There’s a rhythm to tennis.
At a town round robin, I found myself across the net from a new acquaintance named Rick, a decade or more my senior. We played competitively, and I enjoyed his company even though we barely spoke. “Good shot!” we might say, before retreating to the base line for the next point.
Playing with Rick reminded me of my father, although Rick doesn’t look like my father. He doesn’t play like him, either. My father alternated drop shots and lobs that forced me to run back and forth to the net and tired me out. Rick favored strong ground strokes that kept me behind the base line, running side to side.
The familiarity — the comfort — came from how little we needed to talk.
Once you’ve internalized the rules and etiquette of tennis, not much needs to be said. The server calls out the score before each point. You switch from the left side of the court to the right between points, and then switch to the other side of the net every two games.
On each point, the server has two chances to get the ball in play; if I have only one ball at hand before serving, I call “Need one” to request another from my opponent. Each player referees the line calls on his or her side of the court. We shout “Out!” when we win a point or “Good shot!” if we don’t.
Beginners talk more. They forget the score more often because they don’t yet associate serving position with point combinations. They question line calls, even the ones in their favor. Eventually, though, they learn the rhythm and limit talk to brief exchanges while switching sides.
When I was learning the game as a teenager, my dad had a lot to say on the courts: “Bend your knees.” “Don’t swing at a bad toss.” I hated his advice. It was infuriating to be told the same thing over and over again. Infuriating because I kept making the same mistakes.
I improved, but I still couldn’t beat my father. Not only was he a good player, there was a psychological component as well: He made me nervous.
In high school, I got a lot better. I played often with a friend who lived near the courts. When spring came and the weather was good, I would wake early and throw pebbles at his window until he came down. We’d play for an hour, talking all the while about girls or comic books, then return home to shower before school.
My dad still beat me. He didn’t even have a regular partner! “I play against the wall,” he said when I complained.
The first time I won a few games from my dad — he still won the set — the advice stopped. We began speaking only as much as was required. “Need one?” we might ask. We called out the score and announced: “Game! Switch sides.”
The first time I won a set — six games — from my dad, I was pretty happy. My mother raised her eyebrows when we told her; my dad shrugged. He still beat me in the second set.
By the time I would have been able to beat him consistently, I had moved away. We played sometimes when I came home to visit, but as he got older, he (and his knees) preferred golf.
My son is 14 now, and if he played more often, practiced hitting against a wall, he might be able to beat me. But he’s not there yet. He says his game is at its worst with me; I make him nervous.
I used to tell him not to swing at bad tosses, but I’ve stopped giving advice. He knows what he’s supposed to do.
We just call out the score before every point, and sometimes we ask, “Need one?”