Saturday afternoon. It means I have an agreement with myself to go to the secret, clay tennis courts hidden amongst the local houses. I know about them but they could easily be missed. By people who haven’t heard about the tennis balls in the suburbs of Hobart. A skewed tennis ball lands in a back yard and all the tennis players look through the wire fence at it wistfully. One day it may be chucked back. Who knows? The neighbors are invisible and the fate of the ball is mysterious. Everybody notes the person who hit the ball over the fence and then moves on. A replacement ball is found.
I approach the courts warily, unsure of who will be there. I will play tennis with whoever. From the road I look down on the courts and notice that people are there. And a dog. Which is good news. It means a certain dog owner is there. He is a pleasure to play with. The owner, not the dog. Who else is there? Somebody has been playing. A few balls lie randomly neglected. A few foot marks and scattered ball bounce marks tell me the courts have been used. I push open the gate and walk across the clay courts to the club house. Who is going to be inside? Who is waiting for a hit? The dog jumps on me.
Inside the clubhouse I see a couple of men lounging on chairs. I greet them and we now have the magic number. Which is four. Let’s start. We head to the courts with one more question. Who is playing with and against whom? Some people are good at deciding this and I let these people decide the teams. I don’t really care who I am playing with or against. Since my hospital trip I am only interested in one thing. Which is: How am I playing? I skip and mime some pretend backhands and forehands. I bounce the ball and watch the ball intently. I try and hit it repeatedly. To get a rhythm going. It satisfies me and I can see the guy on the other side watching me and waiting for the ball. I hit the ball over the net and watch it bounce towards him. It is a good predictable bounce and he returns the ball to me. I return the ball to him and we have begun. We are now practicing together. But I am only interested in myself. In how my feet are moving. In my swing. In timing the ball. I am interested in myself and yet I cannot do it by myself. I can’t do anything without someone else.
I watch my feet. They are not moving well enough. I practice moving them and then think about them as the ball arrives. I move my feet before hitting the ball. That felt good. Much better. I always play tennis with my feet. I constantly think about my feet. Since my hospital trip they are slow and lethargic. The twinkle has gone. My light dancing feet have been replaced by feet that must be told everything. They must be told to move, to run, to shuffle. I must tell them. They have lost their ability to think instinctively for themselves. Their independence. They are now completely dependent on me. And they are not as fast as they used to be. They are slower. They are obtuse. I have to think about everything and thinking slows me down.
One person holds his racquet and yells out two letters which sound very similar. He then spins his racquet and after it lands on the ground he peers at it and says, “You’re serving.”
Once the match starts I listen to myself saying things like:
“I thought it was going out. It dropped in.”
“The sun got in my eyes.”
“That was a funny bounce. The ball hit the tape.”
These comments are said out loud for my partner. So that he knows that I really want to win. It sounds like everytime I lose the point I have an excuse. But the reality is I am more interested in the way I am playing or moving. When I win the point I normally say nothing. I swing the racquet, pick up balls and walk getting ready for the next point.
One time the ball hits the top of the net, rolls along the net and then ultimately drops on our side winning them the point. We are defeated by randomness not defeated by their good play or our bad play. All we can do is laugh. There was a moment when the ball was running along the top of the net and time seemed to slow as the ball decided on which side to drop. The ball appeared to be teasing us and then having a good laugh.
There is another moment when the ball lobs over my head on the backhand side. I can get it. I shuffle backwards and to the left. As I move the ball floats further away. My mind is telling me to move quicker. My mind is telling me that this is easy. I give up. I let the ball go and laugh. Last year I could have got the ball and swatted it nonchalantly to where no-one was. This year I can’t get the ball back.
This gives me two things to think about. One is that I am getting older. I am not as quick as I used to be. My reflexes are slower. I used to be able to…. Nobody cares about what I used to be able to do.
The other thing is my recent trip to hospital. It has slowed me down. Taken away my confidence. Taken away my instinct. Caused me to think about everything and to always imagine the worst. To imagine falling over and hitting my head. To imagine not being able to remember this game. For it to be erased from my memory. As well as slowing me down, my trip to hospital has given me an excuse. The excuse is one that I do not like to use. In public I want to be treated like anybody else. Not given special treatment. In public I don’t want pity. In private I think about the difference between what I used to do and what I do now.
Tennis has helped me considerably. It has helped me with my self-awareness. Help tell me where I am. Initially when I made the jump from hospital I thought I was better. Well I was better. I was now good enough to go home. I thought that being good enough to go home is the same thing as being completely fit. And then I stepped onto a tennis court and I instantly knew the truth. That I couldn’t do what I used to do. I couldn’t skip. My feet were slower. My reactions were slower. My body was slower. I would never be as good or as young as I used to be. Tennis told me the truth[i].
And the second thing tennis did was help me recover. I try and achieve my goals (which I have just made up). I try and improve my footwork. I try and improve my speed and concentration. My volleys need work. And it works. It has helped me recover. In my mind I can keep a record of my backhands down the line. I can see that they have improved and it wins me the occasional point. I can aim for perfection. I can aim to get better and better. I can aim for hitting exactly what I want everytime I want. Irrespective of what comes towards me and irrespective of my opponent.
As in the tradition of TV shows I am going to finish with a short message. A bit of preaching.
I am not saying that everybody should play tennis. If pressed I might say that everybody needs to be honest with themselves. To honestly assess what they can and cannot do. They also need something to aim for. Which we can call a goal.
I could also say “That everybody needs to keep fit and healthy. That everybody needs a social outlet a way of meeting other people. And that tennis does this.”
If pressed I might , in a moment of weakness, say that when playing tennis concentrate on how you are playing, not why you are playing, not anybody else on the court and definitely not the score. It is the way that you are playing that matters. How your feet are moving; your timing; your vision; your reactions. The best way to win at tennis is not to try and win. Don’t make winning your goal. Make playing well your goal. Aim to play as well as possible. To time the ball. To hit good shots. Forget about the score. Go for your shots. Try your best. And you might even win.