The Tennis Mystic

You want to lose. Every time you step onto the tennis court, you want to lose. You’ve got to understand that and accept it.

That’s just one of many paradoxical lessons from Steve Turner, a Manhattan tennis guru formerly ranked No. 101 in the world. Seven days a week for the last 21 years, he has taught on a private court on the 36th floor of the U.N. Plaza Hotel, offering $130-an-hour lessons. Mr. Turner is definitely not one of those club pros who stands there yelling, “Bend your knees!” His lessons are more akin to a psychotherapy sessions–or time spent in the company of a swami.

Away from the court, Mr. Turner, 52, has immersed himself in the cabala, the esoteric system of Jewish mystic thought. He has also studied Freud. Both come out in his lessons.

“All right,” I said, stepping onto his court the other day. “It’s been almost a year, so …”

“Are you talking about sex or tennis?” he said.

We hit a few.

“I’ve got forehand problems,” I said. I popped one up high and out of bounds. “See?” More gruesome shots followed.

Mr. Turner told me it was a matter of catching the ball, rather than just hitting it, and then lifting it over the net. And, equally important and obvious, you’ve got to remember to look at the ball.

Given Mr. Turner’s highly developed worldview, each element of tennis–the ball, the net, the service box, the out-of-bounds area, the racket, each of the strokes–has symbolic meaning. And within this notion of looking at the ball, I was about to receive my first schooling in tennis symbolism.

“The ball can represent a sperm,” Mr. Turner said. “So the idea of seeing the ball hit the racket is actually observing the primal scene . Now, most people turn their eye away from the primal scene–they don’t want to see it! Actually, if you really want to know, that’s why it happens on the forehand here–the forehand has to do with the genital side; while the backhand has to do with the anal side.”

With those words, I hit a slightly better forehand.

“Excellent, George! Excellent!”

To Mr. Turner, when we play tennis, we are not just playing a game, but we’re giving form to some of life’s mysteries. This is what you must accept when you step onto his court with your $130. Ideas that seem cockamamie at first begin to seem not so crazy. Especially when you start hitting the ball well.

Mr. Turner, who is also known as Professor Flamingo, began talking about a book idea of his: The Power of Negative Thinking . “There are 10 million books on positive thinking,” he said. “Everybody thinks ‘positive’ is the be-all and end-all in the world, because everybody wants to get ahead and succeed. But when they do that, they forget their shadow side. So if you want total success, you have to take into consideration your dark side, you have to give life to your demons, the parts that want to fail. The sexual aspects that maybe want to get into S&M or something. You just can’t block them out!”

That makes sense for the bedroom, but how does it work on the court?

“In tennis,” said Mr. Turner, “if you think you’re going to beat me, that’s the beginning of your loss. You have to recognize that when you come out here, we’re not two winners that are playing. We’re two losers that are playing. And the person who wants to lose more is the loser. Understand? It’s a primal thing, George. It’s Thanatos. It’s the death instinct. It’s Freud’s primal masochism!”

Brief scenes of my own screw-ups danced in my mind. He was making sense. Next, Mr. Turner began to instruct me in the importance of having a little arc to my shots. Forget those brutish line drives, those attempts at “winners.”

“All arcs in nature are considered feminine,” he said, “as opposed to all lines in nature, which are masculine.Now,because there’s a net on the court, the best way to solve that equation is to use an arc. So, we’re avoiding the net. No. 1, because it’s in the path of the ball. No. 2, by the way, because the net symbolizes the mother .”

Now he was getting into one of my nervous areas.

“Most people have this desire of the ball going into the mother,”hecontinued, “which satisfies the desire to have sex with one’s mother. A hard shot into the net is a phallus.”

Gulp.

“When I hit a high arc over the net ,” Mr. Turner said, “I’m avoiding an unconscious lure and, therefore, I’ll play better tennis. I’m overcoming the mother, the barrier that the mother puts in the way of a person’s life.”

“Whatdoestheball

represent?”

“They used to call a ball a ‘seed’ in tennis slang–so a ball is actually what’s thrown off of the phallic bat, or penis. It’s an ejaculation. And when it goes into the mother, it is a satisfying thing.”

“What about hitting it out of bounds?”

“It’s ejaculation without being in the container of the pussy,” said Mr. Turner, simply.

“What’s going on when a man and woman play tennis?”

“Oh, there’s no doubt, that is sex. When a man plays a man, it’s homosexual. There’s sexual dynamics and the thing about tennis is, you’re separated by space, so you’re not touching, so it fulfills a lot of social satisfaction. You can have homosexual interaction but not touch.”

“Great,” I said. But back to my strokes: I told him my serve was always strong, my backhand fine, but my forehand perennially weak.

“I’m going to be honest,” Mr. Turner said, sounding grave.

“I can take it.”

“It has to do with your own sexuality, as far as genital push,” he said. “You didn’t say anything about your backhand, which has to do with the anal.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked, terrified.

“I don’t know what it means, exactly. Let’s put it this way: You have a big libido. O.K.? That libido grounded in the world here hasn’t found its successful outlet. The serve has more to do with the primal libido. The forehand is how that libido is sexually expressed in the social world.” He started picking up balls. “My point is– let’s see a few serves .”

I served one into the net–hard.

“Right into the mother there, George!”

The next one made it over.

“Great serve, George.”

Another one. Boom!

“Jeez! Good serve, terrific motion. You have very good libido here. That’s excellent, George! You have tremendous sexual drive–but you haven’t found the correct channel.”

I went up to the net. “Well, that could be, like, I haven’t found the right woman, right?”

“You serve into a service box,” he explained. “The service box is like the young female. Also, in slang, you ‘service’ a female. So your serve, which is the hardest shot, is a big, linear, phallic serve into the female–as opposed to the mother. You have to overcome the mother to get into the desired wife or female.”

We hit some backhands. Fifteen very decent ones in a row. And so it was back to the troublesome forehand. I pulled out my microcassette recorder, held it in my left hand and we began to hit.

“Very nice there,” he said. “You know another reason you look better already? See, you’re carrying that thing.”

I was moving into the ball and … it was working. “Do you think I play better holding the microphone?” I said.

He did not answer me.

“Do I do better in life with a tape recorder?”

Now he came up to the net. “Notice how the unconscious solved your own question!” he said. “You asked me to tell you–but no Freudian tells you! You solved your own question!”

“And this is also phalluslike, too, right?” I said, holding up the recorder.

“A black phallus!”

Oh, boy. A few shots later, I ended the rally by hitting it into the net.

“So now I’ve let you beat yourself,” Mr. Turner said. “In life and in tennis, you have to give the other person the opportunity to screw up– because they’re looking to screw up .”

Soon, we were 15 shots into our next series.

“Very nice, George. These are very good. Now, whether you know it or not, in this screwed-up way, this has been a very successful tennis lesson, because look what you’re doing. You’ve got your left arm bent, which was throwing off your stroke, George. Now you can’t miss the ball, and notice your balance seems to be better.”

“We’ve hit about 20 in a row.”

“We’ve hit more than that! You’re never gonna miss. Look at the arc on that! Look at the quality ! All of a sudden you’re hitting hard , too. How come? Right! How come? Excellent, George.”

“That’s gotta be, like, 40,” I said. We started counting from there. Smack. Swat. Smack. Fifty. Hard ones, too. I was grunting, but still sending them over.

“How can you miss, George? You’re catching the ball, you’re lifting it up. What’s that, 60? Excellent.”

“I think I’m slowing down! Oh!”

We reached 80 in a row.

“I got news for you, George, whatever it is, it’s our last one. You can’t do any better than this.”

We hit 20 more: 100! “Obviously, you’ve avoided the net ,” Mr. Turner said, still swatting the ball back at me. “Obviously, the ball is in an arc . Obviously, it’s all come since you intuitively answered the question by using your left hand.”

“What am I doing right?”

“You’re doing everything right! Nobody can hit 120 balls over and do something wrong!”

It was up to 131! But then I arced one … straight into the net.

“What just happened?”

He was smiling. “I’ll tell you what happened: Professor Flamingo is a genius.” Picking up balls, I told the professor I’d always prided myself on being in touch with darkness. “Well, if that’s the case,” he said, “then we have other things to talk about.”

“The major thing is this negativethinking stuff,” he said after the lesson. “Because at the root of everything is the desire to lose . We mask it, pretending that we are ‘winners’ or that we’re ‘trying to win,’ you see what I’m saying? But in the final analysis, everybody loses. And in the final analysis, we’re all eventually dead. So no matter what we’re building toward, we die. Say I had a successful career. I was successful enough. My tennis career was 20 years ago! So that has no relation at all to a lifetime, you understand? So by definition, it’s a loss. It’s dead! It’s past! The beauty of athletics is one can learn that at a young age. My last tennis match was when I was 31 years old–so at your age, I suffered a death.”

We went toward the 28th-floor pool.

“Any ‘worst’ scenario that could happen to an individual is a growth scenario,” he said. “Say you were fired. You think, Oh, it’s the end of the world! Only later on do you recognize that those were the blessings. And in mysticism, in Jewish mysticism, you’re supposed to bless the cursed things that happen in your life equally to the blessed things.”

We sat poolside.

“Let me tell you what most people say when they come up here. Most people want to work on their serve. The funny thing is, every woman that I’ve ever taught always wants a stronger serve. They want more of a phallus, more of a phallic push in a phallic sense, not only genital, but phallus meaning the symbol of a phallus in the society–power! Women want more power and so the serve represents that.”

“What do men want?”

“Well, men want to exercise their power into victory.”

Mr. Turner grew up in Manhattan in the 50’s and 60’s and began playing tennis at age 6. When he was a bar mitzvah, he had a premonition that he would study cabala seriously one day, but did not show a huge interest in metaphysics until his student days at New York University, when he developed a liking for Gurdjieff, Sufism and Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty. N.Y.U. kicked him out for his lousy academic average and a lousier attitude; he finished his formal education at Long IslandUniversityand turned pro–back to the tennis now–at age 23. In there among the generation of Stan Smith, Rod Laver, Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg, he reached his highest ranking–No. 101–in 1976.

Soon enough, his career was kaput and he began teaching tennis–and went deeper into cabala, too. He has worked the private court at the U.N. Plaza Hotel since 1981. Now he lives with his parents and his brother in the East 60’s. “I don’t believe in moving out until I have a reason to move out,” he said. Off the court, he teaches cabala studies privately and via the Seminar Center, an educational outfit with offices on West 57th Street.

“When I was a little kid,” he said, “I was afraid of the dark. So at night I used to wake up and have nightmares. So when I was like 6 years old, I used to live on Eighth Street, and my father took me out for a walk on Eighth Street at 3 o’clock in the morning, to show me there was nothing to be scared of at night. So it’s the same thing. You have to walk through your own night, you have to expose yourself to the night, and when you look at them, you see that there’s nothing there to be scared of.”

“What’s a good message for New Yorkers?”

“The message is something your people don’t want to hear. Because, by definition, if you’re trying to win, you’re masking your own insecurity. You’re masking the real. Because everybody in their heart of hearts knows that they’re nothing. And that everything is a bubble and an illusion and … this false sense of confidence. Underneath all this, everyone’s the same. So when a person enters into the real, they have to burst their bubble, get down into their nothingness. This is how one enters into religiosity and spirituality–because one has to recognize that they are nothing and when you become nothing, then you become everything.”

We left the pool area and went outside.

“What other things are you interested in?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I’m interested in cabala, tennis and that’s it.”

“You’ve dated a lot of women, am I right?”

“No. I’m a tennis pro. No. There are obviously plenty of people, but I don’t like to drink and I don’t believe in one-night stands, so there’s a little bit of a problem.”

“It’s probably hard bringing a woman back to your place, with your parents there.”

“Well, it’s almost impossible. And they haven’t met my net yet. I call my mother my net. If she can overcome my mother, that’s great.”

A few days later, we went for a little walk. Mr. Turner, in jeans and a black leather jacket, said that, in Jewish tradition, all profound discussions were done while walking.

“Whatdoyouthinkofothertennis

teachers?”

“If I thought there was one better than me, then I would go to him. It’s not that I’m so good, it’s that the others are bad–that’s what makes me good.”

“Are you the best?”

“Of course. Of course I’m the best.”

By the sailboat pond in Central Park, I asked him about his playing days. “I considered myself a player who could play against anybody in the world,” he said. “And for my purposes, you have to remember that I wasn’t necessarily playing to win. I was very happy being a participant in the tennis structure that afforded me the opportunity, as a cauldron, to find out about myself.” Dark clouds were coming together. “It’s the end of the world,” he said. Did he really feel that way? “If anything, I think it’s the beginning of the world. I only see the world as perfect.”

We walked to 72nd Street. Wasn’t there anything indisputably negative in the world? “No. The world is perfect as it is. My point is, this is my spiritual level. It all stems from the power of negative thinking and, No. 2, from a cabalistic point of view you’re supposed to attain equanimity, like the old Stoicism. That’s a higher form of being. You have to take all these apparently good and bad things equally .”

At a coffee shop, he slurped a chocolate soda and said he had had visions. “Twenty years ago, I had a vision that I should be a vegetarian. And then, about five years ago in a dream, I received an actual vision of two Hebrew letters in combination, which I call the new Star of David, which unifies the highest high and the lowest low.”

“You had a vision that you should be a vegetarian?”

“For that I heard a voice. In my own unconscious. It’s 21 years ago and I haven’t had a piece of meat since.”

“How do you feel?”

“Awful.”

Mr. Turner said he wasn’t sure if many people would use tennis as a path to spirituality these days, given the cultural mood. “Tennis is a dead sport right now,” he said. “It’s dead for me, it’s dead for the community in general. No. 1, golf is higher in the community–more people are playing golf, because the psychic aspects of golf may be more attuned to the present moment. Golf is an intrapsychic sport, tennis is an interpsychic sport. Golf is the ultimate masturbation, which is very similar to what people do in a workout, in a gym. They’re working out singularly.”

“So they’re less spiritual?”

“No–it may even be more. Running is an intrapsychic sport, bicycle riding, working out in a gym, golf, listening to music with headphones. So society is worked into the self. It’s a self society. The world doesn’t care about interaction anymore.”

“That’s bad!”

“No. Because we have to assume that the world is progressing to an ultimate good, so every stage along the way is a stage that has to be understood .”

“So you’re saying by becoming more narcissistic, that’s a good thing?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes! More narcissism.”

“More cynical and destructive?”

“Right … Some people think it’s the end of the world right now. I think it’s the beginning of what I call messianic times. To me, we’re in messianic times. Look how beautiful the world is.”

Del Shannon’s “Runaway” was playing.

“Messianic times. So there could be a Messiah?”

“In my religious belief system, there is a thing called the Messiah, which can be an energy, however. It doesn’t have to manifest itself as an individual. Quite frankly, I think we’re in messianic times. I think this is the promised land. I think this is heaven.”

I looked around the coffee shop. It didn’t really look like heaven to me. But at least I had a better forehand.

The Tennis Mystic