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With Wimbledon at hand, once again the time has come to assess my own tennis game, and wonder why it is that I am not there, waiting in the doorway of Mayfair's Westbury Hotel for an official Rolls-Royce, the mauve and green Wimbledon pennant flying from the fender, to bear me off to a third-round match against Bob Lutz. Poor Lutz. It is all so absolutely clear to me. I am lying in one of the enormous clubhouse tubs after the match, luxuriating, the mind just barely ticking over, perhaps moved to consider the last crisp cross-court shot at match point that extinguished him. Tomorrow, Newcombe. Ho hum. Finally, the last day, and the acceptance speech following the astounding win over Rod Laver after being down 0-6, 0-6, 0-5, love-40 on my serve before finally getting my game uncorked ("What could have been on his mind?" is the big question in the newspapers the next day), the friendly though controversial wave of my racket ("A tattered museum-piece Dunlop, his only racket, which he calls 'Maud' ") at the Royal Box that will be described as "gauche" by two editorial writers in the London papers...all of this entrenched in my mind—tableaux that I have been fantasizing for the past 15 years. Indeed, this is the time of year when I begin broadcasting those extraordinary Wimbledon matches to myself as I walk on the sidewalks of New York in the heat of late June. I try to keep my lips from moving so people will not notice. I am too self-conscious to use my own name in these broadcasts. Someone might overhear. I refer to myself as "Mmmm," but I certainly can recognize myself. I report in a British accent: "Mmmm has just come onto the famed center court. Roche has been waiting, seven rackets by his chair. Yes, Mmmm is carrying that odd trusty racket of his, the only one he owns, Maud." The drama unfolds. I begin weaving down Madison Avenue, my mind buzzing with pictures. "Mmmm is walking out to receive service. Yes, he is still limping badly, bitten in the ankle last evening, as you all know, in the course of subduing a mugger whilst escorting Princess A. home from a party in Cheyne Walk. Roche serves."
How sad, all this...because it is born of such regret, of a misguided sense that if things had been just a little different, if I'd concentrated more, or had a slightly different mental attitude, or lived in California hard by a cement court, then this week I actually would be in the Westbury in Mayfair, squeezing a hand-gripper, looking at the ceiling and thinking about returning Arthur Ashe's serve.
What sort of a game is mine?
I once described it as follows: I think I'm really quite a decent tennis player despite a perceptible hitch in the backhand stroke that causes the ball to float alarmingly, a serve that rests right on the edge of hysteria, a dismaying tactical sense that calls for the grandstand rather than the percentage shot (a drop shot executed from the baseline is one of my favorites), a running style that has something of the giraffe in it and, above all, a morbid preoccupation during play with impending doom. Still, when the local yacht club tennis tournament rolls around in the last weeks of June I enter it with an optimist's conviction that the opposition will be doing well to take a set from me as I move through the draw to the Fourth of July finals. The club has 97 members. The men's singles trophy, a Revere silver bowl, sits on the clubroom table. It is the smallest model Tiffany's offers, and one would be hard pressed to load it up with more than seven or eight cashew nuts. I stare at it longingly. The runner-up trophy stands alongside. It is a fluted vase appropriate for a single long-stemmed rose, too thin for a name as lengthy as mine to be engraved on it without running back into itself. It shines its pristine polished light, however, and I persuade myself to find it acceptable if, by some chance...
My opponent in the first round is a tall, melancholy man who comes down to the courts carrying two aluminum rackets in their covers. During the warm-up his strokes are classic. Years of lessons and practice. I think of him as a mirror of myself. I had begun when I was 8—all those years on my grandmother's court with the apple basket of old tennis balls, trying to hit the handkerchief spread in the corner of the service court. ("He aces Budge!" my inner voice exclaimed.) My grandmother had a parrot that flew around the place un-trammeled. Its favorite perch was the wire backstop where it teetered in the soft winds, its tail hanging down behind. It enjoyed the tennis and the only phrase it uttered, which it did constantly, was "love-40!"
My opponent begins to practice his serve. His mouth goes ajar as he hits it. He had played on the team at Amherst, I had heard. Very shy man. Low voice. Asks if I am ready. The match begins. He wins the toss and double-faults. He double-faults again. He begins to disintegrate. My serve. His first return of service hits the net in the adjacent court. "Bend your knees, you fat faggot!" he cries at himself. His rage mounts. "Oh suffering Jesus!" he cries. We play appalling tennis and I extinguish him. We meet at the net. "I played well today," I say. I have read somewhere that Rod Laver uses that phrase when he walks to the net to comfort his defeated opponents. The Amherst man detests me. "Your game was a little off. I'd hate to run into it when it's on," I say. He grunts. A very pretty girl who has been watching turns out to be his wife. She comes out on the court and touches his hand. She has olive eyes and high cheekbones. She loathes me. They get into a very expensive car. They are going off to a grand lunch somewhere. I stare after them.
Second round: the day is muggy. My opponent is a sandy-haired older man who wears a hearing aid. He is one of the club's best yachtsmen. He came in third in the Bermuda Race one year. He wears blue yachting sneakers and khaki shorts. His tennis style is awkward. He pushes at the ball. During the warmup I do not make an error. The match begins. After 10 minutes he is ahead 3-0. He is steady. Everything comes back. I tighten up. I begin to play his game, patting the ball back. Rage begins to mount in me, first at him ("Why can't he hit the ball and play tennis like a man?") and then finally at myself. I berate myself, both verbally and physically. I cry out my name. I lift up my racket and belt myself in the calf. A welt rises and throbs. He wins the first set. Play begins in the second. I net an easy volley. I refer to myself as an "ox." The match is over. Nearly weeping with frustration, I walk to the net. Is he going to say something? He is. "I was really on today," he says. He puts out his hand. I murmur my apologies for having played so badly. "Can I buy you a ginger ale or something?" he asks. "Not for me," I say. I have a terrible thirst.
It is this sort of annual setback that has been keeping me from pressing on to Wimbledon. I have never dared to admit to myself that perhaps physical failings—a quirky eye, a lack of speed, for example—might be at fault. The dream would evaporate if one allowed oneself to believe such heresy. The root of my troubles, I have always told myself, has been largely mental—a tendency to collapse in the face of adversity and succumb to a state of what was once known in tennis as "getting it in the elbow," stiffening up, choking, as in my match with the elderly gentleman with the hearing aid. Consequently, I have always been fascinated by the mental devices used to stave off such terrors. For years one of my favorite players was Art Larsen, who was the U.S. champion in 1950. He had returned to tennis on the advice of a psychiatrist as therapy for a series of breakdowns caused by war duty. Larsen provided a most interesting mental device, or catalyst, for himself—a large imaginary eagle that would perch on his shoulder to advise and cajole him through a match. Larsen had a habit one noticed after a while: just before serving, he would twist his head slightly, ostensibly to listen to what the eagle had to say.
I have always envied Larsen his eagle, and for a while I tried a more massive extension of his device: while playing, I imagined that I was being watched and advised by a gallery of spectators bunched together in a box high above the court who on occasion, in disregard of tennis etiquette, would offer sharp cries of encouragement or disgust. In the box were Ernest Hemingway, King Gustaf V of Sweden, Marianne Moore, Dwight Davis, Gottfried von Cramm, Bitsy (the Giant Killer) Grant, my grandmother, her parrot, Art Larsen's eagle, Brigitte Bardot, Ezra Pound, Allison Danzig and a few others I associated with tennis. Sometimes in this group of shimmering faces others were discernible, especially when things were going badly: General Alexander Samsonov, who lost the battle of Tannenberg, turned up among them, and so did Captain Edward J. Smith of the Titanic.
Often, carrying this enormous cargo of people around in my mind became too wearisome. I could barely move on the court. I would shuck all but one or two of them. And sometimes the simplest form was to suspect that the elderly groundskeeper across the way, slowly uncoiling a garden hose to attach it to a sprinkler, was actually someone in disguise, Jack Kramer perhaps, setting up a tour, and I would glance at him to see if he had caught sight of the skillful backhand cross-court that I had swept by my opponent (Sydney Lawford, age 14).