Lob. Volley. Slice. Backspin. It’s all part of my new lexicon since I took up tennis a couple of years ago. I’m running across the court, dripping with sweat, about to overheat, my face purple from the exertion, I’m sure – but I am not backing down. I will return that ball if it kills me. I play in a weekly neighborhood group and supplement with a private lesson. At the moment I’m having a lesson with Jason, a tennis pro who I am guessing is half my age. I come to the pros for the constant drip of technique I don’t get with my neighborhood group. “You’re swinging a split second too early. Wait just a bit and let the ball come to you.” Today he says, “Tennis today is a baseline game.” I nod knowingly, as though I know what that means, while I wonder, Meaning you hit from the baseline?
I’ve been curious for a long time about the middle-aged mom tennis craze. If one can judge by the laser-like focus of the players, the tempers that flare around disagreements over whether the ball was in or out, the meanness about who plays with whom – it is so much more than just a match. I’ve seen the same intensity in my own circles. Three high-school friends of mine, all of whom were great athletes in high school – in gymnastics, track and field, and tennis, respectively – have taken up tennis with a vengeance in middle age. I know this because their Facebook postings frequently tout their various tennis victories – “going to state finals,” “tournament champ!” and so on. I can count on a post every other day from one of them, and, I admit, I have followed these posts with great interest as I’ve tried to glean what fuels this fanaticism. A DC friend played throughout high school and now belongs to a local country club where she participates in women’s tennis tournaments. She said the nastiness around the tournaments is palpable: who is paired with whom; the team’s rating as a whole; who is underrating herself so as to win more matches; who won’t play with whom because so-and-so “is not good enough.” “Really, at our age, you would say that to someone, that you won’t play with them because they’re not good enough??” I asked incredulously. “Oh yeah,” Shannon replied, “there is a lot of that. My partner Linda even cried the other day. She gets psyched out by the meanness. It’s like high school all over again!”
It baffles me. What is going on? Hard to believe that it is just tennis. Why is it so addictive? And, more intriguing, why do people who supposedly know better, who are responsible for infusing their children with good values, revert to such a primitive state on the tennis courts?
I gave in to curiosity and took up tennis myself this fall, in the hopes that I would find answers by becoming an insider. Prior to this fall, I had only had a once-a-week lesson for about five months back when I was 25 years old, and no instruction ever before that, so I definitely consider myself a beginner. But even as a beginner, I felt that competitive streak, which has been dormant for so long, flaring up in me. Now, just a mere three months into the sport, I think I am beginning to understand why it compels us so.
The game conveys a sense of control and certainty that eludes us in countless facets of stay-home motherhood. The number of things you cannot close the loop on, large or small, ranks in the thousands. At one end, for example, is whether your child is diagnosed with ADHD, or who may be bullying your child, or whether your child is happy in general. Nor do you have control over trifling day-to-day matters, such as whether your daughter gets invited to the sleepover, if your babysitter cancels on you last minute, or whether the play date you so desperately need your son to go to, to preserve your sanity, will even happen because the other mom is not responding to your texts.
By contrast, with tennis, you get the feeling, however delusional, that you have the power to determine the outcome of the game. For one very brief hour, you are master and commander of your side of the court. Smack. That landed just inside the baseline. I am good at this. Whack. I made my opponent really run for that one. I have a real knack for this. Whack and grunt. Look at that topspin. I am a star. You can run down balls, out-of-bounds though they may be, to get a point; you can figure out your opponent’s weakness and hit to that weakness to gain advantage; you can circumvent your own weaknesses, by, for instance, running extra fast to hit forehand what should have been a backhand. You have so many tools in tennis at your disposal that it is easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are your only limitation.
And the feedback is instantaneous – another plus. No need, as with a marathon, to wait hours to figure out that you beat your old time (or didn’t). No, with tennis, you usually know immediately if you won or lost the point. In one compact hour, you can reaffirm your status in the universe – Tennis Player Extraordinaire, champion of the local tennis courts, or just plain old winner of today’s game. If you lose, you have another chance tomorrow to regain any of the aforementioned titles. No matter how badly you may have played on any given day, you leave believing that you can make a comeback the next time you play. We learned from our coach that the USTA ranks players on a seven-point scale. A ranking of 7.0 means you are a “world class player” whereas 1.0 (apparently the lowest ranking) means you are working on “primarily getting the ball into play.” So the system lets you know exactly where you stand – again, a thumbs up for greater certainty in life (see previous paragraph) – while simultaneously motivating you to move up the scale. I’m 2.5 today but could be 3.0 as soon as next month. It’s all up to me.
And it’s efficient! Where else in one hour can you get a great workout (assuming you have a decent opponent), socialize, and feed your need to compete all at once? Tennis is the epitome of multitasking – something we moms pride ourselves on.
Maybe these “benefits” accrue to everyone who plays tennis. Who doesn’t love control or want to win? But with once-professional-turned-stay-at-home moms, it all takes on an added significance. An edge, much like the edge in one’s voice when you say, no, I won’t play with her because she’s not good enough. No one is recommending you on Linked In, for, say, your great dishwashing skills, or your ability to juggle multiple soccer practice drop-offs within an hour and navigate DC traffic without getting pulled over or into an accident. There are no promotions, raises, or client accolades, save for the occasional, “great dinner, honey” from your spouse, no “you are a superstar, what would we do without you” messages from colleagues. Tennis is a vehicle in which you can see some semblance of your former professional self – the measurable improvement fueled by sheer effort and determination, ultimately culminating in the competence and mastery that you identify as the old you. I climbed the corporate ladder back in the day – watch me navigate the USTA scale the same way.
“Achievement-driven,” a friend said of me recently. Maybe that’s it. The lure of the achievement. The curve here is not so steep. You can get relatively good in a year, maybe two. I’m back on the court with my Monday group. Angela is up on the other side and wields her trademark forehand, smashing the ball across the net with just an inch or two clearance, coming fast with topspin. I look to my right side and see the ball bounce just outside of the baseline. “It’s out!” I sing.