…or high camp learning the strokes.
Tennis is a sport I didn't so much take up as have thrust upon me in my late 30s. A friend in the south of France put a racquet in my hand, pushed me onto a court, and began slapping balls in my direction. From the start, I enjoyed the running, the premium on strategy, the precarious balance I had to strike between my will-to-power and my need to keep the ball in play. With a convert's unqualified zeal, I attempted to make up for lost time by playing every day. I didn't want to waste energy on lessons. I didn't think I needed them.
The game came to me naturally or so I told myself and anyone else who would listen. With repetition this boast began to remind me of the callow young soldier in Hemingway's story "In Another Country." When the boy remarks that Italian is an easy language for him, a worldly-wise major replies, "Why, then, do you not take up the use of grammar?"
Truth to tell, that was what my tennis lacked-a solid grasp of grammar and certain elements of style. And so, after almost a decade of auto didactic effort, I decided it was time to seek professional help.
Writing off to instructional camps I received a batch of glossy brochures thick with pictures of grinning pros with wasp waists and world-class tans. They all promised to improve my tennis with the help of "mental imaging" or Zen Buddhism, low-cholesterol food or high-impact aerobics. But the accommodations at these resorts resembled penal colonies, the workout schedules were reminiscent of Marine Corps boot camp, and the sample menus might have been concocted by the kitchen staff at a state reform school.
Then I happened upon an understated invitation for a week of tennis with Ms. Edna’s cousin in Gstaad, Switzerland, and instantly I knew where I wanted to go. In summer tourists strolled the village’s only through street, and lollygaged at outdoor cafes after hiking, mushroom hunting, balloon riding, or hang gliding.
I arrived during a downpour, when the mountain peaks were lost in clouds and the landscape showed shades of dark green brightened only by window boxes dripping with red geraniums. As I was debating whether to start in on the welcome basket of fruit, Baldur informed me that transport was waiting to an indoor facility that, like every other structure in Gstaad, was built in the region's rustic chalet style.
One thing linked us, we both spoke English, the lingua franca of tennis. "Wake up!" he shouted and "One, two, three," he counted as I lumbered for a short ball. "I'll sign you up for a new event-the three-bounce tournament."
I did not take offense at his ribbing. In fact the jokes helped soothe frustrations and ease the aches and pains. Normally I counted myself lucky to play tennis five hours a week. Now I was on court five hours a day and was feeling anything but fortunate. When we broke for lunch it was a bit like the transmigration of souls from purgatory to heaven. There was no chance to contemplate the fact that in a few hours I'd be going through hell again. There was only time for a hot shower, a cold drink, and a meal that would have seemed the ultimate sybaritic experience even if I hadn't been so grateful for surviving the morning session.
I had come in the hope to lose weight as well as to improve my tennis, but after the first meal I decided to concentrate on the game and give up other resolutions. I did, however, draw the line at drinking and dancing and staying out until dawn. For the most part I left that to others who were by no means younger. Baldur was often in the lead, outdancing and outdrinking, then getting to the courts early the next morning and outrunning and outhitting me.
On succeeding days, we played outdoors, dervishing through the pure air, chasing ca-nary-yellow balls that fluttered against a backdrop of felt-green foothills and snowcapped peaks. After a frenzied series of drills that reduced me to rubber-legged exhaustion, I was rewarded by being allowed to play doubles. I found myself on the court with an Argentinean who spoke a flavorful English and encouraged me with high-fives and choruses of "Bee-ooty-ful! Bee-ooty-ful!"
But when he saw me serve and stay rooted to the baseline, he screamed, “This is not bee-ooty-ful! You must come to the net and hit the ball at the short man.”
The short man on the opposing team was actually a short lady. I could never bring myself to hit at her.
"Hit the ball. Hit it right through her."
When he refused to listen to reason, I did as instructed - I galloped to the net, groped for the ball, got lucky and made contact with my strings. The shot thumped the darling woman on the thigh. I apologized profusely.
"That's bee-ooty-ful!" he shouted to me. Then he turned to her, "Don't trust he is sorry. He told me he wanted to hit you. Now you hit him."
That evening as I jotted down pointers I had picked up during the week, I felt like a fool copying out the words to a TV jingle. "Over the bridge," I wrote. ''Through the tunnel and up the hill." It was the Emersonian formula for taking the racquet back with a slight loop, cutting loose with a firm, level swing, and following through. I was convinced it was working; my tennis was getting better. The question was whether my body would last long enough for the final lesson.
Throughout the week at the house the question "How are you?" was no mere polite salutation. It prompted earnest discourses on throbbing hamstring muscles, aching Achilles tendons, blisters, sunburns, bunions, and agonies of the elbow and the shoulder. I shook off my ailments on the masseur's table, or in the sauna. I was disconcerted, however, to discover that the sauna was coed. I asked Baldur what I should do in the troubling event I found myself showering beside a naked lady. ''Tell her to pass the soap," he suggested.
At the end of my stay the town began to bristle with real tennis players. The Swiss Open was scheduled for the following week, and the pros commandeered the courts. I was retreating toward the house, wondering whether it made more sense to wash my tennis clothes or burn them, when Baldur called out, "Let's hit a few, see what you learned."
It was an opportunity not to be missed, so I tottered onto the free court and scrambled after Baldur's shots. Beside us, the Sanchez brothers were walloping the ball, setting off the acoustical equivalent of an artillery barrage. By comparison, my shots sounded like a leaky faucet-plop-plop, plop-plop.
Baldur was running me back and forth, flicking the ball from sideline to sideline, and reducing me to my old passive habit of retrieving. "Oh, wake up," he shouted. Finally I took the ball on the rise and rifled it down the line.
''That's it!" he bellowed. "Don't stand there like a glass of stale beer. Step in and hit it!"
Winded and quivering with fatigue, I couldn't manage to explain that when it comes to the grammar of the game, I are still learning.