Of the two stringed instruments in my house, the tennis racket has replaced the guitar as the one I pick up at idle moments, in the vain hope that I can bring it to life, or vice versa.
Tennis is my latest fling, one of those obsessions that come and go over a lifetime and usually end up in the elephant graveyard of the garage, with the hockey stick, Rollerblades and Ping-Pong table hidden beneath auto parts. But like any new crush, tennis feels like true love. Like Har-Tru and love-love, my new vocabulary—for now.
Sure, I was just as besotted with skiing on two trips to Colorado in the span of a year, never to ski again. The equipment was rented, but the bibbed snow pants were not: Ten years later they hang in the basement like some ski-bum scarecrow, haunting me still.
The two marathons I ran in 11 months were succeeded by the Year—actually the Autumn—of inline skating. There was a single season of indoor soccer in the city followed by a move to suburbia. The softball glove purchased in anticipation of a long and Ripkenesque career of beer league glory saw, in the end, not a single game of use.
But every so often these dreams are reawakened, roused by some spectacle: most recently, the Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Watching it in a New York City hotel room, I wanted to resurrect my Stan Smiths and T2000 and hit a dog-slobbered tennis ball against the garage door. Just like that, and not for the first time, tennis had me in its (Continental) grip.
So here I am, YouTubing instructional videos, playing in the park and watching World TeamTennis on the Tennis Channel, contested before a live audience of eight people and at least half that many at home. Seeing Somdev Devvarman of the San Diego Aviators play Alex Bogomolov Jr. of the Texas Wild on a four-color court evidently modeled on the pattern of Bud Collins's trousers, I hold my racket as I did the guitar: trying to get the fingers right to replicate that topspin forehand, instead of the chords to "That's Entertainment" by The Jam.
What's the difference? Every obsession is the same. After attending the 2012 U.S. Olympic swim trials in Omaha, I was summoning instructional videos and perfecting my crawl every morning, a crush that lasted until the end of the London Games, and not a day longer.
It wasn't just me. An attempt to purchase a volleyball net during those same Olympics was met with laughter by the guy at our local sporting goods store. "We sold out," he said, "as soon they televised beach volleyball."
Fortunately I had a tennis racket on hand. The Head MicroGel with Hydrosorb grip was purchased for a weeklong house rental near a tennis court on Cape Cod, then soon abandoned. The racket's continued presence eight years later contravened an ironclad law of sporting goods: Keep it around, and it will forever go unused; get rid of it, and you'll require it the next day.
But it wasn't the racket that brought the endorphin rush of new love. It was a $2.69 can of tennis balls, among the cheapest of all highs and not just because it's the last item on Earth that allows the user to yank a pull tab as if opening a can of Schlitz in the '70s. There's also the pleasing sigh upon opening (from can and opener alike), the heady aroma of the felt and the memory of wrapping a can every year at Christmas for a dad who would shake it close to his ears, like a cylindrical maraca, always pretending to be surprised and delighted by the contents.
Part of my dive into tennis, then, is an attempt to graft childhood onto adult life. I really want to wear old Tretorns and a Sergio Tacchini shirt and the Borgian headband Luke Wilson rocked in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Then again this romance is only months old, and it will almost certainly expire, like so many summer loves, in the first days of September, which coincide with the end of the U.S. Open. Then the eight-pack of tennis balls, purchased like a wedding ring—a symbol of longtime devotion—will sit defiantly shrink-wrapped in the basement, among countless totems of thwarted ambition that remind me of who I once was.
Or rather who I wanted to be, but never became.
Tennis is my latest fling, one of those obsessions that come and go over a lifetime and usually end up in the elephant graveyard of the garage.
Have you had a fleeting sports obsession? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin
DAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED