Κύρια Late to the Ball: Age. Learn. Fight. Love. Play Tennis. Win.

Late to the Ball: Age. Learn. Fight. Love. Play Tennis. Win.

An award-winning author shares the inspiring and entertaining account of his pursuit to become a nationally competitive tennis player—at the age of sixty.

Being a man or a woman in your early sixties is different than it was a generation or two ago, at least for the more fortunate of us. We aren’t old…yet. But we sense it coming: Careers are winding down, kids are gone, parents are dying (friends, too), and our bodies are no longer youthful or even middle-aged. Learning to play tennis in your fifties is no small feat, but becoming a serious, competitive tennis player at the age of sixty is a whole other matter. It requires training the body to defy age, and to methodically build one’s game—the strokework, footwork, strategy, and mental toughness.

Gerry Mazorati started playing the game seriously in his mid-fifties. He had the strong desire to lead an examined physical life, to push his body into the “encore” of middle age. InLate to the BallMazorati writes vividly about the difficulties, frustrations, and the triumphs of his becoming a seriously good tennis player. He takes on his quest with complete vigor and absolute determination to see it through, providing a rich, vicarious experience involving the science of aging, his existential battle with time, and the beautiful, mysterious game of tennis.Late to the Ballis also captivating evidence that the rest of the Baby Boomer generation, now between middle age and old age, can find their own quest and do the same.
Χρόνος: 2016
Έκδοση: Hardcover
Εκδότης: Scribner
Γλώσσα: english
Σελίδες: 288
ISBN 10: 1476737398
ISBN 13: 9781476737393
File: EPUB, 669 KB
Κατεβάστε (epub, 669 KB)
 
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For my sons, Guy and Luca





What do you do if you’re sixty-two and you realize all those bodily parts invisible up to now (kidneys, lungs, veins, arteries, brain, intestines, prostate, heart) are about to start making themselves distressingly apparent . . . ?

Here’s what happens: you feel excruciatingly how old you are, but in a new way.

Philip Roth, The Dying Animal

To toss the ball, to arch my back,

unwind like lightning,

with the stringed surface, from the shoulder

to skim the ball’s occiput,

and, lunging, the whistling return

to devastatingly cut short—

the world has not a sweeter pastime . . .

in heaven we shall be playing ball.

Vladimir Nabokov, “The University Poem”

Sometimes, Tom, we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.

John le Carré, A Perfect Spy





1


Does the court seem small somehow to you?” I asked Kirill.

He took a long look. “It does.”

But I couldn’t figure out why, precisely, and neither could he.

We had made our way to Court 3 at the old West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, and were loosening up: stretching our shoulders and wrists, running in place, lunging, bouncing on the balls of our feet. I’d decided to enter the 2013 United States Tennis Association Senior National Grass Court Championships, and the tournament organizers had made a number of the courts available for practice in the days before play would begin.

“Maybe it’s the texture of the surface, the grass,” I said, mostly just to say something. “Or the faintness of the chalk lines?”

“Or that the grass ends about two inches in front of the baselines,” Kirill said.

It was true: There was nothing but worn footpaths of dirt along the back edges of the court.

And, upon closer inspection, the grass—ryegrass—within the service boxes and especially at the very back of the court on both sides looked as though it had been worked over by a bogey golfer trying to improve his chip shot. There were divots everywhere, the result, it turned out, of a summerlong weevil infestation.

Still, the two of us were thrilled. “Crazy,” Kirill said, taking phantom swings with his racquet and looking around.

Here we were, an evening at summer’s end, a hint of fall in the quickly cooling air, the light crepuscular, the Manhattan skyline visible and set against streaks of violet and orange. And looming in the foreground of that vista, the darkened hulk of the old, horseshoe-shaped Forest Hills Stadium, where the U.S. Opens of my youth had been played, and where the game incorporated what I like to think of as its New York refashionings: set-accelerating tiebreakers, equal prize money for female and male players, raucous nighttime tennis under the lights. The last of those Opens was played in Forest Hills in 1977, ten years before Kirill was born. It was news to him that the Open had been played at the stadium. Most people his age probably knew of it, if they knew of it at all, from its appearance as “Windswept Fields” in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums—the stadium where tennis prodigy Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), in Björn-Borg-like headband and Fila polo, has, on court, what can only be called a poignantly hilarious nervous breakdown. (The grass court in the movie is a green carpet, impeccable.)

Kirill was my club pro, my year-round tennis coach, my young friend. He was less than half my age. I was nearing my sixty-first birthday, and we were on a grass court in Forest Hills on a weeknight in September because I was attempting to become a serious amateur tennis player—not that I was sure what that meant, exactly. The best sixty-something tennis player at my club in suburban Westchester? Someone who was going to spend his “encore” years, as they were now called—those empty-nested, downshifted years between midlife and something dreadful—as the athlete he had never really been? Here, at Forest Hills, I’d been accepted into the tournament as an unseeded qualifier, which most anyone who was between sixty and sixty-five and a member of the United States Tennis Association could do, though you wouldn’t unless you were pretty good, or a masochist. You would be facing the best men’s players sixty to sixty-five in the country. I’d only been playing tennis six years. I was in truth a serious novice. I wasn’t in their league. But I wanted to get out here and learn what league I was in.

Kirill was teaching me and coaxing me—for hours on end each week—to get there, wherever there wound up being. I had been taking lessons with him almost from the beginning, though had been truly training with him, with tireless (or, anyway, panting) determination, for two years. In the tournament, I would be playing men who had been playing tennis all their lives. Many of them had played on their college teams. Like me, they were in their early sixties, which meant they were aging, and feeling it. But for them, as not for me, aging meant seasoned, wiser, in some ways better. I was still, after hundreds and hundreds of hours of grueling drills with Kirill, and countless matches against friends, fellow tennis-club members, and opponents from other clubs, not sure how good I was—good as a sixty-something, that is—and, to be honest, not sure what it was I was after from tennis.

And I had never played a match on grass.

We, Kirill and I, started off that evening in Forest Hills with a little mini-tennis, each of us near the net on either side of it: slow-hitting aimed at seeing the ball into the sweet spot of the racquet head, relaxing the swing, tinkering with spins. Kirill urged me to focus—to watch how the ball, off the deadening grass, was failing to bounce any higher than my bent knees; to notice how the matted blades of grass, or what there were of them, enhanced backspin and sidespin. When we both moved away from the net after a few minutes, he instructed me to position myself an inch or two inside the baseline.

“Your game isn’t going to work so well here, Gerry,” he said. He was standing at the baseline on his side of the net, and he spoke loud enough for me to hear, which meant loud enough for the players tuning up for the tournament on courts to either side of us. What he was saying, and he was right, was that my usual approach, when I stepped onto the green-gray Har-Tru clay of the club where I played and he coached me, was not going to be effective on this surface. On clay, I liked to camp a foot or two behind the baseline—to give the incoming ball time to descend from its high, clay-court bounce into my favored hips-to-knees strike zone; to give myself more time to react to the incoming ball. I ran well side-to-side and in toward the net and back—speed and quickness were the only real advantages I had over most players my age—so court coverage was never a problem for me.

But staying back doesn’t win points on grass. Here, I was going to have to come forward to return balls that weren’t going to bounce up much, and keep moving in to get to the net. I was going to have to find ways to end points in a hurry: I wouldn’t get enough predictable bounces to rally. I was going to have to serve and volley; “chip and charge” on my service returns, especially on serves to my backhand; and, with my forehand, aim audaciously for the corners early, flatly, and with pace. In sum: Against players who were likely to be better than those I typically played against—better than me—I was going to have to play a style of tennis I never played. In a national tournament.

Kirill hit a dozen or so short balls to me. I netted most of them.

“Short steps, Gerry,” he instructed, patiently. “And you have to get lower and stay lower. Lower, and up on your toes. You’re bending your knees but leaning back on your heels, leaning back as the ball approaches—you’re not getting your body into the shots at all.”

I stretched my arms out and raised my palms to the darkening sky.

He moved in closer to the net and demonstrated what he wanted me to do. He moved like a cat. For the life of me I could not understand how, leaning forward and on the balls of his feet, bent low but perfectly balanced, he managed to get to full speed in a few strides, to pounce. He was an athlete: simple, if not so simple, as that.

“One more thing,” Kirill said. I rolled my eyes: It was as if I had already mastered the running-while-crouched stuff. “It’s very important, here with this grass, to make sure you stop and set before hitting. Even when you are on the run. You will not be able to predict the bounce the ball is going to take the way you can on a hard court or on clay, even. You are going to have to stop and watch.”

There was more: “I’d also shorten your swing. Playing inside the baseline, taking the racquet back all the way takes too much time. Get the racquet ready early, as early as possible, but don’t take it too far back. You won’t have time. You will be hitting late. And coming forward to get a drop shot, get that racquet extended out in front of you and low. Drop shots are not going to bounce up.”

The light was fading fast now, and it was getting hard to see the ball. We hit, or sort of hit, for ten more minutes. I liked the way the grass felt under my feet. Grass was supposed to be slippery, but it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt spongy, forgiving. I was looking for positives.

When we were finished, I told Kirill I felt good about the footing.

“Yeah,” he said. “But I think it’s supposed to rain a bit this weekend. On and off.” I gave him a look, and he laughed. “Hey,” he added, “it’ll be slippery for the other, guy, too, right?”





2


It was a thought—being a tennis player—that first came to me when I was months from my fifty-fourth birthday and spending what time I could (a few vacation days) wandering the outer courts at the U.S. Open in Flushing, about five miles north of Forest Hills and, New York being New York, a world away. I had been a tennis fan for much of my life but never played. Could I now? And if I started in my mid-fifties, could I get good—good for my age—by the time I was sixty?

Was this a crisis of late middle age? Was it about my oldest son being ready, as I reached my mid-fifties, to look at colleges, and his brother two years behind, and the weekend afternoons already yawning? Did it have something to do with the fact that, no matter how engaged and satisfied I was with being the editor of the New York Times Magazine—with having had the good fortune to have done with my professional life what I wanted to do and more—it was almost all behind me now, decades of editing stretching back to the 1970s and my tenure as editor-in-chief three years from being done? Or—and this was very much on my mind by my late fifties, as my editorship of the Times Magazine ended and I began to train seriously with Kirill, and magazines everywhere (especially general interest magazines) seemed to be reeling from the Great Digital Disruption and a world I had inhabited since my twenties looked to be dying off: Did I need someplace or something to belong to? Or—and this was how it was more or less seen by my wife, Barbara, who is nine years younger than me; who had known me for more than twenty years when I first brought up taking tennis lessons; who was training for a marathon when we began going out and now swam Olympian laps on the days she was not sweating through Bikram yoga—was it that I was simply not willing to act my age—not willing, with the onset of “young old age” at sixty, to hover in the anteroom of the aged, to reconcile myself to looming extended monotonies, unpromising everydayness?

One of the few inspiriting aspects of entering your sixties, for me anyway, now that I have arrived there, is that you find yourself growing more comfortable with an understanding that you don’t necessarily understand your motivations, and never have—that you don’t much know yourself in that way at all.

It doesn’t work that way with your body. There’s little ambiguity with what’s going on there, and next to no comfort in knowing. That time around turning sixty makes you aware of bodily aging the way your teenage years make you aware—or at least confront you with—what hormones can do. You see it. You sense it, feel it.

There’s my face, creased and sagging, greeting me each morning in the bathroom mirror. When I head downstairs and make coffee and fetch the Times from my driveway, I turn sooner than I used to to the obituary pages, where seldom a week passes where I don’t read about someone I’d known. I search out behaviors and diseases in obits that I can convince myself, however fleetingly, won’t get me. I also look at the faces of the men in the paid memoriams. You die in your eighties and your family submits a photo of you taken in your late fifties or early sixties. There’s a certain settledness to those faces, a sense that there would be no more becoming. It’s who you were. They’re faces like mine.

My hands are speckled with liver spots and ribbed with raised veins. I have arthritis in most of my finger joints, as my mother had, too, already, in her early sixties. My arches have fallen, and those with flat feet are more prone to injuring their hips and legs when they run. I have osteoarthritis in my left knee, which has led to the creation of bone spurs; the knee detectably aches, always. In my left shoulder, tendonitis has come to stay. I am on close terms with Advil.

Some other things you know about your physical self as you enter your sixties: Your lung capacity is in steady decline, as are the fast-twitch muscle fibers that provide power and explosive speed. Your heart is perhaps only 70 percent as efficient as it was when you were thirty. Your prefrontal cortex—where the concentrating and deciding you do gets done—has been shrinking for forty years. Your sight has been diminishing, your other senses, too, and this, along with a gradually receding ability to integrate information you are absorbing and to then issue motor commands, means your balance is not what it used to be, especially under pressure and on the move—which is pretty much how tennis is played.

The good news—for me—was that there was good news, of a sort. Much remains unknown about how aging affects the neural basis of cognition, but what recent studies based on neuroimaging and other techniques have tended to find is that real cognitive slowing is something to start worrying about in your late sixties. I could still learn (maybe). Moreover, the learning itself was going to be good for my brain, force it to grow: I would, according to the neuroscientists, create new gray matter and synapses. And while empirical data is as yet pretty scarce, there is research that suggests that taking up a new pursuit late in life correlates with better sleep, better immune function, and lower levels of cortisol, the release of which rises in response to stress. The physical and cardiovascular demands of tennis were going to be good for my brain, too, and for the rest of my body. I might live five or six years longer—though there is some research that shows that really playing, playing hard, which was my goal, is less likely to lengthen life (because of the strain? The risk of injury?) than taking long walks.

But, really, how much could I learn, as I got serious about my tennis in my late fifties? Quite a lot, according to the neuroscientist Gary Marcus. Marcus challenges the neuroscientific consensus that to truly know anything, from a language to a sport, you had to begin as a child. Brain researchers refer to this as the “critical-period effect,” and their evidence is based in large part on a study of young barn owls that could—as older barn owls could not—rather easily adapt to what amounted to a virtual-reality experiment in which a prism distorted their perception of things. But then a Stanford neuroscientist, Brian Knutson, found that old owls actually could adapt during this experiment, if you slowed it down and broke up their reorientation to a new environment into smaller parts. Marcus was so buoyed by Knutson’s findings that he did an experiment on himself: He learned to play the guitar and wrote an entertaining book about it, Guitar Zero. He was forty, not in late middle age, and guitar playing, even, say, in a death-metal band, is not as taxing as tennis playing. Still, I was buoyed by the approach to late learning Marcus posited: Proceed with patience and good humor, tackle the new thing you’re doing bit by bit, keep expectations low and persistence high.





3


The halls of the old mock-Tudor clubhouse at Forest Hills that led to the locker room where Kirill and I would shower after practicing were lined with framed photos of the tennis greats who had played in the U.S. Opens held at the stadium. I lingered over them, faded black-and-white action photos of young men in sweaters and long pants and canvas sneakers, elegant young men captured extending themselves with small, wooden racquets. Bill Tilden. René Lacoste. Fred Perry. Bobby Riggs. Jack Kramer. Pancho Gonzales. Rod Laver, that left forearm of his so huge.

I’d begun watching tennis on TV, along with many other Americans, in the mid-1970s. I had never played. I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up among the sons of truckers and construction workers and factory hands, and no one I knew took tennis lessons, and clubs were places where old men played cards and drank little cups of espresso. I’d hit tennis balls a few times with my college roommate, Ben, who was a real player with a Wilson T2000 and a topspin-generating forehand. He would patiently lob balls across the net to me every once in a while, balls I would return with a borrowed racquet; balls I would return, or try to, as if I were hitting a shuttlecock. Tennis would be something I would follow—something engaging and often marvelous at a broadcast distance.

I saw a professional tennis match live for the first time in the summer of 1982. I was twenty-nine and at loose ends. The alternative newspaper I’d been working for in New York, the SoHo News, had folded; I’d been handed a modest severance check; and I was spending a month in London, living with my sister, who had a job in banking there. She’d go off to work and I would read the sports pages of three or four newspapers, then take a long walk in Hyde Park before settling in for World Cup soccer, televised from Spain. There were several days when I made my way to Lord’s, in St. John’s Wood, to watch cricket: England v. India. I knew absolutely nothing about cricket, though I learned fast: Cricket is intoxicating.

Sports, watching them and reading about them, has, for me, always been a consolation. When people ask me what my favorite childhood memories are, I always bring up my two summer weeks each year at the Jersey Shore, but seldom mention that the first thing that always comes to mind is the New York football Giants—watching games on bleak Sunday afternoons on our big, consoled, black-and-white TV; or reading about those games in the Daily News on Mondays through the fall; or listening to Marty Glickman’s maddeningly detailed radio play-by-play in the backseat of the car on the way to one or another aunt’s house for Sunday dinner, where the TV would be tuned not to football but to badly dubbed Italian biblical films; or going once a year or so to Yankee Stadium with my father and my uncles to see the Giants from terrible seats and hear shouts about how Y. A. Title should have thrown to the mulignan, the eggplant, the black; or, on two or three occasions, when crucial home games were blacked out, driving north toward Albany with my dad, past motels where you could pay a few bucks to watch the game in a room among strangers—driving to a bar where he would hoist me on his shoulders (I was that young) and I would join the others, the grown and agonizing men, our eyes affixed to a snowy screen above the bar, where the Giants, more often than not, were in the midst of an excruciating game.

It was my sister, through her bank, who secured for me the ticket to Wimbledon. I was thrilled. I borrowed my (then) brother-in-law’s blue blazer (several sizes too large) so that I could pop into the bank’s on-grounds sponsor’s tent and drink a glass or two of champagne.

When you look back and try to assemble a narrative of how you got to some place in your life, and are old enough to understand that you have done this so many times before—that, having lived more than sixty years, there have been so many drafts and rewrites of these narratives, so many hours spent revising the revisions, so much cobbling and retooling and smoothing along the inner contours of your self—you accept, or should, that there will be things misremembered, overlooked, distorted. I can write of my memories, or try to. Neuroscience tells us now that some of those memories will simply be false—that we are wired for creating those. There is also a brain-science theory that every time we summon a memory, we edit or polish it (whether we speak of it or not) and return it to the memory bank changed. Recall something a dozen times, or a hundred times over the course of your life: What resemblance, if any, does it bear to the initial experience? And then there are the things that never get summoned. What of my repressions and forgettings, which, of course, are meaningful, too?

I hold on to an image of no sooner entering the Wimbledon grounds, the morning faintly overcast, than seeing Vitas Gerulaitis heading to a practice court. I know I watched John McEnroe and Peter Fleming (on Centre Court? Or Court No. 1?) win a doubles match that day, and seem to remember McEnroe demanding (could this possibly be true?) that the chair umpire ask a British officer in the stands to remove his peaked cap, the patent-leather visor of which was reflecting the sun that had broken through and, McEnroe loudly groused, was distracting him. Mostly, though, I retain a sense of being by myself all day at the tournament but not lonely. I didn’t have a conversation with anyone. And, in fact, it was one of the loneliest periods of my life. But there was something about the hushed attentiveness of the spectators; and the players, men and women not much younger than me, mostly, arrayed along the outer courts across the net from one another with no teammates to urge them on or pick them up; and the playing, solitary and exactingly fierce, but beautiful in its near noiseless articulation of form and timeless ritual—there was something in all this, something just this side of revelatory, that unveiled for me a distinction, luminescent and, it turned out, lasting, between loneliness and solitude. Was it some heightened solitude—some more physical manifestation of the thoughtful, careful, solitudinous reading I loved and had devoted my professional life to—that I was after now, in taking up tennis so late in life?





4


Kirill and I, having finished up showering and dressing in the cramped, dank locker room (Rod Laver changed here?!?), had a drink on the club’s veranda, the lighted sky-scrapers of the midtown skyline our bar mural. We talked, as we usually talked, about tennis—about Rafael Nadal’s impressive, four-set defeat of Novak Djokovic in the final of the recently completed U.S. Open in Flushing (Nadal was having a career year, and Djokovic had endured a grueling semi); about how I would need to “stay strong” (one of Kirill’s favorite terms) and not get down on myself against the fine and seasoned players I would face in the tournament. I loved these conversations. A man in his sixties, I liked being coached, coached by a man more than thirty years younger than me.

Kirill Azovtsev, when I first met him, was still in college, twenty years old, only a few years older than my oldest son. He was an assistant pro at the New York Athletic Club’s tennis facility, on Travers Island in Westchester, not far from the Bronx border in the town of Pelham, where I live. We’d met in a group clinic he led there, and soon after I arranged for a private lesson. I had taken private lessons off and on with one teaching pro, then another, but I could quickly tell that neither wanted to push me, challenge me—take me seriously. They wanted me to have fun during the lessons, but I knew (or was betting I knew) that I would never really enjoy playing until I got good at it. Kirill was different, or so I thought immediately when we stood around and gulped water after that first lesson. He was a little taller than me, broad-shouldered and trim, darkly handsome like the young men in Turgenev’s short novels. I asked him about himself, and he told me he’d begun playing tennis when he was eight in St. Petersburg, where he was born. He was an only child, his family comfortable enough, by post–Soviet Russia standards, but not well off. His father, a state-employed customs administrator, wanted him to have a sport. It began with kickboxing.

“It was my father’s idea,” he told me, “and the first class, Gerry, this kid kicked me in the head.”

He still seemed offended.

He’d knocked the boy unconscious.

I tried to register neither surprise nor dismay. “So tennis, then,” I said.

“My mother thought it might be a better idea.”

The game came easily to him. He played indoors on slick tile courts during the long Russian winters. He preferred serve-and-volley tennis, idolized Pete Sampras and, later, Roger Federer, and began playing competitively as a preteen. As he explained it to me then, there would not have been the money for him to embark on an attempt to be a touring professional—the flights to junior tournaments, the cost of training, eventually, in Spain or Florida—even if he had been good enough. He’d come to America on a tennis scholarship, playing for Concordia College in Bronxville, a few miles north of Pelham. There he’d been part of a team that reached the Division II top ten. Even before he’d graduated, he’d received training to eventually become a certified tennis instructor.

There was a grace to the way he moved on the court, and a sereneness that belied his youth and had a way of softening—nearly masking, in a teaching setting—a steely competitiveness. You do not get to play top-level college tennis without a felt need to win, or a hatred, or fear, of losing. But those are qualities that do not necessarily make someone a good teacher, and, it’s not hard to imagine, could get in the way of teaching—teaching a beginner, a senior beginner like me, anyway. There are so many aspects of what we call temperament, and even now, years later, I am not sure what informs Kirill’s on-court calm, his way of seeming at rest within his run. A part of it is that he is simply a great player, someone who can stay on the court and even defeat players ranked in the top five hundred in the world, as he has done. A part of it, too, I have to think, is his respect for and love of the game. Rarely have I spent an hour or two with him when he hasn’t said something to me that reflects he’s still puzzling out tennis’s challenges and frustrations.

One of the things he said to me after that first lesson was this, delivered across the net in his faintly accented, fluent English: “To hit a tennis ball well, so many things have to go right. And then you have to be ready because it is coming right back at you, and you have to do it again.”

I knew then I had found my pro: a Russian philosopher.





5


We rode the R train back to Manhattan and settled in for dinner in the saloon at the Oyster Bar restaurant in Grand Central Station, convenient for us both to get our respective trains back to suburban Westchester. (Kirill had an apartment not far from Pelham, but spent a lot of time at his girlfriend’s place farther north in White Plains.) The wood-paneled walls of the saloon, the sailing-themed paintings and photographs, and the long oak bar that dominated the room imbued the place with an old-school masculinity. Maybe that’s why, after we split a dozen Malpeques and quickly drank better than half our bottle of Sancerre, I found myself wondering aloud to Kirill about competition. I wasn’t sure if I truly enjoyed it, I told him. I loved tennis, loved learning. But did I really love going at it with an opponent? And maybe, I suggested, I wasn’t sure because I didn’t know if competition, for me on a tennis court, was more about winning—relishing that—or about not wanting to lose: fearing that.

“It’s different for different people, different players,” Kirill said. “And there are differences even within a person. I think for me, I really love winning a point big, when you win it with an ace, or an overhead smash, or a winner down the line. I love going for the winner, and, when you nail it, seeing what it does to the other guy.”

I saw him now, at our club, the AC on Travers Island, settling under a high but desperately shallow lob and smashing a winner so hard the ball caromed off the court and over the back fence. I saw the first pump he made after, to himself, mostly.

That had occurred during an afternoon the previous summer. I got to half watch him compete a couple of courts away from where I was playing. Marty, the club’s head pro, had arranged for Kirill and another young instructor (and onetime Division II college player) to play a set against two teenagers from the town’s high-school tennis team who had recently won the state doubles championship. They were terrific young tennis players—one was headed to play for Marshall, the other to play for Columbia—and Kirill, as a coach and former college player, had played a significant role in their development.

Dozens of club members had gathered on the veranda of the tennis house to watch the set. What intrigued me, as I glimpsed Kirill playing during changeovers in my match, was how he was going to deal with what I saw as a situation fraught with social complication and club etiquette: How do you compete against players you had taught? Players whose parents had paid you for lessons? Would he, Kirill, be nervous? Restrained?

He would not. He and his partner won, 6–1. And from what I saw of it, it was worse than the score indicated.

When I’d met Kirill the next day for a lesson, I’d brought up my concerns. He’d looked genuinely puzzled. “When a match is on, I play to win, period,” he’d told me.

Now, at dinner at the Oyster Bar, I asked him how important winning was to him.

“It is not losing that is important to me, Gerry.” He laughed, took a sip of wine, and leaned forward. “I hate to lose. Hate it. Back in Russia, when I was first playing in tournaments: If I lost?” Another sip. “If I lost, I would scream, cry, feel it after for hours, days.”

I’d never felt that way as a kid. And I couldn’t imagine feeling that way now. Of course, Kirill is a tennis player, in his very being, even if now he only occasionally plays competitively. He spends his weekdays working in Manhattan in commercial real estate and coaches evenings and weekends, leaving little time for him to play matches of his own. If, when he and I are playing, I somehow manage to hit that rare ball that forces him to hit a bad shot, or, even more rarely, get one past him for a winner, I know that during the next rally he is going to forget he is my instructor and crush the ball, hit a winner I never get remotely close to, then quietly say “sorry,” as if he were working a little something out.

There’s something primal about sports competition, urges and reactions tied up with threat, weakness, potency, domination—sensations seldom registered by someone in his sixties who spent his life editing prose for magazines. Even being the editor of a magazine was not about those things. There is competition there, too, as there is in all realms of human endeavor. But I never felt particularly competitive—envious, deflated, defeated—when another magazine ran a story I admired and wished I had published. (It’s different for newspeople, who compete on and for stories and having scoops first.) Often enough, I dropped a congratulatory note to the magazine’s editor or directly to the writer. I wanted to publish the best reporting, the best thinking, the best writing I could. But I didn’t feel I was competing against anyone. If anything, I thought I was competing for something—long-form journalism—that a digitally quickened culture might find it no longer had time for.

“In tennis, I think I compete mostly with myself,” I said to Kirill. “If I am playing poorly, I get down on myself. If I am playing well and lose, then the other guy was just better.”

Kirill shrugged. “Or just better that day.”

I nodded slowly. “Like the guy who beat you in Florida.”

This had been months before. One wintry morning after a lesson indoors, Kirill had told me he would not be available the third weekend in March. He would be playing in a tournament in Palm Beach, a national clay-court championship put on by the United States Professional Tennis Association, the association of tennis-teaching pros. He was entering the main event, the men’s open singles. It turned out that Barbara was going to be away that weekend in New Orleans, giving a lecture at Tulane—she’s an art historian—so I brought up the idea with Kirill of escaping the end of winter and coming to watch him compete. He loved the idea. His girlfriend, Sandy, would be coming, too. She was a club player like me, and we could hit on one of the side courts and hang out while Kirill went through the waiting and warming up that comes with tournament play.

I flew down to Florida on a Friday, after work, and didn’t get to the motel where we all were staying till almost eleven. Kirill was asleep by then. He’d texted me that he’d won his first-round match that afternoon, 6–0, 6–2; his second-round match was scheduled for ten the next morning. “Big win! So great!” he’d written.

The tournament was being held in Palm Beach Gardens at a sprawling luxury development called BallenIsles. It’s perhaps best known for its golf courses, though a lot of tennis gets played there, too. The Williams sisters have, or have had, mansions there. The tennis-house and sports complex is the size of the White House, with a veranda overlooking the two dozen or so courts, most of them Har-Tru.

The three of us drove out to BallenIsles together that Saturday morning in my rental car, our windows down to take in the warm air that grew faintly salt-scented as we headed east, toward the ocean. It was a lovely morning, with big, passing clouds offering just enough relief from the sun, and Kirill seemed relaxed and not at all preoccupied with his pending match. I wrote in my notebook when we arrived and parked: “He has emotional muscles I will never develop either.”

Kirill’s match was on the main court, a little stadium that backed onto a parking lot bordered with dwarf palms. There were cement bleachers for five hundred or so and a scoreboard that wouldn’t be in use today. There was no chair umpire, and no one watching but Sandy and me. And, it would turn out, we didn’t get to watch for long.

Kirill’s opponent, Paulo Barros, was older than he was, in his mid-thirties. He coached in Winter Gardens, near Orlando. He was Brazilian, and, watching him warm up, I saw immediately that he played a Latin-style game suitable for the Har-Tru clay—a Western-grip forehand, with huge helpings of topspin; a high-bouncing kick serve; and short-step quickness to the ball. Back in the late ’90s he had cracked the top three hundred on the pro tour. He was the top seed here in the men’s open singles; he had drawn a bye and not played the day before. He looked more than ready.

Kirill had his serve broken in the first set. Barros easily held his, hitting his topspin forehands deep, driving Kirill back, from where he hit returns that came up short and opened up angles for Barros, who was finding the lines for easy winners. Kirill was broken again in the third game, double-faulting twice. He would continue having trouble with his serve. He tried playing serve-and-volley, but Barros passed him more times than not. It would all be over in forty minutes or so, with Kirill never winning a game: 0–6, 0–6.

I found it painful to watch—it had reminded me of nothing so much as watching my younger son, Luca, pitching for his traveling baseball team as a twelve-year-old and suddenly and irredeemably losing the strike zone. Luca would get so angry with himself, despairing, inconsolable. But Kirill was not suffering after his loss. “Come on, he was painting the lines from the beginning, he was just on,” he had told me afterward. Barros had not been essentially better but situationally better. That Barros went on to win the tournament handily did not change Kirill’s assessment. What Kirill was experiencing was something psychologists call “self-serving bias.” Athletes use this to protect their egos and cope with loss: I win, I’m better; I lose, you had a good or lucky day. Psychologists also are not surprised that those who hate to lose are drawn to sports: Losing within the confines of a game, the thinking goes, is actually a way of controlling and limiting that pain that accompanies loss.

I asked Kirill—we were finishing up our dinner and working our way through a second bottle of wine, the Oyster Bar emptying—to talk more about losing. How, as someone who hates to lose, had he gone from being such an emotional loser to one who took losing in stride? He credited his father. His father, he said, was at his side whenever he played as a youth. They traveled together to matches. When Kirill needed better coaching, his father found it. His father stood up for him. His father told him that on the court, he needed to be “a lone warrior, always.” His father taught him the proper way to act on a court, win or lose, and he internalized that.

“My father,” he said, “he was my best friend. He was always there for me. My mother came to think my tennis was a waste of money, but not my father. He worked nights so he could be at every match, every practice.”

“You miss him.”

“I do.”

“You think of going back to Russia?”

“Never. I’ll never go back.”

He then began a long and complicated story about his father, about how he had a good job in customs in St. Petersburg, and then was asked to step aside by higher-ups so that they could put “their man,” as Kirill put it, in the post. Kirill’s father refused. “Next thing you know,” Kirill said, speaking more slowly now, “he’s set up. Like he did something corrupt, it’s made to look like. And then he’s taken away. And though he is able to prove he’s innocent in the end, he spends a year and a half away. I was thirteen. It just blew up everything. Every day, I would come home after school and find my mother and grandmother crying.”

Kirill looked like he was about to cry. He told me he didn’t like to talk about this. But he kept talking. “The plan from then on was to get me out of Russia—that tennis could maybe earn me a scholarship to come to the United States. My father and I took an overnight train to Moscow so I could try a third time to pass the SAT and be NCAA eligible. I had coffee for the first time. And I passed by a point. And Concordia College offered me this deal where they would cover sixty percent of the costs, and I would do work-study for the rest.”

He took a deep breath and took a big gulp of wine. He said that someday he’d like to bring his mother and father here, to the States, but there was his grandmother who needed to be cared for, and that, anyway, “leaving is not easy for any person.” He then said—changing the subject, or not—that he’d like to learn to box someday, and went into a story about how back in St. Petersburg, when he was thirteen, that time seemingly so palpable to him now, as we drank, he’d been punched in the face by a youth outside an ice-cream parlor as he, Kirill, tried to protect his cousin’s new bicycle from being stolen.

I paid the check. We embraced and got our trains. I thought, during much of my ride home, that real athletes, at such a young age, are often playing for stakes—psychological, or economic, or, in Kirill’s case, what amounted to political—that someone like me will never fully apprehend. Tennis, winning at it, sent him on his way, and also steeled and buttressed his inner life, gave him that Emersonian self-reliance of his. I recalled how he told me once: “In tennis, it is just you, and I always liked that. No excuses. I feel good in that situation.”

That is his situation. He counts on himself now. So much else is so far away.





6


The following morning I got up and e-mailed Alexandra, who I’d been regularly e-mailing for many months now. Alexandra Guhde, under the name Arienna Lee, was a tennis blogger. She blogged under an alias because she was also a serious Bay Area Jungian psychotherapist, and wanted to keep those identities separate, though any avid reader of the blog—and I was very much one—could see she had failed at that. The blog was called Extreme Western Grip, named for the way her favorite on-court analysand, Rafael Nadal, holds his racquet when hitting his big topspin forehand and, perhaps, for her own powerfully loopy left-coast perspective. She blogged about professional tennis matches, watching most of them on TV in her Berkeley apartment, but also managed to work in riffs about Greek mythology, Jane Austen, pop culture, and psychological theory. I’d e-mailed her a mash note about her blog, and we’d struck up an e-mail correspondence. We’d write back and forth about matches we watched, and about our tennis games—she’d played in high school, and was getting back into it after a hiatus. And as we got to know each other, I was increasingly interested to get her thoughts on what she imagined I was up to with tennis.

Jungians, like Jung himself, talk a lot about the “second half of life,” a concept most clearly articulated in James Hollis’s bestseller Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up, the subtitle more than hinting at what he thinks about what you’ve been up to in the first half of life. I went through a self-help-book phase right around the time I was deciding whether to get serious with Kirill and double the hours I was spending with him—books I would never read in public or discuss with anyone (we all have our vanities), even as I learned that the greatest tennis writer America has ever produced, David Foster Wallace, had been a careful reader and rereader of John Bradshaw, Alice Miller, M. Scott Peck, and others. (He was also a suicidal depressive.) My problem with these books, beyond how jargony and padded they tend to be, is that, to, yes, oversimplify, I wasn’t unhappy with the life I’d lived or the life I then had. Jung thought the second half of life began around age thirty-five, but then the patients he was seeing back then were not likely to live as long as (fingers crossed) I will. It was then, in middle age, that, as Jung saw it, one realized one’s life lacked meaning, that one was living the life (marriage, career) others (i.e., the internalized negative mother) had wanted for one: that one’s soul ached and needed tending.

Now, really, whose soul doesn’t need tending to? And—because I am seeing a therapist shaking her head here—yes, there are things down there in the unconscious, home to shadowy impulses and unmet longings, that I am not aware of, and maybe I should begin by writing down what I recall of my dreams, writing them down in the dark, as one Jungian (not Alexandra) once advised me at a dinner party, because the light would steal some of it.

Alexandra did think there were unconscious forces urging me to get more serious about my tennis, double my hours with Kirill, play competitively. She didn’t know what they were, or continued to be, but she thought that was great: To have a restless unconscious meant there were strong internal stirrings at work that I allowed to “go about their business,” as she put it over dinner in Oakland the first time we met in person. (I was in the Bay Area to attend my oldest son’s college graduation, and that was accompanied by lots of internal stirrings . . . ) She also told me, and it rang so true for me, which may be another way of saying it confirmed what I had been thinking but was unable to articulate all along: “Personally,” she said, “I don’t see any reason why someone who is satisfied cannot also be unsatisfied—insomuch as still seeking.” It was like when I read somewhere that you could be both a happy person and an unhappy person, because happiness and unhappiness, according to what neuroscience had discovered, were situated in and triggered by different sides of the brain—were discrete and did not cancel each other out. Some people were very happy and very unhappy, too. Me, I was a sunny melancholic. Now I could see I was a satisfied seeker.

“The whole point is the search for meaning,” Alexandra said to me with real conviction. “And there are lots of different meanings to be found in life.”

There were. I wanted, for instance, to see what meanings I could tease from my aging body. There’s a passage from Cyril Connolly in his epigrammatic meditation, The Unquiet Grave—a book I love—in which he writes, “The supreme liberty is liberty from the body.” Is he (following centuries of classical and Christian thinking, by the way) out of his mind? I had, like him, spent most of my life reading, editing, looking for meaning in prose. But I wanted a new kind of attentiveness, and I wanted to move, to get somewhere as quickly as I could—to a tennis ball, say. I wanted to understand how my muscles worked, and I wanted to strengthen them. I also wanted to command those muscles and that movement, through the learning of proper form and technique: I wanted to enter a structure, a discipline, and come to do something the right way, which also happens to be beautiful.

Could I overcome what the philosopher and former dancer Maxine Sheets-Johnstone has called “cephalocentricity”—the life of the mind with all its inwroughtness, its resonances and satisfactions tucked down inside oneself—and come to know things I didn’t through body movement? Could I slow the mind to the matters at hand, achieve that presentness sport holds the promise of, achieve what another philosopher (and tennis player), Colin McGinn, has described as the pleasant existential aloneness a sports activity can provide, a certain “muscular solipsism”? (Okay, I cannot not seek meaning in prose.) Is there, in the end, an examined physical life?

Obviously, to play tennis well, more than the body is involved. There is strategy and judgment. I would need to acquire skills, and that would require practice—which would require self-motivation. And the skills involved in learning to play tennis would require precise perceptual mastery (is that ball headed toward me across the net loaded with topspin or backspin?) and exacting coordination among multiple muscles (begin moving in and get lower to take that ball-deadening backspin shot). The muscle that is my brain would have to grow in new ways.

I wanted to do something difficult. Maybe that was, in the end, why I wanted to try to play tennis.

I did have a longing to get better at something—I was aware of that. Improving was such a small part of my life now. I had been a very good reader since I was a small child. I went on to essentially read for a living. I had probably stopped improving as a reader half a life ago. We stop getting better at things, tangible things, so early on.

Finally, I wanted, one last time, perhaps, to struggle at something I could control, because the last real struggles were going to be ones I could not. I wanted to push my body to its limits before it pushed me to mine. I had a hunch that testing yourself might be the ultimate means to freedom, felt freedom. I was going to train for years, and make as much time for that as I could—which would never be enough: Tennis, I believed, is the most difficult sport there is to master, requiring speed and endurance and hand-eye coordination and psychological toughness.

It was my psychological toughness I was worrying about when I e-mailed Alexandra this particular morning. I was taking the day off, but I was anything but relaxed. I was going to be meeting and hitting later that morning with a senior-tennis legend of sorts, and was beyond anxious.

Bob Litwin is one of the best senior amateur tennis players America’s ever had. The United States Tennis Association begins considering you a “senior” when you are in your thirties, and organizes regional and national tournaments around the country for men and women at which participants are grouped, according to their age, at intervals of five years: forty and over, forty-five and over, up through age ninety (God bless them). Litwin played in a few eastern regional tournaments before entering his first USTA national championship, the Men’s 35 National Clay Championships, where he lost in a hurry. He kept entering national tournaments and eventually, in 1990, won the National Grass Court Championships for men thirty-five to forty. He was forty-one. (The USTA permits you to play “younger.”) He has kept winning. He has garnered, at last count, seventeen USTA national titles and countless regional ones. (There was an eleven-year stretch of eastern-regional play during which Litwin never lost a match.) He has been a member of many U.S. senior Davis Cup teams, and, in 2005, in Perth, Australia, won the International Tennis Federation’s Men’s 55 World Championships—yes, senior tennis is a global phenomenon. Litwin that year became the world’s No. 1–ranked tennis player in his age group, and has continued to compete at the highest levels nationally and internationally as he’s gotten to that stage of life—he had just turned sixty-five—where he is considered a senior by the Social Security Administration. A colleague of mine knew Litwin through one aspect of his day job—as a performance coach for Wall Street traders and hedge-fund analysts—and he arranged for us to talk, and also to hit for an hour at the club Litwin belonged to, Shelter Rock, in Manhasset on the North Shore of Long Island, a half hour from my place in Westchester.

I was anxious, I knew, or thought I knew, because I was afraid of embarrassing myself on the court with Litwin, and uncomfortable with the envy I worried I’d feel when I saw how much better a player he was than me.

I wrote Alexandra and told her this, or something like this.

She was, as usual, reassuring, sort of. “Why shouldn’t you delight in sharing the court with a man who has finely honed skills?” she wrote back. “You know what it takes to get good at something, you are in the middle of that process yourself now.”

I wrote back and told her I didn’t like being envious. It was wrong, which for me meant guilt on top of the envy, and also alien.

Alexandra responded: “I heard an interview recently with Linda Ronstadt on Fresh Air”—the public-radio show. “She was talking about the first time she heard Emmylou Harris sing. She, Ronstadt, said something like, ‘Her voice was incredible, and I could either stand to the side and envy her, or try to meet her and sing with her.’ I really liked that way of putting it. Envy is an initial recognition of a capacity. Nothing wrong with recognizing.”

She added: “Of course, getting beyond the initial recognition is something not everyone does.”

You see what I mean about “reassuring, sort of.”





7


I was still anxious as I made my way in slow traffic over the Throgs Neck Bridge, despite having corresponded with Alexandra, stretched for twenty minutes, and then hit for longer than that against the wall at my club.

Shelter Rock had a ’60s-modern feel, the clubhouse low-slung with lots of glass, the more than two dozen Har-Tru courts hidden by hedgerows that could not diminish the traffic din from the Long Island Expressway. I sat in a leather chair in the club lobby, near an imposing stone fireplace, waiting, as arranged, for Litwin, and watching men and women older than me ambling and shuffling by in foursomes: retirees with the time to have standing doubles matches late on a weekday morning.

Litwin, approaching me, was taller than I had imagined, which is to say taller than five-foot, ten-inch me, and when he extended his hand (a racquet tucked under his right arm) and said hello, his voice was almost gentle—which is not what I thought you sounded like when you’d spent your life competing and winning. There was a youthfulness to his look—a boyish smile, and hair that, combed back, curled behind his ears and nearly reached the base of his neck. His tennis shirt and shorts were the limited-edition, lichen-green ones Uniqlo had designed for Novak Djokovic to wear earlier that summer at the French Open (this is the kind of stuff you notice as a tennis fan), and when I mentioned this to Litwin, he related how he’d played doubles once with Djokovic, at a party thrown by one of his Wall Street clients—a backyard party, where the backyard included a private tennis court, and the guest list featured one of the very best players in the world, racquet at the ready.

“He was really a gentleman, not blown up with himself at all, and smart, and funny,” Litwin said of Djokovic as we made our way outside. “He immediately got the level of players we were and played down to it. He was terrific with my client’s son, offering tips on technique. But what most impressed me was how much he enjoyed playing, even these few games of doubles with players like me.

“It sounds so simple, but that is key,” Litwin went on to say. “Are you enjoying yourself when you are playing? And if not, why not?”

We stopped and stood on a patio that overlooked rows of courts, not many of them empty. “This club was built in an era when some of the tennis clubs and country clubs here on Long Island were still restricted,” Litwin said evenly. “No Jews allowed. So here was a new club where Jews could be members.”

I’d read of how Litwin had played and coached at the World Maccabiah Games, the so-called Jewish Olympics, held every four years in Israel. And, in 2004, at a fifty-five-and-over USTA senior championship tournament in Philadelphia, he had forfeited the finals rather than play on Yom Kippur.

I told him there were no tennis clubs where I was born, in Paterson—or, anyway, none that I knew of.

“I grew up in Great Neck”—just east of Manhasset—“and learned to play on public courts,” he said, scanning the Shelter Rock courts for one we could play on. “My father would play with his friends and I would watch—that was my first exposure to tennis. But you go back to the twenties here and along the Gold Coast”—he meant the towns on Long Island Sound: Kings Point, Sands Point . . . Gatsby’s Long Island—“you had tennis pros living on the estates of these wealthy men.”

Bob excused himself for a moment, and walked at a quick pace toward a man I assumed controlled who had which court when. I noticed, as he moved, a slight, side-to-side rocking motion in his gait—not a limp, exactly, but something. When he came back, a court secured for an hour, I asked him if he was feeling all right, physically.

“Two hip surgeries—one, then another,” he told me. “It’s taken a couple of years to get back to form, but I think I am there now, feeling good, and thankful for that.”

We played a little mini-tennis, then moved back to the baselines. The clay was sandy, slippery, and, not having my footing yet, I kept the ball toward the middle of the court, or tried to, and Bob did the same. The first thing I noticed was that he was not going to drive me back from the baseline with his power, the way Kirill can. It struck me then that there were not going to be many men in their sixties—men my age—who could. Comforting. No sooner had I had this thought, though, than it was displaced by two other observations: Bob was completely relaxed. And Bob was not missing any ball that he got to. He flowed with confidence and consistency. When play stopped because neither of us had a ball in our pocket to put in play, all the balls were hugging the bottom of the net on my side. Deflating.

We picked up the tempo, began varying our shots, going for the lines, moving each other around. Litwin was a lefty, like me, and, like me, he looked for opportunities for his sharply angled crosscourt forehands and mostly sliced his backhand to stay in points. I tried several times to run around my backhand and hit an inside-out forehand to his backhand, in the corner. When I hit one past him for a winner, he stopped and said: “That’s a good shot. But you’ve made only one of the five of those you’ve tried. Is that something you want to use in a match?”

A few minutes later, I came to net on one of his backhand slices, had a routine forehand volley, and dumped it in the net. I softly, or maybe not so softly, tapped the net cord with my racquet three times.

Bob approached me.

“Why so negative? You had a good idea, you set up the point really well, and you missed a sitter. You got wristy and wobbly on the volley. So what? You won’t miss it next time. Do you think when you play a tennis match that the goal is to not miss a shot?”

This, I quickly understood, was Litwin in performance-coach mode. Surprising myself, I liked it.

“Where is all that negativity coming from, Gerry? Do you know you grimace, just a little, but you grimace every time you miss? Why? You are a sixty-year-old man with the good fortune to be out on a tennis court on a sunny morning. Look at us!”

He turned to the chain-link fence that ran along the side of the court. “I want you to imagine the people who love you are here, watching you, supporting you. Me, I always imagine my father. Others, too. Who are your angels?”

It was a question I hadn’t asked myself. Ever. Which is not to say I shouldn’t have. A picture came to mind of a young nun I’d had in a catechism class when I was nine or ten. She’d told us we had guardian angels, and afterward, walking home, a classmate of mine, Johnny Di Martino, had told me with the confidence he brought to all things that guardian angels were female and naked.

“I am going to stop play every time I see you grimace or drop your head,” Bob said, bringing me out of my reverie. “You have got to get your mind right. It’s at the core. Otherwise, you will not play well when it matters.”

We backed up to the baselines and began hitting again. I did try to stop grimacing, mostly by laughing as I found myself grimacing. Bob served—a tough, lefty spin serve—and I returned. I served (less tough) and he returned. My mind was, or so I thought, where it tends to be when I am on a tennis court: in a better place than most anywhere else.

Bob approached the net; our hour was up. We shook hands the way tennis players do.

“You have a nice game, Gerry,” he said. “The crosscourt forehand, the slice backhand when you keep it low. If it were a match, I would win three of every five points.” It was as painless a way as I could imagine to convey that I’d be beaten down, shutout, double bageled in a best-of-three-set match against him.

We walked to the club restaurant, got a table, and ordered lunch. Bob filled in some of his story: He’d played tennis at Great Neck South High School, tried out for the team at the University of Michigan but didn’t make it, then put his racquet away. He’d gotten a teaching job in the early ’70s at a private school in Manhattan, been made the tennis coach, liked it, and gone on to coach tennis at clubs on Long Island. He developed a series of Zen-like self-affirmation techniques he called “The Focused Game” that he began teaching in the late ’70s and eventually turned into a business. He’d married his high-school sweetheart, divorced, remarried, and, twenty-six years later, lost his second wife to cancer—“the toughest thing,” he told me, as if it were months ago, and not three years; he’d recently married again. He’d injured his hip during a sixty-and-over tournament in Florida, chasing a ball and flipping over a low wall. He’d had one surgery to replace the hip, then another to fix the surgery. This had sidelined him for a couple of years, but now he was back to playing. He was preparing for the USTA’s Men’s 65 National Grass Court Championships, to be held at a club on the Jersey Shore. (He would win both the singles and doubles.)

I mentioned that I would be playing in the sixty-and-over grass-court championships at Forest Hills.

“Good,” he said, immediately, enthusiastically, but nothing more.

Lunch arrived, an omelet for Bob, a turkey club for me. I was famished, as I always am, post-tennis, and he was, too.

“Who plays in these tournaments?” I asked after wolfing down half the sandwich in silence.

“Lot of the regulars in their sixties are coaches or former coaches.” Then, reading my mind, he added: “You might win a first-round match. You move well. After that, unless you run into someone making an inordinate number of mistakes . . .”

He leaned in. “Let me ask you, Why are you doing this?”

“Why am I entering the tournament?”

“No, playing tennis, taking up tennis at this point. Why? Why now? What are you in this for?”

I told him about how much I’d been enjoying the process of getting better, learning new shots, the practicing—having a practice, in that way. I liked the aloneness of singles tennis, I said. I ventured that tennis coaxed me out of my intimations of mortality for an hour or so, and watched for his reaction.

“That’s good. And it’s keeping you in shape. You’re in the kind of shape a lot of people your age are not, or can’t be.”

It was true. I was training with Kirill for hours each weekend, and playing matches for hours more. And for two years I’d been hitting the gym most weekday mornings before work. I’d gleaned from blogs and websites what top tennis players were doing in their workouts and cobbled together my own routine. I did thirty minutes of interval training twice a week on a stationary bike, sprinting up imaginary hills and, eventually, sweating and gasping and getting my heart rate to the 80 percent maximum of a forty-year-old. I did stations at weight machines. I dabbled in plyometrics, a favorite now among elite players: These are exercises that involve a lot of jumping, and are said to improve balance and explosive power. I did yoga stretches I picked up from attending classes with my wife, stretched every day for ten or fifteen minutes. I also all but stopped eating red meat and became what my Times colleague Mark Bittman calls a flexitarian; I was eating lots of grains and greens and beans and limiting to one meal, lunch or dinner, a serving of chicken, fish, or eggs. The body that I couldn’t coax to do what I wanted it to do on a tennis court was the fittest body I’d ever had. My waist was down to the size it had been when I graduated from college—thirty inches—and I was, at 140, a dozen pounds heavier, mostly in my more muscular upper body and thighs. A test I took had put my “biological” age at forty-six. Sometimes, after getting drubbed in a match, I’d remind myself, in a give-thanks way, that most men my age are overweight or obese, and that 20 to 30 percent of them have health conditions that prevent them from working, never mind chasing a drop shot.

“What else?” Bob was asking now. He had a relaxing voice, low and pause-woven, like that of an overnight FM-radio DJ from the late ’60s. “Are you becoming a better person on the court? Are you drawing on your good story? That’s what I was trying to begin to get at with you today.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, which did not stop me from being intrigued. But there wasn’t going to be time to discuss it. His wife arrived. She was younger than he, very pretty in a tennis dress, and was carrying two tennis racquets that turned out to be his. He was off to play elsewhere, and running a little late.

I told him how I would like to talk more about his performance-coaching program, and he said that maybe the best way to learn about it was to enroll in the course.

“It’s about getting more of what you really want, becoming more of who you really want to be,” he said.

I laughed as I caught myself grimacing. And I knew I would take him up on it.





8


It was a dazzlingly sunny Friday afternoon in late September, and I was back on the veranda of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills for a cocktail reception to welcome the sixty-four players in the sixty-and-over draw. I was to have played my opening-round match that morning, and had planned to take the day off, but won in a walkover, unopposed, my opponent, for some reason, unable to make it to New York from his home in Massachusetts. I’d been on edge all day Thursday about the timing of the match, which wasn’t to be announced until Thursday evening. I would have meetings at work to reschedule. This was not an issue for the first clutch of players I introduced myself to at the reception. They commented on my being in a business suit—they were in their tennis whites. I asked how they’d done in their first-round matches. It turned out they were all seeded players who’d earned first-round byes. They’d gotten in a little practice that afternoon. I noticed that at their feet they had racquet bags that held three, four racquets, all with fresh, white grips—like pro players. None of them had a day job, other than giving tennis lessons.

One of them asked what I did, and I explained that I’d been a magazine editor all my life, and had edited the Times Magazine until a couple of years ago, and was now involved in getting the Times into new businesses. I went on to say that I had begun playing tennis only six years before, and had really gotten into it only in the past two years. They looked at me the way you look at a guy you’ve just met whose fly is wide open.

I excused myself and made my way to the bar. It was crowded, and it took some time to get a glass of white wine. I struck up a conversation with a player named Victor Aguilar. He was solidly built, with black hair slicked back ’50s style from his receding hairline, his tanned skin set off suavely by his white shorts and polo. He told me he had recently retired as the head coach of the University of Texas at El Paso women’s tennis team. He’d been born in El Paso, and been a No. 1–ranked boys’ junior player there before moving to Denver to attend high school and play more competitive tennis. In his junior and senior years, in the early 1970s, he won Colorado State singles championships.

“I played a match in Denver at an event where Arthur Ashe was playing the main match,” he told me. “He was my hero back then.” He raised his beer bottle toward the old, crumbling stadium. “And now I am here, where he won.” Ashe won the Open at Forest Hills in 1968—the first of the open era, when professionals were invited to play along with amateurs—in a grueling five-set match against the Dutchman Tom Okker. (Ashe’s victory in his semifinal match, against fellow-American Clark Graebner, is immortalized in John McPhee’s taut masterpiece of a tennis book, Levels of the Game.)

“At that event, in Denver, the strangest thing I remember,” Victor was saying now, “I had posed after with Arthur Ashe for a photo, and some kid asked for my autograph. Mine. There was Arthur Ashe. And he asked for my autograph. I wonder what he did with it?”

Victor went to Southern Illinois University on a tennis scholarship, then played for Regis College in Denver before finishing up his degree at UTEP. He taught history for a time in an El Paso public school and at a local community college. He played a lot of local senior tennis through his coaching years, and was his city’s best. This was his first year on the national seniors circuit. He’d enter a tournament, he said, then book himself a room in a cut-rate motel for one night, booking a next night if he won that day. He kept to himself evenings, eating inexpensively and getting to bed early, though for this tournament, in New York, his wife had joined him. He was playing well, and winning, and was ranked in the top ten for sixty-year-olds.

“This is, for me, the fulfillment of a dream,” he said. I think I knew what he meant, even if he was not going to elaborate on that. He was competing again against the best; he was confident he belonged here; he was a brother in a kind of fraternity, despite the fact that he was here to defeat as many of these players as he could and win the championship. He was not battling to be here. He was, in a way, back home. “First time I have been playing nationally since my high-school days,” he said. “Some of the guys at these tournaments I played against when I was a high-school kid in Denver—can you believe that?”

On the train ride home, I found myself thinking about the work of Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist who has done a good deal of clinical research into the nature of play. Much of that research had figured into a cover story we did on play in the Times Magazine. Brown has this idea that each of us—not only athletes like Victor—has a “play history”: a personal, emotionally complicated narrative of our childhood experiences of games and sports that we might find useful to shape from our memories later in life.

Brown’s outlook was California cloudless: He was working out of a tree-house office in Carmel Valley when the magazine profiled him, and his emphasis, drawn from his study of patients, was on finding the childlike joy we’d experienced in play. But he allowed that playing, like childhood, can mean different things to different people, and he’d constructed a taxonomy of “play personalities” that I found convincing. I am what Brown calls a kinesthete, one of those who “want to push their bodies and feel the result.”

I had played sports as a boy, pushing my body, but the result was not always (or even mostly) childlike joy. In every grade-school class photo, I’m in the front row, among the shortest boys. And I was the skinniest, despite periods of drinking something called Instant Breakfast with most meals. I did play baseball, basketball, and football, or attempted to. I was fast, won grade-school trophies for sprinting, but something that was over in a matter of seconds could leave you only so joyful.

Running back a punt in a Police Athletic League football game, running up the sideline twenty, thirty, forty yards, past boys taller and forty pounds heavier than me, hearing nothing but my breathing, an eighty-five-pound thirteen-year-old with this electrifying sense of having the muddied field, the whole November afternoon, to myself, even as hundreds of eyes were on me and only me, I did feel something that I would call ecstatic. Then I was hit helmet to helmet by the punter—I never saw him angling across the field—and knocked unconscious. My mother never let me play football again.

The other things I most vividly remember about playing and competing as a youngster begin with those electrifying flashes—moments of drama or exhilaration that a kid seeks from sports; that his radio and TV and morning sports section have taught him to dream of—only to darken, and remind him of the fear and sense of weakness that is never far from present in a small, skinny, and perhaps too sensitive boy growing up in a place a little tougher than he was. There was a Babe Ruth League baseball game the summer between my seventh- and eighth-grade years, a warm July night in a park on the east side of Paterson near the Passaic River, and in the bottom of the sixth inning (the games were seven innings long) I broke up a no-hitter with a bunt single that also brought home what would be the winning, and only, run from third base—Tony Lombardo, even shorter than me, had walked and stolen two bases. I couldn’t hit, not at this level; this was only my third hit in six, seven weeks of playing, and none had left the infield. Suddenly, for the first time (and only time, it would turn out) in my life, I was the hero of a game, which rated a brief mention in the following day’s Paterson Evening News.

A couple of weeks later, we faced the same team again, on a different field in a different part of town, near a set of postwar housing projects behind my church, St. Gerard’s. It was the same pitcher, too, a stocky Puerto Rican kid, and the first time I got up, he threw straight at my head. I dove out of the way, got back in the batter’s box, and watched the second pitch sail behind me.

I turned to the home-plate umpire and said, “He’s throwing at me.”

“Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter,” he said without looking at me.

The third pitch struck my left calf, hard, severely bruising my fibula, ending my season and my stint in organized youth baseball.

What I enjoyed playing most was basketball, despite my size. I couldn’t and didn’t score much, but I was a quick defender and a good passer. What I mostly loved, though, was the constant running, and the feeling, once I was old enough to play in a league, of being inside in a warm gym sweating on cold afternoons and evenings. I played for several years on a P.A.L. team for grade schoolers, and at the end of the winter of my eighth-grade year, in the last game of a dismal season in which we had managed to win only a couple of games, we—the only team of white kids in the league—played the first-place team, who had yet to lose a game. And somehow, in a tiny gym downtown behind Paterson’s city hall, a gym encircled above by a wooden running track that made it impossible to shoot from the corners—not that we often would—we won! We gathered in front of our bench for the postgame lineup for team handshakes, shouting and clapping and shouting some more—until two or three of the opposing players rushed us and began whaling on us. Our coach, Mr. Hernandez, a former semipro boxer, jumped in to break things up, as did their coach, and I got shoved and knocked back, not punched like some of our better players. But I was scared, and humiliated for being so scared, and bewildered that things could take such an emotional turn. And though I would throughout my life turn that night and that game and its aftermath into a funny story, as I would so many other incidents from my childhood, I knew somewhere inside myself that sports had mostly taught me that moments of excitement and accomplishment are not only fleeting but dangerous somehow, and that if I was feeling joy about something, I would soon enough be seized by dread.

I managed not to be cut from my high-school basketball teams because coaches liked having me around. I listened, remembered instructions and plays, was coachable. I almost never got in a game (and these were losing teams I played on). My fondest memories are of practices held between Christmas and New Year’s, when there was no school—of having a heated, skylit gym to go to on frigid mornings and spending hours running drills. But my interests were drifting elsewhere, to the school paper and the literary magazine. I was watching sports as much as ever, particularly pro football, especially my and my father’s and my uncles’ beloved Giants. With money from a busboy job I had at an Italian restaurant, I was also betting on football regularly and pretty heavily, and, for a time, running a weekly football gambling game for a local bookie out of one of the school’s boys’ rooms. But I wasn’t playing much anymore. At college I began running—it was the early ’70s, and everybody was running—but that wasn’t playing. Nor, later, was the time I spent on a rowing machine in my Upper West Side studio, or riding my ten-speed around and around Central Park, to burn off work anxiety and keep in shape. Later still, I loved the hours and hours I spent tossing baseballs and footballs with my young sons, which was sort of playing, but parenting really isn’t about you, or better not be.

And then, so quickly it seemed, the kids were teenagers, and I was borrowing a tennis racquet from my neighbor Steve, who had been a national USTA champion and had two daughters who had played Division I college tennis out west, like Victor. I was starting a new volume of my play history. Or was I trying to rewrite the old one?





9


I didn’t sleep all that well the night before my first match at the grass-court nationals. But it had little to do with the match. I wake in the middle of the night all the time now. Sometimes it’s my left shoulder, with its tendonitis, objecting to being slept upon. Or a foot might cramp, or a knee may be abrading the other because the pillow meant to keep them apart has slipped away somewhere. Or it could be I just have to pee: Benign prostatic hyperplasia is common to men in their sixties. And once you are awake you will have to pee. Or, anyway, I will.

I rise, blinking and feeling my way in the dark, trying not to wake up Barbara, and seldom do. She could sleep through an air assault (not that I’m envious or anything). I pad down the hall, thinking inevitably, despite efforts not to, of Philip Larkin and his deep-going, dispiriting poems of being awake when you shouldn’t be, awake and thinking night thoughts: the 4 a.m. piss in “Sad Steps,” with its “reminder of the strength and pain / Of being young; that it can’t come again,” and, always, some part of his last great poem, “Aubade,” in which, up again at four—and not aubade-like; he is not sneaking out of his lover’s bed—the poet can’t dispel thoughts of “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. Not to be here / Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” And he was only fifty-five! (Though dead, and soon, at sixty-three.)

In the yellowish glow of the bathroom night-light, half asleep, I see Stan, or anyway the photographs of him—Stanislas Wawrinka, the second-best Swiss tennis player of his generation. (Talk about the pain of being young: He has beaten his friend and countryman Roger Federer exactly three times, in twenty tries.) On a bookshelf above the toilet, I keep propped up and open an old, crinkly copy of Tennis magazine with a spread of four time-lapse photos of Wawrinka’s drive-backhand swing. Wawrinka has the best one-handed backhand I have ever seen. He also has tattooed on his left forearm the following, from Samuel Beckett’s Worstword Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Those are words I was living by when I had a racquet in my hand.

I’ve looked longer and harder at these pictures than at any of my wife or sons. I’ve scrutinized the weight loaded up on his back foot so he can push into the shot; the front shoulder turned so far that it seems to brush his chin; the straightness of his hitting elbow; and, finally, his non-hitting left arm, as the shot is completed, outstretched to counterbalance, as if he is a tenor, hitting just the right note. Which he is.

Did I mention my backhand drive sucks?

I return to bed and roll onto my non-hitting shoulder and shut my eyes, despite knowing that sleep won’t come quickly. The night thoughts, the dreadful equations of aging, seize hold: I’ve lived longer in the past than I can possibly expect to live in the future; I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. I’ve never been someone kept awake much by work, except when a reporter was in some dangerous part of Iraq, say, and hadn’t been in touch. I did have a problem sleeping as a child, kept awake by what the nuns told me a wrathful god was capable of doing to me, eternally. To take my mind off that I would turn away from the crucifix that hung above my light switch and line up my six or seven stuffed animals next to me, imagining them a football team, with me as their head coach in a cashmere topcoat and fedora, the NFL style of the late ’50s. We’d play games against teams of my conjuring. I remember regularly beating the Justice League of America—Batman, the Flash, the Green Lantern, and the rest—and once crushing the cast of Bonanza. Actually, we never lost.

Now, in my sixties, to get to sleep—back to sleep, banishing the dark disquietudes—I do something not dissimilar. I play imaginary tennis. For twenty minutes, sometimes more—for a time I wore a bracelet called a Jawbone Up, which monitored my sleep patterns and recorded how long I would lie awake—I take my own version of the yearlong men’s pro-tennis tour. I play on my favorite courts around the world, ones at which I’ve sat over the years and watched the greatest players, watched with my wife or my son Luca or a close friend but mostly by myself, just me in a quiet, attentive crowd with a pen and notebook and a large bottle of water: exuberantly content. On my middle-of-the-night tour, I play in front of no crowds. I hit with Kirill. We don’t play matches. He puts me through all the drills that we do for hours each week. I practice. I learn. And on the good nights I fall back to sleep a little better player than the night before, and with the sense that the practicing and learning and improving will go on and on, without end.

It begins, my fantasy tour, at Indian Wells, a March morning in the California desert, the valley-floor air dry and cool, the sun just above the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east purpling the folds of the Santa Rosa Mountains to the west. We are on a practice court, Court 3, at the southern edge of the tournament grounds, where I once watched Rafael Nadal hit buggy-whip baseline forehands one after another, dozens of them, working to calibrate his turbine-like topspin to the hot, arid conditions that can keep a ball sailing and sailing. I do a mini-tennis warm-up with Kirill. Soon enough, he hits a perfect backhand drop shot with enough underspin to bring the ball bounding back over to his side of the net after gently alighting on mine. I tap a clap of admiration on my strings, he catches my eye, smiles, and says: “Ready to go back?”

And, voilà! There we are in Paris, at Roland-Garros on the southern tip of the Bois de Boulogne, a sunny afternoon near the end of May, back a foot or two behind the slightly raised, white-tape baselines, the red clay smoothed and, in my mind, dampened by a morning shower to slow things down. We are on Court 2, old and intimate and a favorite because trees from the Bois can reach it with leaf-dapple and because the cement walls capture and amplify the song of properly struck tennis balls like no other place I’ve been. Kirill, at the center mark, has a hopper filled with new balls, and he is running me from corner to corner along the baseline, forehand then backhand for three or four minutes at a time, nonstop: me alternately hitting crosscourt and down-the-line; taking proper, short, sliding strides to the ball; moving back to deal with the high bounce off the clay; hitting my forehands with the kind of topspin and my backhand slices with the kind of bite I only pull off in my mind’s eye in the middle of the night.

If this workout fails to get me back to sleep, we move on to Wimbledon. We are on the new No. 2 Court—an actual stadium but a smallish one, able to seat only four thousand spectators, which seems the perfect size to both create a sense of spectacle and allow for intimate tennis watching. And if you are in a seat high enough up on the court’s north end—and it is an early evening in late June with a lot of light left in the day; and the second-round match you are watching has suddenly, after a tightly fought first set, turned into an ugly beatdown (2011: Juan Martín del Potro v. Olivier Rochus 6–7 (9), 6–1, 6–0, 6–4)—you can lift your head toward Wimbledon village. There, beneath a Constable sky, you can watch the play of sun and cloud-shadow off the spire of old St. Mary’s Church, and—with the sound in the background of a tennis ball hissing on grass—think that life is very, very good. And if that vision isn’t the last I see before nodding off, Kirill brings me to the net on Court No. 2 to practice volleying: forehand and back to ready position, backhand and back to ready position, overhead smash and repeat.

There are nights, thankfully few, when the tour has to be extended, and I move on to New York—to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, a half-hour drive from my home in Westchester—and imagine a little more tennis, under the lights. Kirill and I are on Court 8, a field court, where, in 2010, as Labor Day weekend was beginning and New Yorkers were streaming out of town, I watched with a few hundred other fans—many, like me, by themselves—one of those matches that is no less compelling for being frayed, streaky, and inconsequential. Gilles Simon of France and the German Philipp Kohlschreiber had begun their second-round match in the late afternoon, but it was a nighttime match, the court inked in by dusk and the lights turned on, by the time they reached the middle of the fifth set in a match Simon eventually won. I make a point of watching both Simon and Kohlschreiber play whenever I can, though with their rankings almost never in the top ten, they are seldom on TV. Neither has an intriguing game, and Simon is not a particularly likable guy—he may be the most sullen player of his generation. But both are under six feet tall and Simon weighs only 150 pounds or so—he’s just a little bigger than me. (His French fans call him, presumably with affection, Le Petit Poulet.) I watch him, and Kohlschreiber, too, to marvel at how strong and fast and good someone my size is capable of being. The greatest men’s players today, with their size, speed, and power, can seem to be only nominally playing the game I am striving to learn.

The Open’s Court 8 is, in my mind, empty now, and, under the lights, Kirill begins serving to me. It’s the drill we end each of our workouts with. The point is to get me to focus when I am tired—I’d have been hitting and running for ninety minutes now—and to speed up my reaction time. It’s generally understood that the reaction time of a man in his sixties is slower than that of a man in his twenties, like Gilles Simon, and this is certainly true when responding to a tennis serve from Kirill, which can regularly reach 120 mph. There’s so much for me to do: pick up the incoming ball (with my diminished eyesight); judge whether it has sidespin or is flat, with nearly no spin at all; decide whether I’ll be hitting it back with a forehand or backhand, and raise my racquet and adjust my grip accordingly; and then move in order to be neither crowding the ball nor having to lunge for it.

I return scant few of Kirill’s big serves. (When I do, he offers up his greatest compliment: “No way!”) That’s really not the point. No one I will play against can serve anywhere near as hard as Kirill. The point is to speed up my preparation and swing and for me to learn to concentrate even when I have next to no energy left—to “stay strong,” as Kirill shouts at me from across the net. And, in the bigger scheme of things, I like to think as I wink off, the drill is designed to leave me humbled by a game I have come to play late in life and will never be that good at. It’s a kind of bedtime prayer: I’m thankful to have discovered a passion that there is still enough time, maybe, to deepen through commitment, and, with it, an openness to a risk of failure that any passion demands.





10


I lost the first point I played at Forest Hills that Saturday morning, hitting a flat, crosscourt forehand too long, going for a hard winner, going for too much. I lost the next point, too, netting a backhand service return. But I won the next one, and the one after that on a clean, down-the-line forehand winner, and my opponent and I were tied, 30–30. That’s when the skies opened, chasing us onto the veranda.

Geoff Cykman was his name. I had learned earlier that morning, thanks to Google, that he had long been the Bay Area’s top senior player. I had known for weeks that he was the grass championship’s sixty-and-over No. 1 seed. On the train and then the subway out to Forest Hills that morning—the train cars with a few young night-shift workers headed home; me in my tennis whites—I tried my best not to think about how good Geoff Cykman must be. I thought instead how cool it might be to win a game from him.

Geoff was my height, just shy of six feet, and slim. He wore glasses, and had sports heat patches affixed to his quads. We sat out the rain delay together and talked a little. Geoff’s voice was soft, and he spoke carefully, pausing between his sentences and, at times, falling silent. Was he trying to stay focused on the match? (Should I have been?)

He was forthcoming in his way. He told me the high school he’d attended in San Francisco, George Washington High School, had been riven by racial tension in the late ’60s, and he’d joined the tennis team, in part, to shelter him from that. He told me he’d sold his import-export business nine years ago because globalization had “cut him out.” He and his wife were fine financially. He kept an eye on the stock market, he said, and wondered, but not too urgently, if he should be doing something more with his days. He mostly just played tennis now: at his club, the Olympic Club in San Francisco; at national and international tournaments; at Roy Emerson’s tennis camp in Switzerland.

I knew within minutes of warming up with him how good he was—how much better a player he was than me. He was relaxed and consistent. Nothing about his strokes was overwhelming. But they were clean, efficient, with no apparent weakness on, say, the backhand volley. I was looking. I am sure he was looking, too.

By the time the shower had ceased and the courts were relatively dry, more than an hour had passed. We returned, warmed up, again, for five minutes or so, and resumed play. The match would not last long. Geoff won the first two points, and thus the game, and then another game, and another. I recalled Bob Litwin saying he would win three of every five points if he played a match against me. That’s what Geoff was doing: winning three of five. He was doing it by making no unforced errors to my many, as I took risks and failed.

I never won a game. Twice, I took Geoff to deuce, and in one of those games, I was serving “ad in,” up a point. I needed just one more point to win that game I coveted. I was mostly serving and volleying at this point in the match—down 0–3 in the second set—and was still losing most of the points. But the strategy had won me a few points, and the hustling toward the net had kept me focused and energized, my head up, undiscouraged. In my two previous games, I’d sliced serves wide to Geoff’s backhand—slow, looping serves that provided me enough time to get close to the net to return his return with a sharp-angled, put-away volley. Both times he had sliced low, wickedly angled, crosscourt backhands, the ball passing me without my even grazing it with my racquet: beautiful, clean winners. This time, rather than following the path of my serve as I moved in to net—that is, veering slightly to my right—I came straight in, down the middle, to guard against his crosscourt return. And from there, I watched Geoff close his backhand stance, take the serve a fraction of a second later, and slice it low and hard down the line, behind me, three feet or more from my backhand reach. I lost the next two points, the following two games, and the match.

I see myself, now, smiling, and not ruefully, as I watched Geoff’s backhand winner that thwarted my only chance of taking a game from him. And I certainly smiled as Geoff and I shook hands at the net after the match. I spent a long time in the shower after, thinking about how long and hard I had practiced to get to this point, and how far I had to go to get as good as I wanted to be. I also had the thought, and this made me smile, too, that tennis had become a sort of organizing principle of my life, a large part of who I was and how I went about my days. That really didn’t depend on how good I was, or whether I won or not. It was not about outcomes. It was something I held in that indrawn part of me.

After I showered and changed into the street clothes I’d brought along in a tote bag, I found a bench on the club grounds and called Alexandra, which I almost never did. It was a call I’d arranged with her beforehand. I thought it might be interesting to talk about the match with her and try to articulate what I was feeling about it.

“Hello?” she said in a singsong way.

“How do I sound?”

“So how did it go?”

“I got double-bageled,” I said. “He was a really good player.” Geoff went on to win the tournament, cruising through the draw, beating Victor Aguilar in his semifinal match 6–2, 6–1 before taking the championship final. He would end the year the No. 1 sixty-to-sixty-five-year-old player in the nation.

“I’m not humiliated, though maybe I should be,” I went on to say. “I think what I am is humbled—if that makes sense.”

“There’s a difference between being humbled and being humiliated,” Alexandra said. “Humiliation comes when a desire is mocked, when it is summarily shut down. When that happens, the space to learn and create collapses. But being humbled—that’s valuable.”

“Valuable how?”

“It’s a reminder that there is something larger than you.”

“Tennis. My attempt to get good at it.”

“Yeah, it’s inspiring, or can be, being humbled. It’s a wonderful reminder that everything is a process.”

There weren’t enough hours left in my life to get good enough to beat Geoff Cykman, even if I used every one of those hours in an attempt to do so. There would come a day, and it could come tomorrow, when I would no longer be getting better at all. My game would stall, then diminish, like everything else. On my train home, that afternoon, that’s what I found myself thinking about. It can be humbling to understand that a desire to learn something new, develop a passion, get good at something so late in life, is not going to ultimately thwart that stalling and diminishing, any more than it’s going to lead to my thwarting the likes of Geoff Cykman.

You compete against it all anyway.





11


It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that strange mix of caution and abandon we call courage,” David Foster Wallace was contending, making the case for tennis being our most demanding sport. As if I needed reminding. I was rereading an essay of his called “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” which Wallace had written for Esquire back in the 1990s. Rereading it as I was trying to take my mind off the fact that the prop plane I had boarded in Salt Lake City to fly south on a cool and cloudy October afternoon was getting harshly wind-batted above the Wasatch Range. In his too-brief life Wallace had come to observe tennis more ingeniously than any American writer ever had. I’d been an editor at Harper’s when he published his first piece about tennis, a memoir we called “Tennis, Trignometry, Tornadoes: A Midwestern Boyhood.” (He’d been a promising junior player.) And it was for a short-lived sports magazine, Play, which I’d helped to hatch as a spin-off of the Times Magazine, that Wallace wrote his last tennis piece, a remarkable—and remarkably long—meditation on Roger Federer. (Its publication necessitated the combining of editing and tennis for me as nothing had or, I imagine, ever would. Wallace insisted on using a serial comma, which is not Times style, and threatened to withdraw the essay if he could not place commas before his many “ands.” It went all the way to the top, to the executive editor, Bill Keller, who, amid his worries about reporters’ safety in Afghanistan and the dwindling economics of newspapering, sighed and gave Wallace permission to punctuate as he pleased.)

I was heading to St. George, Utah, to a tennis camp, and I was bringing Wallace with me as an in-transit and mealtime and nightstand companion. Actually, it struck me while reading, or trying to, on the bouncing plane, that this trip might have made a good magazine assignment for Wallace. The camp I was heading to—the DFW-sounding Court Think Tennis Camp at Green Valley Spa—featured a video technology called Dartfish. I was going to be taped and get to watch my tennis game for the first time—taped and then analyzed. I’d been hitting for some time now, and thought it might be time to have a look at myself, or a look at myself from a new vantage, since looking at myself, scrutinizing myself, was a big part of what tennis was turning out to be for me. And the promise of Dartfish was that once you actually saw what you were doing—your footwork, your strokes—you would understand that what you were doing was not what you thought you were doing, and that therein lay a path to getting to a next level. Or, anyway, this was the wisdom, or a big part of it, at Green Valley, where the teaching was based on the principles of Vic Braden, by then in his eighties and a legendary instructor who had sought for decades to bring science and technology to bear on the improvement of tennis technique. I’d spend three days there, which, when you added in accommodations and the cost of getting to southern Utah from New York, was going to cost me around $2,500. As my plane descended over red-rock buttes and escarpments and a wide desert valley where a lot of ’30s Westerns got filmed—a broodingly spectacular landscape gilded by an autumn sunset—the mute emptiness of the place, its far-awayness, reassured me: I was alone, and there was nothing better to do than indulge myself and play tennis.

The spa was situated on the western edge of St. George, which is not far from both the Arizona and Nevada borders. It’s an area said to be home to poor Mormons, those for whom having children as teenagers has turned out as badly as it does most other places in the country, but with darkness having fallen by the time I retrieved my luggage, there was not much to see from the car that the spa had sent to fetch me. The spa itself turned out to be a modest compound of Santa Fe–style faux-adobe buildings and small, semidetached guest cottages arrayed around garden courtyards and swimming pools. And there was, too, a certain Santa Fe–style New Aginess to the vibe—a spacey friendliness at the front desk, books on yoga and spirituality in the gift shop, and, in the background, that electronic, down-tempo, modal-drone music that, to be honest, I find narcotically soothing.

I checked in, found my room (its décor more Laura Ashley than Santa Fe), unpacked, and, having pulled on a sweater, strolled, book in hand, to the dining room under a high, star-blanketed canopy. The dining room was mostly empty—a Sunday night? The post-banking-crisis economy?—but the tables were communal, and the point, the waitress who seated me said, was for guests to meet and interact. Ugh. I was steered to a big, round table where three women were finishing up their dinner. Actually, they hadn’t finished up their dinner. The plates of apple slices they were slowly, slowly chewing and savoring were dinner! They had just arrived, too—from Salt Lake City, old friends, maybe ten years younger than me, who had been to Green Valley together before—and this was, for them, the start of a week of fasting, cleansing, dieting, stretching, meditating, walking, toning, pampering. . . . My arrival at the table had interrupted a conversation about the Twilight saga films and vampires.

“Did your wife see them?” one of the women asked. I assumed she had seen the wedding ring I was wearing.

“We don’t have daughters,” I said, hoping to preclude a Twilight follow-up and get quickly to some next topic, or none at all. “I’m here to play tennis.”

“That explains it,” one of the other women said. “You don’t see men alone here. Men with their wives if they both could stand to lose some weight. I’ve seen that. But you don’t need to lose weight. Gain a little, maybe.”

This brought giggles all around. Maybe they were high from lack of food.

They were gone by the time my dinner arrived, off to some talk about wellness. I was the last person in the dining room, just me and my copy of Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I ate half a roast chicken, with wild rice and a helping of kale, and drank a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir. Delicious, the food, the wine, Wallace’s sentences, the being on my own with nothing ahead of me but three days of tennis playing. All my years married, decades, and I’d never done anything like this. I was alone in the middle of nowhere, just me and tennis. I required no thoughts of practicing with Kirill at Roland-Garros or Wimbledon to fall asleep.





12


I began my morning not on a tennis court but—in my whites and sneakers, my racquet in its sleeve at my side—in a small conference room turned into a classroom, seated in front of a whiteboard and a portable film screen. My fellow students, dressed for tennis, too, were a couple in their late thirties from Seattle, he a Microsoft senior manager, she a stay-at-home mom, and as we waited for our instructor to arrive and made small talk, they explained that they had always taken “active” vacations together and that they hadn’t let the birth of their two children, the oldest having just begun elementary school, get in the way of that. The kids were with a nanny.

This immediately made them suspect in my eyes. I had inherited from my mother a belief that the world and everything in it conspired to harm your children, and that the only way to possibly prevent the worst was to never let them out of your sight. Barbara and I—because of my anxieties, not hers—had not left our sons to take a vacation alone until our tenth anniversary, when the boys were seven and five and we went off to Paris for five days. And even then they were with my parents. And even then I pho