Twice a week, I play in an advanced-level clinic at Neighborhood Tennis in Coral Gables. Recently, I partnered with a guy who didn’t seem to trust our coach’s scorekeeping and shouted the score after every point. He didn’t trust the coach’s line-calls either and argued over every ball that landed near the line. This guy cared way too much about winning.
Why did I care so much?
Winners stayed on court one. Losers dropped down to court two, then three. After I hit several easy forehands into the net and missed two volleys I should have put away, my partner and I dropped to court three. When I miss-hit a backhand that sailed out, I flung my racket into the back fence.
My partner asked if I was okay and I felt so embarrassed and not because I caused our losses, but because I was a worse bad-sport than he was. Why did I care so much?
I started playing tennis at 10 and played through college. I played in tournaments around the state and built a junior tennis career. I was gunning for Wimbledon.
Tennis was what I was good at. When I played poorly, it meant that maybe I wasn’t good at anything.
At one point, I made top 10 in Florida. But I was always a bad sport. I threw my racket, screamed, and cried when I lost. I got point penalties, game penalties, set penalties. Once, a disciplinary representative from the United States Tennis Association came to our house to reprimand me. My parents were probably embarrassed and obviously pissed. They made me work to buy my own rackets, which when I started in the late ‘70s, were made of wood. So, I washed a lot of cars in the neighborhood to keep up with all the rackets I shattered.
Back then, I never questioned why I acted like such a shit. I thought I just wanted to win. And there was John McEnroe, infamous for temper tantrums. He was my role model. He was number one in the world.
Now, at 54, I know there was more to my behavior than just wanting to win. Tennis was what I was good at, and when I played poorly, it meant that maybe I wasn’t good at anything.
I played well enough to get a ticket to a good college, then after graduation, I quit.
For 25 years, I rarely played. If I did play, I missed shots I knew I should make. I figured, if I wasn’t what I once was, I’d rather not play at all.
For me, tennis isn’t just a game.
Then, about five years ago, a friend asked me to hit. She didn’t grow up playing, so I said no. I wasn’t polite. We’re good friends so I told her the truth: that I don’t play with beginners. Tennis players—I mean, those of us who played seriously as kids—don’t go out and play for fun. This might also be true for any sport, but for me, tennis isn’t just a game.
My friend assured me one tennis-hour with her would not be a waste of time. Turns out, she’s pretty good.
The first time we played, I wasn’t what I was, but tennis is like a language. If you learned it as a kid, you always have a higher baseline than someone who didn’t play growing up. At that point, in my late 40s, I couldn’t run down every ball or outlast any opponent, yet for some reason, my expectations changed and I actually had fun.
These days, I love sliding for a ball almost out of reach. I love the feeling of a forehand hit just right.
Who’s the Bad Sport Now?
When a woman a few years younger than I am, always in a perfectly matching tennis outfit—always Nike, always Dri-fit, always a tank and skirt—asked me to play outside of clinic, I thought: I still have it!
She got us a court at her club and within minutes, she took a three-game lead. But then she double-faulted and I sensed a weakness. I hit every ball to her backhand until we were tied four-all. Then she hit a drop shot I scooped up and barely got over the net. She missed my return and banged the net with her racket. I know this anger well.
She said, “The ball bounced twice.” The weird part was she played my shot. When she missed, she backtracked.
I said, “Let’s play it over,” which is standard tennis etiquette.
She said, “No, it’s my point.”
I know I said tennis isn’t just a game, but of course tennis is just a game, so, I gave her the point. That doesn’t mean I didn’t run her ass into the ground.
The Aging Athlete
Last week, at the clinic, I played singles against a man with a backhand slice. Every player in the generation before me, hit a backhand slice, which is how I could tell he was in his 60s. Every time he missed, he yelled, “Come on now!”
I’m still a bad sport like I’ve always been, but now I understand why.
We were playing a game to 11. I led eight-four when he called one of my balls out. Sure, my shot might have been out, but it probably wasn’t. We were playing on clay courts, and when a ball lands on clay, it leaves an obvious mark. I could see the mark.
This time, instead of bearing down to kick his ass, I let up. His bad call broke my heart. I understood.
I’m still a bad sport like I’ve always been, but now I understand why. I’ve had some successes since tennis. But I’ve never gotten as good at anything else. Now, when tennis comes back to me, I’m that player again. Without it, I feel ordinary.
No one at the clinic is gunning for Wimbledon, anymore, but the aging athlete with the backhand slice comes to the tennis clinic for the same reason as the woman in the perfect outfit, for the same reason as I do. Because we were once excellent at tennis—at something—and now we’re desperately trying to keep that ball in play.