August 27, 2004

Hard Courts

Just got back from a tennis session, with the same thought I have after too many sessions: Tennis players, at least at the club I play at, have got to be some of the crummiest dudes in the world.

Entries from a long catalogue of complaints, below:

Item, oafish partner. Four of us get up to play doubles. Trading practice shots, my partner, a local executive, waves imperiously across the net. "Hey you!" he shouts at one of our opponents, a dentist. "You better sit down, you're not as good as us!" Am I hearing right? Am I on Candid Camera? It's not as if the oaf is McEnroe reborn -- he is lousy at the game, period. But that's hardly the point. That he thinks he can say this has me spluttering in outrage.

Item, smooth-stroking clod. One evening, I find just one other player: this late-teens hotshot, practicing his serve. I pick up a ball that thuds into the fence; returning it, I ask: "Wanna hit a few?" "No thanks," says hotshot, "I can't walk today." He doesn't look incapacitated, but there it is. I shrug and walk to the wall to work on my forehand. Fifteen minutes later, the young lady he often plays with arrives. Whatever his disease, she is a speedy cure. An hour later, when I leave for home, hotshot is still zipping about. I compliment him on his miraculous recovery.

Item, nose-in-the-air sisters. Superb players both, I would regularly hit with them in their younger days. Once, their mother, watching us like a mother hawk, urged them to move up, take the ball in the air, put it away. "Like he does!" she shouted, pointing at me; which minor recognition of one of my few skills pleased me no end. But at some point as the girls grew through the age rankings and began winning tournaments, they became too good for us. Not so much on the court as in their pretty, and pretty empty, heads. I recently watched them snicker at a not-quite-as-proficient older man on court with them. It saddened me. No more hitting with me either. They look through me now, ma too, as if we don't know each other.

Maybe we don't.

Naturally I wonder if all this has to do with me. But it's happened so often, over so long, and so many have noticed it, that I can't help asking: what is it about tennis players in Bombay? What turns too many of them
into uncouth cads on court? Why the arrogance about their ability, whatever it is?

Now I'm no McEnroe either. But when I'm fit and playing regularly, I'm a decent player; I feel able to knock with anyone, and have done so with some very fine players. I'm better than the executive oaf; not quite there with hotshot and the sisters, but I can give them a run-around.

Yet that's beside the point. For one thing, you improve at tennis by playing better players. I learned tennis that way; it's what any top player will advise. But that can't happen if better players are too snooty to play, too willing to snicker. For another, again as any top player will advise, you learn even when playing beginners: how to control your shots, generate your own pace, so on.

Therefore, play with anyone. I learned that way too.

Yet that's also beside the point. This is a game, after all. Like all games, it both reflects and holds lessons for more mundane sectors of our lives. "A player's personality [and character] can shine through on a tennis court," wrote one of the greatest, Martina Navratilova, "and not only when she loses."

So if on court we are selfish, inconsiderate, intolerant and generally insufferable -- well, look for those charms to shine through off the court too.


ak said...

This happens too many times and in too many places. But I've been quite lucky as far as snobbishness on courts and fields is concerned. I manage to get along quite well with the IITK guys and play with them whenever I want.
I don't know why you have a problem if you're a decent player. If somebody can't play, I can still understand because the better players will get bored.

Theorem: A very good player doesn't find it boring to play with a good player, but a good player does find it boring to play with a bad one.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Yeah, but Anirudh, my feeling is the truly good players know that there's value in playing with much worse guys too. OK, perhaps at a minimum you want your opponent to get the ball back across the net. But given that, you can find ways not to be bored.

ak said...

Yeah, Nachu has had to play left-handed with a few guys sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Paul Elvstrom, one of the great sailors ever, said something to the effect of: If, in winning, you have not won the respect of your competitors, then you have won nothing at all.