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'Tennis, Angry One?' a Way to Court Disaster

March 11, 1993|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

I took up the game of tennis a few months ago, admittedly no great feat of imagination, but there was a city class open to beginners--55 bucks for five sessions--and I couldn't resist. For some time, I'd been telling myself I'd like the game.

My only experience at it was as a 10-year-old, when Mom signed me up for a similar series of summer classes. I detested the game then--the endless chasing of balls, the heavy, cumbersome racket in my hand, girls everywhere. In those days, my mind was preoccupied with baseball and trying to find fossils and snakes in the orange groves down the street. Come to think of it, that was the same summer Mom enrolled me in a reading program at the library, for which I appeared to amass the highest number of books read, largely by cheating. This was easy, since it was an honor system, and a quick perusal of a book was usually enough to make up a report about it. If they'd had bumper stickers for parents to brag about their mediocre children then, my parents' would have read "My Son Was Top Reader at Tustin Library!" A more accurate version would have been "My Son Was Top Cheat at Tustin Library!" (I missed the awards ceremony because Mom insisted I wear my hard, black Sunday school shoes, and I refused.)

But unhappy memories of tennis aside, I was convinced that now, as an adult, I would love the game. The reason was chiefly this: I could hit something, hard, and be rewarded for it! I went out and got a racquet, a couple cans of balls and a sweatband for my head, hoping to cut a Mark Knopfler-ish figure on the court.

The first batch of lessons went well. That is to say, I had a great deal of fun lunging around the courts, swatting balls out of sight, driving serves into the net, soaking my rock 'n' roll headband repeatedly, and developing a case of shinsplints that lasted for a month. I hustled after the loose balls, hit backhands into the fence while I waited my turn with the teacher, listened to everything he said as if my life depended on it. I noticed that the other players in the class began to look at me as if I was insane, often an advantageous position in which to find oneself.

Fact is, I was fueled largely by anger at the time. Recent events had not ended happily, and my somewhat narrowish response was a full-blown rage that I insisted on taking out on every ball that came my way. My serves were surprisingly swift, if wild. My forehand was a topspinless rocket that could travel, literally, out of sight. My backhand--a totally retarded chop-shot I adopted in lieu of the more effective topspin--was a wicked mystery of backspin that drove opponents crazy. So I was happy to have these bright, wonderful balls coming at me, each one awaiting my power and wrath.

Back then, a growing number of incidents in local bars and restaurants--which had to be related to me later by friends--had convinced me that I was headed for some kind of dire event if I didn't find a way to "deal with my anger." "Deal with my anger!" I dealt with it hundreds of times a day, in a structured setting, with the controls of the game there to keep me from taking the more direct route of ignoring the balls altogether and bashing my opponent to death with the racquet forthwith. Boy, was I dealing!

"You stink, Jeff," said my teacher one night after class.

"I know."

"You don't have to kill everything. It's not how hard you hit it. It's consistency. Rhythm. Smoothness. Any idiot can hit the ball hard. You need to relax."

"That's hard."

"Watch Edberg."

"Who's he?"

"Never mind. Sign up for my next class. The players are better, and I'm going to make you work."

I did and he did.

I found myself surrounded by people quite impatient with my violent approach to the game, not to mention able to beat me at will. I vowed a kinder, gentler game. The topspin gradually came to the forehand, then the backhand. The serves--hit with slightly less than all-out murderous rage--actually began to stay in. I imagined that a certain grace was even attainable, and tried my best to pattern my strokes after those of Parry, our teacher, and the more competent students in the class.

A good friend gave me a copy of "The Inner Game of Tennis," which told me I should try for this Zen-like frame of mind where you are totally relaxed but totally focused at the same time. Concentration and relaxation replaced pure aggression. I felt more at one with the game.

"You still stink, Jeff," said Parry.

"I know."

"You don't watch the ball, you don't bend your knees and your volley is terrible. Sign up for my next class. The players are better and I'm going to make you work."

I did and he did.

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