“If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.” ~Serena Williams
If the closest you’ve come to tennis is watching Wimbledon on TV every two weeks in July, then you probably think the game is akin to golf, with nattily dressed people playing a gentlemen’s or a ladies’ sport while spectators “Ooh” and “Aah” over their precise shots and acumen. Of course Wimbledon, being on NBC for so long, was accessible to the masses. Regular folk like you and I could watch it and feel like we were transformed into the strawberries and cream loving crowd that filed in and out with spectacular precision from the grounds of England’s Lawn and Tennis Club. Lawn. And Tennis. That’s what we imagine. But that’s not the only tale of tennis.
Around here there is an old tennis court. I use the term loosely, because ages ago, when the weeds began to grow through the cracks in the cement, someone decided to take the posts out and transform the area into a place to ride skateboards. They didn’t take a broad stroke to it, though, as you could still see where the posts had been, and the ghosts of the lines still show through in places. I used to stand outside the fencing and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday, probably in the ’80s when pretty much every place had a tennis court within walking distance.
Of course the ’80s were for stars like Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and others. I don’t remember all of them now, but the ones who were memorable were the ones who had huge personalities, the ones who were larger than life. That’s because back then, when I was a kid trying to figure out who I was going to be, the players who were vanilla just didn’t catch my interest. I wasn’t into the pomp and circumstance associated with Wimbledon. I wanted to hear the grunts. I wanted to see the fist pumps. I wanted the blood and guts of a sport that didn’t seem to have any. But then I got out there myself, and I realized there was just one part of the sport I had seen. It was like an iceberg, and by the ’90s stars like Monica Seles and Andre Agassi would capture my imagination and push me forward in the sport like nothing else could.
So I took to the courts myself. I don’t remember where my first racket came from, but I’m sure it was from the Salvation Army because my dad worked there. He would bring home discarded items and we would make them over into gold, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Those were the days of the wooden racket, so when I swung it I felt like I was Bjorn Borg, out there machinelike, hitting serves and taking names. I felt like I was on top of the world because, just like Jim Courier, I too had a racket. I too had my chance at the ultimate glory that having a racket could bring. My sister and I would ride down to the nearest park, with its own chainlink, and basketball courts, and the ruffians that came along with that environment.
There were drug deals that went down in that park. We didn’t focus on them, because they were always there, like air, and breathing it. There were street fights that were in our periphery. There were boys who were battling each other for supremacy on the basketball court because they were trying to avoid the drugs, and the fights, and everything that came with that lifestyle. There was the big wide world because tennis isn’t quarantined, put into a sanitary environment like Wimbledon for everyone the world over. Tennis isn’t just lawns. Tennis is wherever you can find a space to hit a back and forth with rackets. Tennis is sometimes a patch of cement in the middle of a war zone, with no real nets but more chainlink instead. Imagine the way the ball bounces off of it.
That’s what we did. We used our imaginations. So that in the middle of whatever else was going on we were focused on the beauty of the sport. Because, make no mistakes about it, it is a beautiful sport. The back and forth, the mind games, the ability to think yourself out of a hole, to come up with a perfect angle that you’ve never come up with before, it’s magic. Even with a chainlink net, even though no one was watching through a lens, even on the unforgiving, cracked cement, it was ours. And it’s still mine, so many years later, through so many iterations. I still love tennis as much as I did the first time I got that racket from the Salvation Army, when I first twirled it in my hands and imagined I could be like McEnroe.
So now, as I watch Wimbledon once more, for these two weeks in July I take it for what it’s worth — good entertainment value. But I don’t think it’s the only way tennis can be. I know better. I’ve seen better.