As I boarded the jet to London, I began to wonder, Why had I brought my tennis racket? The handle, which stuck out of the side of my backpack, kept knocking people in the head. The racket seemed more trouble than it was worth.
In addition, Droxford, the tiny (pop. 400) village in Hampshire where I had rented a cottage for the summer, hardly promised to be a hotbed of tennis competition. I knew no one there. My nearest neighbor, according to the owner of the cottage, was a spinster septuagenarian ornithologist.
What made me think that I would get a chance to play? Wimbledon, I guess. Because of Wimbledon, I assumed I would find tennis in England, just as I assumed I would find good dark beer because I had heard of pubs, and eccentricity from seeing Monty Python's Flying Circus on TV. Besides, I had planned a weekend trip to Wimbledon to see the tournament, where I hoped I would meet someone to play with. After watching the matches, I felt sure I would want to play tennis. Professionals in action always inspire me—I throw the football around at halftime of the Super Bowl.
After a nine-hour flight, a one-hour train trip and a 30-minute bus ride, I arrived at Rosemary Cottage, which, through the hazy half-consciousness of jet lag, looked even more quaint and inviting than I had dreamed. Just inside the door was an umbrella stand filled with walking sticks. My immediate favorite was a simple, knobby, white-oak branch whittled at a natural bend into the head of a bird.
This was the England in store for me: leisurely strolls around the Hampshire dales, the bird-headed walking stick tapping like a slow metronome on the ground ahead of me. I took the racket out of my pack and stuck it handledown in the stand. The graphite frame, precisely strung head and sleek technological design looked out of place. The bird seemed to eye it quizzically.
On my first Saturday night in Droxford I took the bird stick and strolled down to the nearest pub, The White Horse. An inn and traveler's stop, the pub was built in 1582. It was crowded. I later found out that it was the best pub within 20 miles.
The English are not known for initiating contact with strangers, so for a while I sat at the bar by myself, sipping a pint of a strong bitter called Wads-worth's 6X. Next to me, a group of young men about my age were discussing cricket, an incomprehensible game that fascinates me because of its arcane scoring and dirgelike slowness and formality. I eavesdropped. When they reached the dregs of their latest round, I told the bartender that their next was on me. Hearing my offer, they turned in unison to face me.
"You certainly know how to make the acquaintance of an Englishman." one of them said. They had spotted me for an American right off.
He introduced himself as Nick. He had long, black curly hair that tapered to a point around his shoulder blades. A gold loop dangled from his left ear. He had on a worn black suit jacket. Later, when he paid for the next round, he drew a brown envelope from his inside pocket and spilled the change and bills into his hand.
I said that I had overheard their conversation about cricket and was baffled by the game. His friend James, who had been to the U.S., was equally confused and fascinated by American football. We exchanged explanations. Our conversation turned to other sports, and I mentioned that I would be going up to Wimbledon. To my surprise, none of them had ever been to the tournament.
"Do you play tennis?" James asked.
"Yes," I said. "I brought my racket."
"We'll have to have a game," James said. "Nick's parents have a court in their garden." I pictured myself squashing Nick's parents' chrysanthemums to nail a backhand winner, until I remembered that the English refer to any backyard as a garden.
"Let's say tomorrow at two o'clock for doubles," Nick said. "Meet here at The White Horse."
"Time, gentlemen, please," said the bartender, and we all drank up.
Sunday turned out to be an idyllic summer day, sunny and windless. I arrived at the pub a little before two. The regulars looked at me strangely; they were mostly retired navy men. Dressed in matching knit shorts and shirt, two pairs of socks and a sweatband and headband. I looked out of place among the grizzled military men loath to shed their sweaters in spite of the sun and the heat. I moved to the back of the pub. where we had agreed to meet. I was surprised to find Nick, James and another fellow, named John, already there. They were halfway through what I was certain were not their first beers. James dipped a spoon into a small crock of corn casserole, which apparently was his prematch meal. We exchanged greetings, and they looked me over. John turned my racket over in his hand as if he were an archaeologist studying a relic.
"You Americans are always so prepared," said Nick, laughing. He wore hiking shorts, an unbuttoned cotton dress shirt and leather thongs. James wore a similar outfit. At least John had on sneakers, although the laces were missing. I joined them for a beer.
James drove us the mile to Nick's house. A wooden sign announced his address: FAIR RISING. That's all. The English hate numbers as much as the Americans love them. (Later, when I gave Nick my Dallas address—a five-digit street number followed by a three-digit apartment number and a ZIP code—he looked completely nonplussed.)
We followed Nick around to the back of the house. His father was burning some leaves he had raked. I was surprised by the size of the garden—perhaps a couple of acres—and by the swimming pool. For some reason, probably the climate, I never thought of English houses as having pools. While Nick went inside to get rackets and balls, James, John and I approached the pool around which other family members were gathered. Nick's niece was riding around the yard on a tricycle. Nick's mother was sitting by the pool sipping tea—hot tea, of course.
"Hallo, Beth," I heard James say behind me, and I turned to introduce myself to Nick's sister. I extended my hand toward a lovely young woman reclining on a lounge chair and wearing only the bottom half of a bikini. I felt my face contort into a silly smile. I shook her hand uncomfortably.
To my relief, Nick emerged from the house, carrying three worn wooden rackets—one with a press, a contraption I hadn't seen in years—and an ancient box of balls. He seemed to distribute the rackets arbitrarily, although to my mind he kept the best for himself, the one strung most recently—sometime during the Mesozoic era.
A gate led from the swimming pool to what looked like a homemade grass court. The fence around the court was of simple chicken wire nailed to eight-foot-high two-by-fours. The net was old and frayed and looked as if it doubled as a commercial fishing net. The court listed slightly to starboard. In a ritual obviously oft-repeated, Nick and James sprinkled handfuls of lime from a large sack to make the lines.
That task completed, we were ready to play. I thought, Surely Nick is not going to play tennis in those thongs. He didn't. He took them off and played barefoot. I soon found out that he got better traction than I did in my $50 leather sneakers.
We batted the ball around a few times and commenced playing. My serve was harder than the others', and they considered this characteristic of the American style. I wasn't consistent with my serve, though, and once even whiffed a ball in the middle of my toss when I noticed Nick's sister bouncing on the diving board. I coughed and pretended that smoke from his father's fire had blown in my face.
I couldn't identify a particularly English style of play, although the techniques of all three players could certainly be classified as eccentric. James used a grip I'll call the Continental Trail-ways, because it roamed all over the racket. Muscular from years of farm work, he attacked the ball as a soccer player does and peppered it with plenty of topspin. Nick had a dainty service motion, throwing the ball high into the air and swiping at it as if he were swatting flies. His long hair bounced on his back. John used his racket like a rapier, waving and stabbing at everything while he was at the net. He got back more balls than I expected.
The three players seemed unaware of their idiosyncrasies, and they competed so intensely that they were undisturbed by the splashing in the pool, the occasional squeals from Nick's little niece or the rustle of the leaves that his father was raking. I became caught up in the game as well. I took off my shoes and socks to get better traction.
This was the purest tennis I have ever played. We were unconcerned with the condition of the court, which had grown gravelly at the baselines from serving. We didn't quibble about calls, a puff of lime and a white mark on the ball being incontestable evidence. There was no fussy tinkering with the racket strings, no agonizing between points, no affectation, no anger. We played a couple of sets. I don't remember the score. The English hate numbers.
After the match, we dove into the pool to cool off. Then we sat around the pool and drank hot tea. We talked. I soon forgot that Beth was topless. It seemed, like the tennis and the tea, perfectly natural.