Psssst! We all know the distinctive sound (and smell) of a new tin of tennis balls being opened. Whether to signal a casual hit or a fiercely contested match, the moment is filled with anticipation and endless possibilities.
There are many reasons why I play tennis. Here is one of them.
The beauty of a tennis ball hit with spin, topspin or backspin and control, is a thing to admire, and one of the reasons I play tennis. On the occasion I have hit such a beautiful shot I am most likely to let the ball write its own script. By this, I mean I am so pleased with the shot that I am momentarily in awe, that I have created a thing of such beauty. And if I have also hit it to the place I desire, then the need for any further action is almost a betrayal of the belief in the shot I just hit. This moment of admiration is also the moment of greatest danger.
I hear in my head, from the practice court, coach Matt, clearly urging me ‘follow it in’ or ‘get to the net’ He knows as well as I know that when he has to say this, it is more than likely too late! The act of admiration of the beautiful shot momentarily dulls all other senses. The rotating ball travels away from my extended racket on its controlled trajectory. Momentarily I am in a dream like state. I see the ball in slow motion.
While I haven’t actually physically folded my arms to watch and admire -‘hey look at this everyone!’ – I might as well have done. Almost as if this is the whole purpose of tennis, an aesthetic pursuit, say like rythmic gymnastics, to be admired. Its beauty measured against a criteria that values such artistry. Points awarded for artistic interpretation, grace and co-ordination. That unfortunately is not how tennis is measured.
The moment the ball hits the court, all senses are switched back on, in an instant. Back in the game. There are usually three possible outcomes to the situation from this moment onwards.
First and totally deserving of the beautiful moment just created, the ball eludes my lunging opponent and the point belongs to me. In fact I consider it a begrudging scoring system that does not award two points for such artistry. A good shot and a clap of hand on racket from my opponent is the highest accolade available. Happily accepted.
The second scenario is more frequently seen than the first. My opponent has read my intention, beautiful though the shot was, its placement is not quite what I might have wanted. A highly likely occurrence. In this moment my opponent’s racket reaches the ball and with a whumph! returns the ball with his own interpretation of beauty, this might be spin, outrageous raw power or deft placement depending on his own preference. If he has executed well then as the ball lands on my side of the court, it will be beyond my straining reach. I will clap a hand against a raised racket in acknowledgment of his artistry. I will sag a little at the knees, knowing my very best was not good enough on this occasion. I will have to try again.
There is a further development of this second scenario in which I get to the returned ball and ……. well that is probably travelling too far into the lands of fantasy to have a place here. I don’t ever recall such a moment. That is the arena of the elite professional player and the reason thousands will travel to see such sublime skills. If you ever want to witness this live and you should, go to the outside courts at Wimbledon. Settle close to the court where you can see sweat on brow, hear shoes turning in the turf, balls leaving rackets under great power and control, like guided missiles. All you need to do is watch, listen and absord to understand the beauty of the game of tennis.
Meanwhile for mere mortals, a different outcome.
The third scenario, and the most likely outcome is that my opponent reaches the ball and returns it back across the net in some fashion. It’s fifty, fifty from this moment, as to who will win the point. We will play it out with our everyday strokes, until most likely an error. Hopefully not the cruelty of a weak shot hitting the net tape and trickling over out of my reach.
I hear the voice in my head of Coach Matt gone unheeded until too late ‘ get to the net!’ For those to whom this game comes easily, coaches amongst them, they will probably never know what goes on in the mind of a mortal tennis player in these moments.
The instruction is so simple on the outside and to anyone hearing it. On the inside, for the player it has to mix with, years of ingrained poor habits, uncertainties, other options and what ifs. By the time the message has been filtered, assessed weighed up, alternatives considered and ‘asked the audience’, it’s too late.
I can admonish myself and tell myself, that next time I must get to the net. If only the game were that simple.
In the moment of creating such beauty to visit upon my opponent the next time, on another day, I know that the momentary trance like state will descend again. Maybe this time for a nano second less and maybe the time after that, a further nano second less again. And so we make progress, until maybe one day! One day we hit that beautiful shot and respond instantly, get to the net and put the volley away! One day!
Footnote: we are now 23 days from being able to step back onto a tennis court. It seems such a long time ago that we actually played tennis. It will be more days still before tins of tennis balls are opened for competition. All the signs are good, the virus is in retreat, we’re getting vaccinated in great numbers. I had my jab this week. There is the prospect of a tennis season ahead. How lucky we are.