The Murderous Pleasures of Tennis

“Tough shot,”your partner says, but he means,Wby did I have to get stuck with him?" The peculiar nomenclature of tennis and other aspects of the increasingly popular sport are covered in this dissertation by the accomplished journalist (OUR CHILDREN ARE DYING) and novelist (CALL THE KEEPER).

by Nat Hentoff

WE TENNIS zealots are growing in numbers. At last count, there were eight and a half million of us in the United States. Indoor courts are increasing at a rapid rate. In more and more summer communities, tennis schedules, especially on weekends, are so tightly packed that a newcomer finds himself scheduled either at a time that gets him up before his children or so late in the day that he needs the sharpness of eye of an Indian scout.

Why has slamming a ball with a racket become so obsessive a pleasure for so many of us? One reason, I suppose, is the rising proselytization for exercise. But aside from improving one’s circulation and otherwise dueling with the aging process, it seems clear to me that a primary attraction of the sport is the opportunity it gives to release aggression physically without being arrested for felonious assault.

Consider the tensions and frustrations increasingly endemic to our tautly rationalized society. And then consider the entirely legal stance of mayhem permissible on a tennis court. As Dr. Roy M. Whitman, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati, has pointed out, there is an element of homicide, although unconscious, in the game. There are, to be sure, the exemplary manners. (“Thank you, Court 3,” you call, your ball whizzing into Court 3 just as one of its players is about to serve. And Court 3 nods benignly and returns the ball.) But alongside the exemplary manners, the doctor notes, is the brutal volleying climax.

Hyperbole? Look at the faces of lawyers, accountants, admen, psychiatrists, housewives, and poets immersed in a set. Particularly during a doubles match, look at the faces of the guardians of the net. Nancy Richey, a top-seeded American player, has observed, with some awe at her capacity for ferociousness, “When I see a picture of myself playing, even I’m frightened.”

There are few more satisfying experiences, I find, than putting a ball away with all one’s force. Even more satisfying is a duel at the net, each of us flailing away like a medieval knight with mace or broadsword. And invariably, of course, the loser of a particular exchange pulls himself back into civilization with a “Good shot!” or “Well played!” or, more honestly, “Too good!”

It is hardly any wonder, then, that tennis is booming in as aggressive, and aggressively competitive, a society as ours. But, alas, with some players, as in life outside the courts, the competitiveness often constricts and distorts the gloriously full release of aggression. From the first years of school on, we are taught, on the one hand, that competitiveness is both a virtue and a necessity. How else can we move up to consume all those delectable goods? How else can we win and maintain the respect of our wives and children?

But on the other hand, there are manners to be observed, styles of behavior, tones of voice. One should not be too “pushy,”too ‟cocky,”too “loud.” In short, too overtly aggressive. The cool, poised, soft-spoken expert at lethal competitiveness is a figure of respect by contrast with the noisy tie salesman on the street corner.

And so, on the tennis courts, there are those who are so acutely conscious of their need to WIN that they tighten up in fear that they will not win as gentlemen. They find it painfully difficult to sustain the savage drive which winning requires, and if they’re in a doubles match, they then feel they have let down their partner. He, after all, also wants fiercely to WIN. Therefore, there is the grim shaking of the head, the turning to the partner after you have muffed an easy point, the mournful “I’m sorry!”, the jaw-set determination to make up for the error. And the partner, smiling, is reassuring: “No, that was a tough shot.” Or, “The wind took it.” Thinking, meanwhile, “Why did I have to get stuck with him?”

A few players are so obsessed with winning, and so ambivalent about the drive it takes to win, that tennis is a torture for them. One such masochist arrives on the court with a sheaf of excuses. A bad elbow. A distractingly complicated business day. A sudden discovery that he needs a lighter racket, He girds himself to overcome these obstacles and fulfill his responsibility to his partner; and by the end of an hour, he is quivering, drenched in the chill sweat of failure.

OCCASIONALLY, there is a further dimension of competitive urgency in tennis. For many years, the sport was largely a game for white Protestants. Gradually, more and more Jews of the middle class took it up. I play most often, for example, with Jewish professionals in their thirties and forties to whose fathers the game of tennis was as exotic as croquet.

Most of the time, we hardly think of the game’s social and class origins. But for a few days in the summer we do. Our community on Fire Island is called Seaview. It began as a restricted Protestant enclave, and while it is now mostly Jewish, still among us is that patriarchal first Jew who dared buy property in Seaview. Two communities away is Point O’ Woods, which still does not admit Jews, let alone Negroes. For the past few summers, there has been a home-and-home series between Seaview and Point O’ Woods. Our Maccabees venture forth for a day through the Point O’ Woods gate, and some weeks later, a contingent of doughty WASP’s come unto us.

One of our very best players refuses to compete in these ecumenical engagements. His contention, which I respect, is that so long as he is unable to lease property in Point O’ Woods because he is Jewish, any other contact between the two communities is hypocritical and demeaning. Most of our players, however, act like old-time Negroes, feeling that sport and social contact will eventually convince the elders of Point O’ Woods to remove their gate. At least figuratively.

The gate remains, and the series goes on. We lose more often than we win and one of the reasons appears to be that some of our champions go on the court burdened by history. Watching them, I think of how Joe Louis must have felt.

Last summer, the Point O’ Woods team came to Seaview in the middle of a community debate about whether we would accede to Point O’ Woods’ request to share our new garbage incinerator with them. Seaview was virulently divided on the issue, but nonetheless a cross section of the residents came to watch the joust. Curiosity is a major factor in drawing even non-tennis-players to the event. For many of us, our ghettos are much more comfortable than those of the parents, but ghettos they are. Accordingly, we do not often see Protestants at play. The summer before, for instance, my son and I were taken by an expletive frequently list’d by one of the more elderly Point O’ Woods players. When he drove the ball into the net or served a double fault, he did not, as we Seaviewers do, growl “Damn!” or “Jesus Christ!” He would release a fierce “Golly Ned!" But how fierce can “Golly Ned!” be? And for a few months, my five-year-old, at times of extreme irritation, would also bellow “Golly Ned!” But the crossculturation didn’t take.

In any case, as our players warmed up, waiting for the WASP’s, our intense captain, a very successful podiatrist, looked coldly at our most aggressive player, a short redhead on whom we placed most of our hopes for the day. “Say, Mel,” the captain muttered, “Tuck your shirt in.” At that moment, I knew we were lost. We were still of the shtetl, and sabras we would never be.

Soon after the match started, we quickly fell behind. Some of our players tried to keep up their spirits, and ours, with ghetto wit. “If they win,” Mel whispered to me during a break, “they get to use our incinerator for three days — on us.”

The playing on our side was pitiful, for the most part. Men whose grace, control, and stamina I had long envied played as if millions of Jews were watching them, at first hopefully and then with accusatory contempt. And Mel, our most reckless, our most self-confident player, who always made impossible recoveries, played with such caution, such defensiveness, that he and his partner were defeated by an older and quite ordinary team.

It was a dun Saturday. But perhaps, an onlooker ventured, we had been overwhelmed because we were playing on Saturday. Mel brightened a bit. “Yeah, next year we’ll play on their Sabbath, and then we’ll see what happens.”

A week later, Mel was considerably more cheerful. His law practice had taken him to Washington, where he had watched a number of young Negro players on that city’s public courts. “You ought to see them,” he marveled. “It’s a new game to them, but they’re going to change it. WASP power in tennis is on the way out!”

Once in a very great while, a Negro plays on the Seaview courts. Seaview is not exclusionary, and a Negro family lives there, but word hasn’t gotten out yet to black communities that those among them who can afford a summer at Seaview will find no gate. Of course, no one from Seaview has been actively spreading the word. Anyway, I remember one Negro visitor who came on court in an impeccable tennis outfit. His manners, moreover, would have made the Point O’ Woods players appear a bit coarse by comparison. He played strongly but rather stiffly until he lost three points in a row by smashing easy shots into the net. At the third, he glared at the net, barked “You mother!”, and seemed to have a more relaxed time for the rest of the hour. He turned out to be quite skillful, and thinking of what Mel had said, I daydreamed a decade ahead to a decidedly integrated Seaview team in tournament with Point O’ Woods.

But where is the joy of tennis in this kaleidoscope of ferocity in the thin clothing of good manners?

The joy begins with the first serve. Except for such rare confrontations as that of Seaview and Point O’ Woods, the external divisions of the world outside do disappear once the game is under way.

But you cannot escape bringing yourself, as you have been shaped in and by the world, into the game, and those who suffer themselves badly in their offices or homes are not newly remade once the ball is in the air. But except for the masochists and the compulsives and the entirely too gentlemanly, most of even the hung-up can unwind to some extent on a court. And those who are the least fearful of detonating and enjoying their aggressions have an extraordinarily buoyant time indeed, so euphoric that as their skills become more refined, they keep returning to the courts through their fifties and sixties, and in the case of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, into their eighties. I know one such man, close to seventy. He no longer speeds about, to be sure, but by now a master of timing, he waits for the moment and can still smash a winning point across with fierce satisfaction.

I have not yet focused on another durable and deepening pleasure in a game that can be played in middle age and beyond. Most of us do not come to regard our bodies as instruments of grace. Some might have in their dancing years, and others as teen-age shortstops; but as the body thickens and is less in motion, except as mechanical routines dictate, the pride one takes in the plasticity and capacity of the body usually becomes decidedly attenuated.

At least mine did. I had played baseball and a little tennis until my late teens. And then no sport until I was thirty-four. By that time my muscles had all the tone of those of a bear in deepest winter. I had become a lump. It wasn’t so much a matter of weight as the habit of stasis. I lumbered rather than walked, sat heavily and sat long. I was the moyen American burgher.

Resuming tennis after some sixteen years, I did not soon become a lithe teen-ager again. But there were aches of awakening, and gradually less of a conviction that physical languor had become my chronic condition. And most miraculous of all, there came again the ability to develop and control physical skills. Learning how to stroke a ball has given me as much pleasure in its way as learning how to construct a novel. Being able to jump high — and effectively — at the net after all these earthbound years is like discovering a submerged continent. Perfecting the high-speed placement of a serve became even more enticing and absorbing last summer than finishing that novel. And intensifying this delight at unexpected self-discovery is the expectation at forty-one of at least a couple decades more of experiencing my body as, if not an instrument of grace, at least an instrument with more than half an octave.

There is, to be sure, as psychiatrist Roy Whitman declares, more than a touch of homicide in tennis, but there is also a quickening of life in the pursuit and pleasure of the game. Certainly more kinetic life than I had thought myself still capable of. I’m too old for LSD, and I wonder what would have become of me had it not been for tennis. Tim Leary has his religion, and now I have mine. Tennis Power! Better health through murder. And the corpses can so easily be replaced in cans of three.

Soon my sons will be old enough to start to learn. A Hentoff at Forest Hills! At Wimbledon! Vicarious Tennis Power! But, Dr. Whitman warns, those tennis players who are taught by their fathers achieve a sense of murderous satisfaction by decisively defeating the old boys once they have surpassed their fathers’ ability. This will come as no surprise to me. I have read The Golden Bough. But grant me life at least until my sons play Point O’ Woods.