Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Love in the Time of Tennis
On the sport I was trained to play
Tennis is a lonely game. There is no team, in any true sense, to speak of. A tennis team is an assemblage of individuals. Singles is what it sounds like. Doubles requires a partner, coordination, knowing where that partner is on the court, but your partner is not going to help you hit a vicious forehand down the line. That’s up to you. It’s up to your brain and your body.
I never loved tennis enough to be great. This is true of most endeavors—love must come first—but it applies in particular to athletics. Yes, you need God-given talent to go anywhere. Your gene pool must be blessed. After that, fanatical work takes over. The hours of daily practice, the weightlifting, the running. Your body must be pushed to the point of breaking. To put yourself through it all, to be great, to transcend, you must, on some level, love all of it.
Any writing about tennis must mention my mother. My mother is a fantastic tennis player. She is past seventy now and plays nothing like it. I am convinced she doesn’t enter tennis tournaments for seniors because she will win all of them and find the experience boring. She told me a story once about a friend inviting her to play tennis in Florida against a “great” player and being disgusted with the player’s lack of ability. My mother, being herself, walked off the court after a few points. These days, she’s a parks player, challenging friends, men and women alike. She plays as well as she did thirty years ago.
Tennis is my inheritance from my mother. She came of age at a time when there were no high school sports for girls. As a teenager, her mother told her to give it up—the tennis, the baseball, the street games—and she did, bowing momentarily to the retrograde pressures placed on women around midcentury. There was no tennis team in college. It was the late 1960s, early 1970s, and tennis was just becoming a professional pursuit. Until 1968, competitors in the Grand Slam tournaments—the U.S. Open, French Open, Wimbledon, the Australian Open—had to be amateurs, unpaid for their labor. Even then, at the dawning of the Open Era, female players were terribly underpaid. My mother, I am certain, was good enough to play professionally, to win matches on the grass of Forest Hills, where the U.S. Open was played for many years. But she had to make a living and tennis, on its own, would not cut it. Back on the city courts after college, she played after work and on weekends, a self-taught colossus.
My mother, who is not a shy person, didn’t talk often about all the tournaments she won in her youth. If she wasn’t going to play on the professional circuit, she would enter the tournaments held at city parks. To find out how she did, all I had to do was peer into her bedroom closet where she had, quite modestly, filed away all of her trophies. There were more than a dozen, an assortment of golden cups and plaques. I asked her recently how many tournaments she outright won. She estimated around fifteen, most of them singles tournaments. One of them was a men’s singles tournament. They had tournaments for women, of course, but she is the type of person who is always hunting for new challenges.
I look more like my mother than my father. I have her face, her complexion, her curly hair. As a child, I drew close to her, and there was no doubt I’d play tennis. Like any great athlete, she could star in most sports she tried her hand at. I can probably say I’ve played catch with my mother as much, or more, than my father, and she would pitch batting practice to me often as a child. When I was eight, playing at the Parkville little league on 65th Street, I pitched to her during a parents-kids game. She was the only mother playing. I threw my best fastball and she clocked it over the left field fence, further than any of the fathers had hit any ball. She had played stickball with all the boys in Flatbush as a kid, so this was nothing.
Tennis was her game, so it would be mine. As early as I can remember, I was enrolled in tennis lessons. The phrase “tennis lessons” conjures something effete and pastoral, men and women in white, but this was southern Brooklyn. A portly Soviet emigre would bark orders to us from behind a net, smacking balls from the hopper. Or a young, slick former college player would drive us backwards and forwards, demanding excellence on cement courts riven with lightning bolt-shaped cracks, the tiny weeds always peeking through. I played on nice courts too, the bubble at Bay Parkway, the bubble at Mill Basin, at one time taking tennis lessons from perhaps the greatest female handball player who ever lived. I enjoyed the lessons. I smacked forehands, backhands, overheads, serves, playing “king of the court” against the other children, relishing in the little victories. My backhand, too much like a left-handed baseball swing—I play tennis right-handed, baseball left-handed—was flat, lacking in adequate topspin, though I could compensate with the natural power I generated.
It’s important to take a breath here and note my mother did not take tennis lessons. They were not readily offered. She mastered the game in the parks, observing others, and later absorbing the game on television. Her favorite player of all-time is the legendary Martina Navratilova, who won eighteen Grand Slam singles titles and became one of the first openly gay star athletes. They share a birthday, October 18th, which is just a few days away from my own. I do not think I would have been able to teach myself tennis. I lacked that kind of native genius.
But I played. If the stakes were low enough, it was my game. I hit a hard first serve, a good slice second serve, and had the reflexes to volley well if I found my way to the net. I wasn’t above the kind of tricks my mother frowned upon, the drop shots and little slices, the dinks and dunks. When my control was there and my temper was in check, I could be the little commanding player, blasting balls from the baseline. In the tennis groups, I was usually one of the best.
I loved baseball more and, eventually, handball. Tennis could not hold me in the same way. I had my mother’s genes, but not her desire. And I didn’t have her mind.
Tennis is a game of great psychological consequence. I don’t know how else to convey this. While hitting a baseball thrown with great speed and spin is the most difficult skill to master—the success rate is so low, hitting safely at a rate greater than 30 percent makes you one of the elite players in the sport—playing tennis, on its own, is more challenging. It’s harder than baseball, basketball, or football because you are alone. In a single’s match, you must physically and mentally overcome your opponent without help from anyone. In professional tennis, you can’t even talk to your coach. Once a tennis match begins, you must wage war against the player and against yourself—against because, unless you are one of the greats, your mind will begin to doubt your body, and the pressure will wrap itself around you. It will constrict, like a snake, and your movements may become more halting, more circumscribed. I really need to hold my serve here or I’m going to lose. If I can’t get my backhand under control, I can’t execute.
Tennis is controlled aggression. A well-struck ball from a top player can travel well over one hundred miles per hour. I do not know how fast my serve was, but it probably hovered near the velocity of a Major League fastball at some point. The racquets do wonders. Speed means little, though, if the ball lands beyond the service line, the base line, or sails wide. Speed means even less if you can’t drive the ball exactly where it needs to be, cross-court or down-the-line. It is nothing if you can’t lob, can’t slice a drop-shot, can’t slow your heartbeat enough to decide, at the most pivotal moment in the match, you will not be the player to fail. The unforced error haunts every non-elite player. It’s a phrase that long ago was imported into everyday life. In truth, the concept is a bit misleading, because there are pressures or forces always coming to bear in tennis. Your opponent is forcing you. Your own body is forcing you. There is no neutral or friction-less world you can visit where every shot will go where it needs to, one after the other, fifteen, thirty, forty, game.
Or there is—but you’re just not good enough to reach it.
Like my mother, I entered tournaments. They were organized by the United States Tennis Association and they were, in theory, the first rung of a ladder that could make you a professional. I was never going to be that good. At the tournaments, my joy for the game melted out of me, left on the acrylic of the hard court. I imagined failure right away. The top players believe no one can beat them and I believed, at age twelve or thirteen, every opponent possessed a degree of verve or outright magic that could not be conjured in my growing body. My swagger would come later, on the handball court, and I played in the big matches defensively, checking my power to keep the ball meekly between the lines. I must have won matches because the USTA gave me a ranking but the victories are not clear in my memory. The ranking card they sent me, I saw recently, is still in my childhood bedroom.
I remember the rage, the failure. I played angry. Racquet heads were smacked. Balls were kicked. Tears burned my eyes. I grew to hate people I didn’t know, other boys floating at the opposite baseline, attempting their dutiful forehands and backhands. My heart was hot in my chest, always hot, and I was indignant whenever my body did not do what my mind commanded. The mind roared for perfection, an impish general safely cloistered inside of me. My limbs did not listen enough. The general could never believe it. How did you miss that overhead? What’s wrong with you? I did beat other players. If I was ranked thirtieth, there were players below me, though I can’t recall how many there might have been with little cards in their bedrooms. Forty? Fifty? More? Less? It’s evidence, at least, that I competed. In high school, I played varsity tennis, and I am sure I won there too. The memories, though, always feature defeat first.
The tournament years could only last so long because I’m not my mother. She plays with rage but her mind on the court is made of stronger stuff. She shrugs off pressure. She believes she will win and then she does it, again and again. After I was born, she played in fewer tournaments, preferring to focus on her career and me. “It takes a lot out of you,” she said simply. There were no regrets. In her bedroom closet, there are testaments to an era of dominance that came before I existed. They do not define her, and I’ve rarely heard her pull up stories from that time. Winning was matter-of-fact; it was what she did. Why show up on a tennis court in the middle of the summer if you weren’t going to take both sets and eventually go home with a trophy? In other facets of my life, this serene confidence can manifest itself. Writing on deadline—and writing in generally, truthfully—causes me no anxiety. I don’t doubt I’ll produce, that I’ll take an assignment and make it worthy. Public speaking doesn’t worry me either. The words will come—they always do.
In tennis, the best players know their future. They’ve imagined the points ahead of time, the victory as inevitable as the weather. The harder they play, the calmer they become, each stroke vicious and maybe beautiful. It’s been a long time since I played. Soon, I’ve told myself, I’ll get back on the court. When softball season ends. When it’s not winter. When the humidity is just right. In quieter moments, the game has a pull, and I know I won’t resist it for good. “You can play it forever,” my mom says, still driving or biking to the courts several days a week. Indeed, she can.