We Are Not Roger Federer

When I was in elementary and middle school, I swam for a living. I went to swim practice every day, six days a week. On Sundays, I had meets. To get to the pool I took two busses each way, rumbling across dusty Bucharest. My friends were having fun playing in the streets while I was picking algae from my hair. But I don’t regret it. Swimming gave me a strong body that rarely aches to this day, a sense of discipline, and somewhat of a competitive spirit. When I discovered girls, swimming went out the window.

My father was a surgeon at one of the largest hospitals in town. He played tennis, usually around 2 PM, between his morning and afternoon rounds. When I gave up swimming, he started taking me to his tennis club, mostly because he loved me, and also because, I guess, he needed a partner he could reliably beat every time. “Tennis is a sport for all ages,” he used to say to me as a way of encouragement at a time when I was a teenager and he was a relatively young man, agile and handsome, and before advanced age became a concern in our lives. He paid for a full summer of tennis lessons for me. I was quick on my feet and reasonably well coordinated. My buddies would show up at the tennis club and root for me. I resented losing to my father, but I pretended I didn’t care. I was cool.

Fast-forward about fifty years. Now I play tennis three or four times a week, at clubs in Columbia, Maryland. My father is no longer alive. Like in my youth, we gather in the early afternoon. For me, it’s a nice break from writing. My partners are mostly retired men, 55 to 85 years old. In the summertime, we hit the ball on forgiving clay courts, surrounded by the immaculate greens of an adjacent golf course. In the winter we play indoors. We reserve three or four side-by-side courts for our doubles games. Our ratings range between 3.0 and 4.5. For those who don’t know, this is the rating of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) that allows people of similar skill level to enjoy a balanced and fair game.

Keeping us scheduled and organized is our leader, David, who also manages four or five USTA teams during the summer leagues. He expertly juggles a roster of about sixty or seventy players through the miracle of email. We all take our sport seriously, but also with a grain of salt. There’s a lot of camaraderie and banter going on. When David was interviewed by the Baltimore Sun about his amazing accomplishment, he dismissed the idea of us striving to stay active and healthy forever, and stated modestly that his goal was “to keep us all off the streets.” One look at the Benzes, the BMWs, the Lexuses, and the convertible Jaguars in the parking lots near our tennis facilities and one would immediately understand the amount of sheer havoc my senior friends could cause in the unruly streets of Baltimore if they weren’t preoccupied with this sport.

On a few occasions our valiant teams have made it to the sectionals (where similar teams from other parts of the country compete), and even to the nationals. But a shiny trophy is rarely the main goal of our game. As Harvey, who had been a 4.5 tennis player in his day, and is now in his eighties, puts it, “All we want is fun.” “My shoulders are compressed,” responds Roland, who gets every ball back like a training wall, “and I come here to untangle them.” Or like Vic, who hits a strong forehand and returns the serve to his backhand at a wicked angle, said so many times, “When I come here I want to be safe.” Winning is important to Chris, my buddy who likes to quote football coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders (winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing), unless he loses and cannot blame the loss on his partner, in which case, miraculously, victory diminishes in importance. And Rik, who lifts weights, is a lefty, and plays with a lollipop in his mouth, or Bob, who is a big and resilient fellow and likes to play twice a day every day, and Kevin, who taught high school kids to play tennis and moves on the court with a learned dexterity that puts the rest of us klutzy seniors to shame, and the other Dave, who lost twenty pounds this summer because he wanted to, and Ron, who talks like a poet and plays like one, too, and Jimmy the Greek, who drinks his martinis during the match from a wide rimmed glass in a plastic wrapper hidden in a brown bag, and so many wonderful others…

Every year a few new players get added to our roster. They are younger, quicker, more ambitious, unrestrained by a bad knee or an arthritic shoulder. They are vocal. They run to the net. And every year a few of us drop out. They move away, get injured, get tired, or depart from our midst for good.

And with every year that passes I feel our game is truly ageless, as my father once said.