The Tennis Curmudgeon

The Big Goal

I got hurt and had to retire from playing tennis. I’d been playing since I was a kid so I knew I was going to have trouble with the transition to non-tennis life. So I thought long and hard and came up with a solution: I’d make myself sick of tennis.

Once I was up and around again I planned to take on two last students with the expressed objective of making their goal come true. I’d immerse myself in their games to 1) get sick of them and 2) reach their goals. They weren’t unachievable goals (no one was going to any Open) but they had to work and it was going to cost them. I wasn’t coming cheap. I also volunteered at schools and tennis events to really make sure I burned
myself out on the game.

Me and the two students assessed their goals, made some adjustments, then I went about molding their game to achieve their goals. They never met or knew about the other so they also had the bonus of thinking I was spending full time on their game. Silly students. I went about breaking down and then rebuilding their games to become the players they wanted. At the end of the year I’m happy to say I was sick of tennis. Oh yeah, and they both achieved their goal. I gave them a path to continue on, if they so pleased, and left.

That’s it. I left the game that was so much a part of my life. I gave away equipment, balls, never work clothes, everything. I took anything tennis related displayed in the house and boxed it all up. That part of my life was over. Now I’d get a job, go see bands and get to stay late and go to the after parties, learn what it’s like to wear long pants ALL THE TIME. That was an adjustment, let me tell you. My legs never looked so pasty after my first winter back.

Then a funny thing happened. Over a year later I’m in bed one Saturday morning. My girlfriend and I had been out late and I’m fighting for sleep when, at 7AM, someone is pounding on my front door, ringing my bell like a crazy person. The house has to be on fire because I don’t know anyone up at this hour. I try to ignore it but the banging continues.

I go to the door and it’s one of my last students. He’s all wired for sound and ready to rumble. It took me a minute for it to register what he was talking about. He reserved a court and he wants to play. I beg off telling him, by now, he has better people to hit with. He won’t listen. I tell him I haven’t picked up a racket, haven’t looked at one on purpose, for over a year. But he won’t hear that. I tell him that, having been drinking until 4AM I’m probably not in the best shape to be out in public much less trying to hit a tennis ball. But nope, won’t hear it, we’re going. I knew this guy, I built parts of his head, I know he’s not going to let this go and I’m tired of hearing my girlfriend say,

“Go. Get the fuck out of the house so I can sleep.” Thanks for the support, honey.

We go. He’s driving and keeping up a patter the entire way. He’s telling me about his accomplishes over the past year and a half. I’m nodding mainly because I keep drifting off. I’ve made this ride to a tennis club countless times but it really seems out of place to me this time. But, because miles go by, we get to the club.

And right off the bat I’m stinking up the joint. It doesn’t help that he’s raining down rockets during the warm-up but still. I’m sucking. We start the match. He’s booked off two hours so he’s expecting an epic struggle. I feel an epic struggle too. To keep the greasy breakfast I ate with a bunch of musicians just a few hours before.

We start and he comes out firing. He’s added some weight to his serve but that could just be how you feel tennis balls when you’re still drunk. And haven’t played in over a year. But he’s raining some heat down on me. I have to give him credit. I wasn’t making solid contact with his serve but, although I didn’t go for big first serves (not yet anyway) but I still had a great weapon: my left-handed spin serve. I knew it wasn’t going to be as good as in the old days but I felt confidant that I could still use it as a weapon. And I pretty much did but he ended up breaking me once so took the first set.

After that set I walked around the backcourt for a bit gathering myself together, squaring my jaw and all those other shopworn cliches. I took a deep breath, could feel that I was sobering up a bit (amazing what a bit of running can do for ones system) and said,

“No fucking way is he taking this.”

So I started in. I took thousands of hours, millions of tennis balls and a secret weapon into the rest of the match. During the third game in the second set (I was up 2-0 after getting my first break of his serve) I could sense a shift. So that’s when I started using my secret weapon. Which was, I built this puppy so I can dismantle it. And just like that I started to find ways to put his old weaknesses to benefit me. I knew during his next service game I had to break not only his service game but his will to serve. He had high praise for his own serve and, at the level he aspired for and gained, it was a potent weapon. But when you’re serving it to the guy who gave it to you, if he’s evil (like me some would think), will snatch it right away by doing something he thinks cannot be done.

I know he’s going for it on the add court. That was his first mistake. He forgot he was serving to a lefty. He loads up and gives me everything he’s got. I know he’s coming to the net but what he doesn’t know is I know his every move. I can hear him coming, I see the ball clearly, it’s not as wide as he would have hoped so it’s right in my wheelhouse. So I rip it. And the ball passes in front of him while he’s approaching the next and cleanly lands in the far corner. I move toward the net not because I thought there was a chance in hell he could have returned the ball but because I wanted to make eye contact with him. I wanted him to see what was coming next. I wanted him to remember the days when he was out there hating me for making him repeat shot after shot until it was precise. I wanted him to see, in my eyes, that I knew this match was over.

Gamesmanship? Definitely. Did I know how to break his will? I put it there so had the backdoor access code to it. Did I do it because I didn’t want this to me a close match? Damn straight. I knew I had a good 30-40 minutes left in me. If he made it a battle, in the end, he probably would have had a better chance at winning. Yeah, I hedged it there but, the bottom line is, we were off that court in 65 minutes.

Seeing that we had some time left over I started to walk to the net to see if he wanted to hit some. I have to admit I missed playing. I felt okay (I hadn’t been going balls to the wall to risk another injury but I played at a speed fast enough to win) so just as I was opening my mouth after this friendly match I watch as me ex-student uses his racket as an axe and the court as a tree he’s trying to shop down. Once, twice, three times. People on other courts stopped playing.

Oh, I think, this was more serious to him than a match with his old coach. Then it dawned on me that, now that he’s achieved his first goal beating me was his ultimate goal. Even a me who hadn’t touched a tennis ball in a long time. And I ruined what he’d assumed would happen. I see anger in his face, defeat. I’m pissed off at the unsportsmanlike display but I’ve also lost more than my share of heartbreaking matches. So I begin to explain it to him.

“I understand how you feel but,” I point my racket around the court. “I’ve done this one thing for more hours than you’ve done anything else in your life. I’ve thought about this game more than it thought to be healthy. I have more responses in my head than you do. I’ve just spent more time in this rectangle than you.”

I thought that was a pretty nice salve. I know him, I know he’s going to be pissed for a long time, but I figure letting him know that I’m more experienced, not necessarily better (remember what I said about a long match?), just trickier. He looks at me for a second, still pissed, and says,

“Fuck you. I’ve been planning this for a fucking year.”

Ah, so his little success went to his head. I heard from a club owner I ran into that he’d turned into a little prima donna. Let me point out here that the goal I help him get to wasn’t a top level in the region. It was at the midlevel of the amateur ranks, still a tough goal to reach #1 there, but he wasn’t going to go pro anytime soon.

Because of that and the racket smashing I took some time, after all, he’s paying for another 55 minutes of court time that doesn’t seem as if it’s going to be used, to explain to him why he got beat (I won the match 4-6, 6-2, 6-2). Just not as gently.

“But do you know the real reason I kicked your ass after not playing for over a year? During that time you played every day thinking about beating me, right?” He didn’t answer but I could tell I was getting to him. At this time I was wondering if my strategy was that smart. After all, he was my ride home. But I figured I’d cross that road when I came to it. I had a human to dismantle.

“Because I built your fucking game and any day I want I can dismantle it and fuck up your head so that you could never put it back together.”

We stared at each other for a few seconds. Finally he threw his shattered racket into his bag and said,

“Let’s go.”

On the longer seeming silent ride home I had time to wonder about the other student. Would he one day take his shot at me? He was a quieter guy than this one. His goals weren’t as lofty. But maybe, just like this guy, he had other goals in mind. I just tucked that into the back of my mind and forgot about it. We reached my home, I got out of the car silently and he drove off. I never heard from him again.

A few months after that the other guy politely called. A much more civil human being, wouldn’t you say? While he’s talking I’m silently laughing. He’s beating around the bush, asking how I’m doing, telling me how he’s playing on local teams and tournaments most weekends, his entire resume before asking,

“Would you like to play sometime?”


“Tonight?” He asks. I can hear the butterflies in his stomach. He’s trying but failing to hide the excitement from his voice.

“Come get me.”

Even before his call I’d already started to plan how to make this one short and sweet. I knew I’d need to rock him right off the bat. Maybe not being hammered when we start the match is a good place to start. I figured, fine, I’ll start there and see where it goes.

We get to the club and it was nice seeing him. Out of the two of them I enjoyed my off-court bullshitting time more with him. But I don’t want to drag this out. I know just what to do to make him break down almost immediately. He is a methodical player. Very deliberate in his movements. The moment he gets rushed or flustered he starts to breakdown. We worked on that and he was doing better but I know I can get to him. And I plan on doing it during my first service game. And it’s a good thing for me I got to serve first.

Four flat serves right to his body. They came up on him so quickly he had no defense. After the fourth ball stopped bouncing I was in my ready position bouncing. He saw that and made the mistake I needed, he rushed to serve. And I pummeled it.

I’m not going to bore you with the rest of the match. He lost some service games he should have won and I retreated to spin serves for the most part and we walked off the court in an hour with my straight set victory. He was dejected so I told him the same story. I’d dedicated my life to this one activity. I’d spent time on a court by myself at 6AM working to perfect the spin serve he had trouble with. I’d be on court at 10PM hitting backhand volleys until the lights went out.

He could understand it, logically, but emotionally I could tell he was having trouble accepting it. He drove me home, it wasn’t totally silent but it wasn’t as chipper as pre-match. I got out of the car and, once again, we never spoke again. We did see each other once. I was hanging at a friends house who still played on the local courts. He told me that the once mild-mannered student of mine had turned into a foot stomping, bellowing, racket thrower. I didn’t believe it. So we drove down to the local courts where we just knew he’d be.

We parked right outside the court he was playing on. He was in a match and playing well. I get out of the car and sit on the hood. He’s too involved in his match to see much else. At one point he shanked a backhand. He was trying to do too much with the ball and couldn’t handle the shot. He turns to the fence and unleashes his racket.

If it weren’t for the fence it would have hit me in the face. As the racket started dropping down the fence he found himself looking me right in the eyes. He could tell right away that wasn’t the way I would have wanted him to play. So, without a word, I slid off the hood and walked into the car. I looked at my friend and said,

“Didn’t expect to ever see that from him.”

“He’s changed.”

We drove off and I thought that was a damn shame.


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