I had resisted tennis my whole life and had finally found a way into it, found a way to be my own scrappy self among its inherent elitism.
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner
The summer after sixth grade, all my friends at the prep school I attended went to sleepaway tennis camp. One night they called me and told me that one of them had a boyfriend and his name was Trevor, from somewhere in the Midwest, and would I like to talk to him, and Trevor got on the phone with me and I was happy they were including me—I didn’t go to any camp that summer—and excited to enter an age where the boys we liked could become our boyfriends.
Later, during the school year, I was eating ice cream on the steps in front of the tennis courts and I heard Trevor’s voice; I’d remembered his voice because it was so deep and grown-up, and it had made me feel grown-up, too. But he wasn’t Trevor, and he wasn’t from the Midwest. He was John something from our dumb school. He had been helping my friends in some prank wherein I am somehow tricked into thinking one of them has a boyfriend. As far as pranks go, it was not the most clever; I still don’t quite know what the goal of it was—how tricking me into thinking my friend had a boyfriend was supposed to somehow humiliate me or be hilarious. Whatever the desired effect of it was, whatever its goal, I thought only of how they must have laughed over my excitement and my gullibility. I confronted my friends that day, and they said that you’d have to have been there, you’d have to have been at tennis camp in order to understand why it was so funny.
I had been sent to this prep school, which was elite by Brooklyn-at-the-time standards, because my mother had taken my older sister to the local public high school to register her a few years before and had found something appalling there when she did. Knowing my mother, it could have been anything from a pregnant teenager to children who smelled like pot, but also it could have been young girls with too much blue eyeliner and teased hair, things that she believes lead to pregnancy and drug use. Well, she marched my sister right out of there, went home, and called the prep school, which had a campus like a college—a tall clock tower, fields for different kinds of sports, and even different fields for different kinds of people playing those sports. Varsity soccer field, junior varsity football field, all manner of sports, all ranges of varsity accommodated. A duck pond. A larger duck pond.
At school, the tennis coach was a short man with luxurious Robert Kardashian hair who wore Fila warm-up suits, a different one each day of the week, and he’d whisper during the tennis rotation that you should try his lessons nearby, and even maybe think about attending his camp.
“But why can’t you go?” asked one of my friends about the lessons, and then about the camp, and I didn’t understand it myself—we appeared to have money in my family, and yet we didn’t have any money—so I couldn’t answer, except to say that I didn’t want to, or that I hadn’t thought to ask, or that tennis wasn’t my thing, though I desperately wished it could be.
My father was from a wealthy section of Long Island, where he was not as wealthy as his friends, and so he adapted by becoming someone who badly wished he was rich, and lived as though he were. We drove the Porsche out to the Hamptons, where we’d stay with his friends. We ate out at nice restaurants. We shopped at Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers. We looked rich. We acted rich. We must have been rich, right?
At school, after the Trevor incident, I slowly became anathema to my friends for reasons that were only slightly related to my inability to afford tennis. I’d always been hyperbolic and prone to enthusiastic bloviations, but in the face of so many people having so many things that I couldn’t have, and in the face of being those people’s peer, I became a liar. I told them about my pool club, which was not a fancy pool club, but I made it sound like it was. I told them about my father’s boats, which he’d had once and no longer did. I told them about my ski vacations at fancy resorts in Quebec, and they were real; the lie was more insidious than a mere untruth. It was the casualness with which I talked about it, as if it were mine, as if in a small apartment in Brooklyn my mother wasn’t trying to figure out how we were going to eat. I turned my disgust on my mother and on her desperation, and I asked if I could go live with my father.
I got older, and in the summer, in the Hamptons, my schoolmates (they were no longer my friends) again went away to tennis camp, and we’d watch Wimbledon on TV and I’d try on the lazy-talking Long Island persona of a person who doesn’t concern herself with survival. I watched with awe the way the women comported themselves, how getting their hair blown dry made things better, how they fought one another over lunches to get the check.
I went to live with my father for a year. Our pediatrician and his family lived down our block on Long Island. They had a tennis court behind their house, and when I was 13, the doctor’s son asked me if I wanted to play after school, and one day I said yes, and we played, and I became some other version of myself. I loved it so much. But then the next week, when he asked me to play again, I said no.
It was knowing that this was here, all this space and this game and all the civilized things that went along with it, but that they weren’t for me. Every time I’d play I wouldn’t know when I could next play again. I wouldn’t be able to get better. It would remain out of my reach, and I would forever be reminded that I am not the person I wanted to be, which is a rich person, a person who can have what she wants. And I knew then that no matter what happened in my life, I would never be rich enough to play a sport that required an actual bubble to surround you in it.
Or, rather, maybe I would be, maybe I would have gobs of money, but I knew then that I would never, ever feel like I had enough to be casual about the money. I would never pick up the bill without wondering about the enormous implications of that money leaving my bank account. I would never blow my hair dry unless I could do an extended calculus of how that dried hair could reap, in return, and immediately, twice of what it cost in the first place. And I would never play a sport that I couldn’t dominate that cost this much money. There was no future in which Ispent this much money on recreation. I returned to Brooklyn after a year to live with my mother again, and I didn’t play tennis again.
I attended NYU and took up racquetball with a boyfriend who had been ranked as a tennis player in high school in California; he had suggested we play tennis together. He was the kind of guy who believed he had things to teach me, but by then I had assumed an incontrovertible humility display that would prevent me from becoming someone like my father—someone who desperately wanted to be accepted as rich, and would spend all his money and not even achieve it. I was disgusted by displays of wealth by now. I wore clothing from the Gap and nothing else, and that was the point. I had no tolerance for status. It was for these reasons that I told him we couldn’t play tennis. It was too wealthy a sport, and I didn’t have that kind of money. He offered to pay for me, and this enraged me more, so I instead asked that we play racquetball, which was free at the school gym.
He took me to my only-ever U.S. Open, and it was there, watching a professional tennis game for the first time, that I understood how correct I’d been to avoid the sport. The players (I don’t remember who they were) wore white, just white, and the crowd was completely silent. There was no talking or cheering. There was no expression of joy or sadness at the turns the match was taking. I told the boyfriend that this reminded me of prep school—the forced polite silence, the dress code—and I grew contemptuous knowing that this is where he came from.
Around then Monica Seles was playing, and she became famous for making a wail of exertion when she struck the ball. People talked about this sound on the radio, and on TV, and they made fun of her for not being able to hold it together. They were offended that she was unable to execute her job without showing signs of wear and effort, and this said all I ever needed to know about tennis.
“This is oppressive,” I told the boyfriend there at the U.S. Open, but I said it in a whisper. We broke up soon after.
Years passed, and I got a job thank you very much and my own apartment thank you very much and I became someone who regularly talked about money in a way that would have made my father’s friends in the Hamptons uncomfortable.
I found that I missed racquetball, but I also found out the thing you find out when you leave NYU, which is that New York is very fucking expensive, and that nothing short of a major university there could luxuriously take up space with racquetball and tennis courts in a city like this unless you were very, very wealthy. I had this notion that I would take up tennis and make it of the people, but it was a tiny island, and even in Brooklyn, good old Brooklyn, at Prospect Park I couldn’t afford it. And even if I could, those courts were booked. And even if they weren’t, I’d need a partner. And all of this seemed so impossible to me that I formed a basketball league for other writers. And so we played each Wednesday, and each Wednesday I would fight for a place on the court. Word got out about the league, and some men’s magazine staffs joined, and suddenly I wasn’t skilled enough to play in the league anymore. I left, and I decided to take up running because it seemed to me the most democratic sport there could be.
NEW JERSEY 2015
Life deposited me at the doorstep of a man I fell in love with and married, and we lived in Los Angeles for 10 years. Then, once I finally couldn’t take another sunny day, we moved to New Jersey.
New Jersey is vast, so vast. There are lakes and rivers just allowed to take up space here. The state stretched out in front of me. And here, in the suburbs, where everyone gets a backyard no matter what, your money goes to infrastructure, like a pool club or a trampoline park or, yes, a tennis club.
I had two children by now, and we sent them to a private school. I had visited New Jersey looking for a house to rent and I toured the school, and I had hearts and stars in my eyes over what could be my children’s: music lessons and languages and enrichment for miles. It was only after registration that I allowed my self-awareness to rear, and began to wonder about the wisdom of allowing my children to be the not-rich kids at their prep school.
On the first day of school there was a woman who was in charge of welcoming new parents, and she was wearing a tennis outfit. “ I play every day,” she told me when I asked her about it, and I thought, America!
She asked if I ever played, and I said no, because really I hadn’t. And she told me where she played, and I found myself wondering if things were different now—if I was different enough now. I dared to wonder what the big deal had been about tennis and all that I had allowed it to signify in the first place. I signed up for the beginners’ program at her club. In six weeks, maybe 12, they could get me up for playing in the ladies’ doubles clinics. When was the last time I was called a lady, I wondered. And I thought, New Jersey!
The club had a specific kind of green trim on it—a kelly green you only ever see at a place like that. I showed up in leggings and a T-shirt. The four other women who were able to make a midday Wednesday tennis outing wore tennis skirts. I asked one of them if she’d had it for a while, and she told me no, she was a beginner too. Implicit was a kind of shocking notion to me: that you’d show up ready to play tennis, not like I was, which was ready to see if tennis would allow me.
But let me tell you what happened then: We were told about stroke and about swing and about point of contact. We were told about our feet and our legs and our arms and our heads. We were told about points and counting and bounds and to remain in them. We were taught about baseline and service line. We were taught polite ways to inform the rest of the court that something had been out of bounds.
And then we were told to play, all that in less than an hour, and what happened then was that I immediately was good at it. Me! I had a better swing than the people in the group, and I was able to sink into the focus the game requires in a way I hadn’t been able to in any form of sport or exercise in maybe ever. Absent my thinking of the politics of playing tennis, I found relief in the incredible wordlessness of it. Of all the things I’m incapable of achieving on my own, it’s the wordlessness that evades my every meditation session, my every run, my every yoga class. The focus required to get from one swing to the next left me utterly empty of words, and in that emptiness I found a peace that had nothing to do with comfort.
I drove home and thought that yes, this is what money was for. Here I had turned around and I had some money, not a lot, but I was successful at what I did and well compensated for it. I thought of the other women there, how comfortable I was with being different from them. This was for me now. I had arrived at a place where it could be mine, and the only feelings I would have about that were ones of relief that I’d found something I loved.
I came each Wednesday. I was sloppy and inconsistent. But I was filled with such a euphoria and eagerness for the sport that I was constantly surprised that the coach didn’t whisper to me that he didn’t know what I was doing in the ultra-beginners’section: Was this really my first go-round with tennis? It couldn’t be!
On the fourth Wednesday, I ended up in edits for a story, having to leave the court proper whenever my phone made a sound to answer questions from editors and fact-checkers about details of my story. I’d return to the women talking to one another, and the thing they were talking about was the horses they owned—to be clear, these women owned horses—and I saw myself as valuable. In prep school I had been the poor kid. Now I was someone contributing to the culture; I didn’t need a horse. I was a scrappy creative type, and I thought that that was a better position to be in than to be someone with glossy hair and an array of tennis skirts. One day I left the court and then came back because I’d forgotten my sunglasses in the bubble, and I saw that my beginners’-league friends had all continued to play without me, though they’d pretended they were gathering up their stuff, same as me, when the lesson was over. They told me they had just realized they had another set in them, would I like to rotate in? The next week one of them made reference to the other’s house. And I’ll tell you, it is one thing to be different from others, and it is another thing to be excluded.
At the end of the first six weeks I considered membership in the club. This wasn’t sixth grade; I didn’t need social inclusion. I just needed the wordlessness, and access to it on a daily basis. It was expensive, but then you get a discount on the tennis camp for your kids.
“It’s a game for life,” our instructor had told me. And I thought of my kids and their lives, and them being at the private school. I was better than my parents. I was going to give them everything everyone else had, if I could. I enrolled them in another tennis camp, one closer to me.
Back at my club—my club—I signed up for the next round of the beginners’ program. My instructor said I needed one more round before I could qualify for the women’s clinics, and this baffled me because I was so good. On the first day of my second session, I wore a skirt I had bought off the Internet, having decided I had earned it. For 18 more weeks I stayed in the beginners’ program, and for 18 more weeks I wore that skirt.
Just a moment on the skirt: It’s black, with a white hem, and I associate it with a word I don’t associate with myself very often: adorable. Over the 24 weeks during which I finally, finally was a tennis player, I would put the skirt on early each Wednesday, long before my noon lesson, and I wouldn’t take it off until evening, running my errands and taking phone calls and doing my stories and even once doing a live interview in it—“ I’m just coming from my tennis lesson,” I said to that person in my most casual voice. And that was fine, but I was really showing off that I played tennis, that it was a part of my Wednesday and of my life.
And my love for the skirt and for whom I had finally allowed myself to become was so great that I ignored a pain in my left knee and a pain in my right ankle from an old injury, until one day I was on a business trip and I woke up in a hotel room and couldn’t walk on my left leg. I told the urgent-care doctor how wordless tennis was, and how I had just come to it after a life of resisting it. He told me I had a Baker’s cyst and sent me back to New Jersey, and an orthopedist there sent me to physical therapy. The therapist asked what my goals were, and I told him I wanted to play tennis again, and he said, “ We can make that happen.”
So I did leg lifts, and knee curls. I balanced on a stability disc. I listened to men with nylon polo shirts embroidered with baseball-team insignias talk about sports figures as they counted me off. I did it three times a week for three months, my whole summer flushed away in an attempt to build up muscles that felt like they had nothing to do with tennis, and at the end the men in the nylon polos hugged me and told me I was ready.
I registered for tennis again, and on my first day, I limped off the court. I went back to the physical therapist, who told me he’d been afraid of something like this. He said he hadn’t wanted to undermine me, and that he’s very often wrong. I should swim, he said. Everyone always said I should swim. Have you ever swum? And I returned, have you ever had your head full of more words than when you swim?
“But tennis is a sport for life!” I told the therapist. And I sat on his padded table and cried on his shoulder. I had resisted this sport my whole life and had finally found a way into it, found a way to be my own scrappy self among its inherent elitism, learned to participate just exactly as I was reminded that people like me still exist, and now I was ejected. And maybe that was for the best. I didn’t belong. I was never going to sit quietly through a match. I was never not going to celebrate when I won, or curse when I lost. I was never not going to exist as a reaction to all of them, with their horses, and their fields; this was never not going to be on my mind. They had real estate and I had a skirt, and that’s all I had.
I contacted the head of adult tennis at the club. I told him the situation and I asked for a refund. Every interaction with him was impossible. He replied to every fourth or fifth of my emails, as I furnished him with a doctor’s note, a physical therapist’s note, a receipt—everything he asked for I gave him, and still there were days between replies, and “ get tennis refund” sat on my to-do list (right after “ sell tennis shoes,” which had only been worn once). And as the weeks went by, and I wondered what to do with my tennis skirt, I turned all my rage on this man who wouldn’t give me a refund. What could he want with my $210? How could he not understand that that kind of money—yes, less than half of what it takes for 5-year-olds to go to their camp for just a week—could mean something to people?
But the workers at a tennis club become of the tennis club; they are never quite of the people again once they allow themselves to gleam in all white. I continued my letter-writing campaign. I wrote long emails, day after day: Why won’t you write me back? I’m owed my money, you said I could have it. And I looked over those emails and I was so angry that I hit send, and realized I would forever look at other people through the prism not of what they had but of what they felt they were entitled to. I would always stain a white shirt, or white shorts, or a white skirt. I would be someone who couldn’t play tennis. But tennis was never the problem; I was. Tennis was accessible to everyone who wanted it badly enough—it was accessible to me—but I instead took a sport and its shortcomings and made them the story of my life and the symbol for all that the world had done to me. I turned 40, and it seemed like tennis was not a sport for my life; it seemed like I’d thrown my whole life away. All that time I could have been enjoying it, and now my body was a wreck and I was stuck petty, small, trapped in my own shortcomings. I was 40, and my knee wasn’t getting better, and I had met a part of myself that wasn’t going to heal. My tennis career was over, and I would always be this small.
And then there was the skirt. For 24 weeks, I treated that skirt like a transplanted organ in the pivotal moments in the operating room as men and women in scrubs watch to see if their hard work has paid off, to see if the organ has taken. I waited and watched, beep-beep-beep, for that skirt to become a thing I was instead of a thing I was wearing, but it never did, and so the beep elongated until this whole experiment was finally declared dead.
I washed the skirt one last time, and I folded it into a tiny ball, and I put it as far back into a drawer as I could, unsure of why I couldn’t just throw it away.
A week later, the babysitter called in sick and I got in the car to pick up my kids at tennis camp. I was early. My sons are 8 and 5, and they’re good at tennis, the way they’re good at soccer and baseball. In the waiting area, the other mothers wore big sunglasses, and two of them got into a whisper discussion about a Pinterest board that has the best nail art. I couldn’t take my eyes off my sons, though, their arms cutting through the air with a power I don’t expect from children. There they were, with a man watching them and shouting out tips, back and forth, back and forth. I looked down at my phone; they were denying me my refund, said an email from the other tennis club, but it didn’t bother me right then, because I couldn’t look away from my children. They had the wordlessness, those two, and with every back-and-forth I heard what they had to teach me, what I only knew in moments of grace like this one, a moment that would be vanished as soon as I was confronted by an acquaintance’s new Escalade in the parking lot: that money is just money, and a game is just a game.