As I boarded the jet to London, I began to wonder, Why had I brought my tennis racket? The handle, which stuck out of the side of my backpack, kept knocking people in the head. The racket seemed more trouble than it was worth.
In addition, Droxford, the tiny (pop. 400) village in Hampshire where I had rented a cottage for the summer, hardly promised to be a hotbed of tennis competition. I knew no one there. My nearest neighbor, according to the owner of the cottage, was a spinster septuagenarian ornithologist.
What made me think that I would get a chance to play? Wimbledon, I guess. Because of Wimbledon, I assumed I would find tennis in England, just as I assumed I would find good dark beer because I had heard of pubs, and eccentricity from seeing Monty Python's Flying Circus on TV. Besides, I had planned a weekend trip to Wimbledon to see the tournament, where I hoped I would meet someone to play with. After watching the matches, I felt sure I would want to play tennis. Professionals in action always inspire me—I throw the football around at halftime of the Super Bowl.
After a nine-hour flight, a one-hour train trip and a 30-minute bus ride, I arrived at Rosemary Cottage, which, through the hazy half-consciousness of jet lag, looked even more quaint and inviting than I had dreamed. Just inside the door was an umbrella stand filled with walking sticks. My immediate favorite was a simple, knobby, white-oak branch whittled at a natural bend into the head of a bird.
This was the England in store for me: leisurely strolls around the Hampshire dales, the bird-headed walking stick tapping like a slow metronome on the ground ahead of me. I took the racket out of my pack and stuck it handledown in the stand. The graphite frame, precisely strung head and sleek technological design looked out of place. The bird seemed to eye it quizzically.
On my first Saturday night in Droxford I took the bird stick and strolled down to the nearest pub, The White Horse. An inn and traveler's stop, the pub was built in 1582. It was crowded. I later found out that it was the best pub within 20 miles.
The English are not known for initiating contact with strangers, so for a while I sat at the bar by myself, sipping a pint of a strong bitter called Wads-worth's 6X. Next to me, a group of young men about my age were discussing cricket, an incomprehensible game that fascinates me because of its arcane scoring and dirgelike slowness and formality. I eavesdropped. When they reached the dregs of their latest round, I told the bartender that their next was on me. Hearing my offer, they turned in unison to face me.
"You certainly know how to make the acquaintance of an Englishman." one of them said. They had spotted me for an American right off.
He introduced himself as Nick. He had long, black curly hair that tapered to a point around his shoulder blades. A gold loop dangled from his left ear. He had on a worn black suit jacket. Later, when he paid for the next round, he drew a brown envelope from his inside pocket and spilled the change and bills into his hand.
I said that I had overheard their conversation about cricket and was baffled by the game. His friend James, who had been to the U.S., was equally confused and fascinated by American football. We exchanged explanations. Our conversation turned to other sports, and I mentioned that I would be going up to Wimbledon. To my surprise, none of them had ever been to the tournament.