Which comes first? Does tennis somehow turn otherwise rational human beings into emotional 4-year-olds? Or are rude, petulant and insecure types attracted to the game in the first place because they instinctively realize, even when quite young, that the sport is an ideal vehicle for boorishness? And why do even subdued players like Bjorn Borg appear so unstintingly grim throughout their matches that it's impossible to believe they get any enjoyment at all from what they do? (I realize that they are in it to win, for money, yet isn't it still a "game"?)
Though I fooled with tennis off and on for more than 30 years, and kept fairly close track of the major tournaments and leading players throughout that time, I was never able to answer those intriguing questions. Neither my own behavior on the court nor what I read about or watched on television made the slightest bit of sense to me. Even though I'd never taken tennis very seriously, I'd thrown my share of rackets into chain link fences. Hopelessly behind in a set, I'd blasted second serves with all my might into the net or 20 feet out in ridiculous, impotent rage. Most appallingly, in supposedly friendly mixed-doubles matches I'd insulted my much-loved wife. I couldn't very well fault Nastase, Connors or McEnroe for their behavior when I often became an ass on the court myself for no good reason.
Three years ago, at the age of 40, I entered my first tournament. "Big Al's" is what it's called (named after the local restaurant owner who sponsors it). It may well be the largest amateur tournament for adults in Oregon, attracting players from throughout the state, and from Nevada and California as well. Play is divided into A, B, C and D classes, and I entered D doubles with a friend named Steve, who talked me into it when his regular partner was injured a few weeks before the event.
Much to my surprise, we actually made it to the finals, then lost our last match. In fact, it went to the last point of a tiebreaker in the third set. And the experience was enough to make me swear off tennis for life. Like most players who aren't tournament-seasoned, I played nervously, tentatively and, therefore, quite poorly. The worst of it, though, was that I had argued with Steve about missed shots and foiled strategies. I found myself doubting line calls made by our opponents, and more than once choked back an impulse to mutter some insult at them. After that final match, though I didn't show it—or at least tried very hard not to—I was both severely disappointed at the loss and furious at the pair who had beaten us, at Steve, and, most of all, at myself for reacting like such an utter fool.
If, at the age of 40, I was incapable of relaxed play in D-level doubles in a low-key local tournament, I figured there was no hope for me, that I'd be better off hiking or fishing instead—so I walked off the court sincerely believing I'd never be back.
Then, this year, Steve called about two weeks before Big Al's. His regular partner was injured again. I thought it over and agreed to play. It had been three years since I had so much as looked at my tennis racket, but I was certain of one thing—during that time I had managed to cultivate an attitude of calm condescension toward the game. The antics of the temperamental pros seemed absurd rather than curious to me now, and I simply couldn't imagine myself caring about whether I won or lost, or even how I played. As far as tennis was concerned, I was sure I had finally matured—and about time, too.
So I practiced a total of three or four hours over two weeks, hitting balls with my wife and son, serving a few, sharpening up my only decent shot, a defensive lob.
On the first day of the tournament, wearing cutoff jeans and old running shoes and carrying my $10 Bi Mart racket, I walked down to the courts about an hour before our first match to watch some of the other players in action. Things seemed even worse than I remembered. Dozens of grown men and women paced around nervously—waiting, like me, for their turns, and wearing expressions similar to those one might expect to see on soldiers' faces a few minutes before the certainty of combat.
Out on the courts this nervous anxiety was released in a variety of ways. I watched a few minutes of a singles match—B level, I think it was—in which each player was making accurate line calls but was also accusing the other of cheating.
"Go crawl in a hole, ——," one of them said.
"——," said the other.
"—— —— —— ——," came the reply.
At a mixed-doubles match nearby, one of the men—far behind in the second set, it turned out—was returning every shot as hard as he possibly could, not in a desperate attempt to win points but rather trying to line one into his female opponent.
Even in the relatively civilized matches in progress, the players were at least extremely tense, at most on the apparent verge of apoplectic fits or the commission of some physical violence to their opponents, their partners or themselves.
To laugh at it all or to try to respond with Christian pity? That was the only question. But our match began before I could decide.
Once on the court myself, I tightened up and played like a zombie. My incompetence imbued every facet of the game. I double-faulted—first serve 10 feet out, second feeble effort barely reaching the net. I lobbed them not just over the baseline but also over the fence and into the parking lot beyond. At the net I played as if my shoes had been cemented to the court. We barely won, 7-5, 7-5. I apologized to Steve. My first set of tennis in three years, I explained. But what was going on? I asked myself. How could it have happened to me?
We won our second match, 6-1, 6-2. With the easy victory, my peace of mind returned. Toward the end I even began to feel sorry for our opponents, a pair of elderly gentlemen who—most likely through plenty of practice—were very nearly able to act as though they didn't really care who won. By the end, I found myself wishing we'd thrown a few games to make the score more respectable for them.
Our third match was the toughest. It was against a pair of young men from California, and Steve had heard that one of them was a B player who, because of a strained neck, had decided to temporarily drop all the way down to D.
When they easily handled us 6-2 in the first set, I found that the nervousness of the first match and the tranquillity of the second had been replaced by anger. Who did these carpetbaggers think they were, anyway, coming up from, of all places, California (it is almost required of southern Oregonians that they resent Californians), and entering the tournament two notches below their rightful level?
In the second set my first serve worked 90% of the time, and my lobs were deep and accurate. Steve played the net wickedly, and we won 6-2.
We kept it up into the third set and found ourselves with a 5-1 lead. It was all but over. Now I began to feel sorry for these unfortunate Californians. How would they explain such a loss to their friends? Actually, they weren't such bad fellows, I realized.
We let up on them a little. When their shots were a few inches out, I was charitable enough to call them in. Soon it was 5-3. Then—and I'm still not sure exactly how it happened—it was 5-5. They finally beat us, 7-6. As had happened three years earlier, it went to the last point of the tiebreaker, and when it finally ended I was furious, disgusted, paralyzed, amazed. After beating us, the Californians went on to win the tournament easily.
So now I really have learned, finally. The first thing I'm going to do is hang a picture of Leo Durocher on the wall. Next year I'll enter both singles and doubles, and I'll practice hard for two months before the tournament. I'll buy a new racket and some decent shoes. I won't give anything away with line calls next time, either. If I'm ahead 5-1, I intend to win 6-1. I'll convince myself that I hate whomever I happen to play, and I won't mind showing it. No matter what an opponent says to me, he'll get back worse. I don't know—or care—whether I was born this way or whether tennis has done it.
What I do know is that next year I'm going to do things right. I'm going to—— —— those —— —— ——!