May 11, 2020
Thanks for checking in on me. The derecho—that rare, straight-line wind storm that pummeled Nashville just over two weeks ago—spared me, but it did a lot of damage to the city. It was good to talk tennis with you, to realize that normally the European clay court season would be underway. Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, and then Roland Garros in Paris. I was there a year ago coaching Astra Sharma, my Australian-born All-American who went pro last year. I know you’re a huge Rafa fan, and it was a highlight of my trip to watch him practice, hard, for a solid hour before playing a best-of-five-set match. I was struck by the sound of his ball coming off the racket. It’s different from any player, it hangs in the air, fills the court with a concussive reverb. He was hitting with Carlos Moya, who has stepped in for Uncle Toni as coach, and Moya was well behind the baseline to absorb Rafa’s shots. At the end of the session, Nadal served, and I counted ten straight serves up the T, in the deuce court, that landed on or just inside the lines.
For me, as a Division I tennis coach, this time of year has always been about the NCAA tournament. I’ve found myself replaying some of the incredible matches we’ve had here at Vanderbilt in the NCAA Regionals. I recall seeing you with your two daughters at matches. One of the things I’ve loved about coaching here is the tennis community we have. I still come in to the tennis center most days and it’s deserted. In the first week or so after everything shut down a lot of people were jumping the fence to hit. To discourage play, the nets were removed. There’s something forlorn and desolate about a tennis court without a net. My good friend Don and I started playing at Elmington Park on a worn-down asphalt court that badly needs resurfacing (they still had a net). When the city closed the parks and locked up the courts we lucked out and found a private court near Montgomery Bell Academy.
For me playing tennis can be a busman’s holiday. Because I’ve coached tennis for most of my adult life, it’s not necessarily what I’d choose to do in my free time. But I’ve coached Don for the past seven years and we’ve become even better friends. I admire the disciplined, methodical way he’s retooled his game. At first during this time of social distancing, we would run through our drills (each of us wearing a blue surgical glove on the non-dominant hand), and I enjoyed our conversations when we stopped to drink water more than hitting the ball. The tennis was moderately good exercise, and the fresh air and sunshine were a tonic, but tennis still felt like a job.
But about a month ago, something shifted internally. My ballstriking improved, and with that I began to go through long stretches where I was transfixed by what I was able to do. Don is an excellent player—he’s sixty-six and world-class for his age—and our rallies lengthened into fifty-, sixty-, seventy-shot exchanges. I felt utterly absorbed playing, as tennis became a deep, focused, meditative experience. I kept recalling this quote by Torben Ulrich: “Tennis is the rake which cleans out my mind.” Ulrich, whose son Lars is the drummer for Metallica, is an artist and jazz musician who played Davis Cup for Denmark. A real free spirit.
At any rate, this rediscovery of the joy of tennis has been very moving, very gratifying. I reread Bill Tilden’s book Match Play and the Spin of the Ball. Have you read it? The first chapter is called “The Ball as a Separate Entity,” and it’s extraordinary. When you are playing tennis, the ball is the third character in the drama, with your opponent and yourself being the other two actors. When I first read it, my relationship to the ball changed. I began to think about what the ball needed, what it would like, and what I needed to do as I addressed it, received it, held it momentarily, to then send it where it needed to go in that situation. I became fascinated by the ball. Most people think of the ball as something to dominate, to overwhelm. When I’m playing well, I feel as though I’m nurturing the ball, respecting it, loving it. I’m taking care of the ball. I think I’d forgotten that feeling somehow, with all the long hours on the court over the years. As you know, the Spanish coaches stress how important it is to “receive” the ball well.
This period of quarantine has been a suffering for some, a hardship at its worst, for others an inconvenience. In my hits with Don I’ve rediscovered the sensual feel of imparting spin on the ball. A feeling of connection—to the ball, to Don, to my lifelong relationship with tennis, to the sheer pleasure of doing something difficult well—has come back to me. Walking on to the court each morning feels sacred, like I’m a martial artist entering a dojo. When I first start hitting with Don we begin by playing mini tennis. I silently murmur “Bounce” the instant the ball lands on the court, then “Hit” when the strings contact the ball. I got that idea from Timothy Gallway’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis. It’s a wonderful way to study the ball. When we back up to the baseline and begin trading slow groundstrokes, I can feel my body begin to warm up. Gradually we increase the pace of our shots. Soon we hit crosscourt forehands for five minutes, followed by crosscourt backhands. We break for a drink of water, switch ends, then hit down the line groundstrokes. It’s an unwavering routine, and I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s observation that “routine is a condition of survival.” And that, it occurs to me, is what tennis is giving me now. In this unmoored, alien reality we find ourselves in, having a court to play on, and a good friend to hit with, is helping me keep sane.
But it’s more than that too. Was it you who encouraged me to read John Updike, in particular his writings on golf, a game he loved ardently? I came across this quote which describes the way I’m experiencing sport and friendship these days: “Golf camaraderie, like that of astronauts and Arctic explorers, is based on a common experience of transcendence; fat or thin, scratch or duffer, we have been somewhere together non-golfers never go.”
I look forward to playing tennis again with you, my friend.
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