Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tennis Lessons

This fall, I've had a Tennissance.

I've played more in the last two months than I have in the last ten years, and some of the matches have put me back in touch with the eleven-year old me, in short red and yellow shorts (c'mon mom, really?!), who picked up (and promptly broke) his first real, non-hand-me-down racket in the early nineties.

Thanks to my brother, I was pretty good for my age; he'd spent a couple summers beating up on me on our street-court (which had a crack for a net and fire hydrant baselines). And so when I met Mr. Kells, heroic Mr. Kells, I could hold my own, at least when it came to hitting the ball. Finer facets of the game were beyond my grasp, as we'll see.

I had my first lesson (fancy-schmancy, I know) with my friend Cheese (short for "Cheesehead"--origin, mostly unknown). We met Mr. Kells, a 71 year-old-retiree who looked a little like a slim George Kennedy, at his house. On his backyard court, he taught me how to hit with top-spin while Cheese stood idly by thinking about video games and chilling (he works for Google now, so his distant mind was in the right place).

The history channel was new then and I remember that Mr. Kells always had it on before and after the lesson, if it wasn't Wimbledon time. Now I know why. He'd been a P.O.W. in World War II and his interest persisted.

At the time, I didn't know that. He was just the guy who provided my tennis lessons and Sprite once a week during the summer. And, in fact, I didn't know about Mr. Kells's history until today when I searched online for a picture of him. Just this past Friday, a first-person article was published detailing his experience in the European theater. I haven't spoken to him in fifteen years, but his voice was recognizable:

"The squad of Germans (about eight to ten people) were shooting away from our hole, they knew exactly where we were, but the bullets were glancing off the road," Mr. Kells told the writer, Elise Forbes Tripp. "They deliberately avoided killing us right then: they were trying to tell us, We've got you pinned down."

I heard all of this in the sing-songy clip I remembered him using to teach young kids how to serve. "Pronate, now. That's it." And I thought back to a time when I wrongly assumed I could put this old guy on his heels with a well-struck backhand.


From that first lesson with Mr. Kells, I was pretty much a brat. I launched tennis balls over his back fence; I shuffled my feet when it came time to gather up the Wilson 4's and Penn 2's; and, most unforgivably, I smashed my racket almost every time I missed a shot, groaning like the little McEnroe I was. Love-15.

It's safe to say that I was a pretty mild-mannered kid, but I'd always had a temper about sports. And there was something about tennis that seemed unbearably more aggravating than any other game. Especially when I kept losing to Mr. Kells, who, to me, seemed like a beatable older man. Love-30.

Tennis was the first thing I was any good at, besides state capitals. The first thing I succeeded at by myself, and when a game went right, I felt miraculous control, like a wizard. That I was looping pathetic moon-balls over a net to a septuagenarian in even shorter shorts than I wore didn't take away from the fact that playing made me feel huge. I could imagine my beautiful shot, and then imagine it into reality. 15-30.

Andre Agassi was telling me in camera commercials of the time that image was everything, and so I acted all cool and attitude-y. I strode around like a punk (in really clean whites), secretly happy behind the compulsory pissed-off sneering of the Serious Player. 30 All.

Hitting a nice volley felt like timing a punchline correctly. I'd win a point; or, people would laugh. Either way, I'd feel superior, pleasantly contemptuous. I wouldn't smile. Gentlemen don't acknowledge exertion. 40-30.

Let's be clear. I wasn't great at tennis, but I was alright, and I think I can guess that the arrogance I felt is what a lot of players feel. "It seems impossible to succeed at what I've just so easily triumphed at. Harrumph, harrumph, What of it?"

Which makes failing at tennis all the worse. The hard task made easy is complete joy. The hard task that's suddenly difficult again--because the pixie dust that made it possible has abruptly blown away--is excruciating. Tennis felt so much like showing off--still requires so much unearned, and for me unnatural swagger--that when it went wrong I was exposed. Deuce. Ad-out. Game. Set. Match. Loss.


"We got out [of our foxhole], put our hands up, we walked up this little knoll where they were above us," Mr. Kells told the interviewer. And it's odd for me to hear it because I associate him with perfect flowers and a nice tennis court, with everything safe, Sprite-like, in control.

"They had complete control. We're now in the hands of the Germans and our troops are shooting furiously at the Germans and us."


Though I was improving my brattyness, sometimes after Mr. Kells beat me (he was 42-0 all-time), I'd slam my racket, especially if I'd felt I had him on the run.

I mangled a Dunlop and felt pretty terrible when I got a new one for Christmas later in the year--my parents' gift was shamingly kind, and though it might seem like they were rewarding me for my bad behavior, I got the message. They were going to keep giving; but they were going to point out that they shouldn't have to.

"Everyone knows what happened to your last one, so. . .," they'd say. I did. I'd lost it, the racket, because I'd lost it, the temper. It wouldn't happen again.


Mr. Kells, who's 89 now, was the subject of my college application essay. I imagine I wrote about the Respect I had for him--he was a great old guy and we had fun together. I think I said he taught me Lessons (vague, college-application Lessons), showed me how to Persevere (vague, pampered Perseverance). That he was like another Grandfather. That he'd shown me what it meant to be a Good, Charitable person.

I knew what words to capitalize in order to woo a Catholic school's admissions committee.

What I didn't mention, and what I should have, is that he had patience with me, but only up to a point, and that he broke me of my terrible temper, not by yelling, but only by telling me that he no longer wanted to play together if I kept acting that way. "Your racket didn't do anything to you," he'd say, still sing-songy.

Now, when I play tennis I hit shots that I have no business hitting--cross-court masterpieces that someone with a dearth of athletic talent like me shouldn't even attempt; and I hit shots that belong on the blooper reel, too--horrible episodes of botchery during which I threaten my own testicular health, and the dignity of the game.

My opponents will have noticed that I--somewhat bizarrely, compulsively--stare at my racket after both. They might think I'm worshiping it, or blaming it. Nope.

I'm just trying to remind myself that the feeling of control--the addictive tennis emotion--and the feeling of helplessness--the unavoidable tennis affliction--get doled out in equal measure. And, as Mr. Kells has taught me in a couple different ways, they probably always will.

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