Stealing What’s Lost

January 17, 2011


Thieves came again. This time they got into my car.

They took my tennis racquets and shoes. I had only worn the shoes once before I pulled my Achilles tendon last year, so they were in perfect shape. Ever hopeful I kept them in the back of my car with a canvas bag of gear: bandaids, vaseline, sunscreen, neoprene  braces, a pair of warm up pants, extra socks,  colored tee shirts and two old sweaters. Junk mostly, things I’d accumulated over the years as a result of minor injuries, experience and sentiment. The racquets were my unmatched pair of Wilson Pro Staffs, one slightly heavier, the other had a slightly larger head. That was the state of my game, imagined adjustments to add speed or extra spin to the ball. It was all illusory. I was only playing with the memory of tennis. The good shots gave me flashes of what I once did better and the poor shots reminders of what I had lost. But it was still the game of sweat and angles, strategy and endurance.

There’s a Galway Kinnell poem,”On the Tennis Court at Night”, about old men playing doubles at the cold end of a day,
“of this arena where every man grows old // pursuing that repertoire of perfect shots,// darkness already in his strokes…” .
I thought about it more frequently as I played out in November evenings, when the wind shifted in and I could feel twinges in the oblique muscles in my lower back, or took slow laps after playing to cool down, or any of the hypochondriacal tennis folk remedies that would get me a few more good days keeping the ball between the lines.

For me winning had already diminished to bittersweet, losing was crueler, more resonant, but both came accompanied by a limp, stiff back or shoulder. Winning is the point of tennis, but not the common reality. In a tennis tournament with a thirty-two person draw, thirty-one will lose. In the best, most competitive match you’ll ever win; you’ll lose 49.4% of the points. Like distance running it requires a banked passion to play well and continue training, practicing and adjusting over the long years of trying to offset physical decline.  Tennis even has a mannerly conservationist nature that supports the silent kinship and exertion. Courts all over the world are exactly the same, there are the polite rituals of changing ends, or waiting until your opponent is ready before serving, and always that large quiet punctuated by shuffling shoes, soft thuds and labored breathing.

I recall one late spring afternoon when I was an undergraduate at Xavier University. My roommate Drew and I were playing tennis instead of attending class. Two courts down Fr. Peters, Head of Biology, and Fr. Schmidt, the Head of the Philosophy Department, were playing tennis in dappled sunlight filtered by an elm. They seemed unimaginably old to me then. Their games reflected a style of play perfected when men’s tennis was played in long trousers. Long underspun slices and slow flat drives, punctuated with an occasional “Good shot Reg.”. Their serves were elegant with elaborate choreographed hitches in the toss. They moved steadily and efficiently, and although they seemed to have adopted a no drop shot policy, they didn’t seem much different from us, or we from them (excluding their considerable knowledge). Even though we were barely twenty, Drew and I both realized we were witnessing both the past and an unspoken hope for our future…that we would remain friends for the rest of our lives and play tennis into our old age with an equivalent grace.

Since those days, I’ve played in some forgettable tournaments, made the tedious telephone calls for USTA leagues, climbed up and down couple of local ladders and done a little coaching. I estimate I’ve spent well over 20, 000 hours of my life hitting tennis balls. Over forty years on the courts with nothing more notewothry than a church deacon might assess his lifetime of church attendance, a self-satisfied humility. Nothing anyone would remember but a few friends and me. We strived together for hours in an intimacy of painted lines, but sat in mutual isolation on our benches. Every match ended the same way, a quick honest handshake.

One year my father and I traveled to Wimbledon. It was a late, unexpected blossom in our relationship. We spent a week scurrying around London, taking the tube out to the tournament or catching rebroadcast matches on the BBC in the hotel pub.  Our few days as ticket holding guests of the All England Club seemed an inauthentic order imposed  on our private world of chaos. Those summer lawns are the physical dreamscape of tennis, and we were proximate to a place akin to royalty. Even the great champions like Pete Sampras, Roger Federer or Martina Navratilova only get to play a few hundred rarified hours on that grass in exchange for years of unimaginably lonely practices and painful training. Lifelong fans might have only one ticket, on a blustery afternoon like the one in 1994 when Lori McNeil defeated Steffi Graf in the first round. My father and I watched with newspapers shoved under our sweaters to block the wind, and then, by chance, we met a woman I had briefly coached on high school tennis team. Most tennis isn’t like that.

 Most of tennis is serial variation like watching television, or reading murder mysteries, divertimento in the constant rush of time. But two hours of  that day were, as greeting cards promise ’ moments to remember’ . It was an instant of Latinate perfection; time comes to a brief grammatical completion, an occasion like engraving names on a trophy. It recognizes an absurd point, valued, even if it is bound inextricably to an understated class distinction, tangential to peerage filigreed in the Victorian Age, or built on a millisecond collision felt in the tension of two strings rubbing together.

Of all the many items stolen from me during my life: the silver dollars and two dollar bills given to me by old Italian relatives, bicycles, luggage, jewelry, books, an orange pickup truck, laptops, tools, ladders, tape recorders, cash… their losses were primarily annoyances, just stuff removed in a Zen kind of way. The shoes and racquets felt different. They were a frayed bag of tools I had assembled to stave off aging. Even though I hadn’t played since last year’s injury, I knew I would return to the court soon. I believed that. Or at least I could believe it until all that was stolen. Now I’ll have to shop to replace it, bit by bit.

 But these things will be more desperate and much more expensive. Technology designed with an exact purpose, but no personality, like motel rooms or generic ibuprofen. What I’ll have to purchase will be flavored not by the optimism of an athlete, or even the bravado of the theft, but by the overly circumspect shopping of someone knowingly buying my own used dream. I had enough displaced anger about aging and losses that I considered leaving tennis to the eternal youth.

As if cued, Daisy, my young friend down the street, called me to say she had her racquet restrung and wanted me to hit with her on Saturday. I never say no to Daisy. By chance I would be across town near Tennis Express. A twenty-something year old clerk cheerfully offered to help me chose the newest in my long line of racquets. Four walls were lined floor to ceiling with code named racquets glaringly painted with sixties hot rod color schemes. We discussed fast swing power sticks and open strung oversized forgiveness. (Forgiveness is the amount of technology dedicated to minimizing off center ball striking.) In a short time I was overwhelmed with data chatter. It was humbling trying to equate how much forgiveness my pride would endure. Somewhere there’s a racquet designed with my game in mind; I may find it. In the meantime there’s an old wooden Pro Staff in the closet. It’ll be a good lesson for Daisy.

History doesn’t provide much forgiveness, just a little grace for the late afternoon.