Tennis: love-love

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.

Israel's Dudi Sela 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Israel's Dudi Sela 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
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.
Deuce. Two 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 redemption.
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.
Before the 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 better.”
Driving back to the city, we talk about books, movies, politics, whatever.
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.”James Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and the author of a forthcoming book about biography.