In the town where I grew up, there were three asphalt tennis courts that scraped the fuzz off tennis balls in about 20 minutes and reduced the life span of sneakers to half a dozen sets. These courts did not have real nets but a length of chain-link fencing taped with patched canvas. Weeds grew through cracks in back of the service line, and occasionally someone would slip on dandelion juice.
Nevertheless, the courts were always mobbed. On weekend mornings snide remarks would pass about court hogs, and two or three times a summer—generally on Fridays and always during muggy spells—there would be some shoving over whose turn it was to play. These were not kids' fights, but scuffles between working fathers who had had a lousy week at the office; not being able to get in a half hour of tennis was one aggravation too many.
So I grew up believing that paradise would be a place where tennis courts were soft underfoot and plentiful, where there was no such thing as a sign-up sheet, and where it would never transpire that just as I was starting to rally from a 1-4 deficit in a deciding set, some bozo in plaid shorts and blue sneakers and with his racket in a press, for chrissake, would tell me that my time was up.
Well, I am now privileged to spend a large part of every tennis season in just such a community, Shelter Island, just off the tip of Long Island. As it turns out, the place comes close to being tennis paradise, but paradise it isn't. If it were, there would not be the needling and sly contention between the guys who own the all-weather courts which are in hot demand in April and November, and the guys who own the Har-Tru courts and thus control the tennis set during the height of the summer. If it were really paradise, the Rothmans, who now have their own rubber-composition court ringed by a 12-foot fence, would still be playing next door at the Pulgianos', with whom they had a falling-out over a fault call during a mixed-doubles match in 1966. (The names in this story have been changed to protect the guilty.) Most of all, if this retreat were really paradise, there would never be those heartrending times, those affronting afternoons when gorgeous tennis courts lie fallow because enough warm bodies could not be rounded up to play on them.
September 28, 1986
What it comes down to is that, to a tennis nut, there are only two kinds of places in America: those with too few tennis courts and those with too many. Courts are obviously a crucial commodity in precincts where courts are rare. But less obvious, and downright exotic from the perspective of the miserable burg where I grew up, is the thought that when courts are superabundant, the most valuable resource is the player.
Now, for a man in my position—i.e., a man without a court of his own—this idea has great importance. It fosters a sort of free-agent mentality in me. It necessitates that I make hard choices based on an embarrassment of options: Do I play my morning match on Ralphie's court, where his wife brings lemonade but the sun gets in my eyes, or do I say yes to Tom, who was smart enough to lay out his court free of glare but who pauses for a full 30 seconds to analyze the physics of every shot he muffs? And for my afternoon installment, do I expose my tender ego to Casper's temper, knowing that all heads will soon be cooled off in his pool, or do I go with the ever affable Max, who for all his good humor will never chase a lob and whose favorite word, especially during doubles matches in the dog days, is "yours"?
Then there's the question of commitment. With some guys in our enclave, the first time you hit two straight backhands over the net, they start acting like you're married to them. On the first Saturday in March they'll ask if you'll be available the same time every weekend through Thanksgiving, maybe New Year's. There is a loyalty in this that is truly touching. But it can also drive you nuts.
And what if, three weeks into a 34-week season, you realize you'll throw up next time Augie clucks, "I've been practicing that one," after hitting a putrid shot that dribbles off the net cord for a winner? What if, along about the middle of May, you feel violence welling up in answer to the patronizing way Walt purrs, "Take two, it was close," as if he were doing you the biggest favor in the world to play the point over when the ball was four inches in to begin with? What if—oh, unspeakable thought—on some bright September morning, with three fanatics depending on you, you decide you just don't feel like playing?
These are serious concerns because, player's market or no player's market, a roving tennis player is still a guest, with all the time-honored social obligations pertaining thereto. A guest should be agreeable. A guest should be reliable. A guest should be, above all, nice to play with—and I have noticed that in unconscious obeisance to this last requirement, I have evolved a somewhat Zelig-like approach to tennis. If my host is a dink-and-angle artist, then I will tend to find myself contentedly playing dink-and-angle along with him. If his joy in life is hitting topspin from the baseline, I will gladly loop my backswing and try to match his elegant parabola. If he was weaned on Laver and still plays serve-and-volley, I too will storm the net with kamikaze fervor. It's all the same to me; I'm a good enough player to have a choice of tactics but not so good that it matters a damn which one I use.
And speaking of tactics, it should be noted that strategic considerations vary diametrically between places that are court-starved and court-abundant.
Back when I was a denizen of the aforementioned three-court suburb, the idea was simple: You tried to make as many points as you could as fast as you could—with smashes, cannonball serves and other low-percentage but speedy gambits—because the match was over not when someone had won two or three sets, but as soon as the next slob pointed to his watch to evict you from the court. In my current tennis Eden, where no one ever comes to throw you off a court, the real victory, the moral victory, goes not to the side that first wins 12 or 18 or 36 games, but to the side that last utters, "So whaddya say, one more set?" and has the other side decline from exhaustion.
Accordingly, the essential tactic is not to play better, but to play longer. This is what makes the drop shot and the lob the emblematic strokes of our community. Win or lose, they make the other guy feel his weight, his age, his lunch. And they pass the time that used to seem so precious in my old neighborhood, where I hated to hit a sky ball, because half my court tenure seemed to go by while I waited for the sonofagun to come down.
But for all the differences between my old tennis haunt and this new one, there are certain similarities as well. They come out mainly when it rains, a situation that equally curtails the usefulness of one court or a hundred. The threat of rain is greeted with the same fretful expectation, the first drops are met with the same determination to get in another game or two. Then when all the dots on the court have connected, everyone goes home. Or almost everyone. There are always a few jerks who will keep right on playing, and I have always been one of them. In my hometown, I had a sensible reason for this: Rainy days were the only times I could finish a match. But even now I have an abiding fondness for the heavy thwuck of a sodden ball, the challenge of seeing through steamed-up and bespattered glasses, the sheer single-mindedness of sloshing through puddles toward a forehand.
I used to worry that here, where court time is unbounded, everyone would just sit out rainy days, watching old Wimbledon matches on the VCR and slurping chardonnay. But that was before I started playing with Gerry. Gerry has a Har-Tru court that, if you want to get technical, shouldn't be played on in the rain. Nothing irreparable happens when you do play, it's just that every time you pivot, a crescent of softened clay rises up around your sneaker and leaves a divot. For every hour you play in the rain, you've got to use an hour of a sunny day rolling the surface flat again.
For most guys that's not an acceptable equation, but Gerry doesn't seem to mind. He likes playing tennis in a red slicker, with his hair streaming and gray-green spatters of muck sticking to his calves and the rain getting up his nose when he throws his head back to serve. I think it's because he comes from Brooklyn, a place with even fewer tennis courts per capita than the scurvy subdivision where I learned the game.
For Gerry, as for me, there's still something wondrous and giddy-making about a court that sits there, placid and silent, waiting for you and you alone to come hit tennis balls around. Play on that court for more than an hour, with no one marking the time or counting the number of sets you've played, and you feel like you're really getting away with something, even in the rain.
Laurence Shames is a freelance writer who learned to play tennis in New Jersey.