Bounce, bounce, bounce. It’s four-all, 40-30, and I’m serving. I toss the ball
high and in the act of reaching up I over-adjust my swing and hit it long. Fool.
One more chance to redeem myself, to succeed, to set in motion, at the very
least, an opportunity to win the point, the game, the set.
Who knows what
heights remain to be scaled, what triumphs lie in wait? I float a wobbly second
serve over the net and – phew! – it’s good.
But count no man happy until
a point is over.
Nick Taylor, taking advantage of its weak velocity,
angles a cruel forehand that just eludes my flailing Babolat.
more points, both lost – don’t even ask – and it’s 4-5. We go on to lose the
next game and set.
But there will be plenty of time for
After all, this is “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating
Tennis Game in New York,” as it’s known by those fortunate enough to be
affiliated with it.
There are eight of us. We play for two hours every
Saturday, changing partners three times in the course of the morning with the
elegant complexity of dancers in a Jane Austen novel. And so it has been since
1946, when a World War II veteran named Peter Schwed – he would become editorial
chairman of Simon & Schuster – assembled an informal confederate of players
for a weekly game.
Over the years, players joined and played and died.
New recruits were enlisted. The game moved from place to place; when I joined it
was in a facility in Brighton Beach where the instructors spoke Russian. It has
always had a high concentration of workers in the literary trade. (The legendary
agent Sterling Lord was an occasional participant in the early days.) But on
Saturday mornings, it doesn’t matter what anyone does. We’re here to play
tennis, not to network.
To say that the logistics of The Game are tightly
organized doesn’t convey the military precision with which rides are arranged at
various locales (most of them on the Upper West Side) at times designated to the
minute and accompanied by geographical data that leave no margin for error:
“Manny will pick up Jim on the southeast corner of Columbus and 77th Street at
8:25.” Greg, Peter’s son, handles the accounting. “I understand that Jim picked
up 10 cans of balls,” he calculated in a recent email: “Assuming they cost about
$2.50 a can, that means each of the eight owes Jim a bit more than $3. I guess
Alex owes him about $1.50. Oy.” It’s not a young crowd. Most of us are in our
60s or early 70s – though Ephraim, rumored to be on the far side of 80, is a
player whose shrewd tactics and preternatural sense of where a ball is going to
be hit more than compensate for the inevitable creakiness that all of us are
beginning to show: bum knees, arthritic ankles, pulled back muscles. These
afflictions, however insistently proclaimed, don’t seem to slow us down: We
still chase after lobs, smash overheads, unleash crisply executed cross-court
forehands. Like the zoological cast of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” we are all
equal, but some are more equal than others. Having been known to flub an
overhead while standing 2 feet from the net, I am just equal.
start of play, Nick, our undesignated but official handicapper, drapes over the
nets of our two courts the day’s lineup, neatly typed and prefaced with an
acerbic headline reflecting current events: “‘Washington Leadership Invisible!’
‘Scientific Breakthrough Open,’ ‘113th Congress Sworn In,’ ‘Send in the Clowns
Invitational.”’ Play then begins: hard play, accompanied by much groaning,
panting, cries of frustration, mutterings of self-rebuke, but also handagainst-
racket clapping, backpats, high fives, palms-splayed-downward gestures like an
umpire’s “safe” sign to indicate a shot that’s “good” (even if it landed 2
inches outside the line, we err on the side of our opponent here; I’ve never
heard a call disputed). And – a welcome corrective to the insane competitiveness
that dominates our workweek; remember, this is New York – sets end not when one
side or the other wins but when, I don’t know quite how to explain it, the two
games wind down and it’s time to shuffle the lineup. We cluster around the draw
to consult the next configuration.
If I had to articulate the ethos, it
would be something like: Play hard, try not to lose, but if you do, hey, it’s
just a game.
Or is it? By the end of two hours, I’m dripping as if I’ve
just exited a Navajo sweat lodge. Why do we put ourselves through this ordeal
week after week? Our exertions have changed nothing in our lives. But it’s not
about athletic prowess; it’s about forgiveness. To forgive the teammate who
double faults (a small number when you consider how many faults most of us
commit in a day); the opponent who, having sensed that you’re about to poach,
slams a wicked passing shot down the line; above all, to forgive yourself for
the netted volley, the backhand that went long, the drop shot that failed to
drop. And, having forgiven, to persist. I cite the tennis enthusiast Samuel
Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed.
No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail
Driving back to the city, we talk about books, movies, politics,
The banter continues via email throughout the week, as if we’re
reluctant to let go of our fellowship. After one Fridaynight barrage of
jocularity, I shut down the chatter like a camp counselor with a cabin of unruly
charges: “OK, guys, lights out. We’ve got a big game tomorrow.”
Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and the author of a forthcoming book