The Rally: tennis as a family game, at a time when family is our focus

The Rally: tennis as a family game, at a time when family is our focus

Steve Tignor, Joel Drucker and readers celebrate those who inspired us to pick up a racquet.

The Rally: At a time when we may be thinking about family more than ever, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor talk about tennis as a family game, and celebrate those who inspired us to pick up a racquet.

To connect with Joel and Steve, use the hashtag #MondayRally on Twitter.


Joel,

For many of us, this is a time for family. To check in on them, check up on them, and maybe, if we’re otherwise marooned in one of the coronavirus hot zones, go hunker down with them for a while. It has also become a time when older members of our families may seem a lot more vulnerable than they did just a few weeks ago.

So when you suggested that we talk about the people who inspired us to play tennis, or helped open our eyes to it, my first thought was of my grandparents on my mother’s side. My grandfather sparked my love for the game when I was 5, and my grandmother never tired of telling the world how it happened.

This was the mid-1970s, the height of the brief, fabled tennis boom. My grandparents were teachers in suburban Philadelphia, and during the summers they ran a tutoring program in Ocean City, N.J., where they bought a house. In those days, I guess, two teachers could afford a summer home a block from the Jersey shore. Just as remarkable to me now, my grandfather was able to retire at 70 and basically take up tennis full time. He loved the sport, and my parents, inspired by him and the popularity of the game at the time, picked it up in their 30s.

When I was 5, which must have been the summer of 1974, my parents dropped me off and let me spend a week with my grandparents—Pop Pop and Gram to me—in Ocean City. I have no memory of my time there, of course, but apparently Pop Pop quickly transferred his enthusiasm for swinging a racquet at a little yellow ball to me. Each day we played at the packed local courts, and I think my hand-eye coordination was good enough that I could get the ball back over the net—or at least make contact with it—fairly consistently. With two hands on both sides, of course.

At some point in the middle of the week, the tables turned. I became the one who pushed to the courts every morning; Pop Pop’s plans for the day ceased to matter. My grandmother liked to tell the story of how, each morning, probably before my grandfather was even out of bed, I would march out of my bedroom holding my racquet up, with both hands, and ask when we were going to play tennis. They had obviously created a monster.

Unfortunately, my grandfather didn’t get to enjoy his tennis-filled retirement for long; he died of a heart attack three years later, in 1977. I have only the faintest memories of him, a short, lively, white-haired man, always smiling down at me. What I have instead is the sport he gave me. My grandmother lived until 2007, and she was always happy to read my writing in Tennis Magazine. I’d like to think it connected her to her husband, and to our week in Ocean City.

Joel, tennis is a family sport, and probably always will be. Part of me wishes it wasn’t that way, that we would teach it in gym classes and give more people a chance to choose to play it, the way we do with our team sports. The upside, though, is that our love for tennis is often tied up with our love for our families.

We’re going to share a few stories from readers here, about the people who opened their eyes to the game, but what about you? Who was instrumental in your tennis life?


Mother's Day: Victoria Azarenka


Steve,

That family trigger point makes sense given that in tennis, there aren’t nearly as many communal ways to initially access it like Little League Baseball or Pop Warner Football.  

So yes, family started tennis for me. In early 1971, we’d just moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles. My mother was recovering from breast cancer surgery and her doctor had suggested she exercise. Around all that California sunshine, she figured it was natural to start playing tennis.

And here I consider myself quite lucky: L.A. was like no tennis community in the world. Already it had dozens of public courts, tons of great players and perfect weather for playing 12 months a year.   

Perhaps more significantly, the early ‘70s were the start of the tennis boom. Tennis wasn’t just available in L.A. It was popular, and even on its way to becoming cool. The first year I began to play marked the introduction of yellow balls. And big-time pro matches featuring the likes of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were starting to air frequently on TV networks like NBC, CBS, ABC and even PBS.  So while I’ve often heard tales from other venues and eras about tennis as some sort of peripheral activity, my start in the game coincided it with entering the red-hot center of American sports culture.  Alongside jogging, tennis was one of the first sports of the fitness boom.    

My mom first played at Stoner Park, located less than ten minutes from our home in West Los Angeles.  For my 11th birthday, my gift was a red Spalding Pancho Gonzales racquet, and I was enrolled in a beginner class.

The instructor took us to the backboard. Goal one: Hit five balls in a row against it. I also remember her standing in front of us and saying, “Everyone just mirror what I do—except you lefties, do just the opposite.” Being the only lefty in the class meant I had to already start thinking differently. I’m still not sure if that set me on a good or bad path. Maybe, like many tennis folk, an independent path. 

It’s always interesting to hear a person’s tennis origins story. They are so deeply personal and idiosyncratic—that bachelor uncle who loved the game, a random turn of the TV dial, a compelling picture in a magazine, a colorful racquet purchased for a buck at a garage sale. All these light the fire. And often they lead to one place: the backboard, tennis’ version of driver’s training, where you must put in your time before you can hit the road.

Here’s a 73-second clip of a very accomplished player going back to his roots.  I love the pure simplicity – and skill – of it all:

So once the spark is lit, what keeps the fire burning?  What are the things you think compel people to continue to play and engage with the sport—be it if they start as children, or also as adults?

*****

Joel,

A large percentage of those of us who love tennis wish it were more popular, that it was more widely recognized and respected, that it was central to people lives in a way that football—the American and non-American versions—is to so many. But I think the truth is that tennis isn’t for everyone. It’s hard and often solitary work. Which means that those of us who are drawn to it are drawn to it intensely and personally, not because we’re following any particular herd.

Looking back, I can see that I probably never had a choice in the matter. I played church-league basketball and Little League baseball until I was 13. When I quit them both to play tennis, the general reaction in my Pennsylvania hometown was, “Tennis? You’re going to play tennis?" But I think I was always meant to do something more inward-directed, something that required thought and patience, something where I was in charge of my fate. Not unlike writing. As Jimmy Connors and his backboard show us, there’s beauty and satisfaction in honing a solitary craft.

Last week we solicited some other people’s stories of how they got hooked on tennis. I’ve included a few of the responses here. No one story seems all that similar to any other. Which I guess makes sense for an individual sport. Everyone takes a different path to it.

When we get there, though, the bonds we form with others like us are strong—we’ve carved out a community that wasn’t pre-carved for us. Now is a time when many of us may be missing that community, and realizing just how much it means to us.

*****

Nick Alhorn:

It was my younger half-brother. He had a lot more advantages than either my sister or me. He was the No. 1 ranked high school player in Ohio as a senior, got a full scholarship to Illinois Champagne-Urbana. Tried the satellite tour for a while. Now he's a teaching pro in Cincinnati. I watched him from afar wishing I could have done what he did. So, when I was 47, he was 36, he said "This is it. We're starting with you now." Today, I'm 57, won a 3.5 consolation trophy, reached a 4.0 Doubles Final, play in two leagues, and am grateful he took the time with me to help me learn something I really love to do. The point being it's really never too late to start, even if you want to be competitive.

Dave Richardson:

Riding my 10 speed to the local Y I was finally happy with one of the activities that my mom had found for her precocious son.  And little did I know how lucky we were to have a nearby YMCA with five indoor and six outdoor tennis courts. 

Pro Jack Kingsbury had us working on basics, hitting with each other or a wall whenever we could. The class culminated with two courts of doubles playing actual points. When it came time for my serve with my Bancroft pro. I doubled faulted all four points. I was hooked. 

Jack's future classes emphasized the backhand side and serve-and-volley (or at least it felt that way for me). Thirty-six years later, still feeling like a great foundation.

Tim Smith:

My tennis inspiration was my high-school baseball coach, when he cut me from that team—because then it was another teacher who suggested I might enjoy tennis. I asked those coaches if I could join the school tennis team even though I was late, they said I could, and I just fell in love from there!

Jen Bryant:

I had a German foreign exchange student tell me the only things she truly missed about being away from home were beer and tennis. We were underage so we ran out to the local store and bought two $20 racquets and a couple cans of tennis balls.

Kristi:

Rafael Nadal motivated me, at age 40, to start playing real tennis instead of socially hitting balls.

DJ Lafftrax:

It’s not a personal connection, but any time I can give a shoutout to Martina Hingis, I do. She drew me into the game, loved the way she made other players look stupid or inadequate, and all with smarts and finesse.


Mother's Day: Vera Zvonareva


Steve,

These are great stories—each with its own personal twist and distinct mix of family, friends, rivals, pro players. I particularly liked the tale of Tim, who was cut from the baseball team—based on the subjective evaluation of a coach—and then found tennis, where at heart, it’s your racquet that does the talking.

A couple of interesting stories I got from people that came from my friends Kevin and John.

When Kevin was 12, he played a tough three-setter versus another 12-year-old. All through the match, each thought the other was cheating. One week later, they ended up sitting next to one another in the same homeroom class—and after an initial burst of laughter, went on to become close friends and doubles partners.

John told me the story about when he was 13 and spent a summer earning 25 cents an hour and a free lunch to take care of a two-court club in his hometown.  When he wasn’t hitting with members of all skill levels, he’d practice serves, often hitting 300-400 a day.  

These many tales make me think a lot about the sport’s role in America. In some ways, tennis isn’t American enough, as it often lacks the communal aspect that makes team sports so attractive. But in another sense, it’s profoundly American, all about singular effort. As Tim’s example proved, why should someone else determine when and how I get to compete? 

So the sport teaches much about how we live in a democracy. Some players only like to play doubles. Others care more to hit than compete. There are frequent net-rushers and then those who only come to net to shake hands (update: bump elbows).

I agree with you very much about the connection between tennis as a solo process and the writing work we do. And yet, just as the writer must connect with the audience, the tennis player needs that other person across the net. As much as the game is singular, it’s still very different from running or cycling. Tennis, after all, is interactive. I notice this most vividly whenever I talk with ex-pros. Fiercely competitive when young, as they’ve aged, they so often speak of their many past opponents with exceptional fondness. Across the net, through the exchange of shots and often through competition, they all helped one another build, refine and nurture an identity.

So maybe that’s one thing we’re all missing about tennis now—the way this sport, through interactions with others, so vividly reveals and nurtures each of our personalities.