Commusings: Tennis, Anyone? by Jeff KrasnoAug 05, 2022
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Hello Commune Community,
Today’s musing explores one of my lifelong passions: tennis. You may or may not share an enthusiasm for hitting fuzzy yellow balls. But, hopefully, you have a passion, an activity in which you immerse yourself, find flow and time melts away. You become as writing or as painting. The following essay explores this phenomenon.
In (six-) love, include me,
• • •
I did everything right. I was patient and constructed the point meticulously. I kept the ball deep, with heavy topspin and crosscourt, patiently waiting for the moment to pounce. Finally, Cort (an absurd name for a tennis player) hit me a short ball. It came in low to my backhand. I like it there and I sprang into attack mode. I hit my signature shot, a beautifully carved inside-out slice that landed in the far corner and swerved off the court with side spin. But Cort is a bloody jackrabbit, a dozen years my junior, 125 pounds wet and retrieves everything. He’s there in plenty of time and whips a redirected backhand down the line for a winner. Dejected, I look up at the sky toward some imaginary tennis God in a golden fleece Fila jumpsuit and ponder the injustice of it all. And, then, it’s back to the baseline to start anew. In tennis, every point is Easter Sunday, a resurrection, an opportunity for a fresh start.
Clearly, I am an avid tennis player. I grew up batting balls on the terre battue of New England. Across long, stultifyingly humid summers, my fellow racketeers and I would rally into the waning hours of twilight and eventually collapse, Izods soaked with sweat and socks ringed with damp green clay residue.
My parents, bless them, sacrificed plenty of weekends, shuttling me around to tournaments across Massachusetts and Connecticut. In 1982, I earned a respectable ranking in the top 20 of the 12 and under cohort and eventually played on a superlative high school team. My dreams of being the next Bjorn Borg were dashed however when I moved to the bright lights of the big city and took on alternate interests.
After a 20-year hiatus, I took up tennis again. Muscle memory is quite astounding. I could still hit my quirky American twist lefty serve that flummoxed even quality opponents. When a kick serve like mine hits the court, the bounce of the ball defies intuition, caroming out and away instead of slicing inward. It’s a “go-to” play for me in a tight situation.
Since abandoning New York (after 25 years of hard time), moving to warmer climes and reigniting my tennis career, I have convinced myself I am a teenager again. I challenge players twice my skill level and half my age. By any measure, I am a respectable player despite getting regularly trounced by broad-shouldered former Division I specimens. I really don’t mind losing though. I love tennis … even when it’s 6-love.
Tennis transforms me from Homo sapiens to Canis lupus familiaris. There’s nothing to do except chase the ball. And, then, chase it again.
I’ll spend the better part of my work day emotionally connected to the high-minded purpose of bending the arc of the moral universe, but, when I pick up a racket, any concept of the future fizzles away. Like a dog, I become fiercely loyal to the course of a yellow fuzzy orb. My entire organism and its full capacity to generate adenosine triphosphate is dedicated to retrieving a ball – moment to moment.
Many of us suffer from monkey mind – particularly in the age of the attention economy that incessantly vies for our focus. In this condition, thoughts are like branches and our minds are like unruly chimpanzees riotously swinging from branch to branch. You’re likely familiar with the dialogue that you maintain with your inner chatterbox. If you amplified these daily conversations into the external world, you’d likely be committed to Bellevue. Most of us find a way to internalize them. And few of us find a way to subdue them.
The dissolution of discursive thought is cold lemonade on a humid summer day. Once I start playing tennis, the putative critical responsibilities of dull care are subjugated. Email, social media, conference calls, interminable to-do lists get buried under the rich soil of cognitive absence.
We careen through life feeling like we possess a body. We might spy a younger one, perhaps a more svelte and sculpted form, and say to ourselves, “I wish I had that body.” But who is this “I?”
Our five senses underwrite a common delusion. Our eyesight, hearing and sense of smell make it appear like there is a world “out there.” So, we label things in the foreground of our spotlight consciousness: a car, a cat, a lawyer, a nurse, a person with a different skin color, political affiliation, sexual orientation and on and on. Inherent to this labeling of the external world is the process of labeling oneself as separate from it. I’m not all of these other things. I am Jeff; devoted father, heedful husband, denizen of Los Angeles, above-average athlete, amateur jazz pianist, verbose essayist. These mental gymnastics form the ego, the symbol that one gives oneself. We feel as if we are these labels – anchored by a “self” located somewhere behind the eyes.
But what we truly are is an ecosystem of 70 trillion cells, human and bacterial, differentiated such that there is the function of breath, energy production, movement, blood circulation, sensory processing, and myriad other goings-on. These activities function as a quantum symphony orchestra without a conductor – in a completely interdependent interplay with its environment. In short, who we are is playing tennis. All the rest of it is phantoms of our projection.
The worst tennis outing is the short one – regardless of outcome. Of course, this might not be the case for Rafael Nadal. But for those of us not remunerated to play, the process is the product. I want a close match in which I am physically and mentally tested. I am much more content to lose a tightly-fought contest with a better player than to bagel a neophyte.
A musician doesn’t play a song with the purpose of finishing it. The goal of a dancer is not to complete the routine as quickly as possible. If it were, as Alan Watts quips, the fastest dancer would be the best one. A musician plays a song to play the song. A dancer dances to dance. The tennis player hits the ball to hit the ball.
There’s no abstraction or symbology to these happenings. It’s bap! Simple reality. We don’t mistake the map for the territory. We don’t confuse money with wealth. We don’t conflate our name with our identity or our ego with who we really are. It’s just bap - the satisfying thud of a ball hit squarely in the middle of the strings.
And, of course, this is the entire purpose of Eastern religions – specifically Buddhism and Hinduism: to experience reality as it truly is. To simultaneously lose your “self” by waking up. To escape the great maya – “that which is not” - which girds you to the notion that you are a separate “mind-self” living in opposition to and in competition with a separate external universe.
A couple of years ago, in the alpenglow of a particularly transcendent hit, I had a David Foster Wallace moment – through, admittedly, my drivel doesn’t hold a candle to his incomparable brilliance. Nevertheless, I was inspired to scrawl these verses describing my beloved racket sport:
Practice, practice, practice … and then forget.
Like an actor on the stage or a musician on the bandstand
know the song so well that you let it go.
The best tennis is not a recitation, it is inspired performance;
It seeks perfect awareness of your body in space
a yoking of action and intention
an utter inhabitation of the present
where every stroke is effortless
every response instinctually anticipated.
You have to lose yourself to win the game.
As the ball spins like a poem,
it’s the closest we may ever get to God.
By God, I’ve spent a lot of time watching Roger Federer, a.k.a. The Swiss Maestro, pirouette across the court. He’s not always in complete flow but when he finds it, he is the distillation of wu-wei - non-forcing. He will be engaged in a grueling rally with a formidable opponent but when the door is locked, he doesn’t force the key. He jiggles it just so. He intuitively knows exactly where to be and with dazzling nonchalance and seemingly minimal effort, at just the right moment, he will caress the ball to execute a perfectly-placed feathery drop shot. The flight of the yellow sphere twists in the air defying physics. It almost becomes a bird in control of its own trajectory. Its mesmerizing path turns everyone to stone. When the ball lands with no bounce as if onto a pillow, an audible gasp is elicited from anyone in sight.
Federer is Taoism in motion, skillfully applying the rudder to leverage the flow of the river. He is the sap in wood that forms the grain. He is the swirl in marble, the markings in jade, the frond of a fern, the striation of muscle. He is not his mind. He is nature.
From time to time, I get a glimpse of this. This past week, as part of a live ball clinic, I hit three consecutive acutely angled, tricky drop volley winners. I didn’t plan it. It’s rare but, on occasion, I carry out something brilliant on the court that I cannot claim as my own. As William Blake writes, “I see with and not through the eye.” Indeed, it might be the closest to God I ever get.
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