Smile Politely

Courting Summer Sports in Wintertime

A recent happening best characterizes my uncomfortable settlement into my thirties. Like most Americans, I should exercise more often. While I haven’t run frequently for over a decade, I decided this past Sunday to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather, get off my lazy ass, forsake the gym membership and hit the pavement for an afternoon jog. Four blocks into my run — well before the frightful sucking sounds had a chance to kick in — I turned a corner and while transitioning from the sidewalk to the street, I planted my foot in a muddy, slick stretch of grass. I slid just enough to unsettle my balance, then roll my ankle. Some jog.

Now, I used to run long distances in high school, sometimes logging 30 or more miles in a week. In all my runs — competitive or otherwise — I never once turned my ankle. Some would chalk the injury up to a fluke occurrence or bad luck, but to me it feels more like growing (old) pains.

I later told a friend, “That’s what I get for taking advantage of the weather.” She replied, “That’s the most ‘Doug’ thing I’ve ever heard you say,” with a chuckle. But the truth is, I got what I deserved for optimistically thinking that I could simply pick up where I had once left off.

Recently, I decided to take up another sport from my youth, one I never seriously tried yet was often intrigued by: tennis. My small-town high school was not the sort to have a tennis team, so outside of the infrequent P.E. class spent on the tennis courts, the sport was never truly promoted to me. My friend’s dad was an accomplished amateur player who regularly won area tournaments, but his enthusiasm didn’t rub off on me. Still, his son and I would play on occasion, sometimes for laughs and sometimes for real, but neither of us were what I would call “students of the game.”

I suppose my interest in the sport harkens back to my early teens, when I would plop down in front of the 13-inch tube to watch Wimbledon matches in the cool of the air-conditioning. I loved the acoustics of a tennis match: the grunts, the smack of a served ball across the top of the net, the squeak of sneakers, the percussive rhythm of the ball hitting the rackets during a lengthy rally. And the mid-to-late ’80s were a heralded time for tennis. Ivan Lendl. Martina Navratilova. Stefan Edberg. The Germans: Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. Americans Chris Evert and John McEnroe. Rising stars like Pat Cash and Monica Seles. Fading stars like Jimmy Connors.

Tennis didn’t maintain my interest for long, though, as it wasn’t frequently on T.V. Eventually, I became fixated on a sport that was usually available for screening — baseball — and took to memorizing the back of every baseball card in my collection. It wasn’t until this past summer that tennis again grabbed hold of me, mostly thanks to the captivating rivalry of tennis’ two male stars, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In an epic five-set Wimbledon match this July, Federer knocked off Nadal to capture his fifth straight Wimbledon title.

Meanwhile, I took to the tennis courts, battling a variety of friends — this time for real, and fun. I lost far more often than I won, regardless of opponent. But despite the disappointments, I remained committed to improving myself at a sport that, unlike many other sports, just didn’t come naturally.

The weekly competition led me to seek out a long overdue lesson in fundamentals. So I joined the Champaign Park District’s winter-session lessons this January for an eight-week course at the intermediate level. I had no idea what to expect, but my anxious self was concerned about the possibility of being greeted by a multitude of spry 17 year-olds. Alas, I was actually met by a small hodgepodge of late 20-somethings and 30-somethings, most as unpolished as I was with a racket in hand.

The hour-long lessons held at the park district’s indoor tennis facility focused on everything from the overhead smash, to volleys, to the backhand, which is to say any and everything for which I required tutorial. For the bulk of the course the instructor was helpful and well-intentioned, but the group dynamic often left me yearning for the sort of necessary one-on-one instruction that I was hoping to periodically receive. Instead of spending much time explaining technique on an individual level, our instructor kept us busy with team-oriented drills designed to work on specific deficiencies. The repetition of such drills was beneficial, but I often felt as it I was repeating mistakes as well. My bad form wasn’t being detected and corrected by the instructor, because he had to keep his eyes on six people at once. My only other complaint: in eight sessions, we trained under the tutelage of three different instructors.

Despite any drawbacks, though, the course was, on the whole, worthwhile. For one, I may actually be able to back up some of my trash talk this coming summer. And the classes were affordable at $79 for eight weeks, a rate applicable for non-members of the tennis center. I can’t say my backhand is “fixed,” but then again I’m afraid to admit just how broken it was prior to the lessons. Let’s just say that short of a few day-long sessions with Björn Borg, I’m not sure my backhand is willing to be rescued.

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