The Rally: The role that our tennis friends play in our lives

The Rally: The role that our tennis friends play in our lives

Tennis as a form of conversation—an athletic debate. Every shot is an attempt to test and provoke the other person; once you’ve faced someone a few times, you know how to push their buttons.

Who are you missing playing tennis with these days? In this week’s Rally, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor talk about the role that our tennis friends play in our lives, and in keeping us sane. Connect with Steve and Joel on Twitter by using the hashtag #MondayRally.


It’s interesting to realize how emotionally convenient it is to have a place to frequently play tennis. I’ve noticed this even more lately, as I’ve only been in intermittent contact with a few of the people I regularly play tennis with.  After all, those friendships are heavily based on in-person contact, be it on the court or away from it.

There are many people I miss being around—be it an update from one on books we’ve each been reading, to the five-minute talk with another about her latest serve technique, a random hallway bump-in with someone who believes the one-handed backhand is on its way back, or others quite vocal about everything from Roger Federer to Donald Trump to new forms of psychotherapy and meditation (disclosure: my club is located in Berkeley, long a hotbed of vociferous opinions). Indeed, I have spent many hours lingering around our club, keen to hold court on tennis.  

But of course, what I miss most of all about my tennis club is playing there.  I’ve now gone a month without being on a court—the longest time without playing since I first started tennis nearly 50 years ago.

I’ve heard people talk about how much they love the feeling of hitting a tennis ball. Many people I know enjoy hitting balls back and forth, be it straightforward rallies or drills. Though in the last 15 years I’ve become somewhat more skilled at drilling, the aesthetic or kinesthetic joy of ball-to-racquet pretty much eludes my sensibility. It’s nice, but when I do it I usually feel like I’m in second or third gear.  

What I love most is playing points, particularly through the prism of sets of singles. Of all the metrics that have entered our sport, none is more appealing to me than the scoring system and all the questions it asks. 

While it would be unfair to say one singles rival or doubles foursome stands out more than others, I’ll speak now about my frequent matches my friend David. We’ve played each other for more than 20 years. Since I’m left-handed, just about everyone I play represents a style contrast.  

Maybe because David is six inches taller than me, or maybe because of the powerful way he hits the ball and covers the court, I find when I play him that I have to deploy a wide range of shots and tactics—as if I were Bill Walsh, scripting his San Francisco ‘49ers and their West Coast offense. 

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David’s had patches over the years when he’s attacked my serve and come to net. So I have to counter that by serving-and-volleying and vary the direction of my serve to get the best possible chance to neutralize his return and give me a good chance to do what I want. In rallies, I trot out my slice backhand and then sometimes drive it crosscourt to keep him off-balance. When David’s serving, I’ll occasionally chip-charge, or stand further back, or closer in. A couple of years ago, when Roger Federer came to the Bay Area to play an exhibition, David and I went together. He’d never seen Federer in person, so was naturally quite excited. Prior to the match, we played three sets—and an inspired David destroyed me. Yes, I’ve had my moments too. On and on it goes. 

And what I realize while writing this is that we are socializing even when we’re not talking—that the ball and the court and the whole competitive process is a way of connecting with someone even as you are simultaneously trying to mess them up. “You write about the pros,” David said to me once, “so would you write an analysis of my game?” This was delightful, a fun way to dig into a friend and the sport we love so much. We discussed it at length and David even shared it with an instructor he was working with.

I notice I’m always more energized when I come into our clubhouse after a singles match.  I miss that frequent contact with my tennis mates. Lately, though, I’ve taken a few steps, including a Zoom talk with a buddy a couple of days ago, and, next week, a group call via Google Hangouts. Maybe I’ll bring my racquet as a prop.     

Who do you miss playing, Steve, and how are you staying connected to those you play with? 

Hi Joel,

I like your idea of tennis as a form of conversation—an athletic debate. Every shot is an attempt to test and provoke the other person; once you’ve faced someone a few times, you know how to push their buttons. Your goal is to bring out the worst in your opponent, while trying to avoid all the traps he’s setting for you. And then you shake hands, and, hopefully, have a beer.

I also like your comment about the tennis-scoring system, and how it offers a heightened challenge and sense of satisfaction. It’s true, playing sets is more meaningful, and thus nerve-wracking, than playing, say, games to 11 or 21, or even tiebreakers. Why is that? Is it just because we recognize six-game-set scoring as “real tennis,” so it means more? Or is there something about having to win points, then games, then a set, and then another set—to have these little humps to get over—that deepens the challenge? A conversation for another day.

I have two racquet-wielding groups of friends that I’m missing right now, one that I play tennis with (mostly in the summer) and one that I play squash with (mostly in the winter). In each case, this enforced hiatus has reminded me of what makes them so essential for my sanity.

One of the reasons will sound counterintuitive: The tennis court, and the friends you make there, create a space where you don’t have to compete. You don’t have to impress anyone. You don’t have to promote yourself. You don’t have to worry about the future. There’s an anxiety that goes with your work life and your home life; you’re always thinking, “How am I doing? Am I measuring up? Am I ready for whatever is coming next?” When you play tennis, you compete, but that competition ends—or should end, anyway—at the white lines.

You do battle, of course, and the result means something. When I’m heading to my club for a match, even the most routine match against a friend I’ve played a thousand times before, a match that absolutely no one will watch, I can feel my nerves start to tingle, and I start to imagine the points in my head. No one likes to lose, especially to someone you think you should beat. Even in the most informal of rec-tennis groups, there’s a pecking order, and the last thing you want is for someone who is beneath you on it to overtake you—shudder at the thought. But at the same time, when a match is over, it’s over, at least for me. I can relax around tennis and squash friends, because the stakes are low and self-contained. Unlike at work, which comes home with you, in tennis you can leave it all out on the court, and then forget about it when you put your racquets back in the closet afterward.

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What I also miss about my rec groups is having the chance to play my type-cast role. Eventually, everyone is assigned one within a group. There are cut-ups and motormouths; WASPy country-club types who only speak when spoken to; blue-collar brawlers who played football in high school and never took a tennis lesson, but who come at you with every rudimentary shot they’ve got; absent-minded intellectuals who will squander a lead for you; former Division I players who will casually blow every ball past you. Tennis draws from a much wider variety of backgrounds than its reputation would suggest.

Of course, these are generalizations, and one of the beauties of being in a tennis group is that you get to know people’s specific quirks. There’s something comical, but also reassuring, about watching your friends do the same things they’ve been doing on court for decades. Botching the same smashes, sending the same irritating lobs over your head, choking away the same leads, throwing the same tantrums, screaming the same expletives.

For many of us, our typecast roles change depending on the group we’re in, and that’s been true for me, too. Unfortunately, I’ve often been pigeonholed as the shotmaker who is either too lazy or too unassertive or too diffident to make the most of his natural skills. I’ve never particularly liked having this reputation, obviously, and part of me believes that I don’t deserve it. But it has only become more pronounced on the squash court, where running and hustling is the name of the game, even more so than it is in tennis, and where there are more opportunities for shotmaking creativity. The first time I played squash, my opponent hit a drop shot that bounced twice at the front of the court and died, a good nine feet away from me. I didn’t move for it, because I didn’t think I had any chance of getting to it. On the next point, I tried the same drop shot. My opponent ran up, retrieved it, and dropped it back for a winner. I said, “You mean, you’re supposed to get those balls?”

I’ve learned to get as many as I can over the years, and my squash game has helped my tennis game by teaching me that we can get to a lot more shots than we think we can. But on the squash court, I’ll never run as much the other people in my group, most of whom have been playing the sport their whole lives, and I’ll always try a fancy shot when a boring one would do—I must have some French in my DNA, or I’m distantly related to Alexandr Dolgopolov. And I’m OK with that. I’m OK with my role, and I’m OK with not winning as many matches as I might if I went all out all the time. Because it’s just a sport, and I can put my racquet back in the closet and forget all about it afterward. Compared to what I’m doing these days—staying inside 23 and a half hours a day—I’d be happy to be called an underachiever, so long as I got a chance to achieve something.

Joel, what roles have you been cast in during your tennis-playing life, and are you OK with them?


Call me a tennis version of Detective Columbo: underestimated and, soon enough, diabolical and arguably even annoying (within the rules – no trash talk or cheating). 

The first tournament I ever played was at a tennis camp. When it was over, my opponent yelled at me for not hitting the ball properly. “You’re nothing more than an effing dinker,” he told me.  The odd thing was that he’d won the match.

That evening, I asked the camp director what a dinker was. “There’s an old saying,” he said. “Show me a dinker and I’ll show you a room full of trophies.” Well, in my case, a very small shelf, all gained from what used to be called “C” and “B” tournaments. 

It’s always been natural for me to be a strategist, armed with game plans, tactics, ideas—plenty of notions on how to break down the other person’s game with various shots, paces, spins, court positioning. Still, I grew up in Southern California, where the prevailing model has long been one of flat, hard ball-striking à la Stan Smith, Lindsay Davenport, Pete Sampras. Amid such linear, powerful tennis, the way I see the court now was hardly present or discussed when I came of age in tennis. So it took me a long time to accept that I was far more skilled at variety than repetition.      

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Since I know you like music, Steve, I thought I’d share this tale with you.  A guy I play with is very smooth and says that in between points he likes to keep a song in his head, something melodic from Van Morrison. I told him, “You like Van Morrison? Well I like Jim Morrison, because when I play, no one here gets out alive.” In other words, I’m that death-by-paper cut lefty peers rarely feel comfortable against, that pain-in-the-ass chip-charger juniors never like playing even when they win. In a lot of ways, I’ve come to rely on being underestimated or overlooked, to in many ways see that as a life strategy.    

On the other hand, it can be frustrating to so often hear my opponents tell me how badly they played. I’d prefer it if they acknowledged how my shots helped them miss those low backhands or how my serve found many corners or that they weren’t able to deal with my pinpoint lobs. Oh well, maybe in the next life, I’ll have a sledgehammer game as obviously effective as a del Potro or Kvitova. 

Off the court, I notice that when I’m in that post-match livewire mode, I can sometimes issue retorts a little more tartly than I probably should. “I’m surprised you could play with him,” a fellow member once said after he’d seen me in action versus my smooth friend. Let’s just say Jimmy Connors would have liked the vehemence of my reply. I’m working on this, but as my Berkeley psychologist friends say, progress, not perfection—and likely I’ll never be as tranquil as Stefan Edberg. 

Steve, is there someone you’d like to be playing now?


“No One Here Gets Out Alive.” Was your opponent scared of you? You’re right, though, Jim Morrison makes more sense than Van Morrison as go-to-war music. “Peace Frog” was a favorite pre-match pump-up song of mine, once upon a time. I won’t quote the lyrics here, except to say that there’s a high body count in them.

I’m sure I would have hated playing you as a kid. Giving me no pace, making me deal with different spins, forcing me to hit passing shots, which are never as easy as they look. For me, the worst part about facing clever or strategic players is the feeling that they’re probing my mind and finding my weaknesses—tennis and otherwise. Just knowing that the other guy thinks he can outsmart me makes me more agitated and likely to play worse.

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I guess at my tennis club I would qualify as one of the “smooth” players you mention. Everything is relative, of course; put me in the middle of a Division I practice and I’d look like a hack. But I was lucky enough to take lessons as a kid, and among my current group, I’m one of the few who played in college, and who doesn’t have any glaring, ugly weaknesses. I can also win points with my serve, which is obviously a massive help. A few years ago, an older player at my club, who plays every day but has the bunty strokes of someone who picked up the sport late and never took a lesson, said to me, “I like watching you play, you look like you know what you’re doing. Me, I’m just a butcher out here.”

Who would I like to be playing with now? At this point in the northeast, it’s still a little too early for tennis, so it would probably be a regular squash opponent of mine from Brooklyn, a woman I usually play with once or twice a week. We’re roughly the same level, and our “rivalry,” for lack of a more realistically humble word, has gone back and forth over the years, with neither of us dominating the other for too long. When I was a kid, I had trouble being friends with my closest rivals; there was always an edge between us. Happily, I find the opposite is true as an adult. The fact that we’re evenly matched on court has helped make us better friends off it. We know we could win or lose to each other on any given day, so we use each other to gauge where our games are. Because of that, our matches always mean something, and are central to our squash lives. In racquet sports, your biggest rival on court can play the same role as a best friend does off it.

But what I’m really missing most, Joel, is the rush that comes with playing tennis or squash. The feeling of going all out physically, and the endorphin bomb that comes with it. I value the relationships that I’ve built with my partners and opponents, but what I want back most is my relationship with the ball. I want to bash it, slice it, dice it, drop it, hit an ace with it. Most of all, I want to chase it until I can’t chase it anymore.