Rough or smooth? Ali Bacon learns to blag her way in tennis

If you’re no longer in the first flush of youth but still hanker after picking up that old tennis racket, I can heartily recommend it.  But as you step onto the court for the first time, you may well have a sense of foreboding, especially if, like me, you’ve spent the years in between trying to hit a smaller and harder (but crucially stationary) ball on the boundless fairways of a golf course. 

You will discover your legs still work - but not at any speed. You do have a degree of hand-eye coordination - but everything around you happens too fast. When you eventually make contact the ball can go anywhere - but never where you need it to go (a bit like golf, then!) That vital connection between thought and action has gone, leaving you looking very sheepish as you lumber forward when the ball has already bounced twice, or optimistically shouting ‘great shot’ for something cruising past you at moderate speed.

Suburban tennis - bliss!

However, you’ve had the luck to find a like-minded group of players who meet at a civilised hour and will indulge in ‘rallying’ i.e. hitting it back and forth for a while before unleashing that old beast of a backhand.  But it still isn’t easy and your game (if you can call it that) is very much a work in progress.

What has kept me going in this situation are some simple ruses to take my mind off my utter ineptitude and make me feel more at home as I twiddle my racket and shuffle my feet, hoping my partner will pick up the next shot. I’m passing these on in the spirit of cooperation to anyone afflicted with a tennis itch that goes way beyond the body’s ability to do anything about it.

So here’s my handy guide to blagging your way in tennis.

  1. When it comes to apparel, think low key. On no account turn up wearing gleaming whites or new trainers. 'Seniors' day-time tennis involves some baggy shorts and a tee-shirt that has been through the wash many times. Anything that looks even vaguely smart will incur raised eyebrows and jokes about the new club professional just as you hit your tenth double fault.
  2. Before jauntily offering ‘rough or smooth’ check your old racket and know which side is which. (Don't laugh, it isn't always easy).
  3. Make your recycled golf shorts will hold the spare tennis ball.  There is nothing more irritating for your partners than your having nowhere to put it. And you will end up in a fluster. Now everybody is focused on the likelihood of the double fault. Oh yes here it comes again ...  
  4. Remember how you learned with difficulty aged fourteen to flick the ball up off the ground with your racket? This will stand you in good stead AND  help in your new life-long battle with back-ache. Similarly, with nothing at stake, you can still hit the ball back to the server with something like aplomb and a call of ‘coming one!’ just like you did in the old days.
  5. Forget umpires, the server calls the score. If it’s you, remember real players say ‘forty-five’ rather than forty-fifteen and sometimes ‘five all’ for fifteen all. These abbreviations not only save vital breath but make you sound relaxed about the whole gruelling experience of serving and scoring at the same time. (By the way I should have said ‘five-forty’ is a lot more likely than ‘forty-five’).
  6. Talking of scoring, ‘Van in’ and ‘Van out’ have nothing to do with local transport but stand for advantage server or advantage receiver. BUT check local rules. ‘Senior’ players will sometimes play straight through without advantage points, or play ‘best of three’.  Life is short. It’s still about winning but not at the expense of consuming all your remaining time and energy.
  7. Other variations on the rules involve changing ends only every four games or sometimes playing only four games before changing partners (especially if Dave is still getting over his shoulder injury and Jim hasn’t taken his blood pressure pills). Don’t be annoyed if, just as you draw level on games, it turns out to be game over.
  8. Some things have improved. When it’s your turn to sit out, you can take out your phone and order your shopping online. And don’t forget the fresh fruit. There’s nothing quite like unpeeling a banana and frowning at the horizon to make you feel like a real tennis player.
The way we were - Ali Bacon's begins her tennis 'career' in 1968

If all else fails remember this. Barring injury (my way too white shoes have special cushion soles for knee protection) it’s helping keep us fit. And today I hit two (yes two!) winning shots: a classic backhand arrived unbidden from 1998 (or was it '68?) and scorched the line, followed by a flukey but effective drop-shot. Apparently my muscle memory has not deserted me entirely.
Is there any better feeling? 
Actually, no. This might even be better than golf.

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction and is currently attempting to play tennis at Woodlands Tennis Club in Hanham, Bristol. 

Her latest novel, In the Blink of an Eye (Linen Press) appeared on the ASLS Best Scottish Boks of 2018


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