Which comes first? Does tennis somehow turn otherwise rational human beings into emotional 4-year-olds? Or are rude, petulant and insecure types attracted to the game in the first place because they instinctively realize, even when quite young, that the sport is an ideal vehicle for boorishness? And why do even subdued players like Bjorn Borg appear so unstintingly grim throughout their matches that it's impossible to believe they get any enjoyment at all from what they do? (I realize that they are in it to win, for money, yet isn't it still a "game"?)
Though I fooled with tennis off and on for more than 30 years, and kept fairly close track of the major tournaments and leading players throughout that time, I was never able to answer those intriguing questions. Neither my own behavior on the court nor what I read about or watched on television made the slightest bit of sense to me. Even though I'd never taken tennis very seriously, I'd thrown my share of rackets into chain link fences. Hopelessly behind in a set, I'd blasted second serves with all my might into the net or 20 feet out in ridiculous, impotent rage. Most appallingly, in supposedly friendly mixed-doubles matches I'd insulted my much-loved wife. I couldn't very well fault Nastase, Connors or McEnroe for their behavior when I often became an ass on the court myself for no good reason.
Three years ago, at the age of 40, I entered my first tournament. "Big Al's" is what it's called (named after the local restaurant owner who sponsors it). It may well be the largest amateur tournament for adults in Oregon, attracting players from throughout the state, and from Nevada and California as well. Play is divided into A, B, C and D classes, and I entered D doubles with a friend named Steve, who talked me into it when his regular partner was injured a few weeks before the event.
Much to my surprise, we actually made it to the finals, then lost our last match. In fact, it went to the last point of a tiebreaker in the third set. And the experience was enough to make me swear off tennis for life. Like most players who aren't tournament-seasoned, I played nervously, tentatively and, therefore, quite poorly. The worst of it, though, was that I had argued with Steve about missed shots and foiled strategies. I found myself doubting line calls made by our opponents, and more than once choked back an impulse to mutter some insult at them. After that final match, though I didn't show it—or at least tried very hard not to—I was both severely disappointed at the loss and furious at the pair who had beaten us, at Steve, and, most of all, at myself for reacting like such an utter fool.
If, at the age of 40, I was incapable of relaxed play in D-level doubles in a low-key local tournament, I figured there was no hope for me, that I'd be better off hiking or fishing instead—so I walked off the court sincerely believing I'd never be back.
Then, this year, Steve called about two weeks before Big Al's. His regular partner was injured again. I thought it over and agreed to play. It had been three years since I had so much as looked at my tennis racket, but I was certain of one thing—during that time I had managed to cultivate an attitude of calm condescension toward the game. The antics of the temperamental pros seemed absurd rather than curious to me now, and I simply couldn't imagine myself caring about whether I won or lost, or even how I played. As far as tennis was concerned, I was sure I had finally matured—and about time, too.
So I practiced a total of three or four hours over two weeks, hitting balls with my wife and son, serving a few, sharpening up my only decent shot, a defensive lob.
On the first day of the tournament, wearing cutoff jeans and old running shoes and carrying my $10 Bi Mart racket, I walked down to the courts about an hour before our first match to watch some of the other players in action. Things seemed even worse than I remembered. Dozens of grown men and women paced around nervously—waiting, like me, for their turns, and wearing expressions similar to those one might expect to see on soldiers' faces a few minutes before the certainty of combat.
Out on the courts this nervous anxiety was released in a variety of ways. I watched a few minutes of a singles match—B level, I think it was—in which each player was making accurate line calls but was also accusing the other of cheating.
"Go crawl in a hole, ——," one of them said.