Game Point: Reflections of a Competitive Tennis Player
“Spwock!”, you gaze lovingly as your perfect forehand cuts through arid heat. Time slows, you can almost feel each individual neon yellow hair violently reject the host. You can make out your opponents hurried pitter-patter as the Nike’s squeak on blacktop. In the back of your mind, you’re noting that his shoes are last season’s model, and that the color scheme was largely rejected by the tour. He must’ve bought them on sale. The vibrant sphere hurtles two inches past a white stripe. Love-15.
I didn’t start playing tennis to make a statement. I began playing to spite my older sister, and that was the extent of my reasoning. This was “The South”, and tennis wasn’t exactly big. There was no yearn to brag, no compulsory need for the shinier item. I hadn’t yet become the raccoon that tennis would force me to be. Being a young and dumb country boy, I never considered the implications that playing tennis may shove onto my social life. After all, my tennis team was never picked on or discouraged from doing what they loved. The squad was only varsity –not enough kids for a JV team– and six guys weak. I was a stocky, out of shape 8th grader with a poor haircut and a knack for lame jokes. The coach was the wrestling instructor and a math T.A., who only wanted the $900 per season stipend he received to pay for his wedding. The other five guys were different outcasts who had found a safe place to exercise and maybe make their parents feel a little better. This was the beginning of my tennis career.
I played my first season without touching the court during real matches. I was allowed to play small scrimmages if other teams had an open court and an extra guy. That was enough for me, I was hooked. I spoke with my parents and implored them to shuttle me 45 minutes both ways to the nearest resemblance of culture for weekly lessons. My instructor was the distant relative of a once grand slam contender, a fervent Bush supporter, and a passionate scientologist. He was 270 pounds of South African, bright orange, wrinkly faced joy. He kicked ass. George was far and away the best player in a 60 mile radius. He told tall tales of aces and bagels, and could beat my father consistently. George taught me the basics of the sport, and laid the groundwork for my ever developing game. We gave him $100 an hour to teach a 14 year old how to swing a metal stick.
I’m now a seasoned veteran of the sport, with multiple tournaments under my belt and a small itch to judge people growing on my shoulder. Suburban Ohio is the new spot, and compared to southern Virginia, it feels like centre court. People everywhere are hitting; I can count at least 30 courts in a five mile radius. I can practically hear the Buckeyes whacking Roddick pace serves. I’ve grown out of weekly lessons, and now “train” at a private club four days per week. Three for clinic, one private. I’m the real deal. Delusions of grandeur have begun to fill my head. “Maybe I could go D1, I mean after all, Eric did it and I can walk him off the court easily.” The balloon that is my head is slowly filling with images of white polo shirts and linen tablecloths. People have begun to say things like, “Lovely day for session!” and I’ve begun to respond “Really just gorgeous isn’t it?”.
As my game transitions from hick to stud, my ego grows with it. I’ve lost the doe eyed innocence somewhere with my cargo shorts and American Eagle. Video games are stupid, I’ve decided, now I want to pick up chess. “Watches are cool, right?” “What’s the proper age to start drinking old fashions?” These questions that ran through my mind were being subconsciously implored by my favorite sport. The pro’s wear these socks, so I need to wear these socks. Images of Rolex and Mercedes-Benz fill my mind as I dream. Tennis has been molding me into Shep and Ian’s ideal consumer for the past 4 years, and I haven’t even heard the name “Vineyard Vines”.
Then everything shifted. I was tossed into a world of uncertainty when my mother went from a happy, healthy 48 year old woman to ash on my grandparent’s mantelpiece in less than four months. That was the last straw for my reserve. I began to lash out. I didn’t try drugs or get into fights. My grades were fine and I was nice to my friends. Rather, I began to binge on materialism. My possessions were quickly rendered inadequate, and my widowed and tired father was easily coerced into filling my checking account. Black Tar Ray-Bans and pure white “oxford cloth button downs” now ran through my blood. By the fall of my senior year, I had more tiny pink whales than tennis balls. I had developed the patterns of a habitual spender, and was even seeking out others to share the addiction with.
It took time to develop the perspective required to calm my raging need for purchases. But on the first day of summer, I was grooming myself meticulously like usual, still totally unhappy with the result, when I realized that all I was looking for was someone to say, “Yes, you’re doing the right thing, this is how you should be.” I yearned for the approval of those around me, but I needed them to feel inferior to completely satisfy my will. The lifestyle inflation that came along with losing a loved one was nothing short of an addiction, but ultimately it was the sport that facilitated my habit. Time for change, right? Not really, because after a lot of useless deliberation and arguments with myself, I realized that I am in fact doing the right thing. I’ll come back to my “solution” after a quick detour into the psychology of tennis as I’ve come to understand it.
You see, tennis isn’t like the other sports where you can pass the ball or dribble around someone. You don’t get to throw a perfect pass and watch someone else drop it, or sit on the sidelines and watch your team win for you. There is no team. It’s just you. You’re alone on the smallest island imaginable, but the perilous water that generally locks the ostracized away is no longer present. In it’s place is vicious, vacuous judgement. You’re surrounded by how other people think, and all you can do is listen to the threatening hum of resentment. Every opinion you’ve ever come across is lined up and with fingers squeezing triggers, and you just want to hold serve. You toss the ball up, they scream that your racquet is old. You turn your shoulders for a forehand, they shout insults about your shorts. You begin to notice that the other guys are using towels with Gatorade logos, and you have a plain white one. It’s one thing to recognize this and feel left out or inferior, but it’s a much more serious problem when you begin to act on these small acknowledgements. You can buy the different shorts to silence that crowd, only to have a new one come and yell about your shirt. You can strip down and play in the nude — but they’ll just snicker at the imperfections. You can stop playing altogether, and accept that you’ll never be the like people they like, but that’s giving them exactly what they want. If you do that, and the crowd is satiated by your surrender, you’re relinquishing any claim you’ve had to free will.
In the end of every great and weighty essay there’s usually some sort of climactic ex machina. Some simple magic word we have to remind ourselves of or a mantra to consider. We as authors and pseudo-philosophers are supposed to have an answer to the questions we’ve raised. I have no cure for the plague of materialism. We’ve been conditioned for years to buy what the machine sells, and as much as I’d love to wear ratty plain T’s and eat plain granola and hike all the time, I’m just not that guy. Even as I accept my own inability to find solace from brands and logos, I still purchase the shiny things. So maybe I’m not the best example of success in matters kindred to self-loathing. But I’m still playing, right? Everyday possible, I step onto the sticky, cracked Har-Tru and open a can of fresh balls. I look down at the right socks, the right shoes, the right shorts and the right shirt, and laugh as the jeers of the nonexistent crowd render each piece obsolete. I laugh because even though it hurts to know I’ll never be garner my own sufficiency, I’ll keep up the fight. Every time I swipe a card I’m fighting the will to give up and put down the bag, to surrender to my own insecurities. Whatever keeps you fighting and rebelling, living like Camus, is the right way. It might not be a brilliant method to answering the big questions or even those in my head. But as long I buy the towel I’m still living my own life. I’m not the independent thinking liberal arts student who understands and avoids marketing techniques. Instead, I’m their target audience, and I’m comfortably holding serve.