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It Doesn't Take an Ace to Love the Game


Los Angeles Times Monday February 20, 1995
Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 Column 1 View Desk
27 inches; 938 words | Type of Material: Column; Profile

Two years ago, I took up tennis principally as a more enjoyable way
to lose weight than going to Jenny Craig. As the pounds melted away
chasing the bouncing ball, though, I was to learn more than just how to
improve my backhand.
My first lesson was about winning and losing.
I've always avoided competitive sports because, in high school, I was
invariably the last guy chosen for the team. Others could wear the school
letter on thick white sweaters; for me, getting that letter was as
unobtainable as walking on the moon.
In high school, then, I'd learned that winning--both the letter and my
classmates' respect--was everything. And yet, as a 46-year-old man
playing a B-minus game, that no longer holds.
I've noticed that I have often felt empty after thrashing weaker
players. I have also often felt most victorious after being routed.
This has happened enough times to clue me in that lifting my play to
its highest level--win or lose--is what's enjoyable. Being defeated by a
far superior player, against whom I have summoned all my resources merely
to keep from being shut out, has often been exhilarating.
Bill Jias, an accountant for the city of Santa Monica and 15-year
tennis veteran, regularly trounces me 6-0 or 6-1. On occasion, I get up
to 6-2. The day I got to 6-3, I was ready to accept the Davis Cup.
I have yet to "beat" Bill even once, but have I lost? That depends on
what game I'm playing, doesn't it? I've also discovered my enjoyment of
the game lies in direct proportion to how well I treat--and am treated
by--my opponent. I'm not talking about superficial courtesies here, but a
genuine liking and respect for each other.
This lesson sank in a year ago, when I was ahead of an opponent, 5-0.
With each point I won, my opponent became more critical of my general
behavior, from the way I called out the score to how I chased the balls.
The more critical my opponent became, the more I just wanted to shut him
Finally, I realized that even winning a 6-0 shutout wasn't going to
shut him up. I also knew of a nearby aerobics class I could still join if
I hurried. So, after a final, unsolicited comment from him, I walked off
the court.
I thought about it a lot after that. Had I given up a "victory" by
walking off? Perhaps. But I had a great time in that aerobics class,
putting an arm over the shoulder of a friend and doing the cancan with
her to some really lively music.
Conversely, when I genuinely like my opponent, it seems like I can
play all day. Thus, I've challenged David Barry, a 63-year-old insurance
broker a notch above me on my club ladder, only to be beaten back three
Sure, I'd love to beat him, and maybe some day I will. But I get an
even bigger thrill from his sense of fairness--of his saying "thank you!"
when I call a close shot of his in rather than out. Most of all, though,
I get a kick from his example, knowing that it's possible to reach 63,
run around with two knee braces, and still play well enough to beat a man
almost 20 years younger.
The odd thing is, once I stress my own level of play, rather than
whether I beat my opponent, a lot of things change. For one, I start
noticing how beautiful the tennis courts are.
It's a rare Southland court that doesn't have grass and palm trees
nearby, or an interesting town hall or church on the horizon, or an ample
wash of sunshine. And this, too, is part of the reason I play.
For it is in this setting that I choose to push my body as far as it
will go. It's here that I run faster than I thought I could. It's here
that, if I didn't get to the ball soon enough today, I've learned to
anticipate its trajectory a split second sooner so that maybe tomorrow,
I'll get to it in time.
And it's here that I'll sometimes discover a masterful shot I never
realized I knew. And I'll feel my body swing at the ball, and hit it, and
I'll watch the ball and just go, "Wow!" This, too, is what tennis is
Sounds great, doesn't it? Within several months of playing tennis, I
thought I had the "inner game" down.
And that's when I discovered the real challenge of tennis: staying
true to my self.
The first time I beat someone who previously had always won, for
example, I initially felt exhilarated. But the exhilaration passed, and I
wanted to repeat my victory.
And then the pressure set in, and I was no longer playing for the fun
of it, but to prove that I really was the better player, to win that
school letter. Soon, I lost.
At least one top player at my club has told of dropping off the tennis
ladder because he couldn't take the stress. What had started as a game
had ended up as an endless series of challenges to prove himself.
When my self-image depends on winning the game, that self-image is
always at risk. The pressure intensifies, and what was originally done
for recreation becomes a life-and-death struggle.
And yet, too rarely, when players walk off the court, do others ask:
Did you play your best? Did you make that shot you thought you couldn't
Instead, the question is invariably: Who won?
The stress on winning has also translated, at least for me, into some
questionable behavior. I have sometimes won games by calling a shot on a
crucial point "out" when it was really in. In a word, I've cheated.
When I cheated and lost, I felt miserable. When I cheated and won, I
felt none of the exhilaration of victory. I had robbed myself of what
might have been a legitimate victory, while robbing my opponent of his
chance to win.
Cheating was not all I discovered I was doing. I also discovered that
I can more easily lick my wounds if I've been defeated by a man than by a
woman--this, despite having written any number of articles detailing
injustices to women.
And yet, a sexist point of view still creeps into my psyche on the
tennis court. More than that, I'll play differently--I want to look
better--if an attractive woman is watching.
One of my regular partners now is Lisa Carlson, an ice cream company
purchasing agent, who likes to rush the net and who wins about half our
When she loses, she scowls and I smile. When she wins, it's the other
way around.
I also discovered that I still fear winning more than I do losing.
When I'm well ahead, my body tightens; I don't swing the racket as
easily. I start thinking of the implications of a win on my place on the
club ladder. Quite often, I'll then blow my lead and lose.
When I'm losing, on the other hand, I've discovered the truth of the
song lyric, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
That's when I'll try all sorts of new strategies, sensational slices, and
play my best.
Tennis now, for me, is a means to an end--the end being not so much
about beating my opponent as about surpassing my limitations, both mental
and physical. And if while chasing the bouncing ball, I also win a few
games, prove (yet again) my masculinity, or lose some extra pounds,
that's just, uh, gravy.

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