Tennis breakups can be pretty ugly. Especially after nearly thirteen years in a committed, doubles relationship. Every Tuesday at 5:45 am, Malcolm, Rich, Brad and I met to play. That was until Malcolm’s call.
“I was thinking we should take a break for the summer,” he said over the phone that spring evening, his voice sheepish and barely audible over the TV in the background.
“Oh… okay,” I said. “Sounds good. Sure.” I never asked why. I do remember thinking it would be nice to sleep in on Tuesday morning for a change. Weeks, months, a year, even more time passed and no call came from Malcolm to fire things back up.
Malcolm, Brad, Rich and I were playing when the Twin Towers came down. “You guys should get home,” the club pro told us that Tuesday, September 11. “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Go, be with your families,” he said. We were back at it the following Tuesday.
We played through births, graduations, deaths and wars. Tuesday was a constant in my life. It was normalcy in a world that was anything but.
It would go something like this: 5:00 am my alarm would sound, a high-pitched beep, piercing my circadian rhythm and telling me it was time to fight the blinding glare of the bathroom lights, to plaster contacts onto bloodshot eyes, to overcome the colds and flu, the aches and pains with an ever-increasing dose of Advil. Two hand surgeries, arthroscopy in both knees and shoulder joint replacement, surgery could not sidetrack me from tennis. It was an inseparable part of my life, what kept me feeling young even though I had passed my sixtieth birthday.
Malcolm was the weakest player when we started, but he took private lessons and practiced obsessively; it wasn’t long before he entered United States Tennis Association tournaments. He was hyper-competitive and quickly became the better player, proving it to us Tuesday after Tuesday. On the occasional match that one of us got the better of him, he would pout and become sullen and quiet. We lived for those moments. To see him throw his racquet in a fit of rage, well, that was our gold standard of success.
After the breakup call, Malcolm disappeared. A part of me thought he might have given up tennis, moved on to something new. Then I heard he was playing with younger players, guys in their thirties and forties. One guy in particular named Pete. Pete was one of the best players at the club. His kick serve had a way of hunting you down, twisting you around like a pretzel and leaving you looking foolish and inept. But, like Malcolm, if you could manage to force him into a mistake, you could crawl into his cerebellum and mess with him pretty good.
Tennis is funny that way. It’s about what’s between the ears. Good players at the club place their entire self worth on where they land on the USTA numerical ratings grid, as if that were the only thing they had to offer the world.
There are huge differences between a player’s ability, physical attributes, age and mental state. I have my own spectrum to judge these differences. In my spectrum, for example, a beginner might live in Neah Bay, Washington, the furthest spot in the Northwestern-most corner of the country where it rains almost nonstop. The beginner would be huddled in a trailer park trying to stay warm by drinking a cup of coffee he bought from the Shell station across the highway. Not so good, right? On the other end of the spectrum, Novak Djokovic, the number one male player in the world, would be in Key West by an infinity pool, sipping a Mojito with a warm, ocean breeze and an Eastern European supermodel for company. There is an awful lot of ground between Neah Bay and Key West, 3,611 miles give or take.
Pete would most likely fall somewhere outside Twin Falls, Idaho in a Holiday Inn Express, having a Coors Light and watching Jeopardy. Malcolm would be in Ontario, Oregon at the Pony Soldier Motel having a Snapple and scouring the “Little Nickel” for cheap acreage.
Tennis problems are all well and good, but the earth is on fire, glaciers are melting, polar bears are going extinct, ISIS is beheading people, children are starving and there is still no cure for cancer. Donald Trump wants to build a “’uge” wall to protect us from Mexican rapists and Muslim terrorists, and he might be the next president. How do I rationalize my feelings about our tennis breakup in the face of the world’s misery?
We’ve arrived at the heart of my problem. With the world in flames, I have allowed a game of tennis to take almost equal importance. My breakup with Malcolm knocked me for a loop.
Maybe it had something to do with my naïve hope that we actually cared about each other. That it was friendship, not athletic ability that had been the real glue all those years. I was wrong.
Brad, Rich, and I moved on. We picked up games when we could, playing the field, so to speak. It had been nearly two years since the “unpleasantness,” as I liked to call it.
I was in a pick-up game on Court 4 a few weeks back. It was shaping up to be a good morning at the club. The popping of balls on string echoing inside the tennis barn, rain pounding on the roof with a ratta-tat-tat, the shrill screech of rubber soles on true court punctuated by the grunts of our bodies trying and succeeding to forget age one more time.
“I got balls,” one of the guys shouted, tossing a new can to the side. We all laughed.
“I slept like shit last night,” I said. “Anyone have any Advil in their bag?” It was our ritual. Someone always had a bum knee or a stiff back. Someone didn’t sleep well or drank too much, or could barely move because they shoveled a load of bark the day before.
“Stop moaning,” the youngest of the group, Gary, said as he deftly took a backhand down the alley. “Our 4.0 team just qualified for Nationals,” he added with glowing pride, then waited for a reaction.
I hit a crisp shot deep to the baseline and felt a tinge of pride. It felt good to be excellent at something, to put in the effort and improve, to be recognized for it and know that people think of you in that very specific way. There is a power in that.
Two younger women were on Court 1. I marveled at their well grooved, topspin forehands and their athletic legs. It is a beautiful thing, tennis, when it is played with skill.
I take pride in my volleys, my ability to get my racquet on the ball no matter how hard it was hit or from what angle it came from. Occasionally I fantasize about playing amateur tournaments again, determined to demonstrate at sixty-three, I am a far better player than anyone knew me to be.
We were taking our warm-up serves when I got curious about Malcolm. For whatever reason, I was feeling magnanimous, putting aside the unpleasantness and taking the high road. I was, I believed, the better man for this.
“Anyone seen Malcolm?” I shouted over the echo of shots.
“Every Tuesday morning,” Gary said. “You can’t believe how much he’s improved,” Gary added with enthusiasm. Gary is in his early forties and a very accomplished player himself.
I felt a pang of anger. I would have found it less painful if Gary had hammered a sharp pencil deep into my eardrum than have uttered those words. “Oh,” I said. There was an uncomfortable silence. “Say hi.” My heart sunk.
Later I ran into Rich and Brad at Starbucks and told them about Malcolm’s new tennis buddies.
“Well, it’s official. We suck,” Brad said with a wry smile. “I knew he was capable of this shit. He did it to me when we played singles. One day he just blew me off .”
“What do you expect from, Malcolm?” Rich said, shaking his head. “Did he ever once ask you how your kids were, or what you did over the weekend? He’s all about himself.” The steamer screeched in the background. “He thinks we’re losers, and he wants to play with winners. He didn’t give a shit about friendship.”
“Yeah. He didn’t even RSVP to my daughter’s wedding invitation,” I said. “He’s an asshole.”
I didn’t like feeling negatively about someone. I didn’t like feeling like a has-been either. All of
it caused me to think about where I was on the tennis spectrum and whether it even mattered. I’m still friends with Rich and Brad. They care about me as much as I do about them. All in all, it wasn’t so bad. As for the spectrum, most likely I’m at the Red Lion Inn, Port Angeles, drinking a can of Diet Coke. I’m watching tourists drive their cars onto the Blackball Ferry, bound for Sydney, B.C.
I had invested too deeply into the game of tennis. It wasn’t that I was unaware of the world’s plight. It wasn’t that I had skewed my priorities in the wrong direction either. I appreciated my good fortune, but had miscalculated the depth of a friendship, and with that comes a loneliness and loss. But I’m better than that.
Tennis fantasies die, hard, and self worth, well it’s as hard to get a racquet on as Pete’s kick serve. I want to think I am a better person than Malcolm because I care about my friends and it’s important to me to be a very good one. Nothing is more important than that. It won’t solve the world’s problems, but it is a step forward.
That thing I said about tennis players, well it’s true. It’s all about what’s between the ears. I am okay with that, too.