by Todd Wernstrom
Feeling the sting of one more missed easy volley, I was 15 years old again: a 15-year-old, self-taught (mostly) high school and tournament tennis player. I was good enough to play No. 1 singles, and to merit free strings and tennis shoes from FootJoy. I was also very much a tennis failure.
Tennis mattered to me in a way that it shouldn’t have. It was my way of not being the boy whose father left when he was six, of not being the kid who walked himself to school at age seven because his mother had to work like an animal to support the family left behind. Tennis was clean. There were white shorts and Izod shirts, not jeans that were perhaps an inch or so higher than they should have been because the budget didn’t account for a growth spurt.
There were other sports, to be sure, and as I hit 10 or so, I learned that I was better than most kids in just about all of them. But being a kickball legend in 5th grade or the best hockey player in the neighborhood by 8th grade didn’t feel the same as being watched with some trepidation by your opponent during warm-ups before a tennis match in high school. I had all the strokes, or so everyone thought. But time after time, I would get beat, usually pretty badly. And no one could understand it; not coaches, teammates or other players.
It never really occurred to me what the problem was. I knew it wasn’t my technique. It couldn’t have been, because at just about the same time I gave up on tennis as a player, I became a coach at camps and private clubs. The head pros always loved my game; it was classic, and I was easily able to break down the strokes of the kids I worked with to help them improve.
But I stopped wanting to keep score. I still played through high school, but that was the end of real tennis for me. The teaching continued during college and into law school, but once I got a job as a lawyer, I’d maybe pick up a racket every five years or so, and then only for a short time, because some friend insisted on hitting.
So, I’m not sure why I did it, but I signed up for a tournament while on a family vacation in early July. As usual, I had packed tennis rackets, and knew that I’d be hitting with friends, but for the first time in the three years that I had gone to this particular vacation spot, I wanted to keep score again. I had been hitting most of the week, and honestly, I looked and felt good. I had actually come to understand the mechanics of my strokes better than when I played all the time, so I was able to get my game together quickly.
The tournament was a kind of doubles round robin with varying skill levels put together by the pro. Every team had a chance, it seemed. We won our first match, but it occurred to me that it was far more difficult than it should have been. Almost immediately, I felt myself slowing down. I could see where I needed to be, but I would arrive a fraction of a second too late. My volley punches were an inch or two less in front of me than they needed to be. I couldn’t make myself step into my backhand. The result was the same bewildering array of errors from 35 years ago. We lost our next two matches, the last one so convincingly that I became numb with the same frustration I felt over and over 35 years ago.
Even now, I feel at home on a soccer pitch and a baseball diamond. I whiz around the ice and cradle a lacrosse ball in a way that is more competent than most other adults I come into contact with. I can trade topspin groundstrokes with any recreational tennis player I encounter. But when it’s time to keep score, my tennis game comes apart.
The good news is that in this most recent tennis failure, the why crystallized in my mind. You see, there is no “I” in “team,” and there is no “us” in “tennis.” Even in doubles.
I grew up as a loner. As a boy, I wasn’t acutely aware of my isolation. Somehow, I must have pushed myself toward team sports, but at the same time, I must have sought in tennis the comfort of the isolation I was used to living with. But I didn’t – and perhaps still don’t – have the emotional strength to stand on my own with a tennis racket in my hand. I needed the other moving parts of a team and needed to be a part of that team, not be the team.
The even better news is that now that I know what I know, I think I will keep score again next year at the tournament. If Ohio Edit allows, I’ll let you know how it went. My money is on me. This time, I think, for real.
Todd Wernstrom is a wine distributor in New York City where he lives with his wife, three children and a crazy (but cute) little dog. His most recent “accomplishment” was dumping the two-hand backhand he employed for decades in favor of a less reliable but more old school one-hander.