September 10, 2012 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
At its best, my slice backhand follows the flamboyant path of a violin virtuoso’s bow striking the climactic note of a concerto—from above my right shoulder plucked diagonally down to my left shoestring. The ball’s tone is a hollow pok on hard courts and a chalky chh-chh on clay that dies on the second bounce. All these dramatics—mere vestiges of a time when I wanted to impress Angela, my middle school crush.
Angela played number one singles on the undefeated coed spring team at our private school in Princeton, New Jersey. Her long Italian American locks springing along with her high jumping-forehand, her second serve ball tucked in the spandex beneath her pristine tennis skirt—she was a vision of beauty to watch. Her movement around the court traced the Etch A Sketch path of someone fully in control of the game’s portrait.
In Lolita, Humbert Humbert describes how Dolores Haze plays singles at least twice a week with a classmate, Linda Hall, employing teasing tactics against her and “toying with [her] (and being beaten by her).” The particular beauty of Dolores's tennis game is, for Humbert, a prerequisite for an amenable afterlife, or so he whimsically hyperbolizes one crisp afternoon as Dolores plays in Colorado: “No hereafter is acceptable if it does not produce her as she was then, in that Colorado resort between Snow and Elphinstone, with everything right …”
The rightness encompasses all his senses: “The exquisite clarity of all her movements had its auditory counterpart in the pure ringing sound of her every stroke.” Not only is there acoustic beauty in the musicality of her hits but also riveting elegance to her movements: her serve has “beauty, directness, youth, a classical purity of trajectory” while “her forehand and backhand drives…were mirror images of one another.” As any player knows, this type of equilibrium raises the serotonin in the brain, makes the world seem ordered, cements the visuals into our heads so firmly that years later we can reflect upon those moments of total harmony. This is what I found so exciting in my own youth, and as Nabokov perhaps implies, with tennis’s peculiar focus on both finesse and power, it’s perhaps no surprise that the game includes erotic grunting—uvularly high-pitched, ecstatic screams on the women’s side and heaving-throatiness on the men’s.
Angela had that peculiar schoolgirl gift of early development, wherein she stood in contrast to those girls whose chests were as flat as their backhands. (Oh, for those days of the nineties—before the term badonk sullied the national discourse—when the appreciation of a perfectly round posterior was not the purview of the tabloids but seemed something of holy value.) And for me, her beauty was indistinguishable from her beautiful game. As Humbert notes with Lolita, his playing allows him to control her beauty: “At match point, her second serve, which—rather typically—was even stronger and more stylish than her first… would strike vibrantly the harp-cord of the net—and ricochet out of the court. The polished gem of her dropshot was snapped up and put away by an opponent who seemed four-legged and wielding a crooked paddle. Her dramatic drives and lovely volleys would candidly fall at his feet.”
Lolita is dogged on her second serve and then dainty and “lovely” on her shots, so that the game appears to be between her, a fragile beauty, and her opponent, a “four-legged” beast who disavows himself of her shots in flippant put-aways.
I thought perhaps entertaining Angela in a tennis match would allow for a similar sort of fleeting brush with beauty—if not a full-on seduction. But once the invitation had been made, the gauntlet dropped by the boy with the devastating auburn bowl-cut, Ang beat me left-handed—toying with me, luring me in with a drop shot and then, with a quick flick of her wrist, looping me back to chase down a lob. She goose-egged me in the match (”love” in tennis, indeed, comes from the French l’oeuf), something she reminded me of constantly in the type of teasing flirtation that ricochets across a middle school hallway in general and particularly ours, the locker-slamming 100-person thoroughfare.
In Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, Neil Klugman narrates as Brenda Patimkin completes her tennis match in the same confident manner Angela did—calling out “one more game” when she is close to winning, committed to victory and beauty as twin goals. “Her passion for winning a point seemed outmatched by an even stronger passion for maintaining her beauty as it was,” Neil says of Brenda. “I suspected that the red print of a tennis ball on her cheek would pain her more than losing all the points in the world.”
With Angela, that beauty could be striking even from the distance across the net and even more so in our narrow row of lockers, where I once brought her a CVS assorted-chocolate box for Valentine’s Day and gave it to her as she was spinning her combination lock. I remember teachers looking on with amusement and her perfunctory thank you. There was no true purpose to the gesture, other than reaching—like a cross-stepped volley—for some vaguely conceived-of chivalry, an homage to her beauty. But it was so much more than that.
There is a mathematical brilliance to a good tennis game that David Foster Wallace describes in Infinite Jest, and Angela’s ability to dictate play on the court suggested her mental formidability. In the novel, James Incandenza’s father tells ten-year-old Jim about his own views on the otherworldly, physics-bending elements of tennis, which are so beautiful they’re magical: “You enter a trance...You slip into the clear current of back and forth, making X’s and L’s across the harsh rough bright green asphalt surface, your sweat the same temperature as your skin, playing with such ease and total mindless effortless effort and and and entranced concentration … You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. Nothing touches it, when it’s right.” Angela’s magical ability to attain a “total mindless effortless effort” made my neurotic, racquet-throwing heart quicken with admiration and envy. It is these moments that our minds can preserve—these moments of harmony, where the physical induces the mental into a trance, and where the past and future congeal with each dusty smack of beauty.