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It's Nelly's World

Down the Line

alec vanderboom

Sometimes whole chunks of life go missing, only to be retrieved in an unlikely spot (always, come to think of it, an unlikely spot; the likely yields little).  In this case, the locker room of the gym last night.


There, a little latch heretofore hidden was accidentally knocked free.  Then from behind the open lid spilled sheaves of memories, some stuck together from the heat and long storage.  This little latch was in the form of the socks I pulled on before heading to the treadmill, little white socks with pompoms on the back, not decoration (though certainly cute) but functional: nothing worse than having your socks creep down underneath your heels.  Later I would find myself thinking, On my deathbed, will I remember to thank tennis?  

Tennis, for the huge chunk of my young life it made thrillingly happy.

Sweat trickled relentlessly down skin, on face, arms, thighs.  The toweled elastics around the wrist were wiped across the brow; a few drops from the wet bangs fell into the eyes.  Granules from the Har-tru made their way into shoes.  And it was all good.  It was all sense, and sensuality.  The thwack of balls hitting the sweet spot, hard, echoed from courts all down the line.  We were inside the fence, and inside the experience.

All day long in the summers we took to the courts and played for hours at a stretch.  It was like a need, to hit hard and to hit true.  The reward center in the brain lit up like a pinball game when the shot was perfect, and you wanted it, required it, again and again, more and more.  The driving shot that skimmed the top of the net--glanced the wire--was the fix.

When the Virginia Slims women's tour came to town (imagine that! the quaintness of a sporting event organized to promote a tobacco product aimed at women--the logo was a willowy Jazz Age flapper with a chiffon scarf around her neck and a tennis racket resting insouciantly over a shoulder).  This was the age of the wooden racket, and the age of Billie Jean King, Chrissie Evert, and Martina Navratilova.  Oh, how great they were!  Finesse, guts, and power.  And we were watching so close (women's sports tours were a bust, the indoor stadiums largely empty throughout the days of practice and secondary matches) that we could feel the breeze from the swung racket against our cheeks.

The players were our idols, but they were humble.  They stopped to talk with us, and they signed anything we held out to them, in no hurry and on no thrones.

I saved my babysitting money and bought a Chris Evert Wilson.  It was forty dollars.  I can't remember how much I paid for this house three years ago (honest), but I will never forget how much that racket cost.  I developed a two-handed backhand.  The racket had a longer grip to accommodate two hands.  I also loved resetting my right hand--the web between thumb and forefinger positioned precisely over the second-widest flat--for the serve, even though my serve was never up to the rest of my game.  My overheads either.  Well, let's just say that half my game was okay, half not.  I just wanted to rally.  I didn't even really like playing games, and I frequently choked in competition.

I kept the racket in its press.  Probably it should be restrung.  Twenty-five years after I bought it, it didn't seem to work as well, and the metal racket (or whatever they're made of now) never worked for me, either.  But one never can blame the equipment.  Maybe I could get it back with practice, the sensation of the ball meeting the center of the strings, pausing infinitesimally in the pressure of their meeting, then flying.  Out, arced, and over.  The endless rhythm of the game, back and forth, the suspension of time in the heat-generating friction of the good swing, the ball sent to backcourt every time.