Tightly Strung: How I Beat the City Tennis Conundrum

As all tennis-playing New Yorkers know, there’s nothing like playing a couple of hours in Central Park. The drill goes something like this: Player A: “O.K., you get to the courts at 6 a.m. You wait in line, rack up and purchase a same-day ticket-we’ll all split the $5.50 surcharge-then, when you get to the booth-skip the desk , go right to the booth-you take the ticket that I had put on reserve at the advanced reservation counter-remember, not the desk and not the booth, the counter -anyway, you take that ticket and swap it out for the one that has your name on it, then take the one that has my name on it, have that held out for Court 11, buy another same-day pass-I realize this is tricky, because you have to time buying the same-day pass to the exact moment that you proffer my ticket, but it can be done if you move fast-and then tell the guy to call out my name, NOT YOUR NAME! And then make sure that the people on Court 11 know that the same drill is taking place on Court 6-they’ve arranged for some long-term advance-play tickets, all you have to do is say “AGASSI!” and they’ll know the rest-then, at precisely 7:24 a.m., go back outside, retrieve your racket, get a cup of coffee and pretend you’re lining up to get into the croquet courts. I’ll be there, we can all meet up, and we’ll play.”

Player B: “Could you repeat that?”

Once you’ve negotiated all that, the last thing you want to think about is “head up/hit up” or “punch the ball.” You’d rather punch a wall. But there are alternatives. Recently, to dope myself into the illusion that I was living a normal life in a normal American city, I joined something called USTA Team Tennis. I had heard about this over the years, like people in the former Soviet Union used to hear about microwave ovens and filter cigarettes. It sounded so nice, so low-stress, so desirable. Not only would the munificent souls at the USTA arrange games and practices, but these would be offered at prices friendly to the masses and at convenient times and locations. And they could get courts . At last, tennis would be mine! In a fit of euphoria, I went and bought another expensive pair of mightily advertised sneakers.

Our team had a maniacal coach-according to league rules, we weren’t allowed to have professional coaches, just amateur captains, but he sure acted like a tinpot Bill Parcells-and he positively shined when it came to the Manhattan court conundrum. He knew where all the borough’s hidden courts lurked.

There is one court that is so secure, its name cannot be uttered and its address cannot be written down. It is omerta , Yahweh and the tomb of the Holy Grail all wrapped into one. This, of course, was where Cappy would have us work out.

“The game is, you know, there-Saturday,” he said on the phone.

“No, I don’t know where,” I said. “Where?”

“The court, you know- there ,” he said.

“The court?”

“Exactly.”

“Can you give me a hint? Maybe an address or something?”

“O.K., I tell you what, you say it’s a lesson with Kevin. You say he’s going to be coaching poaching.”

“Coaching poaching?”

“Yes. Kevin. Got it?”

“Uptown? Downtown? East Side? Give me a chance here.”

“East Side,” he snarled.

Come the fateful Saturday-excuses proffered, beds made, kids screaming-I slunk out the door, whispered “See you later,” excised the car from its precious parking spot and began canvassing the streets of the East Side. I navigated the labyrinth of one-way, no-way, this-way, that-way streets. I zipped across 68th Street-nothing-but I thought I saw some green down on 66th, so I whipped down there-nope, it was only the fringes of Rockefeller University-then, the clock ticking, I dashed back to 65th Street, but the blocks were all backing up, so I actually had to wing it out to the F.D.R. Drive, slip between the Tangier/Morocco rally and slither back to Park Avenue, hang a right, a left and a right and then, finally, I saw it: Tucked between a public school and the back end of a church, I saw chain link and courts. I ran up to the fence.

Amazingly, although there were people out there hitting the ball, there was no gate! How do they get in? I wondered. Are they airlifted? Standing on the sidewalk clutching my racket, jittery from my drive, I struggled to catch the attention of a little old lady with calves like an Olympic long-jumper. I smashed my racket against the fence; she walked over and looked down at me.

“Hi, I’m looking for the, the practice.”

“There is no practice.”

“I’m looking for the USTA Team practice, at the secret court. This must be it, right?”

“There’s no practice here,” she said, balls bipping and popping like popcorn all around her over the crumbly black asphalt.

“I don’t think you get what I’m saying. I’m looking right at the court, the court you’re on, and I think I’m supposed to be having practice here and …. “

“This is private,” she scowled at me and turned on her heels.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I bleated.

My mind was racing. What the hell was that guy’s name. Kyle? Keith? Finally, as she started lighting up a fancy French cigarette (I could tell she was once a very attractive woman), I blurted out, “Kevin! Kevin!”

This caught her attention. “Kevin!,” I repeated. “I’m looking for the secret court for the lesson with Kevin-you know, the guy who sometimes teaches over at Randall’s and …. “

She knelt down and whispered, “You’re looking for 63rd Street.” And then she smiled. “This one’s private,” she said. I sprinted down to said street-nothing. I ran back to the avenue, into deli after deli: “Excuse me, where’s the tennis court?” Friendly, smirking East Siders pointed me in every direction.

“Have you tried Central Park?”

“Have you tried the bubbles under the bridge?”

“I don’t really think there is one.”

Dejected, forlorn, resigned to failure, I turned a corner and saw a crack between two buildings-and there, way, way back, I saw the captain himself, and rackets, and-lo and behold!-a gate that opened.

On that fateful Saturday, I managed to squeeze in about 15 minutes of practice. Only slightly sweaty, and more relieved than renewed, I felt ready to take on anything a season of New York tennis could serve up.