Some pain as I type. Part is physical: my shoulder hurts, my knees are stiff. That part is actually welcome—it’s the aftermath of the hard session of tennis this evening. But most of the pain is mental: a smoldering rage at some of those who, like me, play tennis at the club.

Here’s what happened. Because of kids’ coaching classes, only one court is available for use by members like me in the evenings. This evening, two guys are playing a set when I arrive, and I wait some 20 minutes for them. Just as they finish, a guy I know well, and have played with before, also turns up, with an obvious foreigner. My eyes light up, because I don’t have a partner, and I was going to practice serves by myself. Here’s a chance to hit some balls. “Want to play?” I ask my friend, thinking we can hit 2-on-1, as I’ve done many times on these courts.

He replies: “Actually this is a guest, I don’t know how he plays, so I’ll just hit with him for a while to check him out, and then you join in, OK?” It’s a slightly odd request, but I don’t think much of it.

Until … Five minutes of hitting later, just when I’m thinking I can join in, the two begin playing a set. I can hardly believe my eyes. I say to my friend, “You’re playing a set? What happened to the three of us hitting together?” He dismisses me: “You should have brought a partner. We came to play a set, not just hit the ball. Don’t be unreasonable; it’s silly to play 2-on-1, after all this is a guest from abroad!”

I’m so angry I’m actually shaking. This guy slimed past me on to the court, and he now gives me this BS! After a few minutes I tell him, “I’m taking half the court to practice my serves. You can play on the other half.” Which is what I do. Within a couple of minutes, one of the kids from the coaching class runs over to rally with me.

The peculiar culture, in our clubs, of the tennis brat, not all of whom are kids. Some entries from a long catalogue, below.

Item: uncaring players. One wet day, I am playing through a break in the rain. Run wide for a shot, near the adjacent court. Swing my racquet, then a small wet patch does me in. My foot slipsand I land with a thump on my chest and shoulder. Racquet and glasses fly in different directions, the last badly bent.

For a few seconds, I lie winded and in pain. Then it strikes me. The two men playing on this court—one a winner of national veterans’ titles whom I’ve also played with several times—haven’t missed a shot. I’m obviously hurt, but they’re still at it. For a few of his shots, Mr. Title even steps within a couple feet of me. My opponent runs over from the far side of the courts to help, but for the tennis brats on this court, I’m not even there.

Item: oafish partner. Four of us get up to play doubles. Trading practice shots, my partner, a local executive, waves imperiously across the net. “Hey you!” he shouts at one of our opponents, a dentist. “You better sit down, you’re not as good as us!” Am I hearing right, am I on Candid Camera? It’s not as if the oaf is Federer reborn—he is lousy at the game, period. But that’s hardly the point. That he thinks he can say this has me spluttering in outrage.

Item: smooth-stroking clod. One evening, I find just one other player on court, this 20-something hotshot, practicing his serve. I pick up a ball that thuds into the fence; returning it, I ask: “Wanna hit a few?”

“No thanks,” says hotshot, “I can’t walk today.” He doesn’t look incapacitated, but that’s what he says. I shrug and walk to the wall to work on my forehand. 15 minutes later, the young lady he often plays with arrives.

Whatever his disease, she is a speedy cure. An hour later, when I leave for home, hotshot is still zipping about. Icompliment him on his miraculous recovery.

Item: nose-in-the-air sisters. Superb players both, in their younger days I would regularly hit with them. Once, their mother, watching us like a mother hawk, urged them to move up, take the ball in the air, put it away. “Like he does!” she shouted, pointing at me; the minor recognition of one of my few skills pleased me no end.

But at some point, as the girls grew through the age rankings and began winning tournaments, they became too good for the rest of us. I once watched them snicker at a not-quite-as-proficient older man on court with them. It saddened me. No more hitting either. They look through me now, as if we don’t know each other.
Maybe we don’t.

Naturally, I’ve wondered if all this has to do with me. But it’s happened so often, over so long, and so many have mentioned similar things, that I can’t help asking: what is it about tennis players in my city? What turns so many of into uncouth cads on court? Why the arrogance about their ability, whatever it is?

Now I’m no Federer either. But when I’m fit and playing regularly, I’m a decent player; I feel able to knock with anyone, and have done so with some very fine players. I’m better than the executive oaf, certainly the equal of my friend with the guest, if not quite up there with hotshot and the sisters.

Yet that’s beside the point. For one thing, you improve at tennis by playing better players. I learned tennis that way; it’s what all top players will recount about their early days on court. (Not just tennis, either. A few years ago, the coach of India’s junior volleyball team had this to say after winning a tournament: “We need to play [many] matches against teams that are better than us.”) But what if better players are too snooty to play, too willing to snicker? For another thing, as any top player will advise, you learn even when playing beginners: how to control your shots, generate your own pace, place the ball, that sort of thing.

Therefore, play with anyone. I learned the game that way.

Yet that, too, is beside the point. This is a game, after all. Like all games, it both reflects and holds lessons for more mundane sectors of our lives. “A player’s personality [and character] can shine through on a tennis court,” wrote one of the greatest, Martina Navratilova, “and not only when she loses.”

So if on court we are selfish, inconsiderate, boorish, and generally insufferable—well, look for those charms to shine through off the court, too. Friends and title winners not excepted.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

 

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