Back when I was a denizen of the aforementioned three-court suburb, the idea was simple: You tried to make as many points as you could as fast as you could—with smashes, cannonball serves and other low-percentage but speedy gambits—because the match was over not when someone had won two or three sets, but as soon as the next slob pointed to his watch to evict you from the court. In my current tennis Eden, where no one ever comes to throw you off a court, the real victory, the moral victory, goes not to the side that first wins 12 or 18 or 36 games, but to the side that last utters, "So whaddya say, one more set?" and has the other side decline from exhaustion.
Accordingly, the essential tactic is not to play better, but to play longer. This is what makes the drop shot and the lob the emblematic strokes of our community. Win or lose, they make the other guy feel his weight, his age, his lunch. And they pass the time that used to seem so precious in my old neighborhood, where I hated to hit a sky ball, because half my court tenure seemed to go by while I waited for the sonofagun to come down.
But for all the differences between my old tennis haunt and this new one, there are certain similarities as well. They come out mainly when it rains, a situation that equally curtails the usefulness of one court or a hundred. The threat of rain is greeted with the same fretful expectation, the first drops are met with the same determination to get in another game or two. Then when all the dots on the court have connected, everyone goes home. Or almost everyone. There are always a few jerks who will keep right on playing, and I have always been one of them. In my hometown, I had a sensible reason for this: Rainy days were the only times I could finish a match. But even now I have an abiding fondness for the heavy thwuck of a sodden ball, the challenge of seeing through steamed-up and bespattered glasses, the sheer single-mindedness of sloshing through puddles toward a forehand.
I used to worry that here, where court time is unbounded, everyone would just sit out rainy days, watching old Wimbledon matches on the VCR and slurping chardonnay. But that was before I started playing with Gerry. Gerry has a Har-Tru court that, if you want to get technical, shouldn't be played on in the rain. Nothing irreparable happens when you do play, it's just that every time you pivot, a crescent of softened clay rises up around your sneaker and leaves a divot. For every hour you play in the rain, you've got to use an hour of a sunny day rolling the surface flat again.
For most guys that's not an acceptable equation, but Gerry doesn't seem to mind. He likes playing tennis in a red slicker, with his hair streaming and gray-green spatters of muck sticking to his calves and the rain getting up his nose when he throws his head back to serve. I think it's because he comes from Brooklyn, a place with even fewer tennis courts per capita than the scurvy subdivision where I learned the game.
For Gerry, as for me, there's still something wondrous and giddy-making about a court that sits there, placid and silent, waiting for you and you alone to come hit tennis balls around. Play on that court for more than an hour, with no one marking the time or counting the number of sets you've played, and you feel like you're really getting away with something, even in the rain.