March 7, 2012 | by A-J Aronstein
Three months before I was born, my father bought an eight-court outdoor tennis club on three acres of land in New Rochelle, New York. The club sits at the bottom of what amounts to a gully, down the block from a swampy lily pond that overflows during thunderstorms and floods the basements of the handsome Tudor homes in the neighborhood.
The courts themselves are made of a material called Har-Tru, a gray-green clay that smells like a mixture of coffee grounds and fresh-cut grass. It’s soft and easy on the knees, perfect for middle-aged investment bankers and ad executives but more difficult to maintain than hard courts.
When it rains, the material softens, expands like a sponge, and turns into a shallow lake. During dry spells, it gets chalky and swirls around on warm breezes. Like lunar dust, Har-Tru sticks to everything. It gunks up sneakers, stains white tennis shorts, and accumulates in socks. As a kid, over the course of a given summer, I’d transfer an entire court’s worth of Har-Tru to our living room.
The courts were our family’s livelihood; their quality was a matter of pride for my father. Like a farmer who knows the precise chemical composition of the soil in his fields, he could step out on the courts, sniff the air, and know whether to water them or let them bake in the sun. He never read weather reports (he called weathermen “crooks”) but developed meteorological instincts. He sensed drops in barometric pressure and intuited the approach of autumnal cold fronts.
“Rain’s coming,” he’d say, looking out over the courts like an Oklahoman homesteader.
Even when I went south to the University of Virginia, I found Har-Tru waiting for me. The company that manufactures it boasts on their homepage that Har-Tru comes from “billion-year-old Pre-Cambrian metabasalt found in the Blue Ridge Mountains.” I could have walked to their corporate headquarters from the center of campus. Charlottesville has brilliant sunsets thanks to the airborne coal dust carried on the wind from mines in West Virginia. I couldn’t help but stare at yellow-orange-pink skies over the Blue Ridge in autumn and think, Look at all that Har-Tru.
My father financed his acquisition of the club with a sizable loan from my grandfather, who had decades before taught him how to play. In the family’s preferred apocryphal rendering of the story, my grandfather, after filling out the loan paperwork at Bank of New York, drove himself to the hospital, dropped his pack of Pall Malls in the trash, and had a heart attack on a gurney in the emergency room.
He never smoked again.
And he was back on the court two months later. To miss a summer would have been out of the question. He’d spent his entire life playing tennis, and had a reputation for ugly but witheringly effective strokes. He sliced and chopped at the air, not so much beating opponents as rendering them insane with menacing angles and spins.
When my grandfather died this past January, my father buried him with a tennis racket and a purple and gold New Rochelle Tennis Club hat. The hat had a typo—a lowercase t in the word tennis—but my grandfather refused to stop wearing it. It wasn’t until my father told me about the racket in the coffin, when his voice wavered and he looked down at his feet, that I realized how pivotal tennis had been in their relationship—how important it had been to show his father he could build a business from the sport they both loved.
My dad never pressured me to play, perhaps because, more than anything else, he feared becoming a Tennis Parent: a particularly nasty breed of authoritarian, best known for the haunted looks of low-grade terror they produce in their children. At tournaments, one can reliably pick out Tennis Parents just by looking at their offspring. They were kids with steely, defiant eyes, primo gear, and meticulously coordinated outfits. Yet they walked hunched over, like they knew something about living under the thumb of oppressive regimes.
“If I ever do that to you,” my father once told me as we watched a furious Russian Tennis Parent lay into his son at a tournament, “kill me.”
I wanted to make him proud, but at no point in my career in the USTA Eastern Section did I demonstrate anything like the facility of a natural. Despite years of line drills, wind sprints, overheads, volleys, buckets of serves smacked into chain-link fences, cross-court ground strokes, and blistered appendages (and a disturbing tendency for my right pinky to lock in a claw-like grip), I wasn’t ever good at tennis. I had a flat but inconsistent forehand that I could hit extremely hard. And I could stay on the court indefinitely, wasting challengers through attrition and a distilled hatred of losing. But I had a spastic service motion and a perpetually in-progress backhand. I worried what spectators thought of my shorts and Har-Tru-covered socks (too short and too high, respectively), and I’d often turn to talk to whatever small crowds assembled to watch me self-destruct. As I got older, I got distracted more easily. I got down on myself. I was temperamental.
Never a racket thrower, but always a screamer.
I screamed when I shanked a forehand into low-Earth orbit and when I dumped a volley into the net. I screamed because tennis felt like an outlet for unspent energies and superfluous aggression. I screamed because it seemed cosmically unfair that I could be so bad at something, having put in so much time. And I screamed because it seemed to matter so much.
This, despite the Zen-inflected instruction of my sometime-coach, Glenn, who taught that mastery of tennis demanded constant repression of one’s preoccupation with success. Glenn was English. He studied law at Cambridge and was the son of a chocolate-factory owner. Rather than continuing in his family’s business, he moved to America and taught tennis with my father in the seventies. After a long radio silence, he showed up in New Rochelle in 1992 looking for work, and my father hired him.
Glenn cultivated the persona of a tennis intellectual—something more than the average tennis pro. He smoked Benson and Hedges, ate an alarming number of Kit-Kat Bars, and lived in Brooklyn. He collected art and quoted Fitzgerald. On the occasion of my sixth-grade graduation, he gave me an inscribed copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology. He commuted to the club every day wearing blazers over black T-shirts and pleated khaki slacks, making for an odd juxtaposition with my father, whom I never saw wearing anything but tennis whites in the months between May and November.
For Glenn, tennis was a purely mental game, its problems solvable through a personal variation on psychoanalysis. He broke down my own palsied serve into three movements, suggesting that I mouth the words “I. DON’T. CARE!” in rhythm with them. He added that I should shout CARE! as I smacked the ball toward the earth. By getting me to renounce my emotional attachment, I guess he thought that I could free up mental energies to enjoy myself. There was something intoxicating about the idea that the mind could exert too much control over the body and that there could be freedom from the mind’s tyranny in the ability to let the body take the helm.
But I never thought it was actually possible.
It wasn’t until years later, when I found David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis, that I encountered what seemed like a written version of Glenn’s approach. Wallace scrupulously details the sport’s Euclidian logic, its between-the-ears acrobatics, its mid-August sweatiness, its production of near-divine feats of athletic perfection. He obsesses over the labor and dedication necessary to become a world-class anything, and though he’s writing about tennis, he’s also writing about writing. The essays mattered to me precisely because of this connection, and I read them just as I was beginning to take my first stabs at translating childhood material into short fiction.
Yet for Wallace, tennis entails intense aloneness, standing seventy-eight feet away from one’s opponent, warring within and against one’s own brain. Tennis represents an entirely individual struggle to wrest control from the mind: to be at once fully conscious of oneself and yet able to stop thinking.
For me, tennis represented something else. Maybe history, inheritance. Maybe just trying to figure out what to pass on (a service motion, a slice backhand, a tennis club, a philosophy). I’m still figuring it out. Glenn died the same summer I started reading Wallace. My father scattered his ashes in the Har-Tru on court three, where Glenn tried to teach me not to care and seems to have taught me the opposite.
A-J Aronstein teaches writing at the University of Chicago.