An inquisitive e-mail arrived at 4:01 a.m. It was from my good friend, Brent Abel. Brent is a teaching pro who runs the instructional website, webtennis.com. His e-mail subject line this morning featured the words, “Reality check Monday.” His message asked this question: “What did you learn this weekend about your game?”
Prone as I am to sweeping generalizations, the answer was one I’ve learned repeatedly: Tennis shows that we live in a democracy. This is a sport where players come in all shapes and sizes, styles, grips, tactics and ideas.
Sunday afternoon, playing a league doubles match, I encountered something I’ve never seen in 40 years of competitive tennis: a receiver who’s go-to return was to blast his forehand return at the net man. In this case, I was the net man. In some cases, I made the volley. In others, not. At one point, late in the second set – we’d won the first, but were now serving at 2-5 in the second – I did something I’ve never done before: Stood far back when my partner was serving. Deprived of his target, the receiver gave us a good look at some balls. But by now, for other reasons too, my partner and I were not gelling too well, eventually losing the match 3-6, 6-3, 10-5 (we played a Super TieBreaker in lieu of a third set).
It was an odd match. I suppose had we won, I’d feel vindicated knowing that my partner and I had effectively foiled the other team’s grip-and-rip style with our nimble volleys, transitional skills and steady service returns. Instead, I find myself pondering the evolution of playing styles among recreational players. I’m quite certain I would have beaten the man with the big forehand in singles, as he was quite a slasher, not particularly fast or adept in many parts of the court. Or maybe it’s safe to say that a singles match versus him would have been quite different.
But, alas, league tennis has a heavy focus on doubles. In doubles it’s much easier to both focus on one or two strengths and cover up a great many weaknesses. At one level, I think this is sad, perhaps even a disgrace to the very idea of learning to become a better tennis player – and instead, resting happily with one’s accumulation of doubles results gathered in 3.0, 3.5, 4.0 and 4.5 matches. Then again, maybe I need to learn how to combat that kind of forehand firepower – and accept, once again, that tennis too is a democracy.