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Photo credit: Joel Drucker

Joel Drucker: The Poison Inside League Tennis

From the deck of his tennis club, the league team captain cast his eyes towards a distant court. He inspected a new member with the intensity of a U-boat commander assessing the high seas. All he needed was a pair of binoculars.

“I wonder if this new guy is any good,” he said.

“He did well as a 4.0 so he got bumped up to 4.5,” said another member.

“4.5? Then I have no use for him,” said the captain. “There’s no way he’ll win as a 4.5.”

Welcome to the culture of league tennis, where winning matters more than improvement, where a 4.0 who can win frequently will be more in demand than an entry-level 4.5, where players will intentionally lose games or even entire matches in order to stay at one rating level.

What’s going on here? What really is at stake in these matches? The initial premise of league tennis was a good one. League tennis was akin to bowling – peer-level competition, with half the matches at home, the others within a close drive and a chance to broaden one’s tennis community in a social environment. Nothing wrong with any of that.

But has the pursuit of seemingly significant outcomes – a trip to the nationals, or even a victory – turned tennis into a cousin of Little League Baseball? In baseball, maniacal parents shape the team, from positions to the batting order. The premise of tennis is that external evaluation doesn’t exist. The way it’s often worked is that players pick up the phone, arrange to play with each other and conduct their tennis business without meddling coaches, parents or other busy-bodies.

But league tennis has altered that. “I’d like to play more, but I can’t find anyone to play with,” a recreational player once told me. “All the action is with these league teams. I don’t have time to play on one now. And when I did, I didn’t do that well.”

Do well. What does that mean? It’s one thing to pursue your competitive dreams as an individual singles player or as a doubles team in tournaments. But recreational tournament play is dying, the result of everything from scheduling and driving hassles to the incredible convenience of league play. Who really wants to drive an hour to play one match by oneself? And if you win in the morning, who wants to wait four hours at one venue for the next match? Indeed, tournaments in today’s world take up far too much time.

So the concept of doing well -- of being considered a good player and having a steady flow of tennis mates – can often be less in the hands of the individual and more a matter of administrative politics, of captains who make lineups (including the order of matches, shuffling the deck for all sorts of personal and competitive reasons), of some teammates who are more available than others, of cheaters who manipulate their rating in the pursuit of esteem (wow) at what after all is only a game we play for our health.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like winning much more than losing. When it comes to preparation and competing, I am a maniac, the person who loves scouting reports and will show up at least two hours early to practice for a league match. And if you want to get my blood boiling, ask me how it felt the time my partner showed up 10 minutes before the match and just beforehand told me he hadn’t played in three weeks. Yes, I care to compete. That is, I seek engagement in a process.

“Play on the combo team,” a friend suggested last fall. “It won’t affect your rating, so unlike the other leagues, the results don’t matter.” Matter? Matter for what?

In many cases, be it at a club or a park, league teams have become the central tennis community-building tool – in large part, taking on much of the work that should be done by a tennis director. Much of this is good. League tennis can be a fun way to compete and socialize in a workable manner. But there is also a poisonous aspect to it.

Coming up: Solutions for making league tennis better.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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