Courting Disaster? Genial Gal Takes— Thwack! to Tennis

I’m not a Tennis Person. Nor am I a person who likes Tennis People. They’re a ruthless lot: cold, thin and not particularly sensitive to the feelings of others. So you can imagine how ashamed I am to have picked up a stubborn, nasty tennis habit. It just wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

Before last November, I was just another New Yorker who was too lazy to master the Parks Department’s outdoor-permit system, and too cheap to rent out court time at an indoor club. Tennis was a vacation delicacy, like snorkeling or room service.

It was on one of those vacations, to the Caneel Bay Resort in St. John, that I showed up at the local tennis courts intending to take a clinic, a.k.a. a group lesson. Waiting under the cabana, I met Roberta, a sixty-something woman from northern New Jersey whose daughter, I learned, was getting married that weekend. By the time “Congratulations!” flew out of my mouth, Roberta had made the tragic error of inviting me to join her doubles match, and I’d made the tragic error of accepting.

I knew I was in trouble when Roberta asked me which side I wanted to cover, and I politely shrugged: “You decide.” She didn’t seem to like that. “WHICH SIDE DO YOU WANT?” “O.K., I’ll take here?” I said. “Oh. You mean forehand,” said Roberta, oozing with contempt. So I was a little rusty on the lingo. Surely my partner could spare some patience for a self-deprecating stranger whose last real doubles match was back in high school?

But my faux pas piled up: complimenting an opponent’s ace, apologizing for missed shots. I could feel Roberta’s animosity radiating off her sun visor. This did not help my game. An hour later, I left the court in disgrace, hating Roberta and her friends—but especially Roberta—for being so cutthroat about a stupid sport. Who behaves that way? Nobody I was close to, that’s for sure.

Then it hit me: Tennis People are mean. They were raised to be that way by their mean, tennis-obsessed parents, who wear crisp tennis outfits, belong to country clubs and force their kids to take lessons from the time they can walk. So firm is their belief that tennis is an essential life skill that, no matter how floppy or uncoordinated their child inevitably feels at first, he or she is simply not allowed to quit. Quitters are losers.

I’m sure I quit tennis lessons at some point in my childhood, and I’m sure there were no repercussions. In fact, my parents couldn’t care less about any sport or game. In our family, winning wasn’t any cooler than losing, and being called “competitive” was a downright insult. Niceness, decency, consideration for others—these were the medals we wanted to win.

After my run-in with Roberta, I should have never wanted to play tennis again. But the opposite happened: I came back to Brooklyn hoping, needing to become a better tennis player. I signed up for weekly clinics at my gym, which led to play dates with a rotating crew of people at my level. These people are not my friends. The six of us barely know each other and don’t socialize outside the bubble of the tennis court, but we’re bonded in the knowledge that we’ll drop almost anything for the chance to play.

What’s worse, I’ve turned into one of those people who actually care about winning, which makes me queasy. I remember learning about sportsmanship back in grade school: Kids who threw tantrums when their team lost were “sore losers,” and kids who gloated after winning were “sore winners.” I found both extremes unattractive and vowed to stay comfortably in the middle. I tried my best not to try my best; that way, I could walk away feeling not too bad about myself, and not too good. That’s what I thought it meant to be a good sport and, more importantly, a nice person.

These days, I’m out for blood, and it makes me sick. Every time I call an opponent’s shot “OUT!” or “WIDE!” or scream “MINE!” at my doubles partner, I feel a little bit of my humanity slip away. And that doesn’t even begin to describe the glee I tamp down when my opponent thwacks the ball into the net. I feign indifference, but on the inside I’m shouting, “Free point!” I’m a monster.

The more I play, the more certain I am that tennis is the devil’s pastime. Two of my favorite movies of last year were Match Point and The Squid and the Whale, and they don’t exactly challenge the notion. One is about a career tennis player who ruthlessly kills his mistress, and the other is about a cerebral couple with serious rage issues who just happen to love tennis.

I’m starting to think that all tennis players fall roughly into one of these categories: scrappy, late-in-life players who are “nice” but secretly wish they could smack people; and lifelong players who have no qualms about smacking people, because compassion simply was not part of their training.

Sometimes I daydream about the kind of person I’d be if I had been raised by Tennis Parents. Would I have buckled under their pressure to be The Best? Would I have different friends, a different figure, and be in an entirely different field? Maybe I’d be a total bitch. On the other hand, imagine the serve I’d have! And would it be so terrible to be able to walk into a competitive situation, play my best game, and never feel even a hint of empathy for the other side? I guess I’ll never know.

In the meantime, I’m determined to master the impossible game of playing to win without becoming Roberta. Some days, it’s easy. Other days, I scare myself.

Last weekend, I went to Florida for a friend’s wedding and signed up for a clinic at the hotel. Minutes into the class, I became cranky and frustrated: The instructor was overly instructive, there were too many players, and every time I hit the ball, this guy in the group would shout out “Nice shot!” or “Good one, babe!” I wanted to tell him to cool it with the compliments, it was really inappropriate, not to mention distracting. But then I’d remember: He was my husband, and he was just being nice.