The Magazine

Tennis, Anyone?

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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My 10-year-old grandson Nick is in town for a month or so this summer, and I wanted to give him a gift. As with many middle-class kids his age, his play is almost entirely electronified--Wii-ed, XBoxed, and computerfied--and I haven't a clue as to what he might still want in this high-tech line. His taste in clothes--not at all bad, by the way--is already formed, so there isn't much I can do for him there, either. What I decided on was tennis lessons, which, when I suggested it, he thought a good idea.

Nick, like his grandfather, is on the small side, well-coordinated, and already interested in good form, which is to say, eager to appear stylish. When I was a kid, beginning around the age of 13, tennis became my sport--also my passion--and just now I'm hoping it might become his. Thus far he has had four one-hour lessons, and, I'm pleased to report, he is taking to the game beautifully.

Nick's teacher is a young Welshman named Alex (no last name has been given), who plays college tennis and has an accent that is a pleasing admixture of English and American. "Good job!" he exclaims when Nick bangs a solid forehand or a two-handed backhand over the net. "Really fine!" An excellent teacher, Alex has shown my grandson a number of helpful devices to groove his strokes and toss up the ball for his serve.

These lessons are being given at the Northwestern University tennis courts, which, as it happens, were the scene of the best job I've ever had. When I was 14, a friend named Bob Swenson and I took the El to Evanston to try out Northwestern's café-au-lait-colored clay courts. While there, we discovered that the pro, a man named Paul Bennett who was also the university's tennis coach, was looking for someone to shag balls for him during his lessons. The job paid, as I recall, $1.25 an hour; its perks included a 10 percent discount on tennis equipment and togs and unlimited free court time. We both, Bob and I, took it.

Looking back on the two fine summers that followed, I remember drinking a vast quantity of something called Bireley's Grape Soda, sliding around in the tan clay after drop shots, and hearing the almost continuous pock-pock sound of tennis balls being thwacked through the day. Paul Bennett, heavyset and good-natured, was the most easygoing of bosses; standing by while he gave lessons, I picked up some pointers for my own game, which improved a fair amount.

Not enough, though, to make me anywhere near as good as I hoped to be. I entered a number of tournaments for boys 15 and under, usually winning a round or two before being defeated by someone I felt was less good than I. What these kids who beat me really were was not less good but merely less stylish. I preferred to go down to defeat looking good over winning ugly. This, I now realize, was a serious weakness. The really splendid athletes master form but are always ready to abandon it rather than lose a point (or basket, catch, touchdown, race, you name it).

The courts at Northwestern are no longer clay. They are made of HAR-TRU, or some other new composite surface; in any case, they are blue, running to slightly purplish. As a player, I go back to the days of wooden racquets and all-white clothes. The new metal tennis racquets have of course revolutionized the game, allowing players to hit the ball much harder and with greater control and all kinds of spins unavailable to players of an earlier era. Because of the new racquets, the very nature of approaching and stroking the ball is radically different.

When I was playing, the Australians Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Kenny Rosewall, and Roy Emerson dominated the game. Their tennis was elegant, their manners perfect. On the latter score, the game went through a bad patch when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were dominant. In the name of competitiveness, they brought a mean and mewling note to tennis, questioning calls, insulting umpires and linesmen, congratulating themselves (with pumping fists) on their own successful shots. I hope my grandson takes up better models. Among current players, Rafael Nadal, James Blake, and Roger Federer hark back to the time when sportsmanship and decent behavior on court were standard.

One thing that has remained the same is that I am still shagging balls, no longer for Paul Bennett, but now for Alex while he is instructing Nick. It gives me something to do during the long hour, while I watch my grandson and contemplate the prospect of him, five or so years from now, hitting away with style and authority and with a deep pleasure he may not truly understand until long after.