The first time I broke a racket was an accident, but the rest were not. The worn tack of my sweat-stained grip slipped out of my hand on a service follow-through, bounced twice, and entangled in the net like a fly trapped in a spider web. All I could detect was a jagged crack in the throat, but by the end of the set I could hear a crunch every time I hit a ball as the fissure widened and shifted; eventually the strings lost tension and the frame was unusable. Unless you’re personally sponsored or have some kind of agreement with a major company like Wilson, Head, or Babolat, individual racket frames (minus string, grips, or other munitions for a tennis player’s arsenal) cost near $200. Once I became an NCAA athlete, it was like I’d been accepted into one of those strange inner circles where there’s always a way to avoid paying face value. It reminded me of when I discovered Expedia after shelling out $500+ for airfare a couple times. Now there were package deals with two frames, stencil ink, over grips, a spool of string, and a bag for only $350. By then I’d probably smashed near one thousand dollars worth of hardware, but, strangely, began to treat my equipment more kindly—I may have thought I could somehow earn back the wasted frames of the past.
From a young age, I sought out contact sports. There was no feeling quite like hitting somebody in football, and even after fifth grade, when I switched to soccer, I quickly earned nicknames like “Polar Bear” (a nod to my half-Norwegian blood). Once I’d been dribbling across midfield and, while looking down at my cleats, a defender ran right into me and fell flat on his back. The ref had motioned at first to give me a yellow card, but soon realized I had no malicious intent and that the poor kid just had too slight a frame to contest the ball. After that, I was “Steamroller.” When I chose tennis as my exclusive varsity sport in ninth grade, the bodily collisions suddenly became purely mental, and the only defenders I ran over were those in my own conscience.
For a brief time after elementary school, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist to “fix” my anger problems. Dr. J had a cluttered office; I remember feeling like the stacked books and papers were closing in around me. There was a comically large poster of a thermometer that he’d use to represent varying levels of rage; I don’t recall any of the descriptions, but I do remember that only the bulb was shaded. He probably didn’t want kids to imagine their day-to-day levels as anything beyond common irritation or annoyance. With Dr. J, I did eventually learn how to set aside most of my adolescent troubles—playground brawls, scuffles with my little brother—but rather than leave me completely, my mental instability instead entered a sort of hibernation, slumbering unseen while I prepared for high school.
Tennis was different from what are often referred to as the four major sports (football, basketball, baseball, and soccer) at my high school. Unlike the vigorous trials athletes had to undergo to be considered for one of those prestigious squads, tennis welcomed all and made no cuts. I liked that absent performance pressure at first—no fear of being called into a coach’s office to sit in an itchy, poorly-padded chair while you were told your “effort was appreciated” or you could “find other ways to help the team,” but that your spot was no longer a spot, or it now belonged to somebody else.
One of the first tennis-specific nicknames I had was given to me by my collection of three tennis instructors—Cody, Elliot, and Ryan. I was only seven or eight years old, and they convinced me, among other things, that they formed the core of the heavy metal band Slipknot and were “tennis teachers in normal life.” I was a chubby kid, and far stockier than the usual gazelle-like breed of tennis player. To put it in perspective, when I started competitive tennis at age 13, I was about four inches shorter and twenty-five pounds heavier than I am now. Running side to side for hours at a time, though it was something I knew I should be able to do, was not a subject my body and brain had agreed upon. It often only took one point in a game that was longer than ten strokes before I was sucking wind as though I’d nearly drowned. Hitting winners seemed easier than winning those points by attrition, and a clean winner just looks beautiful. I have yet to experience a feeling quite like it. Winners are the kind of shots that make commentators say things like “artistry in motion,” and they always send scattered clicks of applause through a cheering section. Pounding serves and rushing the net was a way to either win points quickly or lose them quickly. Either way, I didn’t have to wait long for a result. Combining impatience and fatigue is the best way to lose a match—I always operated on a healthy dose of both. After they watched me clobber a good number of balls over the back fence and walk enough Nature Hikes to become strangely familiar with the weedy terrain between courts and field, they started to call me “Tank.” And it stuck.
The lenient junior varsity rules meant that every afternoon around 3:30, the Discovery Middle School courts would flood with bodies and pops would start to fill the air. I always wondered how our JV coach could handle so many novice participants at one time. He was a gangly geometry teacher with a nasally voice and a head and neck that, for somebody who taught angles, seemed to jut out bizarrely from his shoulders. One day Coach Thiner announced we’d be practicing our doubles skills and placed us four-to-a-court with assigned partners. I don’t remember who my partner was, but I do remember staring across at Michael Moore and Cory Gillerstein—two high school guys who were still smaller than me.
Some basic rules of doubles play: prior to a point, both server and returner stand diagonally opposite at the baseline while their respective partners stand near the net. A serve is playable if it lands in the opposing service box, or, on rare occasions, if it strikes the net player before touching the ground. And I do mean rare.
When I toed the baseline, I realized how few serves I’d hit before, but I knew the jist of it from TV: toss, swing hard, and hope for the best. What I didn’t expect was the line-drive bullet I sent directly into Mike’s forehead. After a stunned moment for the four of us followed by an examination of the fuzz-ringed blotch on Mike’s face, Coach crowed from his observational roost:
“That’s your point Bryn, but I wouldn’t make a habit of that strategy.”
A couple years later Mike pedaled a bicycle off the theater stage and suffered a severe brain injury. For a long time I wondered if my serve to his head had something to do with that decision . . . (To be continued)
In the presence of (and, in sections, dictated to) one, R. Eric Tippin, in our lonely office
February 15, 2014
"The Tennis Party"
Oil on Canvas - Date Unknown
Charles March Gere