My brother is one of those motorheads who can identify any car on the street. I have no such powers, although I can identify any tennis racquet on the court—which mostly means: on television. Pro Staff, Blade, Pure Aero, Radical MP, Intelligence MP, Graphene 360, EXO Tour, VCORE, CX 200: these are what I call out when the tennis is on, these names which sometimes sound like cars, or aeroplanes, or music shows, or pseudo-scientific gimmickry.
I’ve lost interest now (though not entirely in the game): a stringer for the Australian Open told me the latest racquets are updated with little more than a fresh coat of paint. He also said that Philippoussis’s Dunlop is really a Head, Agassi spends around $200,000 a year on strings, and Serena Williams doesn’t know, or care, whether her racquets are strung at 40 or 60 lbs. It becomes clear—as is well known on internet forums—that pros don’t use what is sold in the shop: the model is extensively modified, or a totally different frame. In this way, perhaps, tennis approaches cosmetics: a player’s relation to a consumer racquet is like a celebrity’s to skincare. It is the endorsement, not use, that conjoins.
One of the few exceptions, the stringer said, was the French newcomer Babolat, actually used by Andy Roddick and selected out of dozens of racquets I had just demoed at the shop’s own tennis court. My forehand was (and is) nowhere as grooved as a pro’s, but it was revealing what difference the racquet could make. I would find the bottom of the net with Head, the back fence with Wilson, the service box with Yonex. Even my brother was intrigued. Babolat’s Pure Drive was less wayward, the Pure Drive Plus (the “Plus” denoting an extra half-inch on the handle) even better: a consistent ball near the baseline. It also had a nice pop on the first serve, heavy spin on the kick, and unusually good feel at the net.
Tennis professionals can be a finicky bunch, and no more so than when it comes to racquets. That’s because the racquet is an extension of the body, a virtual prosthesis, which inadequacies are manifest with every chafe, blister, callous, and slip of the grip. Unlike the weekend warrior, a tour player is arguably less able to adapt to a motley of cheap, badly strung racquets. An amateur can play with any racquet—contrary to popular adage. A professional’s body is highly calibrated to a single model, which is carefully tuned by weight, balance, and tension, and adjusted according to climate, match duration, and on-court rage. That explains why tennis pros are reluctant to change equipment. They might flirt with a few manufacturers, but the process is more like a prolonged courtship. It can be years before they’re ready to commit.
At John F. Kennedy International Airport, I waited for my Babolat Pure Drive Plus to emerge from the oversized baggage chute. Being too large for the cabin and too small for normal check-in, it had been carried over the Pacific in the company of skis, surfboards, golf clubs, televisions, and dubious cardboard boxes marked fragile. I was willing to deal with the inconvenience, however: I had won the racquet in a local tennis sweepstakes, submitting two distinct entries—mine and my brother’s—that charted alternative paths to the Wimbledon crown. Using this “system,” I managed to pick the 2002 singles winners—Lleyton Hewitt and Serena Williams—and predict a number of big upsets (which were awarded extra points). I was given the choice of any racquet as my reward: hence the store demo mentioned above. I should add here that the prize racquet was strung with baby-blue polyester from Luxilon—the brand costing Agassi and others a small fortune—and that shortly afterwards my game, bolstered by lessons from a former pro, started to improve quite noticeably.
I treated this racquet therefore, I think not unreasonably, as a sort of lucky charm, a sign that Fortuna occasionally smiled down on me. Doubly so, in fact, because I had arrived in the US through the unlikely circumstance of being admitted to a fancy school. As it turned out, graduate seminars weren’t as exhilarating as anticipated; and by the second year, Princeton (the town) had begun to feel insufferably university-centric (the gown).
I spent sunny afternoons on campus playing tennis with a medical researcher who had to wait for his lab cultures to bloom. As a literature student, I did not have any such excuses; that the pristine hardcourts were free to use (and largely unoccupied) were reason enough. In the winters, I attended group lessons at sauna-like indoor courts in the bowels of the Jadwin Gymnasium: again cost-free, again with fellow students, although I often ended up hitting with the coach. He was an older, affable, shrewd guy who had mastered, it seemed to me, the art of the dink. I mean this as a compliment. He would somehow return my best shots with ease, neutralising whatever spin or torque or speed with a simple, flat stroke that sent the ball high and deep. The harder I hit, the more risks I took, the farther back he’d stand, unfazed. It wasn’t long before I started to miss a lot and tire; miss because I was tiring. Sweat rapidly accumulated on my shirt.
When the session was over, we shook hands at the net, and he welcomed me to train with the junior varsity team. I was flattered but declined afterwards, on the cowardly premonition that my body wouldn’t be able to keep up.
In the City of New York the tennis courts are not free to use, so I had to purchase a season permit for $100 at one of the government park offices. This seemed reasonable to me, granted the number of residents here and the less agreeable option of paying each time or joining a private tennis club. The only problem now was finding someone to play with. So I did what anyone looking for a room to rent, a cheap futon, a free haircut, or a tennis partner did: I went on Craigslist.
One of the first ads I saw was looking for a “Female tennis player, 4.0 – 4.5 level, 5’6’’ +/-, size 0-4, 30 +/-, single, no children, easy on the eyes.” I wasn’t sure what this ad was for, since it quickly blurred the line between player and partner, tennis and dating, hitting and hitting on. I clicked through and discovered a picture of a pensive middle-aged Asian-American man called Angel Sing. I don’t know if that was his real name, maybe it was a stage name, or rather a screen name, because he made much of being a screen actor. Indeed, he was at pains to point out he’d starred in Pearl Harbor and Law & Order, although he neglected to mention that his respective roles were a “Japanese aide #2” (according to IMDb.com) and a certain “Mr. Y. M.” (for one episode). He also neglected to mention that he’d been cast in various films and TV shows as a grocer, a husband, a juror, an attorney, “Ron Lau,” an immigration lawyer, an Asian businessman, a gun dealer, and simply “Chang.” In other words, he’d had to settle for mostly bit parts given to non-martial-artist-Asian-American males.
I wonder how he felt about always playing the minor character. Perhaps he resented it, or perhaps the opposite was true: he’d come to cherish his minute-long reels, his close (but brief) interactions with Hollywood stars. A female friend said he came across as “desperate,” and maybe there was something to that: his inflated sense of worth made him a pitiable figure. At any rate, I was curious about meeting him and would’ve replied for kicks, were it not for him requiring a recent photo. After all, I satisfied pretty much all the criteria, and was regularly mistaken—with my long hair and skinny build—for a girl. As long as I didn’t get too close, my friend joked, he could delude himself into thinking that I was his perfect match +/-.
The United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) says that a player rated 5.0 has “good shot anticipation and frequently … an outstanding shot or attribute around which a game may be structured.” That sounded very accomplished to me, so I assessed myself as somewhere between 4.0 (“dependable strokes, including directional intent”) and 4.5 (“begun to master the use of power and spins … and is beginning to handle pace”). I replied to a few ads and put up one of my own, specifying my level (4.0-4.5), age (late 20s), gender (male), and ethnic background (Asian Australian). On reflection that last item seemed superfluous, so I reserved it solely for email exchange.
The first person who replied back to me was a guy called Eli who was a “4.0-4.5 player” and had “a pretty flexible schedule as well.” I needn’t have been so nervous when we met at the green wire gates at East River Park. Eli was tall and energetic and strong but clearly self-taught: for example, his single backhand needed serious reconstruction. He seemed to enjoy the session, though, and texted me back for another hit. Believing he’d egregiously inflated his rating, I ignored him and replied to another poster named Harry (“solid 4.0+m player”), a slight but fit, Southeast Asian male with greys on his pony tail. It had started raining near the agreed time, but we were on our way to Riverside Park (at 119th St.), winding down on foot to a valley which opened onto a partially obscured clearing—a flat expanse of blue tennis hardcourts.
The rain eased to a drizzle and we warmed up, half-court, him wielding a bright yellow Babolat Pure Aero Plus. The frame’s shaft was distinctly angular, unlike the curvier shaft of the Pure Drive—designed to increase Nadal’s already outrageous rate of spin. For a few months, I’d been experimenting with a Nadal-inspired forehand, the shot he’d lasso over his head when pushed wide, curling the ball around the post to land on the baseline corner. The basic shot was tricky to manoeuvre and straining on the bicep (my right, Nadal’s left). I was more proficient with imitating his regular forehand, which I practised at close range, the better to feel the movement of the strings. It’s something you see college players and sometimes pros do, this game of mini-tennis: a training in shape and touch and sensitivity, the ability to caress the ball.
Harry had solid strokes as advertised, but every now and then he’d mistime a shot. I could see he was concentrating a lot. After about ten minutes he said to me: you know, you’re not a 4.0, not even a 4.5. Really? I replied. Yeah, you’re definitely at least a 5.0—I can’t keep up with you. I mean, I can try, but I’m not going to be much of a match. Still, he continued, since we’re here, do you mind if we keep hitting? I don’t mind, I said, and we hit for a good hour before he seemed ragged.
I went home and updated my Craigslist ad.
I won’t bore you with all the details of my Craigslist-mediated tennis activity, the unanswered emails, the chats which went nowhere, the cryptic or misleading or disturbing ads, the awkward meetings when it’s obvious one of the parties has blatantly lied. The promising hitter who turns out to be a one-off, for reasons of work, rain, family commitments, bad traffic, laziness, other partners, change of mood, or something less articulable.
Most of the 5.0 pluses were male: former varsity players holding down jobs somewhere in a cubicle in this vast metropolis, or maybe a slightly ampler cubicle in “uptown” New York, say Yonkers. In truth, I didn’t really know, most of them didn’t really talk about it; and the one whom I ended up playing with more than once (actually several times) wasn’t one of those keyboard-tapping-mouse-clicking-foot-twitching office workers; no, he was a bouncer. That was Pablo.
Pablo was at least 6’1” and had an extremely fast serve. I’m sure it clocked over 200 kilometres per hour (~125 m.p.h.)—it felt among the fastest I’d ever faced––and it snapped my strings on two occasions. One of the park rangers would periodically come out of her hut to witness and remark on its speed, the crisp burst of sound it made. At first the serve was a blur, and then an interesting challenge: a sort of game of whether I could mentally hone in onto the ball and react.
Afterwards, Pablo and I would talk as he straddled on his bike before taking off downtown. I asked him about his serve, how he executed it, and he said he imagined he was drawing a long bow. He looked very much like an archer when he demonstrated, backpack slung as if it contained arrows. We talked about other things too, probably about his job, the troublesome customers at the bar, the late hours he had to work. Pablo had been on the varsity tennis team at a small Catholic college, but his Jesuit training had somehow fallen by the wayside. Instead, he was valued by New Yorkers for his physical rigour, which was offset by his dark and curly hair and his friendly nature. My muscles worked overtime whenever we played, but he treated me as an equal; we hit regularly over a couple of months, both singles and doubles (when a few of his tennis friends showed up); and then he vanished.
I never got to visit the bar that Pablo manned. I think it was downtown, but I don’t recall the name, or didn’t hear it properly, or maybe it was that he’d forgotten to tell me. It was too late for all that now. I’d moved on and found a new tennis partner.
Buku was her name, a determined woman who’d played juniors in India and was resuming tennis after a college-length hiatus. A foreigner too, she’d had trouble determining her NTRP, which was compounded, in her words, by many on Craigslist “who are not really at the level they say they are.” She was a 5.0 + player all right, but also 5’0” +/-, which gave me a decided advantage on the bouncy hardcourts of Riverside Park. No matter how perfect her groundstrokes (her backhand reminded me of Vera Zvonareva’s), there was little she could do about my excessively looped forehands. She’d meticulously line up her swing, only to find the ball jump off the court and over her head.
She saw the humour in this, laughing as she swung the air, the ball rebounding off the back wall. We gradually adjusted to each other’s game, well enough to rally some; and when the sun had broken through the clouds, we took short breaks and talked about contemporary literature and the height of opponents she faced at tournaments. Not much later, I’d find out my heavy topspin was not so effective against taller players, who’d swat it away with ease.
We didn’t end up playing too many times. She didn’t exactly vanish like Pablo, but a miss here and there, really no one’s fault, had a way of cultivating absence, and then indifference. By now, the casual tennis encounter had enervated me. Even the early excitement had become wearisome. For what lay ahead but delays, no-shows, late apologies, and disappeared partners?
I was about to give up when a friend mentioned that her friend and roommate was looking for a tennis partner. I’d met this roommate under less palatable circumstances, as the one who’d poured tap water into her ramen. But I was willing to forgive, just as she was willing to believe I could actually play. I couldn’t blame others for doubting: I affected a fragile, bookish demeanour which my wiry frame did nothing to dispute.
She was employed to buy kitchenware for a celebrity line at a major department store in midtown, a detail that’s irrelevant here. Like some of her friends, I saw her through the lens of college: a varsity athlete who won through dogged consistency. As it turns out, this made for an even match, especially on the dry and less bouncy clay of Riverside Park (at 96th St.). The court sessions here were scrupulously regulated at hourly intervals, and we had to go early on Saturdays to book and wait and stretch and talk and watch joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers traverse the length of the boulevard, riding the seam of the Hudson River.
We played for most of the summer, and then the fall, until the cold signalled that tennis season was over. And then I left the city, and so did she, for our respective homes.