Anyone for Tennis?

The Wimbledon men’s final lasted so long that I had time to take in vital games while doing a decent garden weeding, hovering in the attic, preparing food, and writing emails, and that was probably only half of it. It was like a painting that came alive whenever I looked at it. I’ve always liked tennis and could claim, once upon a time, to be more than a bit good at it.

It began when I was about twelve. My father was an Edwardian with fixed opinions and a sense of certainty that dismissed whatever contradictory knowledge might be found in expert literature. He was an ex-army captain in the PT Corps who gave rise to my birth in India when helping establish the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun. I suppose he was an obdurate product of his times and so, naturally, made life uncomfortable for his son. We argued, which was futile as I could never win. The competition between us rumbled on throughout his stay on this earth. Anyway, being in the PT Corps and expert at all things physical such as gymnastics, diving, swimming and all the regular sports, he decided to make me a tennis player, largely because he would have an opponent on tap but maybe also because he needed to feel he had passed on this selfish sporting gene.

Over the course of the next three summers, I played and improved but that was not the real cause of my flowering as a serve and volleyer. It was the winter practice in the north east, near Newcastle. Each day we would do three different sessions. At the back of our council house he erected two eight foot steel poles and strung between them a piece of tennis netting, about a metre and a half wide. I served a couple of hundred balls every day. In the attic he placed an old mattress over a side board. I pummelled it with forehands and backhands, the ball dropping dead at my feet after a healthy thwack. The last practice involved going out on the field, covered in corn stubble and, sometimes, snow and volleying. Aiming for ever higher records. Could we keep it up a hundred hits, two hundred and so on. He was obsessive, my father and I think that his fantasy life was strong enough for him to believe he could still go on to win something.

The upshot was that I became reasonably good, which led to my being school tennis captain, captain at badminton and captain at cricket, despite being dismissed as ‘four eyes’ for the first four years of secondary education. Confidence flowed whenever I had something in my hand with which to hit a moving object. And that has led to other spheres of confidence.

There’s a lesson in all this. When I am presented with some seemingly intransigent problem, particularly one that also tosses me into some kind of emotional vortex, I think of those three practice technologies in that working class environment, one that was not blessed with the sophisticated paraphernalia that every child expects today.

The strung net, the cushioned wardrobe and the snowy stubble.

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