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Tennis above the Net - A look at the sport of tennis with its mannerism and perceptions.
by John Joyce

Writing about tennis is easy, but playing it well is difficult, and I know if I am too critical of the sport and its players, then I risk not playing very often as nobody will want to play with me. But since this article does not offer advice on how to improve one's tennis game, most tennis players are unlikely to read it. Tennis players are interested in only two things: how to improve their game, and their next game.

We have all seen one of those 1930's Agatha Christie plays or films that have 40-year-old couples wearing long white sport clothing and lobbing a few "darlings" at each other while drinking gin and orange at their Dorset Cottage. Maybe tennis epitomizes the long gone British Colonial days? You still see some players wearing long whites in July and there is always one South African player walking around with a pure white jumper. No one plays with wooden rackets, white balls, or wears white plimsolls anymore, but there does seem to be a frozen-in-time feeling to the sport.

I recently asked some young snowboarders on a quad chair at Sun Peaks what they thought about tennis. Of course there was the usual lack of enthusiasm to talk with anyone over eighteen. They said they knew some kids who once tried tennis and one of them had an uncle who played. There was no interest in tennis as it had no resemblance to anything extreme. It is a pity since I have often witnessed young men playing singles whose athleticism and valour would outdistance most hockey players.

A popular television image of tennis is one of tanned and toned girls dressed in tight clothing, adjusting their underwear every four minutes. This is not IMAX material. Regardless of how the sport is painted, it persists in having an indolent and retiree image. How often have you picked up a brochure promoting an adult community resort with smiling 55 year olds standing in new tennis shoes and holding tennis rackets? Now for next year's photograph can we have a picture of them on the court serving and doing overhead smashes, please! It would sell the sport, and the resort, much better. Then there are of course the tennis girls. They claim that they "don't work." Some of them even boast that they have "never worked." If they had not married, well, I am not sure what they would have done. When not walking off the court they are either shopping for tennis clothes or taking a Pilates 2 class.

The 37 tennis matches from the Professional Tour fuel tennis players of all ilks. The so called "Grand Slams" of tennis eclipse all other matches, prompting tennis enthusiasts to have a stack of blank videotapes or a new CD burner hooked up sufficiently. The tennis year commences on a hard court at Melbourne Park, Australia: in late May it moves to clay at Roland Garros, Paris. Six weeks before the first Monday in August, tennis talk is grass at Wimbledon. The rowdy US Open takes place at Flushing Meadows, New York, on another kind of hard court. Tennis players like to attend live tennis matches, especially if there is a famous player to be seen.

Tennis players watch a lot of tennis on television and excitingly relive the details of games between Roger Federer and Tim Henman, including all the break points and tie breakers: 7-6(3), 7-6(6) - can you tell who won? Tennis players know the difference between Venus Williams and Serena Williams and know that Roger Federer comes from Switzerland and Ivan Ljubicic from Croatia but lives in Monte Carlo. Greg Rusedski? Bit of confusion here; he comes from Quebec but plays for England and is even part of the Sir Cliff Richard's Tennis Foundation!

Women's singles tennis is more interesting than men's singles because the women tend to have longer rallies then the men, who serve and volley, or just serve very hard, and move onto the next point. But the mystique of men's singles remains. Of course no one is interested in watching doubles, especially mixed doubles. Really though, can you name any top doubles players besides Grant Connell and...? I agree doubles is tactical, fun, and social, but still no one cares or wants to watch it. Tennis players have a guilt complex about watching so much tennis but remain in the fantasy that it will help their tennis game. That's like thinking that just because you watch Lance Armstrong during the Tour de France you will be a better cyclist.

The tennis court you play on is 60' X 120' but unlikely to be grass or clay acrylic-cushioned surface. The net is 36 inches at the centre and 42 inches at the sides. Yes, that is why going down the line is more difficult. The neighbouring court is a minimum of 12 feet away even though older mismatched tennis balls will constantly roll onto your court. The tennis court might be at a vacation resort, posh tennis club in debt, or low budget tennis club with serious term deposits.

Why join a tennis club? Possibly you wish to give money to an organization that in turn will be rude to you. It used to be prestigious to belong to a tennis club just like membership to an exclusive golf club. Another reason of course is to find tennis partners. But that doesn't really work well. The best way to play lots of tennis at a tennis club is for you and your friends to all join up together. Just check with whom you are playing after two years. Anyone new?

If you don't live in Nice, San Diego, or Maui, then you will likely want access to indoor tennis courts. But of course all the time you play inside you want to be outside. When tennis players are inside they complain about the light, heat, and noise from players in the third court who appear to be enjoying themselves. Of course you must not appear to enjoy yourself. Oh no! Sometimes you will hear a tennis player talking harshly and being very critical. At first it is not clear whom they are addressing, but then you realize they are doing it to themselves. They are coaching themselves and it must be good as no one says it's wrong, along with grunting and other sounds. But if you laugh or congratulate your opponent you will be asked to keep quiet.

Your court is probably outside, provided free by the municipality. When tennis was more popular it was difficult to find a free court, but now it's easy, except during the Wimbledon Fortnight, again, six weeks before the first Monday in August. Playing outside is fraught with difficulties. It might rain on the way to the court or sort of try to rain while playing. The net may not be regulation height and could fall before lunchtime. There is one puddle in the corner that can't possibly disturb the game, except it has a black hole effect on your new Fort3 tennis balls, which in turn dirty your freshly laundered grey and white shorts. And then while picking up one of these stray balls from a bush you disturb a wasp's nest; one of the wasps taunts you, invades your new well-coordinated tennis clothes, and finally stings you.

The sun comes out, along with an eight knot south westerly fit for kite board sailors; hitting tennis balls off your orange Radical7 with a tension of 50 lbs becomes a random and rare occasion. Insects get in your eyes. Dogs may appear and later their owners. Now come crying children with little rackets. An uncle starts giving a tennis lesson to his five-year-old nephew in loud Croatian. Some reversed baseball-capped skate boarders perch on Councillor Cyril Tyring's commemorative $2400.00 park bench and break all sections of the noise bylaws with their portable rap music machine. Basketball youths who had friends on Sun Peaks Quad Chair appear from nowhere. They have near future plans on the courts, which do not involve the nets. They bounce a regulation size ball to a four-count beat. All one needs now is for the Shriners to strike up the band, but a train goes by for an interminable period, drowning out sound on earth forever.

There is tennis talk and tennis walk, and it helps to know them both. Tennis talk is quite easy really: (1) know which major games are taking place, watch the first ten minutes and ask how Tim Henman did; (2) know the names of two or three tennis pros and speculate how good a player they used to be; and (3) say you stopped using your arm last year and now have to rely on your torso, and that you have been trying to take the ball early. You can mention your latest injury and which physiotherapist you visited, but don't bring up other aliments. You can mention down hill skiing but not other sports like cycling, basketball, trail running, rock climbing, or swimming. Sort of makes tennis players a little edgy, as they tend to only play tennis.

Remember many tennis players are looking for ways to dislike you, so you might as well leave it to playing and not to the talk. Unless you are a rock star or the Mayor I suggest you don't mention your job, as most people won't understand what you do and again it makes tennis players a little uneasy. Why? Well, to put it diplomatically, many tennis players do not appear to be career oriented. You also risk being interviewed in between serves by some Vice President or other big hitter.

The walk is harder than the talk. The tennis walk is confident but not rushing. Now be careful when opening doors and gates; carry the designer tennis bag on your shoulder, not in your hand, and ensure nothing is dropped, especially ... You must not run, as this is not the transitional stage of a triathlon. You are meant to be thinking. And don't look around too much. Be careful to whom you nod and say hello and never hold any long conversations. Try not to walk on the court alone or else people will think you are taking a lesson or looking for the ball machine. Conversely, leave the court with someone; it makes you look popular and shows that you did not fight with your partner. You are looking for your next game? Aren't you?

Let's talk about tennis personalities. As soon as you start playing tennis, even if it's after a day or so on vacation, the following personalities will emerge:

The tennis pro. What a job. He has to get along with everyone. Can you imagine dealing one minute with cap-reversed 16-year-old potential champions who would beat up any snow boarders or hockey players, and then having to talk attentively with Dr. and Mrs. Sinclair Lloyd-George, retired, who need a fourth for their Tuesday morning mixed doubles and yet more advice on buying a new racket because everyone else at their new Parksville vacation home is thinking of buying a new racket. What a job, accurately feeding tennis balls to privileged people while standing in the hot sun and having to utter words of encouragement like "good shot" or "almost." Look at Assistant Coach Peter! If he does not pay attention he can get killed with the return of a fastball. Look at Coach Henry.

There is always a Coach Henry. From Eastbourne to Melbourne, Coach Henry has been there. Henry knows which station to get off for Wimbledon and where to find the players entrance at Flushing Meadows. He knows Peter Burwash and helped Brad Gilbert write books with titles like "Winning Ugly at Tennis." He was often Grant Connell's double tennis partner but it is not clear where. Tennis professionals garner prestige and satisfaction by coaching winning juniors, and Coach Henry has coached most, and if he had coached the others they would have gone much further.

Now, William J. Spaford is results-oriented and sets non-negotiable goals for himself and everyone else. His business card says Vice President of Operations, Pacific North West Region, M.B.A. (Simon Fraser), B.Sc (Hons) (Waterloo), P.Eng...C.A. He expects the Certified National Level 3 Coach to be on the court at 6:50 am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. His game will improve if he knows what has to be done. William J. Spaford was introduced to tennis at a team building executive seminar in Whistler last spring and now he has as many rackets as degrees. He networks with a select group of business associates who had better not make bad line calls. At 49 years old he loves the game and plays 21 hours a week not including lessons. Coach Henry craftily dumped William J. Spaford onto Assistant Coach Peter who knows it won't be long before William J. Spaford will visit Anne Marie Ginnerly at the bottom of Lonsdale Road.

Anne Marie is the secret love of Assistant Coach Peter and runs the Allied Sports and Orthopaedic Physiotherapy Clinic. Anne Marie did a great job with Assistant Coach Peter's shoulder last June and treats many zealous tennis players. By the time William J. Spaford sees Anne Marie he will have developed acute tennis elbow due to overuse, and Assistant Coach Peter will be rid of "Billy Boy." Assistant Coach Peter will then stay in bed longer and help with the ladies 3.5 clinic at 10 am on Mondays where he has been learning Spanish. After six months of treatments at two other physiotherapy clinics plus four visits to the Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Clinic, William J. Spaford will forget about tennis and become a member of the crew in the 62 Swiftsure Yacht Race.

Then there is Ms. Martha Dobson. She was before my time and I never met her but I feel as if I did. The story goes that one day she appeared from nowhere and in no time the local tennis galaxy revolved about her. All agreed she was more pleasing to deal with and look at than William J. Spaford. She was tall, thin, with wavy red hair, this or that side of forty, and had an unusual accent - South African some said. She took up tennis after her divorce. She played tennis constantly for eighteen months and hosted several salmon barbecues where she showed her horse photographs and trophies. Martha had ridden horses since she was five and been a winning horse jumper. Part of the messy settlement was the BMW, the big house on Capilano Road, and a tennis membership with twice weekly lessons. It was said that Coach Henry pulled rank and gave most of the lessons himself even though Ms. Maratha Dobson was clearly more fond of Assistant Coach Peter. Then it happened suddenly; one Saturday morning she fell, hurt her back, and was never seen again. A mysterious man took her home that morning. He seemed to be quite uncomfortable meeting the other players. Two years later, Assistant Coach Peter said he had encountered Ms. Maratha Dobson at the Kamloops Airport, and that she appeared happy and was now living on a ranch. Tennis was a mere passage of time for William J. Spaford and Ms. Martha Dobson. They came and went.

But other tennis personalities are perennial. There is always Hutterite Jake, who brings two or three large bags plus layers of coats when he enters the court. I am sure Hutterite Jake would be glad to share the bench, but there really is no room. He may, or may not bring the family and cousins to watch the game, but they will be around somewhere. Hutterite Jake is the antithesis of Thin Ron.

If Thin Ron comes with a racket and no cover and only five minutes late then things are going well. Normally Thin Ron appears ten minutes late with no racket. Most tennis folk give zero thought to sailing the Atlantic single-handed and I am sure Thin Ron is the same, except that he adds buying tennis balls to this pattern of thought. Thin Ron has a killer overhead, and if he gets his first serve in you will be a hero if you can return it. Thin Ron is always a delight to have around.

Commentary Penelope will any day now be joining BCTV Tennis Sports Channel. Then at least she'd get paid for her real-time run down on what she is doing plus what everyone else is doing, including on the next court; "On that shot you should have gone down the line, not enough top spin. I used to volley like that." When not showing you her new serving grip, Commentary Penelope will remind you of all the people she does not want to play with and why; "Too much lopping and they talk in between shots." As long as you ignore Commentary Penelope everything is fine and she does know the score at any given time and whose turn it is to serve in a doubles game.

Silent Philip. I thought that might be me, but no, Silent Philip is just that, silent. He is punctual and pops a new can of balls and gets on with tennis as if he was cleaning out the shed. You always have the feeling he is upset at you or something, but Silent Philip is just into the game and Commentary Penelope says they communicate well.

Technical Bernard has a M.Sc in structural engineering and runs the material testing laboratory at NRC, out UBC way. Before you have a chance to mention Maria Sharapova or Daniel Nestor, Technical Bernard is measuring and adjusting the net with tools that even Hutterite Jake does not carry in his bags. If there is an assortment of balls then Technical Bernard will conduct tests and, if allowed, catalogue them. His hero is Newton and he talks about hoping to get an "e" near to 1 but will live with 0.9. Technical Bernard constructed and patented his own squeeze broom that can remove puddles at an alarming rate. Any tennis group is fortunate to have a Technical Bernard.

Some sports observers claim tennis declined when non-clamorous champions came on the scene. No one could ever fault the tennis quality from Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, and Martina Navratilova, but there was no glitter here. That has changed with the girls but it's too late for the sport to grow; other pursuits have eclipsed it. Golf? Rafael Nadal, the 19-year-old Spaniard triumphed at the 2005 French Open and gave the sport a short boost and Roger Federer might be the Tiger Woods of tennis.

Despite all this, tennis can be fun and I like it. As predicted, my tennis buddies have not read this article; I have a singles game with Thin Ron this afternoon, and Hutterite Jake e-mailed to say it's a go with Commentary Penelope and Silent Philip for Saturday's doubles. Could there be a match point there? Well, who would dare not to invite Commentary Penelope?

Sometimes I still think of Ms. Martha Dobson, even though I never met her. Can't explain why, but I do hope she is happy. Now I had better check that I have new balls for my game with Thin Ron...

John Joyce is a featured writer at Altus Arts Company, Literary Agency.

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