By my sixty-eighth birthday I still did not even know how to score the game. What did love, deuce and ad mean? Why were there ad courts and deuce courts? What was all this stuff about ad in ad out? Why did you have to hit the ball before it bounced a second time? Why did they want to tell me that I faulted, then double faulted? Why was the score sometimes fifteen forty, and at other times the same score was five forty? Or why was the score thirty love instead of just thirty zero? Why could not these people on the tennis courts just speak good old American?
The game was a complete mystery to me, but it seemed to be fun to play if I could find some good natured folks to teach me how to understand the scoring and play the game.
My wife, Karen, had played tennis all her life and was good at it. She convinced me that in my dotage, the game would be good for me. It would improve my mental and physical health and well-being. She even hoped it would assist me in developing a better disposition.
We had played golf at the Plantation Golf Course on the West Bank in New Orleans. Plantation, despite its seductive name, was a spartan place. The fairways were as hard as concrete highways. The only water hazard was a drainage canal at the back of the course. The only other real hazards were the tall cane breaks where snakes guarded any lost ball. But golf just doesn’t have the action of tennis.
So while Karen played at the Rosemary Beach Racquet Club, she enticed me onto the courts. Mike and Susanne, the instructors there, were patient with me. They tried to teach me to move my feet and keep my head still while hitting the ball. I heard the instructions backward. I insisted on standing in place, reaching for balls and looking to see where my ball was going to go before striking it. One day in practice Mike said to me, “Look at your feet.”
“Yes”, I replied, “What is wrong with them?”
“They haven’t moved,” Mike informed me.
Well, after about as much time as it took me to learn how to throw pots on a potter’s wheel, I learned how to use the ridiculous scoring systems the inventors of tennis had conjured up. Much later, I learned the basic principles of how to play the game–principles which seem to elude me every time I step on the courts anew.
Once I felt secure enough to play in a doubles round robin, I convinced a good-natured person to be my partner. He didn’t really know how awful I was, but he was enough of a gentleman not to castigate me in front of other players. I can’t say the same for some future partners I would snooker into playing with me.
After a few years of playing round robins at Rosemary, Mike convinced me to enter a real tournament. We have some great annual tennis tournaments here in Paradise. Notable are the tournaments at Tops’l, where about 300 players form all over the country come to compete every April. There is the wonderful event for “Old Guys” put on at Hidden Dunes. Rosemary as well has an annual tournament that attracts many hungry young college players. They are playing a game they call “tennis”, but it is not the same game I play and call “tennis”. I can assure you that if I played just one point lights out like they do, the medics would have to be called in to assist me off the court.
Having sailed into my seventies and possessing no sense of shame, I took Mike’s advice and entered all three contests. I approached this like I approached drinking booze–if one tournament would be good for me to enter then three ought to be three times better. I learned that for my thirty-five dollar entrance fee I would receive a tee shirt and be able to chow down on a fine buffet dinner on Friday night. During the tournament, I could gulp down all of the Gatorade I could hold. All this and to be able to play at least tennis matches–maybe more if I were able to win one of the first two–which has not happened to date.
Since I could not find any old guys willing to be my partner in doubles, I had to play singles. I soon realized that singles required much more skill and athletic ability than doubles. But I reasoned, where not the old over-seventy guys just a decrepit as me–maybe even more so? I had seen many of them on the courts wearing braces all over their bodies. They would soon teach me that–though they might as old as me–most had played tennis since they were children. They owned every shot in the book. They made me run around the courts until my tongue hung out like a panting dog.
Mike kept telling me “You have to enter tournaments and play better players for you to get better”.
I understood this concept, but it was painful getting beat as badly as I did. I thought some of the “Old Guys” that I considered to be friends would have mercy on me and let me have a few games just because they seemed to be good fellows. Most of them are gentlemen, but the “Old Guys” quickly let me know there is no mercy in the soul of an old, avid tennis player. Some of the “Old Guys” who enter tournaments tell you they are just out there for the exercise. Don’t believe a word of it. That is just a ruse to dupe you into letting your guard down so they can beat you “love and love”.
I have now found a group of “Old Guys” that consent to play doubles with me regularly. Many of them are “Snowbirds” that come in flocks from as far away as Canada. They tolerate my inconsistent play and even joke with me about my more glaring mistakes. Although we pay our money to “The Destin Tennis Club”, we actually play on the fine clay courts at Seascape. Holley, Fernando and Stephan keep the place in tip-top shape and provide a cheery place to let us “Old Guys” wring out some frustrations as we get even older.
It is lagniappe (a little extra), as we say in Louisiana, to have the Snowbirds join us in the winter. They enjoy the well-maintained clay courts and warm weather. Back home they would have to play on hard surface indoor courts. Even though they speak a different language, they have every kind of stroke possible, and seem to enjoy demonstrating that to this southern old guy.
It is April again and the Helen Drake will draw in good players from all over the country. Having no shame, I once more signed up for the over seventies matches. I see that there are only seven of us this year. At least, I will have an opportunity to play a match and consolation round. Joe and Scott are kind to let this lesser talent play in their prestigious tournament. As I tell my friends when I walk on a tennis court, “At my age, I am just happy to be on the top side of the rubico.”
I took Roy, my old WWII paratrooper buddy, out for the first day. Since he has trouble getting around now, Byron and Sam and all the good guys at the Tops’l Resort provided Roy with a golf cart, food and drink and endless conversation. Being the social animal he is, the old soldier stayed all afternoon regaling old and new found friends with stories.
Since I am feeling a bit cocky about losing a little weight, I will wander over to the Helen Drake and let the “Old Guys” give me a big dose of humility.