The Tiddling Tennis Theorem

The Professor has never been seen to hit a tennis ball, but a generation of would-be players have learned from him that the racket is in the head as well as the hand

The Tiddling Tennis Theorem, which in the end was to alter so drastically the lives of its advocates, was the product of a peculiar mind, that of John Doe Roberts. Roberts, who was never addressed by any name other than "Professor," had been the teaching professional at the Tiddling Tennis Club for as long as the oldest members could recall. The oldest, Doc Pritchgart, claimed the Professor, then a callow youth, had simply appeared one day following World War II when the club's membership had dwindled to 124 and had begun offering free tennis lessons. But as Doc Pritchgart was invariably more than $100 behind on his bar bill, invariably cheated at dominoes, and invariably denigrated the Professor whom he loathed with an unquenchable loathing, few trusted either his judgment, his recollection, or veracity.

In any event, the Professor, now in his forties, couuld be found daily, barring rain, standing by the net of the teaching court, lecturing some aspirant to tennis immortality. He always wore the same yellowing flannel trousers, the same faded windbreaker, the same drooping Panama hat that shaded his thin, weathered features and surprisingly bright, deep-set brown eyes, and the same (Doc Pritchgart contended) unlit cigar between his large, clenched teeth.

Two factors distinguished the Professor from every other tennis instructor in the country. One was his unorthodox teaching methods, which he claimed were based on the Tiddling Tennis Theorem. He would begin each half-hour lesson, for which he now charged $10, by removing from his pocket a stack of yellow cards. On each was printed a different maxim. These were known collectively as "Roberts' Rules of Order." With great care, he would unwind the rubber band that embraced them and hand the top card to his student. "Kindly commit this to memory," he would say. When the student nodded to signify this task had been accomplished, the Professor would then deliver a fifteen-minute lecture on the meaning and ramifications of that day's maxim. For the remainder of the half hour, the Professor would stand at the net tossing balls from a shopping cart at his side to his eagerly swinging pupil.

But what established the Professor's uniqueness as a tennis instructor beyond doubt was the fact that he had never been seen to hit a tennis ball nor, for that matter, to hold a tennis racket in his hand. A few disgruntled members, led by Doc Pritchgart, argued that the Professor didn't know how to hit a tennis ball and should be fired, therefore, as a disgrace to his profession. The other disgruntled members (all members of the Tiddling Tennis Club were disgruntled) felt, however, that the proof was in the pudding and the success of the Professor's brainchild—the Tiddling Tennis Theorem—could not be gainsaid.

What was odd about the Tiddling Tennis Theorem was that the Professor steadfastly refused to divulge its nature. When pressed to the extreme, he would respond gruffly, "No researcher of repute publishes his findings until they have been proven experimentally. I have not yet had the opportunity to conduct my final experiment." Most of his students merely accepted the existence and workings of the Tiddling Tennis Theorem on faith, taking comfort, as do we all, from the belief they were being guided by a higher law.

That the Tiddling Tennis Theorem should have evolved within the confines of the Tiddling Tennis Club was assuredly no accident. The club provided an ideal cultural medium for the growth of this definitive concept. According to the unreliable Doc Pritchgart, it is the twenty-seventh oldest tennis club in the United States. Opened in 1897, it occupies a full square block in the heart of a once fashionable neighborhood. An early sketch, now hanging over the bar, depicts a pleasant, tree-shaded expanse of lawn dotted by picnickers, a gazebo, two tennis courts, and a small Victorian clubhouse—all encompassed by a low stone wall. As the neighborhood deteriorated over the years, succeeding boards of directors voted to add more stones to the wall. It now towers thirty-six feet straight up from the barren sidewalks of the ghetto that surrounds it. The sole entrance is through an unmarked, iron-grilled, glass door which opens on a buzzer commanded Miss Agnes, a thin and dour woman who is feared by all but the oldest members. Miss Agnes has been registering guests, dispensing balls and Ban Aids, answering the telephone, and buzzing the buzzer for twenty-eight years. She loathes juniors, germs, and people who don't say "Please."

Inside the grim walls, the contrast offered by the tasteless modern decor is startling. On the verge of bankruptcy during the Depression, begging for members in the 1950s, the club, thanks to the recent tennis boom, has been blessed with both wealth and prestige. The initiation fee is now $2000 and, even so, new applicants are informed with barely disguised superciliousness that they can look forward to waiting in limbo for no less than seven years. Dues have risen to $28 a month for men and $25 for women. The club used to offer family memberships, but with the high divorce rate created by Mixed Doubles Tournaments and the Saturday Night Glittering Tennis Balls, custody fights over which spouse should retain his or her affiliation became too much of a strain on both the spouses and the club's directors, who were all too often called upon to adjudicate the disputes. Now, in the likely event of divorce, both spouses retain their individual memberships and the strain is solely on them. Consequently, while the Tiddling Tennis Club perhaps boasts no more divorced members than comparable clubs its size, it certainly can claim more members who are divorced from each other. This sets the ambience.

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