficult to learn to play so late in life. Tennis may well be the most difficult game there is: It demands so many different things (speed, endurance, hand-eye coordination…).
What surprised me was what would be difficult. For example, I was always quick: I won sprinting trophies as a kid, and while I was never a good athlete in high school—I was the shortest, skinniest kid in my class—I made teams because I was coachable and because I was fast, and therefore useful in practice. I could, for example, be used to try to break presses the basketball-team starters were trying to master.
But being quick in tennis is a whole other thing. My long baseball and basketball strides were of limited use on a tennis court. I needed to learn to take short steps as I closed in on a ball. (If I’d known I would fall in love with tennis as I approached 60, I would have gone out for soccer.) This was really hard for me—the learning and the unlearning—and still is. In high-pressure moments in a match, I am likely to overrun a ball, and be forced to hit it with my hands too close to my body. It’s really hard to build fresh muscle memory in your 60s, and, more generally, to know your body in a way that you can control what it’s up to.
So, along with overrunning balls, my forehand grip grows too tight in tense moments; I stop bending my knees and getting up on the balls of my feet when I am tired; and when I am going through a bad patch of serving, I tend to begin raising my tossing arm in a rush, which results in a toss too close to me—something I only become aware of when my doubles partner mentions it.
This frustrates me in the moment. But having something in your life in your 60s that you are passionate about and can improve at is ultimately a joy and a blessing. That, I hope, is one of the takeaways for readers of Late to the Ball.
Sometimes it seems to me that people involved in tennis can oversell the idea that it's the most difficult sport of all, or that tennis players are the world's most complete athletes. It can feel like hyperbole, a defensive reaction that comes from the fact that tennis doesn't get a lot of mainstream respect, at least not in the United States. But your story of trying to learn to run, while at the same learning when to stop running, reminds me that tennis really is challenging on multiple levels.
In my mind, what makes the sport uniquely difficult is the combination of the athleticism needed to run and swing, the precision and nerve needed to keep the ball inside the lines, and the intensely personal state that one-on-one combat inspires. Unlike golf, it's not enough just to play well; in tennis, you must make someone else lose, which requires an entirely different and more cutthroat mindset. So maybe people do have a point when they extoll the all-around, underrated excellence of tennis players as athletes.
You have some great lines and ideas about tennis and what it can teach you in your book:
—Tennis as a way to tell your own story, and a way to learn about your own personality. Tim Galley, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, likes to the talk about the surgeon who had never remotely suffered from nerves during a life-or-death operation, but who was suddenly overwhelmed by them during a recreational tennis match. Tennis, more than your work, is about you as a person.
—In tennis, you write, "you set in motion the possibility of failure." It sounds perverse when you put it like that, but that's what gives competition its edge, and sometimes makes me wonder why I'm forcing myself to take a test I don't need to pass.
—Finally, I like your explanation for why time seems to speed up for us as we age. You say it may be because we're no longer learning things the way we did when we were younger; that learning by itself makes us concentrate on each moment more fully.
As you learned tennis in your 50s and 60s, Gerry, did you feel like time slowed back down? Were you able to savor your days more?
A lot to think about, but taken together, your observations might be summarized thusly: What can tennis teach you about yourself? And my answer is: Lots.
It begins, I think, as you begin, with the difficulty of the game. How can you know your body and push it? And then, as you mentioned, there is the gladiatorial aspect of the singles game: That you are alone, without teammates to pick you up, and that the player across the net from you must beat you down—physically, emotionally, psychologically—in order to win.
In that crucible, I’ve learned a good deal about myself: That I can be a pretty good loser, for example—not a great loser, but pretty good. Also, that I am capable of exploiting weakness, which is a weird thing, when you think about it. In life, it’s a terrible trait, no? But in tennis…
I recount in my book a match I played in Palm Springs against a fellow I’d never met before. He tells me during an early changeover that he panics when an opponent crashes the net on him. Why would he tell me this, I thought? But I soon began serving and volleying, chipping and charging, and he flailed as he said he would. I crushed him. Well, think about that phrase: I crushed him. I felt pretty lousy afterward, actually. But what was I supposed to do?
Tennis has also taught me that I am even more impatient than I thought I was, which was pretty impatient. I spent much of my life counting on my impatience—it helped me get where I wanted to go, I believed. And maybe it did. But playing on red clay against a back-boarder, impatience has cost me many matches. Though, again, back to the book, I recount a team match where I finally relaxed into points, flowed, and came away with a win on the clay after hours in the hot sun.
I was helped with my impatience problem by a guy named Bob Litwin, a great senior tennis player—countless gold ball awards—a fine tennis coach and, today, a successful performance or “life” coach. It was Bob who also helped me improve my in-match focus. And that improvement in my focus—on my learning and my playing—is what has slowed down time for me. On the court, practicing or competing, I am more present than in any other place or situation in my life. My wife and other women I know say that they get this from yoga. (I have started doing yoga myself; the stretching is a tonic.) Be. Here. Now. We said that in the '60s. Now I get that in my 60s.
You're a (pretty) good loser, you say: I think that's a rare admission from a tennis player, and I'm not sure it has ever applied to me on a court.
My first reaction is to wonder if your relative equanimity in defeat has something to do with the fact that you took up the game later; maybe you had less to prove, to yourself and others, than the typical junior prodigy does. Then again, in my case, I don't think I've become a better loser as time has gone on. It's just that my focus has changed.
As a kid, I hated losing to my opponent, hated thinking he thought he was better than me. Now what I hate and fear most is blowing a lead—it's choking, rather than losing, that seems more personally damning; defeats I forget, choke jobs I don't. Sometimes, even if I'm playing well, I try to avoid building too big a lead, because I know the thought of squandering it will make me get tight. I'm not sure what Bob Litwin would say about that highly counterproductive attitude, and I'm not sure I want to know.
But then, there's the other, happier side of the equation: The times when I have a lead and feel myself getting nervous, but then fight through those nerves and beat a strong opponent. That's where the addiction to tennis and competition begins; even if it's just a meaningless pick-up match at my club, inside it feels like I've just won Wimbledon. (Can you imagine what it actually feels like to win Wimbledon?) Something approaching that feeling is available to anyone, but you only get the rush of satisfaction from winning if you're willing to risk failure.
You also mention how impatient you are, but one thing I'll take away from your book is the value of patience in trying to learn something new as an adult. Really, it's about learning to trust that you can succeed at something that doesn't come naturally; that same lack of trust has kept me from trying any number of new things over the years. I liked that you didn't hide the fact that you took a couple of double-bagel losses in your first tournaments; whatever we do, we have to start from scratch and work from there, no matter how embarrassing it might be at first. That's something that I hope helps me in the future on other fronts.
Your questions strike me as strands of one larger question: Is tennis your identity, having taken up late in life; and how is that different from taking it up seriously as a girl or boy?
The answer is: Being a tennis player is not my identity, neither to me or the world. I wanted to be a serious reader when I was young, and I got to do that for nearly 40 years at a very high professional level. So I succeeded at that. And I succeeded at other things, too, I think, like being a good dad. To me, that is my most cherished identity.
Tennis is an aspect of my life—a not unimportant one. I like working to get better. The tennis pals I've made mean a great deal to me. My love and respect for the game have deepened.
But these are an older man's feelings. A 12-year-old girl or boy putting in the kind of work I've put in dreams of greatness: high-school hero, D-I scholarship. It is who you are to yourself and your peers and sometimes, alas, to your parents. That can lead to heartache. It can also lead to Serena Williams.
My message to those like me, in late-middle age, is: Don't worry the identity. Seize the narrative. The arc of improvement is a storyline you have lots of control over. Other story lines not so much. Improving feels great, even if there is little greatness in the end. That's what Late to the Ball is about.