If you have to choose one sport to associate yourself with, you could do a lot worse than tennis.
The game is fun, challenging, can be played with a team mate or just one on one, and has some sophisticated equipment – racquets mostly, along with a few neat accessories and doodads that can legitimately enhance the game.
My background with tennis is something I’ve never written about, but why not? I have played it most my life, and I seem to spend a fair bit of time playing the sport, watching it, and occasionally talking about it with a few friends that also are fans of the game.
So here we go..
I first started playing about 28 years ago, when my friend Dani and I were sitting around in the house, being very young and lazy and bored. I can’t remember whose parents handed us the wooden tennis racquets, but I do remember we walked down the street to Majestic Park to the single tennis court there.
We started playing – or trying to play that day.. We weren’t very good, which makes a lot of sense, since I now believe that you’re only as good as how much you play. When I don’t play for spans of time, I reconcile my play with how I once played or last played when I played a lot, and of course it is disappointing. If one doesn’t play, the rhythm of the game will be off. And the game is all about rhythm – footwork and swings. I digress.
We would each drop the ball in front of us and swing underhand at it. The ball, if we made contact with it, would fly what seemed like 100 feet in the air over the three and a half foot net, and sometimes make it into play on the other side. We did this an immeasurable amount of times. I invited my older brother Krishen to play with us. He did.
At some point, we figured out the rules and started playing some “matches.” I recall trying to serve overhand on my first serve and actually managing to get it in on a few occasions. After a year or so, we were still playing with wooden racquets. We discovered the sweet spot, a zone on the racquet face that has the maximum bounce and minimum vibration. On a wooden racquet, that zone is extremely small – on modern racquets, they have managed to make it significantly larger. One might say that newer players have it easier because of this, but on the contrary, playing with a wooden racquet forces your swing to be more accurate. The wooden racquets turned out to be a huge favour.
Fast forward a few years and I had gathered enough coins to buy a metal racquet from Canadian Tire. I think it was a Spalding racquet, a brand not really huge in the tennis game any more, but at the time it was pretty much the best thing in the universe to me. I would take my tennis racquet everywhere with me – to the beach, camping, where-ever, as long as there was someone to play with. If there wasn’t anyone to play with, it wasn’t unlike me to find a wall and drill it for an hour or two.
I remember being on trips to Trinidad to visit my mom’s family, and catching Wimbledon on television. We watched a lot of it. There was Becker, Lendl, Graf, Edberg, Navratilova, big names back then. Names who dominated the major tournaments back then, and are now found as the top player’s coaches.
In this time, I had also gathered a few new friends to hit the ball with, as had my brother. Between us, we could easily fill all four courts at Lambrick Park, and I believe that we did many times. Krishen had a few tennis friends – Stefan, Andrew and Bima, if I recall correctly. I was frequently down there with David, Dave and Don. In the summer, some of us, definitely myself included, would get on the courts at 9 AM and play until 4 or 5 PM. Our friend Jenny, who lived beside the courts, would sometimes come down and bring us iced tea and heckle/watch. Sometimes we would take a break if someone else was waiting for a court, wait til they would leave (usually 30 minutes), and get back on the courts again. While we waited, we would make new friends with others who were waiting. There were times when we would agree to share the next court over a game of doubles. We were young, without much else to do. Courts were free and we didn’t need to be anywhere. Like I said, one could pick a worse sport.
Sometimes we would be playing in the evening, after dinner. We would catch the golden hour in the summers, cool mountain air flowing into the court area, making it a perfect temperature. We would play until darkness – until we couldn’t see the ball anymore, and it became dangerous because we were hitting the ball pretty hard by then. It was around then that one of us figured out that we could go on the lit courts at Henderson. It was just a short 15 minute bike ride away. When we got the means, we would even reserve the courts under the lights, which was (and still is) awesome in the summer, since you get to play in the cool outdoor night air.
It was funny how different it was playing with different people. I noticed myself playing to their weaknesses instead of developing my own strengths. Playing to others’ weaknesses is the weakness of playing to win. You exploit ways to win points, but in the process, you lose your own way. Still, you can play your own game without hitting the ball to their backhand every time, or doing really annoying drop shots because you notice they’re slow to react.
Sometimes the difference in play was in mood. My friend Don loved playing tennis, but was no good to hang out with afterwards if he lost the game. He loved to win. Who doesn’t? Anyway, he won enough to stay in a good mood, most of the time. Dave and David were roughly equal skill level, but less moody after the games, so I tended to play with them a bit more.
By high school, I had been playing for a while, but I didn’t have time to play as much with band practice in grades 8 and 9. After grade 9, I quit band and joined the high school tennis team. I had saved up enough to buy a Wilson Staff, which I then later replaced with a Wilson Pro Staff after a friend borrowed (and lost) my Staff. The team, of course, came with a coach. At the time, he would correct me on some of my form and teach me little things that I didn’t really get at the time, but make more and more sense now. His voice (for better or for worse) echoes in my head when I watch the technique of the pro players. It was helpful.
It was around this time as a teenager that I started having recurring dreams. So in this one, I used to have this nightmare that my Wilson ProStaff had been destroyed somehow – I can still see it – there was a gap in the top of the racquet, making it unusable. There was a large feeling of dread associated with the dream. Like, what am I going to do without a tennis racquet? It was my most prized possession. In the dream, replacing the racquet would have been beyond my means, but in reality, I could have done something about it.
The tennis team was pretty fun. We were competitive. Some of the people on our team were very competitive. I mostly played on the doubles team, which was great because it meant lots of net time. We had a few star players on the team, one of which liked to hit the ball after school with me. I got better at taking the ball off the rise and matching some of the bigger player pace. I started returning big serves consistently. I wasn’t doing anything specifically different. It was just exposure to a different level of play that enabled me to up my own game – hence the importance of not playing to someone else’s weakness; when one does play to someone else’s weakness, one can make both players worse. Instead, why not make both players better by playing consistently and predictably? That helped me develop my own rhythm.
The team went on to win the provincial championships and then we went back the next year to defend, but got rained out in the final. They gave us a second place – I think the other team was ahead, but we had never lost, so I was anticipating that we would come back. No matter. That year we also got to travel down to Washington State and play in a tournament against a high school there. They destroyed us handily, in a way that I wasn’t aware we were susceptible to. It didn’t matter though, we were having a good time, and the teams hung out together at night. Some one from the Washington team invited us over for a party and we all hung out listening to Counting Crows and eating pizza (I think.) They really, really liked Counting Crows. That’s all we listened to that one night.
After high school, tennis took a back seat to a very active social life, DJing, Magic, the Gathering, radio, college, some girlfriends that didn’t play and didn’t want to learn, and of course photography. I would randomly play tennis with a few friends here and there, once or twice a year at max. I lost touch with the game.
Fast forward until a few years ago, and one of the fellows from work mentioned that he liked to play. Shockingly, we made plans to play and stuck to them, even though we are both busier than ever. I collected a few other friends who used to play and wanted to hit the ball again. Now I play once every week or two, and there were even some times last summer when I would play 3 times in 2 days. It’s funny how I got re-ignited on the sport after such a long hiatus. It’s a sport that you can really get into the flow of – no thinking required – in fact, thinking can be a detriment. Given that we live in an age where we are constantly in front of screens, paid for our brains, something that is so the opposite of that can be quite appealing.
Maybe even necessary.
Some random tennis thoughts:
- It’s interesting that the price point of a tennis racquet hasn’t seemed to gone up in the last 20 years.
- I notice that I like rallying more than playing sets, but a pure rally lacks the competitive aspect that changes the way one plays the game. The happy middle ground is a game called 11, where both players have to have hit the ball over twice for a point to begin/count. First one to make it to 11 and win by 2 wins the game. I definitely notice that both players usually up their game when there is a point on the line. There may be lessons for other parts of life in there, even though I detest tracking myself in such a way..
- I may have gone to bed at 10 PM on a Saturday night, just so I could wake up at midnight and watch the final of the Australian Open.
- I noticed on the (mostly American) broadcasts of the Australian Open that the media coverage frequently mentioned a criticism of the sport, mainly being that the sport lacked personality. I had never really thought about it, but for the most part that criticism is right. Interviews are bland and feel almost institutional, but I think that goes with the discipline of the sport.
- Occasionally you will see a player get fired up and emote on court and it seems to be a big deal and people talk about it. But the same outburst would not make it on the radar in sports like football, hockey, basketball, etc. The absence of personality in the sport makes the presence of a single personality into news, kind of like how darkness is the absence of light. From darkness, you add a little bit of light to one spot and, voila, you get a spotlight.
- If the sport wants to expand, tennis has an opportunity to do some work on it’s identity. Sport growth comes from fans, and fans are attracted to personalities. I can tell some of the governing bodies are trying to give fans more to hook into, but the athletes also have to come to play this particular game. Some are doing better than others.
- I line judged a tournament in the fall – some really good players were there from all over the world. I did it for the experience. It’s actually really hard work, with not a lot of reward for getting the calls right, and plenty of scorn if you don’t get it 100%. If you’re going to watch tennis, though, you can’t get much closer than actually being on the court. One thing that is interesting is that the line judges are taught to say “hout” rather than “out” because it does a better job of stopping the play.
Speaking of sleep, I just spent an hour and a half writing about tennis, and now it’s past my bedtime! Good night.