I have no idea where the ball has landed when I power it, off balance, with my whole body out of control. I realize that I am in an irreversible backwards free fall. It feels as though I have fallen off a two-story building to the hard ground below. Lying on my back on the indoor, coated concrete court, I relate to the trauma of a wide receiver making a catch in midair and then instantly being pummeled to the turf like a helmeted rag doll by a free safety. Mine was entirely a solo act though.
Most sports enthusiasts probably think of tennis as just a step removed from golf in terms of genteel play. Men and women in shorts and skirts with stylish knit tops and non-cleated, rubber-soled tennis shoes play this game with a racket and soft, fuzzy balls. Even the scoring sounds so civilized—15-love; 30-love; 40-love— such a polite way to administer or receive a good ass kicking!
Not only is tennis normally a game of civility, but of such athletic grace. I can recall the choreographed movement of the angular Swede, Bjorn Borg, as he covered every inch of the deep court in the 1970’s and returned virtually every ball slapped over the net onto his dance floor. When the pouty, potty-mouthed John McEnroe charged onto the scene as Borg was just passing his peak years, McEnroe’s rude tirades, directed mostly at the lines judges, were as close as professional tennis has ever come to being a tad uncivilized.
And who could forget those demure giants of women’s tennis in the same decades with Chrissy Everett bounding gracefully over the court, usually making fewer unforced errors than the athletic Aussie, Evonne Goolagong, and then Chrissy’s stoic battles with the dynamic Martina Navratilova? Today’s star, the powerful and talented Serena Williams, can be rather spirited at times, but her deportment is usually within the boundaries of civil and polite competition.
In regard to my wipeout at the Greensburg Racquet Club while playing men’s doubles a year ago, the cause was likely faulty footwork. On the tennis court it is critical to be watching the ball on both sides of the court at all times and to have the knees slightly bent, ready to spring forward, back, or to the right or left. When I reach the ball, I know the importance of setting up quickly—meaning to get my feet planted—and continuing to focus on the ball as my racket makes contact, then following through with the swing so that the ball rockets over, not into, the net. While I understand all that, the challenge lies in consistent execution—mind and body working together in a beautiful unity of motion.
It all happened so fast. With my partner at the net, I first had to race far to my right in order to successfully return a deep forehand shot. Then I reacted to a driving shot our opponents hit down the alley and reversed my course to the deep backhand side of the court. I had no more than a nano-second to set up for a return on the backhand side.
Because my feet were likely positioned too close together, things went very wrong. As I thrust my whole body into the backhand upswing, I literally body-slammed myself to the unforgiving coated concrete. So rattled was my brain after the “untennis-like” plunge, I had to ask one of our opponents how it all happened.
As I spent time over that weekend reflecting with heating pad treatments on my neck and lower back and my two warm, purring cats time-sharing on my lap, it occurred to me that I have a bit of a history with racking up myself on the tennis court. Back in the mid-90’s I spent an interesting July week at an educational publishing workshop at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Talking to a female work-shopper one day, the topic of tennis came up. We made plans to rendezvous at the outdoor courts the next morning at 7 a.m. That way we could play for an hour and still have time to shower and breakfast before the workshop’s 9:30 am start time.
I met her at the courts on Wednesday morning. I opened a new can of balls, and we began to lightly warm up. We couldn’t have volleyed more than a half-dozen balls when she dumped one just over the net. Just as I do today at age 66, at age 46 then, I reacted like the 26-year-old I think I am on a tennis court and bolted forward to get to that warm up ball. You’d think it was triple set point and my world ranking was on the line. Faulty footwork reared its ugly head as I lunge-stumbled forward, racket flying out of my hands, tripping over my own two feet. My chin impacted the hard court like a hammer.
Male pride would probably have kept me on the court to play a set with this poor woman if it wasn’t for all the blood; the gash across my chin was a real bleeder. Luckily my partner had a supply of tissues handy that we layered into a makeshift gauze bandage. I bid her an embarrassing adieu as I made my way to the infirmary for some antiseptic and a better dressing. By the time I made my freakish appearance at the workshop, my whole chin was a swollen, bloody-gauzed mess. I looked more like the guy who got the worst of it in last night’s bar fight than mild-mannered teacher guy who only wanted to play a sociable set of morning tennis. Bjorn Borg, where were you when I needed you?
I suppose that, all things considered, tennis continues to rate as a pretty innocuous game when alternatives like ski jumping, professional wrestling, NHL hockey, or concussion-plagued NFL football are considered. However, when I charge onto a tennis court, all bets are off. Imagine the trouble I could get myself into on roller derby.
©Dave Knoepfle Revised 2/5/15
Writer’s note: This essay was originally drafted in February, 2014, a month after my wipeout on the tennis court. I had at least one more fall last winter and spring indoor tennis season and trouble with an aching right shoulder and arm due to impingement on the rotator cuff.
After several injections into the shoulder by a doctor of physical medicine, he gave me exercises to do with elastic bands and currently with dumbbells. I do the exercises on both sides, though I have no problem with the left shoulder or arm.
Along with the shoulder exercise regimen, for six months, I have been attending Silver Sneaker cardio and yoga classes on a fairly regular basis. I can’t say enough for how much the cardio steps have helped my footwork issues on the tennis court. And the sense of balance and strength from yoga has made a major impact on my ability to lunge for balls without falling all over myself. I also have reconnected with the nautilus machines at the Greensburg Aerobic Center to complement all of the above.
While my fitness regimen has been invaluable in helping me to enjoy tennis more, and without tripping over myself, my new-found grace probably won’t make for the best essay writing material. It may be more fun to read about my stumbling over the court “like a bull in a china shop.”