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Tennis Partner Reads a Lot Into Courtside Manners

May 13, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

One of the guys I play tennis with regularly is an Orange County shrink who sees tennis as a kind of microcosm of life. He says the same analogy can be made with other games, too, but tennis lends itself more snugly to this kind of intellectual exercise.

When prodded, he claims that he can watch the behavior of players on a tennis court and learn all sorts of things about their behavior elsewhere. And about what kind of people they are.

I asked him over a beer the other day to give me an example, and he said that one especially revealing activity is the ritual of who will provide the tennis balls at the start of each match. I asked him if he had studied me--I always like to get free medical advice whenever I can--and after a little hesitation he said that he had.

"So tell me about myself," I said.

"Are you sure you want me to?"


"OK," he said. "You're a passive-aggressive."

"What the hell does that mean?" I asked.

"It means you tend to defend your views obsessively and sabotage the points being made by other people and express anger in devious rather than straightforward ways."

This was way off the mark, of course, but I played along with him and asked him what I did at tennis ball opening time to lead him to these wild conclusions. He explained it this way:

Passive-aggressive types like me are likely to carry the same unopened can of balls around in their tennis bags for up to 3 months. (He made no distinction between men and women.) He told me that my style--which is quite common among passive-aggressives--is to open my bag grandly at the beginning of a match and say, "I've got some new balls if we need them"--and then pop them back in the bag while the other players, momentarily cowed, search for used balls in their own bags.

One of the other players will always bring out a can and say, "These have only been used once, so why don't we try them?" If at some point during the match one of the players suggests that the balls are bouncing like watermelons, my type--says the shrink--will defend them so stoutly that the match will be completed without opening a new can of balls simply because the other players don't care that much.

I told him this was errant nonsense, that just 2 weeks ago I had opened a can of balls. And not only that, I couldn't remember the last time he had opened a can of balls--and I've never seen any indication that he even feels guilty about it.

He admitted that quite readily, explaining that he sometimes shows symptoms of the passive-inattentive. This group, he said, doesn't even make a pass at opening balls. They just stand around until someone else comes up with balls and could care less what their fellow players think about them. They tend to be egocentric and disinterested in making small tennis talk.

We decided to have another beer, so I asked him what other types he could identify from their ball-opening styles. He said there was a multitude of sub-types, but only two other major groups: the obsessive-compulsive and the passive-internalist. (I have a feeling he was making up some of these categories; I can't find all of them in the high school psychology text I still have in my bookcase.)

The obsessive-compulsive, he explained, never misses a beat at ball-opening time. Before anyone else can even make a pass, he has popped open a can of balls, saying something like: "Let's use some new ones today for a change." He can be counted on to repeat this performance endlessly. He is usually impeccably dressed in proper tennis attire, enormously competitive and compelled to control the environment in which he is placed. "If you want to see something awesome," the shrink told me, "just watch the ball-opening contest when two obsessive-compulsives play in the same match."

Finally, he explained that the passive-internalist will be against whatever happens, always reacting rather than interacting. If someone suggests used balls, he will open a new can of his own with a considerable flourish. If someone else opens a new can, he may not find them lively enough. This type is prone to argue line calls and explain to his doubles partner what he is doing wrong.

Frankly, after a lot of objective consideration, I don't recognize myself in any of these categories. I don't see any point in being profligate with tennis balls just because the Dow Jones Average sets a new record every week, but that hardly makes me a passive-aggressive. I've got three cans of used balls in my bag right now that are perfectly serviceable.

Come to think of it, I hope none of the people I play tennis with see themselves in these descriptions, either. I don't want a ball in the mouth the next time I'm playing at the net.

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