There was a time when I, a racket-swinging free bird, knew all the names of the players in the major tennis tournaments. I experimented with Chris Evert’s two-handed backhand swing (it did not work for me), and groaned over John McEnroe’s angry antics.
Tennis, after all, was a gentleman’s game–even while I decried the sexism of that phrase.
And where did the concept gentleman’s game enter into the frantic fray between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, events meant more for show than for exhibiting skill? My friends and I debated, hotly, whether that whole extravaganza of showmanship helped or hurt the public perception of tennis.
I watched Wimbledon and the US Open avidly. I knew who was favored, and who might stage an exciting coup.
Then life swooped in, and the racket got hung in the shed, and obsession slipped into duty. So it was a wake-up moment to see, yesterday, the Lit Hub daily posting about the beginning of the US Open and ten tennis-related titles.
I got online to see who was playing. Eubanks? Sousa? Sela? I was shocked that none of the contenders’ name rang any familiarity bells, and I vowed to learn about the tennis world, 2017.
I opened the Lit Hub article and read about ten pieces of literature that revolve around tennis, noting two possible reads that sounded good–David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (something I surely should have read, somewhere along the line), and Andre Agassi’s memoir.
And I thought about two women writers I read when I was younger who drew me in because of their tennis roots.
The first, of course, was Anne Lamott, whose Crooked Little Heart is a novel about Rosie Ferguson, a lovable, capable tennis player who cheats, sometimes, to win. Like Rosie, Lamott was ranked among the top ten 8-16 year old players in the country (sfgate.com). Like Rosie, she sometimes cheated–calling, say, a shot that was clearly IN, out–to win.
And then she found a coach-teacher, according to faithandleadership.com, who emphasized the fun of the game over the competition. “It was about having a whole new mindfulness–a new value of play,” the website quotes Lamott. “It was about having more fun with the people you were playing with instead of trying to beat them.”
Lamott quit the tennis circuit at age 16 and turned increasingly to drugs and alcohol–even though, while using, she built herself a productive writing career. Sobercourage.com tells us she hit rock bottom on July 7, 1986; that was the day she picked up the phone and called the mentor who helped her brother get sober. She started on the recovery path, helped immeasurably by finding a church family that nourished and supported her healthiness.
Crooked Little Heart, which I ordered from a paperback book club when it came out back in 1998 or so, opened the door to Lamott’s other work. I used Bird by Bird in my writing classes. I was engaged and challenged by Traveling Mercies and her other spiritual non-fiction.
I can’t remember how I first came upon Alexandra Stoddard’s work–whether I stumbled over one of her books in the library, happened on it at a book sale, ordered it from that long-ago paperback club. Stoddard is an interior designer with a blue-blooded, east coast history. Her table linens probably cost more than my living room couch. When I was raising young kids and working and cooking quickie casseroles with hamburger and cream of mushroom soup, I would read her elegant essays about dignified living and groan in mock despair.
And yet. Something about her writing connected deeply. And Stoddard, too, was a tennis player as a girl, although a quick internet search doesn’t yield me much detail. A New York Times article from 2002 tells me that she had been a tennis player; she married her doubles partner, and they had two children, Alexandra and Brooke. And when she stopped playing tennis, the article says, the couple stopped being married. Later she married Peter Brown.
And I still love her books–Stoddard has written 30 or so–about living graciously, decorating with flair and panache, creating a home that reflects the people and the spirit nurtured there.
Tennis, in my experience, is a very creative, individual game. You can be brash and bold; you can be quiet and clever. You can crowd the net or swing strong from behind the furthest back nether regions of the court… You can craft your own authentic style and win the game. It’s not a stretch to think that many writers are tennis players, or that tennis is a wonderful literary metaphor.
So I’ll find Foster Wallace; I’ll read Agassi’s memoir. And today, I will flip to the sports page or get online, and I’ll start learning about the tennis greats of 2017. Maybe I’ll find a match to watch on TV. Although pickle ball may be more my forte as I boldly embark on retired life in my 60’s, it feels like a time to come full circle, to embrace the gifts that tennis bestows–on the court, on the screen, and between the pages.
Crooked Little Heart image taken from goodreads.com