On Serve: Steffi Graf and Mark Rothko
reprint from Cagibi Express - September 6, 2018
I picture her alone before a late Rothko painting, his darkening palette. Steffi’s favorite color was black. Rothko’s floating color field, “a universe for viewers they do not have in the real world.” Black a type of protection, a barrier against stalkers, reporters, celebrity, noise. Black a tunnel, a cave, a hole, a portal. The inevitable turning towards light, the quest for tennis perfection. How do you enhance a gazelle-like sprinter’s speed, a skidding knifed backhand that rarely missed, the power and precision of the greatest forehand in the history of women’s tennis? Steffi racing fast forward to whatever was next: the next serve, the next point, the next changeover, the next tournament. Black the color of mourning, of grief: the father she loves in prison for tax evasion related to Steffi’s earnings, that crazy misguided stalker assailant stabbing Monica Seles to help Steffi become #1. Emotions “intimate and human.” Limitless space, the sublime. “Silence is so accurate.”
Taxonomy of a Tennis Player
W. Newton Jackson, III
“Taxonomy: the science of classification of organisms, divided into kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.”
Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition, 1999
For example, human beings are classified thus:
In recent years, geneticists (scientists who specialize in genetics) have determined that, because tennis players have so many idiosyncrasies, they deserve their own taxonomy. This paper will explore the various classifications and then focus on one particular mutation.
Millions, if not billions, of people in the world at one time or another have struck a tennis ball with a tennis racket. They constitute the Kingdom.
Within the Kingdom are PESTs, People who Engage in the Sport of Tennis purely for recreation and social-networking. They eschew indoor courts and play on a seasonal basis, usually with friends. They are happy with their sporadic play and modest level of skill.
On the first nice day in spring, PESTs occupy all the public courts in your town. While you patiently wait for them to finish their match, they chat incessantly on change-overs. They blithely walk onto adjoining courts without warning to retrieve their balls, shambling behind you as you begin to serve or race back to retrieve a lob. PESTs remain in the Phylum.
Tennis Players (TPs) want to improve their skills. They take individual or group lessons from a professional. They may go to a tennis clinic or camp. TPs play year-round, indoors and out, and at least twice a week. They play in leagues. He or she will own at least two rackets and will restring them on a regular basis. They know the rules of tennis. TPs like competition, but they do not crave it. For that reason, they stay in the Class.
Very Serious Tennis Players (VSTPs) strive to reach the top.
They are not afraid to lose, i.e., they always try to compete against someone better than they are, even if it means placing themselves across the net from someone they abhor.
They get their USTA card and enter regional and national tournaments in their particular age bracket. The skill level of these players is very high.
Many played in college on NCAA Division-1 teams and went on to other non-tennis pursuits. Some are teaching professionals. There is no monetary compensation for winning, but only ranking points. In addition to heightened competition, frequent losses, injuries, and financial outlays, tournament players must endure the hassles of long-distance travel, hotel-booking, arranging transportation to the venue, and adjusting to different surfaces—grass, clay, and hard courts. Because of dress codes at certain clubs, each player must own at least two sets of white tennis-court apparel.
VSTPs, however, lack the skill, speed, and stamina to be part of the Family.
The Family consists of those who have attained an extremely high level of competency in tennis. Most of them earn their living from playing in tennis tournaments all over the world year-round.
Within the Family, there are those players who are far superior in skill to VSTPs and who can compete on a regular basis with members of the Family. What sets them apart, however, is their lack of desire to attain world-class status. They are pursuing other endeavors—professional, entrepreneurial, social, artistic, religious, etc.—and therefore are carved out of the Family into their own Genus.
Most, if not all, of the Founding Members of the National Senior Men’s Tennis Association occupy this Genus.
(tennisias bunkyias transchoptankianis)
“Mutation: the permanent alteration of the nucleotide sequence of the genome of an organism resulting from errors during DNA replication.”
A mutant species of tennis player was first discovered south of Maryland’s Choptank River in an area H.L. Mencken dubbed “Transchoptankia.” (He did not intend it as a compliment.”) Since then, it has spread to other isolated pockets of the country.
Abbreviated TBT and known shorthand as a “tennis bunky,” this species is solely of the male sex. Geneticists are unable to explain why the female sex is not included within this mutation, but have concluded that nature knows what’s best, once again proving that women are stronger, if not smarter, than men.
The TBT may be of any age and fall within any socio-economic category, race, ethnicity, marital status, or sexual orientation.
The term “tennis bunky” does not appear in any dictionary, but it is very similar to the Australian connotation of the word “mate.”
One geneticist has opined that TBTs are a throwback to the brave English soldiers in Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fifth:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
Be he never so vile.
And, yes, vileness does abound among TBTs, and for that reason inclusion within the mutant species is not precluded by disfiguring physical characteristics, mental illness, aberrant personality, or criminal conviction.
A TBT must, however, be an honest line-caller.
A TBT does not belong to a private club; he plays on public courts.
In the event a TBT is invited to play at a private club, he will remember to bring a shirt, keep his beer cooler in the car, and refrain from dropping F-bombs when he misses a shot.
He will play outside as long as the temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and wind speed is below level four (“moderate breeze”) on the Beaufort Scale.
Court apparel tends to be unorthodox, if not ragged.
A TBT does not insist that new balls be opened.
A TBT does not restring his racket until one breaks.
Deviation from strict tennis etiquette is permitted. A TBT may call foot-faults against players on the adjoining court, but he must refrain from calling their lines.
Laxity in the use of tennis terms is standard. For example, when the score is thirty-all, he may say “thirty-deuce” or at fifteen-love, simply “five.” Most of the time, he doesn’t announce the score.
If “sudden death” is used for scoring, it need not take place at forty-deuce (to use an expression), but may be deferred until fifty-all or even sixty-all.
When playing on university tennis courts, stopping a match when a pretty coed walks by is permissible, but the TBT must keep in mind that, to her, he looks like a grandfather. Play must resume quickly.
Change-overs are brief unless the police have arrived to ticket a TBT’s car. In the event a tow-truck appears, additional time is afforded to prevent repossession.
A TBT on pre-trial release and wearing a electronic monitoring ankle bracelet is spotted three games per set.
A TBT discourages his ex-wife from showing up courtside for the purpose of collecting back child support or alimony.
A TBT who abandons the court when a process server with a subpoena approaches must continue the match within three days or be forfeited.
A TBT competes fiercely, but he also knows how to have fun, for example, splitting a six-pack after a match and ripcording three beers before going home.
Merriment, good cheer, and camaraderie ensue, but snags can occur. One afternoon, a TBT surprised his fellow players by saying that he could not indulge in post-match festivity. He had just remembered that his wife was at the ER. He had dropped her off on the way to play tennis and thought it was probably time to pick her up.
As I said, a “mutant species.”
reprinted from blogspot Feb 5, 2018
Its winter in the desert, another picture post card day in the Coachella Valley. The annual pilgrimage to Mission Hills Country Club for the Asics has begun, advertised as the largest senior tennis tournament in the world.
They have it all at the Asics. Men's, Women's, Singles, Doubles, Mixed. The 30s to the 90s, the earlier rounds played at the various clubs throughout the area, the later rounds at the aging but still upscale Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Ca.
Reflecting upon senior tennis, something about playing in a town named for a Mirage resonates with me. Is any of this endeavor real? I mean, I know its a level 2 event, with all sorts of international ranking points, (one level below the sacred USTA national events that dole out the gold balls.) but that's only relevant for a handful of players who are here for the glory and not just the experience.
The timing of this annual event always comes up against the second week of the Australian Open, taking place half a world away, but as for the level of tennis played, it feels like a different galaxy. As tennis goes, that's where the real tennis is being played, the best players in the world competing for immense cash and prizes.
But the Asics is no less of a tournament in the structural sense. There are winners, there are losers, and all the old trappings of competition, the unsteady hand under pressure, the deep feelings of gratification when navigating through a tricky predicament. It all returns in flashes. Whether it matters in any real sense is irrelevant. What matters is it feels like it matters, and that makes it as real as anything taking place on the other side of the world. Lets just say the players on television do not hold a monopoly over the thrill of victory, or the agony of defeat.
I come to the desert behind the goading of a couple gentlemen I frequently train with. Well, train is being a bit generous. We hit balls together regularly. Nobody's really working on anything. Facts are we're all on the wrong side of 50. Our skills have been deteriorating for some time now, right before our very eyes. Not from lack play; we all get out there regularly. There's just no quick fix for fighting time.
We understand to be still is to regress. We've entered the adaptive stage of tennis. Its very Darwinian. We must evolve. What used to work on a tennis court 20 years, (and pounds ago,) results in pure folly today. Put simply, if I work hard this year, I may stay the same, or only get a little worse. If I opt not to play at all, it's pretty much all over. There's no taking breaks at this age. The climb back to proficiency is a bridge too far.
As for my inspiration to return to competition this week in the desert, I have a couple friends. The first one is Mike. You've likely never heard of him, but that's ok, he prefers it that way. He's a husband and a father and a Bruin and one of my favorite people. He's also one of the sharpest quickest guys I know...except for one not so little blind spot. His tennis. Mike's been playing these events for years, yet he's the Charlie Brown of the Seniors. I don't even ask how he does anymore. The story remains the same.
"Lost to another f-ing pusher. Why do these guys even play? How do they even look themselves in the mirror? I rip a serve, they block it back. I rip a forehand, they push it back, I come to the net, they lob me ..How can people even play like that? Three shots, not one single stroke, not one back swing, not one rotation on the ball. How is that fun?"
"Hmmm...Have you ever been to the home of a pusher?"
"Well, Because they're full of trophies."
"Whatever.. I could never play that way"
"Brother, It's tennis evolution. You must learn to play that way. You must evolve, or perish. Tennis Playerithiticus. The next phase in your development. You ever see really old people play? Duffer's doubles. Not much going on out there. A dink here. A dunk there. Nobody moving. We're all heading there buddy. No point fighting it.
"I'll quit before I get like that."
"Or you could train."
"I do train."
"No. No, you do not train. You never drill, you never take a lesson, you couldn't run a lap around the track if a pit bull was chasing you. You're not a member of a gym. I bet you all the money in my wallet you don't know where the nearest gym is. You'd rather look good and lose than do what it takes to win. You're the anti-Brad Gilbert. You're going to be the inspiration behind my next book. 'Ten Easy Steps To Being A Look Good Loser.'
"If you put it that way, I guess I could do more."
"I just think you're leaving a lot of quality on the table of your senior tennis experience. What you're doing now with your tennis is a bunch of sloppy shit, waiting for moments that may never come."
Update: Friend took this lecture to heart. Went to the gym. Immediately over-exerted himself, ripping his shoulder to shreds. He is currently under the care of Physical therapy. In the spirit of Steve Austin, the Bionic Man, we hope they can rebuild him.
And then there's Wade
Wade is my partner in the men's 50's doubles here in the desert. He is the perfect embodiment of what senior tennis is all about. A late comer to the sport, he missed out on the all important formative years of youth where form gets molded. But then, he also missed out on the jadedness that comes with spending your entire formative years chasing a ball around, for reasons never fully understood.
He is all positivity and enthusiasm, never taking our gifts for granted, playing with an appreciation and gratitude infrequently seen in our sport. Its infectious, and irrepressible, its all attraction, little promotion. Its impossible not to be motivated by his sheer joy at being able to simply get out there and play.
He's everyone's personal inspiration. Without him, I never would have become a published author. Through my writings, he became a better tennis Dad to his son, a son I helped find the right college fit for and who now plays as a freshman in college tennis at Pacific University in Portland. If Wade and I didn't connect a couple years back, a lot of what's happening in our lives might not be happening. So we're more than just partners for the Asics this week. We're in this for the long haul. And that's good.
We take the court against some familiar foes, players I've played and defeated from my past. I used to be able to play this game some, but that was some time ago. Very little preparation went in to this event. Hence very little investment. And it showed. Down 5-0 in about ten minutes, I looked out to the residents walking behind our court. Retirees, all of them. Living in a retirement complex, playing retirement games, in a retirement community. The irony of it all was not lost on me.
A brief show of life in the second set, we raced out to a quick lead, only to give it back just as quickly, losing in straight sets. Normally, a quick loss to players I normally beat would bring forth seething within. But the whole concept of competition has muted for me. My pilot light to conquer, that once burned fiery within is a mere flicker now. Winning now has taken on a whole new meaning. We joke about living in the everybody gets a trophy era, but seriously, to suit up and show up to compete at tennis again after a life of bumps and bruises feels noteworthy.
Back at the main tournament site, I see friends from my past. As I circled the grounds, I kept coming to the question why. Why do people keep putting themselves through these events? I know it's different for everybody, but are they here simply for the exercise, or is it something deeper, something in need of exorcising?
I'd like to think some are here for the fun of it. But tennis competition was never really about fun. Hitting and trash talking with your homeboys every Saturday morning, now that's fun. Its different in tournament competition. To take it too seriously is frowned upon. The war should be over for all those entered in the Asics, weapons laid down some time ago, the bush long left behind.
There's a strong feel of personal challenge here, of overcoming, either circumstances or self. I smile at all the references to joints. No, not the ones you smoke, but new joints. Like new knees, new shoulders, and the most popular of all, the new hips. I wondered if they should have separate divisions. It seems like those of us doing battle with our original hardware are at a disadvantage.
Overheard from one player..."I never used to lose to him, until he got the new hip"
If that's not an artificial performance enhancement, I don't know what is. What I do know is there was little talk about coaching or training, yet a lot of talk about surgeons and physical therapy and rehab.
I asked a few players what they're playing next. Nobody had any idea, but everybody knew what procedure they were undergoing next.
I think in the end tennis has always been about overcoming. It's o