Until last fall I can remember consciously thinking about tennis just two times in my life. The first was when I was nine or 10, and my mom briefly signed me up for lessons at the high school down the street. I hated it and the only thing I liked about it was a game my instructor had us play called “grand slam” where you would just hit the ball as hard as you can over the fence. I only did two or three of these and then just went back to playing Little League and CYO basketball and Donkey Kong 64 or whatever I was doing at the time.
The second was when I was in my last year of college and took a part-time job working as a homecare aide for an elderly man who had Parkinson’s. Two or three nights a week, for about three or four months, I would pop in a dinner his wife had pre-made for him and help him get to the bathroom safely. For the other three or four hours, we would watch the Tennis Channel, or more accurately I would zone out while he watched the Tennis Channel.
I didn’t think about tennis again for approximately nine years until this past fall, when I started playing with a few friends every weekend at a park near where I live. Much to my surprise, I took to it pretty much almost immediately.
Tennis is basically the ideal pandemic-era sport. It’s an excuse to get out of my house and see other people one or two times a week, which is even better because it’s people I actually like. It’s fairly cheap; all I need are sneakers, some tennis balls, and a racket, which runs about $30 for a cheap one. It’s a ball sport, which for me has always been the way I’ve gotten most of my exercise. And it’s safe, about as safe as one can be while playing a sport with other people during a pandemic because you’re outside and not really near each other. (I know this because one friend in my group got COVID and thankfully, none of the rest of us did. I’m a blogger by the way, not a doctor.)
I don’t exactly know what it is about the game itself that draws me to it. It’s a physical sport, one that requires endurance, quickness, power, and touch. It’s also to some extent strategic—picking and choosing your shots and anticipating your opponent’s shots, and making those decisions in a split second.
But every sport is both physical and strategic, at least to some extent, so that feels like a cop-out. At the very least, I know my favorite thing that happens in tennis is when I’m up on the net and the person I’m playing against is on their back foot and I hit a perfect drop shot, knowing they have no shot at getting there and realizing they gave up before it even hits the ground. The feeling of doing this and watching it unfold absolutely rules. It’s like hitting a three with someone’s hand in your face. It’s exhilarating.
But even beyond the pandemic, tennis has been a huge help for me personally, as someone who basically stopped exercising over the past few years. I’ve always had a weird relationship with my body, specifically my weight, but saw myself as a fairly healthy person because I played sports regularly (soccer, basketball….ultimate Frisbee…) well into my twenties and, well, I had no reason to believe otherwise.
I’ve been diagnosed with a couple of health issues over the past year, however, and living in and reporting on a respiratory illness that seems especially deadly for people who look like me every day has made me engage with my own mortality extremely frequently for some weird reason. I would not go as far as to say tennis has saved my life, but it’s something I’m able to do for exercise and something which motivates me to exercise outside of my one or two games per week, because stamina is obviously a very important part of the sport. So it’s obviously had a positive impact.
But whenever I get really excited about something, I go all in on it, and this brief tennis obsession has been no different. I watch videos on YouTube now to try to figure out how to make my serve better. I watch actual tennis matches—I’m sad to report that as a Philadelphia sports fan, watching Federer-Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final approximately 16 months late was the most thrilling sports viewing experience I’ve had in at least two years. Every once in a while I’ll spend an afternoon catching up on the good blogs on Defector’s tennis tag. I bought a tennis video game on the Playstation online store that makes my console run so hot it involuntarily shuts down halfway through a single game, and made a character that actually did not end up looking like me at all.
If this all sounds cringeworthy just think about how I feel, considering it’s my brain.
I hope that this is something I’ll keep doing after we’re able to go back to our lives and enjoy actual human connection that involves touch and extended time together inside and without masks. I can’t know that for sure until it happens, obviously. But even if I eventually get bored with this sport that I’d never felt any particular connection to prior to the age of 30, it has undoubtedly helped keep me sane during one of the strangest periods of my life. It’s funny how things work like that.