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ATTABOYCHIK (A Tennis Parable) – by RF Brown

[short story first published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, XXXII:1, Fall 2014/Winter 2015]

In my estimation, Oz Feldman, may he rot in Hell, is a tall asshole and an over-ranked yutz. Can I beat him in this match? In my judgment, yes, should I be blessed to survive all three sets. The Lord, may he guard my end of the court, knows I’ve beaten every other boy at Chazak Tennis Camp. So, today it’s Oz versus Benji, the last survivors of the sweaty summer’s end tournament. Also the last day of Chazak for me or Oz, ever. The old men don’t allow you back after summer of 11th grade. Why? I don’t know.

People are watching from benches outside the fence, my father and the other camp coaches, all the camp boys. Even Mama, may God protect her, got the afternoon and is standing along the opposite fence in her TJ Maxx uniform. Under her headcovering she’s smiling at me. I can’t remember the last time I saw her doing that. She’s as far away in the park as she can be from Father, may a tree fall on him.

Oz looms over my opposite baseline, the destroying angel with a black kippah and colorless eyes. He has a one hundred-ten foot arm span and a one hundred-ten mile an hour serve. It’s true, because Father measured. As Oz and I warm up the ball the humidity makes wet mittens of my hands around the racket. I’m remembering what Father, may he choke on his tongue, instructs me on how to play Oz. The ugly giant’s all serve. Don’t allow this dull nephilim Oz to drag me at his advantage into set tiebreakers. Prove to Father I’m not afraid of a big-serving bully.

Some camp boy’s gray-bearded grandfather just climbed up into the seat of the chair-umpire.

“Maysters ready? Play!”

May God murder my enemy.

 

I didn’t wake up this morning with a plan to rely on God to win. I heard it raining and I waited awake with my eyes closed willing the rain to stop. Guess what? It worked. Then I listened for an alarm of rap music from my computer tablet. I had a plan to beat Oz. I repeated the plan in my head.

Estimate the course of his serve at first racket contact. Position myself far behind the baseline. Bounce on my sneakers a little. Shift my weight to the incoming ball side. Don’t try too much on his firsts, just block the ball back. Judge the weight of his over-ranked serve. Attempt a short slice to his backhand, low. Imagine hitting it to the serpents Oz has for shoelaces.

I toggled snooze on my tablet when rap came on and listened for my older sister turning off the shower. I told myself to stop plotting the match because too much would make me meshugah in the head. Instead I thought about Jazmine, the girl on the bus and her big pair of black-girl kishkas. I started to jerk off. For a moment, I thought of how Rabbi back in B’nei Mitzvah class used to say, “Zis iz a zin!” I stopped touching myself when I heard my sister, may she broil from rug burn, close her bedroom door. After I got up from bed I made sure the hallway was clear between my bedroom door and our bathroom for getting there only in my underwear. I skipped shaving because Oz Feldman has a narrow line of a beard that outlines his donkey face. It’s a line that makes him look like he’s passing for twenty. When I went back to my bedroom I put on tallit kattan, which is Hebrew for a Gentile undershirt with tzittzit tassels hanging off the corners. I picked a t-shirt to wear over with a design of Drake. Who is Drake? He’s the black-Jewish rapper and someone I hoped black girls on the bus would think under-ranked. I tied on the coolest sneakers there are from TJ Maxx and I sprayed on Midnight Rooster men’s body spray, which Mama agreed to get me for Hanukkah if I promised don’t wear it on Shabbat.

When I went to the kitchen I discovered that Mama left a skillet of blintzes stuffed with quark. What is quark? It’s kosher type cheese in which we Jews leave out any flavor. In my judgment, Mama should have been in the kitchen on the day of my championship match to make me something better, like she used to. I left all the cold blintzes on a plate for my sister, in case she’s just wicked enough to love the taste of dreck. Only then did I find Mama’s Post-it note left on our kitchen doorpost – May G_d help my boychik hit the yellow ball with all his heart today. Attaboy-chik! Upon review, I ruled I’d been a mean judge toward Mama. Long live Mama! She’s under-ranked.

I knocked on my sister’s bedroom and asked through the door if she could give me money. She said, “Fuck no, Benji,” and I said, “May God be as sweet to you, Bitch!” Back in my bedroom I put a kippah on my head, one with a Red Sox ‘B’ in back, and clipped it to a clump of my curls. In the mirror I judged how much the day’s humidity was making my bristly hair platz out around the kippah. I considered Oz Feldman, may he shake hands with a vise, and how he could probably wrap his long fingers all the way around my skinny neck. Then I wondered if girls think boys who play tennis are sexy, followed by realizing I couldn’t name any famous Jewish tennis stars.

Yesterday, driving me home from tennis camp, Father, may he steer off a cliff, said at seventeen he was horny for Steffi Graf and Chrisy Evert-Lloyd. Being seventeen myself I named Father several girls in pro-tennis I’ve seen on tv who are beautiful. But the girls I named happen to be black girls and Father ignored me like I didn’t say any names at all. I judged right there in the car that Father has chutzpah. In my estimation, only a man with chutzpah would go to the honor of nicknaming himself Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, especially if all he knows about tennis is instructing high school boys to play. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a yellow ball get lodged in his throat, that when two good tennis players are fairly paired, not strength wins, but reflexive instinct. Father said at Benji versus Oz in the Chazak camp championship I should play like a fox versus a bear in a cage. Do you know what he meant? I didn’t. Then he asked me if I thought my instinct for the subtleties of tennis were strong enough. He asked if I thought I had practiced the right things. But he didn’t wait for me to answer either of those questions. Instead Father kept talking. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a bee sting him on the tonsils, that a true tennis champion is master of reflexes, learning to repeat the correct techniques correctly time after time. I wondered if it’s honest for me to love the advice and hate the advisor. Then Father said what works in tennis is the same as in life with our religious rituals, that repetition itself defeats distractions.

This morning I looked on my dresser at the blue, velvet bag containing my tefillin – tiny handwritten pieces of Torah in two small, black boxes. I’m expected to tie the boxes to my arm and forehead every day. Tefillah were a gift from my parents, both of them, on my Bar Mitzvah. Guess what? I skipped strapping on black boxes and reciting Shema this morning, just like most mornings this summer. I didn’t do tefillin, which is bullshit, just to make parents happy, like I did when Father still lived at home. Instead I ruled that repeating an over-ranked blessing doesn’t do bubkes. God, like a chair-umpire in tennis, takes no side between me and my enemies. I decided instead to keep calling my own shots. When my sister went back into the bathroom, I went into her bedroom. On her bureau was a pink charity box she made when she was little in Hebrew school. I stole change for McDonald’s breakfast and left our apartment.

 

I shoved an empty sausage McGriddle box in my tennis bag. Yes, every Jew already knows that McGriddle is forbidden treyf, but this morning I called it good. I then used the tennis bag to block the aisle side of my bus bench. I pulled out my tablet on which I had an email that the new issue of Black-lete Sports Magazine was up for me to read during the bus ride.

Everyday this summer my bus to Chazak stopped at West Boston Boulevard where a facacta lady named Cynthia got on. All of us on the bus had to wait the rest of our lives while Cynthia paid her bus fare in small change.

“Hello, Benny!” Cynthia said, excited like she hadn’t seen me for ten years instead of a day. Her crazy hand wiggled like her plastic rain bonnet in the wind. Have I made it clear that I had previously ruled there would be no more rain today? I waved back barely in Cynthia’s direction making it clear to her I was concentrating on a post in Black-lete. Cynthia sat her fat tochis in an empty bench across from me and pulled out her leather-bound Bible. “I like that you’ve been riding my bus every day, Benny.” A couple weeks earlier she introduced herself, without me ever asking. That day I felt sorry for her and surrendered Benji, but she heard it wrong. No point in ever trying to fix her. She took off her rain bonnet and wrapped gray hair pigtails around her craggy neck. “A boy at the T-stop stole my bus pass, Benny. He looked Chinese.” As I’ve mentioned, I judged Cynthia to have been facacta and weird. She smelled moldy, like the boiler room of my apartment building. She had a thin nose like a butter knife and she wore big, lepish glasses that made it look like I was seeing her eyes through a microscope. “My daddy gave me a roll of nickels to pay the bus driver, Benny. Last night I prayed to Jesus to forgive the Chinese boy.”

“So, good for you.” Why did I say anything at all? I don’t know.

“You’re a sweet-pea, Benny. In my prayers I told God you stare at big-booby black girls on your computer. My daddy says white boys should only date white girls. I like that smell of perfume you wear everyday, Benny.”

I happened to be studying a picture of black women volleyball athletes in sexy sports-bras. “My parents instruct me only date Jewish girls,” I said.

“Jesus was Jewish,” Cynthia said.

“So, good for Jesus.”

The bus stopped in front of the pawnshop on Washington Avenue. Beautiful Jazmine and her two girlfriends stepped on, all of them black, and making a head-turning racket down the middle of the bus. The three of them wore matching, red, collared-shirt uniforms everyday, some office supply store logo on their left tits. I had never overheard names of the other two, just Jazmine. I judged the girls to be loud, mean and fucking gorgeous. Two of them bounced down in the bench behind Cynthia. In the bench behind me, Jazmine put her sneakers up and lounged against the window. Her red shirt collar stood up to her gold hoop earrings and she held her phone so close to her face she swabbed the surface with her long eyelashes.

“Hey, Skinny Jewish Boy,” one of twosome called out. She could only have been asking me, “Don’t your mother feed you? You look like my toothbrush is wearing a yamaha.”

“What do you know about wearing Drake on your shirt, Boy?” the other girl teased. “Hasn’t nobody told Jewish people yet that Drake is gay? You must be gay!” Her benchmate almost toyted-over it was so hilarious.

“Don’t be mean, girl,” the second one laughed. “Maybe Jewish Boy’s not gay. I mean, everyday he sits in the seat across from his retarded girlfriend.” Cynthia just sat smiling and pressing her gigantic eyeglasses against the words of her Bible.

“Hey, Old White Lady, have you and your Jewish boyfriend done the nasty yet?”

“Girl, I bet these two want to have a threesome with Drake in between!”

Maybe Cynthia was happy being an oblivious, Bible memorizing idiot, but the two sexy anti-Semitic girls pissed me off. I turned around in my bench at them and shouted back, “May you both fall in the ocean and float away on your big, black tits!” This riled those two girls up, but not Jazmine.

Never looking up from her phone, Jazmine said her first indirect words to me, ever. “You three all just shut up, please. Let’s not have a race riot here on the freaking city bus.” Jazmine’s friends followed her orders and made less loud gossip of people. Then Jazmine said to me, “If it matters, I doubt Drake is gay, McGriddle.” She estimated me confused and pointed over the back of my bench at the empty breakfast box, which was poking out of my tennis bag. “Just ignore those two hookers, but be careful what you say about a black girl’s boobs. We take them seriously.”

I judged Jazmine’s advice to be good, but couldn’t think of what to say back. Was it a miracle of God that she kept talking to me?

“I’ve seen you before on the bus with your tennis racket. You play every day?”

“Everyday in summer,” I answered. “Camp Chazak.”

“Oh, boy, I could never learn to play tennis there because I could never learn to pronounce it.”

I laughed a little. “You could never play tennis at Chazak because they only allow boys.”

“Excuse me on your religion, but that’s old fashioned and fucked up.”

May God bless Jazmine. She’s so pretty. “You’re judgment is accurate on that,” I said.

“You any good at tennis?” she asked me, also texting on her phone.

“Playing the summer championship today. I’m best at it.”

“Okay, Boy,” she said, “don’t be too all that, now.”

Don’t misjudge me. I meant to tell Jazmine that tennis is the best thing I can do. It’s the one thing I judge myself to be opposite a klutz. I’m told that back in the good old days my father was a teenage tennis champion as well as the top student in his class at Greater Boston Modern Orthodox Day School. Who did I hear that from? My father, of course, and he doesn’t let people forget. In the worse new days, at the exact same school, I’m not on the top of anything. But, at tennis camp? Almost no one can beat me, and I’m not letting you forget either. Tennis is the thing about which I give a shit that certain people such as my father are impressed.

Jazmine stared out the bus window and I stared at her soft looking neck, perfect as the pumpernickel my Mama used to make.

“So, where do go in your life to meet Jewish girls, McGriddle?”

“Oh, they allow girls in Post B’nei Mitzvah Club. We meet on Kosher Taco Tuesdays.”

“That’s the girls you date?” Jazmine’s huge brown eyes stared straight at me. “Which ever ones show up on Taco Tuesday?”

Was Jazmine making fun of me in a more professional way?

“Come on now, McGriddle.” Her fingers summoned me. “This bus is moving slower than my grandma walks. I need some boring conversation. Talk to me.”

“So far I haven’t been on many dates.” Don’t ask me why I volunteered such an embarrassing fact to Jazmine because I don’t know. Upon review, I suppose she made me feel okay telling her anything, instead of feeling like an asshole. “I’ve never been on a date with an African-American girl.”

“You don’t like black girls?”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” I said. “I don’t judge. Like when my Father was backhand drilling me yesterday, he’s also one of our tennis camp coaches, a couple of really pretty African-American girls were walking through the park along the court. My father noticed me noticing them instead of paying attention to his drills. He said his son should forget coming to like svartza girls.”

“Svartsa? That word sounds like I don’t want to hear what it means.”

“My Father said he thinks it’s okay to friends with you, but he’ll never give blessing to marry one.”

“Excuse me. If you want to marry a black girl, how are your parents going to stop you?”

“It’s just not done. Which I rule ridiculous, because my Father’s the most over-ranked role model of halahkah.”

“Okay, beg your pardon?”

“Halahkah means, like, religious way of life,” I explained. “In addition to being all knowing about tennis, my father talks like he’s a professional on the practice of all religious rituals. Meanwhile, last year he moved to a different house and he has his own blonde lady now, who he says is half-Jewish.”

“You got a mom?”

“I got one. She used to stay home. Do you know a guy named TJ Maxx? Now she takes care of him all day. Mama says my father met his blonde half-shiksa when he was still living with us. My father tells me and my sister, no, he didn’t meet her until after he moved out. He says he tried to get my Mama to stay on her medicine and stop being negative all the time. He says sure, a man honors his wife by keeping her happy, but not so much that he has to always be depressed. And, under halahkah, the wife’s not divorced until the husband is nice enough to give her a piece of paper that says You are hereby free of me. Father says he already gives Mama all his his money and she just wants to take away his children, to punish him for wanting to end their marriage in which she refused to be happy. In my judgment, Mama is sadder now. She says my father’s being a bully. She’s taking him to religious court, but in my estimation the odds are against whatever she wants, Jewish law seems like an even bigger bully. I say mazel tov to my father’s new happiness and his over-ranked half-shiksa. May they be buried alive together.

Jazmine nodded her head. “If we’re keeping it real, McGriddle, I’d say the same thing to my mom. Mine used to beat up on me every time she was drinking. Then, when I got big enough to kick her ass back, she started beating up on my little brother. Finally, I was just like, bye, we’re leaving. I took my brother and we went to my grandma’s house for good. The other day my mom text me, ‘You have to come back, Jazmine, because I say.’ I told her, ‘Hell no.’ She can’t make me do anything. You know, last Sunday in my grandma’s church, the pastor was talking about David and Goliath. I heard that story about a million times growing up, but I realized Sunday they’ve been telling it wrong.”

“What’s to get wrong? The kid kills the giant with one smooth rock served out of his sling. Then David cuts Goliath’s head off, and all the Jews learn God will always protect them from their enemies.”

“That’s like what they always taught me in Sunday School too, McGriddle, but I started thinking David and Goliath means something else.”

“The Bible says it right here in First Samuel,” Cynthia chimed in across the aisle. She was already on the exact page. Maybe I was wrong and Cynthia was hearing everything people were saying. She followed the scripture with her pointy witch nose and read it loud enough for the whole busful to hear. “The Lord, who delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the paw of the bear, will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine, Goliath.”

“I guess your girlfriend knows her Bible,” Jazmine said.

“Then you should guess again,” I argued, “because she’s not my girlfriend,”

“Come on, McGriddle, I’m just joking with you.” Jazmine’s smile was so sweet, but I untrusted her a little. “Besides, we’re friends now.”

“What do you mean David and Goliath means something else?” This was me defending Jewish tradition. Imagine.

“I’m just saying, when you think about it, why was David so gung-ho to step up and take on Goliath?”

Cynthia read aloud, “I will go and fight with this uncircumcised Philistine, who hath taunted and defied the armies of the living God. Then, Benny, To the man who kills this giant, the king will give his daughter in marriage and make his house free of taxes in Israel. That’s what the white Bible says.”

Jazmine rolled her priceless eyes. “There aint no white Bible and black Bible, Lady.” Then she turned back to me. “Goliath was talking trash about the Israelite’s army, right? He’s all – Come try it David, I’ll tear you up and feed you to chickens. But then it turns out Goliath’s really just slow and stupid. I mean, he stands there while David kills him with one rock. Sitting there, bored, in church I started thinking maybe David was the only one who saw something about Goliath that wasn’t so scary. Same as I saw with my mom. She drinks and beats up my brother, but beating on her children doesn’t make her strong. It’s her weakness. I’m not going to let her hit us anymore. Once you take away her beating people up, she’s got no powers left.”

“I think I know what you mean,” I said, my faith in Jazmine returning, “but say it again, maybe.”

“What I’m saying is maybe David was so freaking brave because he figured out the giant wasn’t really all that. Maybe he figured out Goliath was all talk and David was going to get the girl and the money. Maybe Goliaths are only Goliath because people keep thinking they are.” Then Jazmine’s nose wrinkled up. “Boy, somebody on this bus smells like a lot of rachet perfume.”

Our bus crossed over the three girl’s last intersection with me. On repetitive reflex Jazmine reached up and pulled the overhead cord for the bell. “This is our stop, hookers. See you tomorrow, McGriddle.”

The three girls stood up and tussled off the bus. I wanted to ask Jazmine exactly how she planned to see me tomorrow. There wasn’t time left to tell her I don’t usually ride the bus on Saturdays, on Shabbat. Also, today was last day of tennis camp. Yes, I’d like her to see me again, but couldn’t think so fast of where or when. See her again? I’d like to will that to happen. Maybe then I’d tell her she’s sexy. I also would tell her how I underestimated how many brilliant things she has to say. Long live Jazmine!

Cynthia’s nose ran across her Bible page and she read out loud, “Do not be slothful in zeal, Benny.”

Maybe Cynthia’s was under-ranked too. Jazmine was already gone.

Do you know Brookline Park? That’s where I got off the bus, where Chazak is. Sure, the sun was hot as Hell but the tennis courts were still wet from overnight rain. Father and another coach got there early with battery-powered puddle blowers. We camp boys followed after them with long squeegees. Soon the gray-bearded amateur umpire proclaimed our green, hard surfaces looked dry enough for play. A bunch of bearded father and grandfather types took positions as shot judges on the court lines. Then the gray umpire clambered up behind the stirrups of the tall chair.

 

Oz Feldman, may he be struck by lightning, and I are now hitting the little yellow ball back and forth, the mandatory ten-minute warm up. More people are here today watching me play than ever before. What’s more nervous making than possibly losing is going down the drain while all the world watches, coaches, other boys, parents, my parents. I’d still like to beat this white-eyed creep Oz, but the watchers make me feel suddenly less sure. By all sense Oz is a better tennis player. I can’t hit the ball over him, he’s too tall. I can’t hit the ball past him, he only needs one or two steps to cover the whole court. His giant serve helps him win a lot of free points. Plus he has a better angle and can fire the ball flat over the net, direct past me.

I hate to pray to God for help, and, as much as I hate listening to my father, his damn advice is the best. Don’t be intimidated, Oz is over-ranked. Serve into his body to jam him up. Remember Oz is better at overwhelming opponents with speed on the ball than he is at placing the ball. He lacks precision for the lines. I must use topspin to make the ball dip down to his feet. Wrong-foot him. He’s slower than sour cream. Trap him into changing direction, against momentum. Move him up the court with drop shots. Slice him. Reduce him to what he really is, a big yutz clomping after my sexy, short angles. Sure, I’m not as tall, but I have my own moves.

And, said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, don’t lose to the watchers. Father’s accurate about that. I estimate fifty percent of these people are praying I flop. Ignore such distractions. Ignore strangers walking dogs through the park, a noisy lawnmower, a helicopter, bugs, little kids roller skating on empty courts, the sun, humidity, shvits dripping into my eyes, hunger, thirst, white lines still slippery after the rain. Still, what Father never taught me is how to turn off the biggest distraction, the voice of a man inside my head always judging, always asking, What if you can’t get to Oz’s serves? What if you choke on every one of your own serves and keep double faulting? Have you ever tried to not think about something? Part of me has to think about what not to think of in order to remember what not to think about. Maybe a true tennis champion knows how, under pressure, to not think at all.

Off the old chair-umpire’s coin toss, Oz gets first service privilege. Of course his first serve is a mortar, and not where anyone else would put it, to my forehand! Plus there’s a crazy inside slice. Probably over a hundred miles per hour. My feet don’t think that fast. I jump left while planting my right sneaker at the same time, and my foot slides on the wet, white line. Then my right knee cocks in and twists as I go down. Where did I land? On the green asphalt, where else, with the inside of my knee.

I roll onto my back and grab my God damn knee. Lying there I cry for the worst pain in the history suffering. For a moment I want to ask God for mercy, but remember how I didn’t tefellin this morning? That’s right, I didn’t say Shema because tefellin is supposed be bullshit. This twisting of my knee is God’s kareth, his penalty for thinking I can do it myself when it was made clear I should reflexively repeat. Today I have underestimated the conditions of God and slippery white lines. When I close my eyes I see nothing but pain. I Shema outloud, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and might! These words I command you today shall be upon your heart!”

Praying with my eyes shut, I sense a shadow between me and the sun, a shadow dark as the ninth plague of Egypt. When I open my eyes I see the shadow is cast by a leaning skyscraper who has a forehead broad as the Wailing Wall, and a gargoyle face with the thin beard of young rabbi. His dangling shirt tzittzits point towards me on ground. Oz Feldman has rushed to my side from the other end of court, his white, devil eyes full of me. He got over here before the alterkocker umpire, may his dry-court proclaiming bones crumble, and before Father or even Mama.

I can’t stand up on my twisted knee, but Oz bends over like a drawbridge, stretching one giant arm under my neck, the other under my knees, and holds them safe together. Then he lifts my whole body in his arms and carries me like the smooth stone in David’s sling. Yes, Oz Feldman, may no shame come to him, carries me from the green asphalt to outside the fence. There he lies me down across the sideline bench, out of harm’s way. Long live Oz! Today it’s God who is my enemy. Oz Feldman is such a big asshole, he’s been easy to underestimate.

Confessions Of A Tennis Groupie (including thoughts about David Foster Wallace, enthusiasm for under-appreciated things, and human completeness)

ontennis2To appreciate my commentary regarding ‘ON TENNIS: FIVE ESSAYS ‘by David Foster Wallace, you are going to need know two things about DFW and then two about me. Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis athlete whose budding potential fizzled among the competition of a broader geographic draw. Fortunately he fell back on being a brilliant writer of long and lauded novels, and many ironic essays on popular culture, including these pieces about tennis. About me, I play tennis almost everyday, despite being a terrible, talentless athlete, and I’m a sometimes silly, but never ironic, fan of the professional game. Second, I write this commentary a week after attending this year’s Cincinnati Open hardcourt tournament, while also preparing to do nothing else for the next fortnight except watch the U.S. Tennis Open in New York City on television.

This summer when I mentioned my Cincinnati excursion to friends mostly the reaction was the what-where? Upon my establishing that the Cincinnati Open is among the premiere annual events in the international tennis season, the inevitable next question was who’s playing? “Everybody!” I invariably said, and began to tick down a list of the some of the greatest current athletes in the world. “Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Serena, …” Are you losing interest yet reader? Because when I went any further down that list of current greatest athletes my interlocutor typically started to lose interest too.

This brings me back to ‘ON TENNIS’ and the connecting tissue of DFW’s five essays. He writes about his inexplicable attraction to mediocre-written sports biographies, the mercurial tennis career of Tracy Austin (“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”), and the shameless commerciality of the US Open (“Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”). Most conspicuously, DFW devotes an entire piece to his near-religious experience seeing Roger Federer win Wimbledon in 2005 (“Federer Both Flesh And Not”). David Foster Wallace has been dead eight years, but Roger Federer is still among the top three men’s tennis players in the universe (2015 Cincinnati Open Champion!). Everybody knows FED right? My standard of differentiation between athlete and super-athlete is if my seventy-six year old mother has heard of ’em. Jordan? Navratilova? Manning(s)? If Mom knows vaguely what sport they play they have transcended ordinary athletic fame, as far as I can measure. DFW’s obsession with tennis athletes was a common theme as he depicted them in his essays alternately as either under-appreciated Gods or extraordinary humans possessing cartoon superhero-like powers.

The essay that resonated with me personally was DFW’s documentation of shadowing a then, yet to fizzle, young player named Michael Joyce through qualifying matches at the Canadian Open in 1995 (“Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”). Wallace described himself sitting in a stadium court with the capacity for ten-thousand and counting ninety-three people present, most appearing to be family and friends of Joyce’s opponent, a Canadian college star. Watching Joyce practice and play, DFW reflects on the lonely, mostly unmedia-covered reality of the unknown professional tennis player, and their subsumption of all other benefits of human living to achieve enigmatic victory in one heroic pursuit. As DFW invites us, “try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything.” Even the most dedicated tennis fan probably cannot ever appreciate the amount of personal sacrifice their favorite player has made, and how the athlete consents to commit the healthiest years of their life seeking success in a competition that is seriously small compared to sports with broader appeal.

My husband and I take our vacations, traveling thousands of miles to dreamlands like Cincinnati and other cities hosting less esteemed professional tennis tournaments than the U.S. Open. One reason is we get to see great tennis live and experience the game at a higher level of enjoyment. Also, because we both have our favorite players and smaller tournaments give us close access to our version of celebrities.

On one of the days I was wondering around Lindler Family Tennis Center, annual site of the Cincinnati Open, I accidentally found two of my personal favorite men’s players in practice. Full disclosure, I happen to be gay and it is no accident most of the players who’s careers I follow close also happen to be gifted with extreme physical attractiveness. I will not bother to mention the names of these two European men, only tennis fans have heard of them, but, as of this posting, those two are ranked the eighty-sixth and the eighteenth most talented men’s tennis athletes in the world. Even my exotic number eighteen is an unknown name to most sports fans in the U.S, but he was right there practicing on a tiny, vacant court in Cincinnati, and I was agog. There was no fence between me my tennis idols. They were dressed in practice t’s and witz-cracking with each other in German, completely abstracted to the mortal nearness of me. The only other spectators around were two kids standing by the changeover chairs with jumbo, nine-inch tennis autograph balls and marking pens waning dry in the Ohio sun.

Kids can be really dumb. When I was about seven my father took me to an obscure, outdoor vaudeville revival show at a family campground. I remember pestering the no-name regional actors at the beer keg after their big show for their autographs on paper napkins. For all I know, the campground’s summer-stock might have been volunteer performers. I guess anyone could be made into a hero by seven year old me, if they were doing anything that made people sit and watch for over fifteen minutes. Similarly, I doubt the kids waiting around the Cincinnati practice court even knew the names of the two handsome Euro pros. Collection of an autograph was more vital to those two kids than the once in a lifetime opportunity to interact with the autographer. Top one hundred players, sure, but to a kid the player was just someone their parents dragged them out there to appreciate. My enthusiasm set apart, those two amazing athletes are not famous on the other side of the mesh-windscreened privacy fences of Lindler Family Tennis Center. It is the live tournament atmosphere that makes it feel like a rare and lucky occasion to a pathetic fan like me.

A 2015 Harris poll, that ranks the most popular sports among U.S. adults, determined that pro-football is number one. The next sports ranked, in descending order, were pro-baseball, college football, then auto racing. Women’s tennis came in twelfth most popular, followed by Not Sure. Men’s tennis was in the cellar with the remaining sports anyone can think of, like Horseshoe Pitch, Lumberjacking, and the WNBA.

So, it is not unusual to find oneself at the Cincinnati Open sitting in a coveted low row right at the net during exciting matches that are under-attended or booked disproportionately in giant empty spaces. One of the matches I sought out in Cincinnati started at 3 p.m. on Tuesday in a four-thousand seat stadium court attended by, at best, about three dozen people. We went to watch thirty-two year old and ninety-forth ranked Yen-Hsun Lu (Taiwanese, pronounced loo yen-soon) against our boy, a handsome twenty-four year old, fifteenth ranked player named David Goffin (Belgian, pronounced girl-friend). Goffin’s high rank and angelic beauty set apart, I suspected that many of the people who come out to Lindler Family Tennis on first round

David Goffin

David Goffin

days were probably Cincy-metro locals who dropped by with freebie tickets given away on WKRP. Not me. I bought tickets in advance and drove thirteen hours because I love the early rounds of these tournaments. I study the game of my favorite players up close and steal professional-pointers for my own amateur follies. As DFW wrote, “Television doesn’t really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do, how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical imagination and artistry.” All true, but, full disclosure, a big part of me is seriously interested in seeing David Belgian Girlfriend in the flesh because he is so fucking cute!

Although I was there among hundreds of empty chairs to watch Goffin, I would never make a show of it. Tennis is, above all, a game of expected decorum on behalf of both players and spectators. Such expectations had not been made clear at the gate to a father/son pair a few rows in front of me. I do not want to sound elitist, so try to understand if I describe them as neither dressed nor carrying themselves with the reserve one might anticipate at a world-class tennis event. Nothing prevented them from having their version of a good time. They banged their fists on the backs of chairs sending the sound of metallic vibrations down the aisle. And they hooted like transfers from a brawling hockey match, “Loo! Loo! Loo!” and “Fuck ’em up, Rendy!”

It turns out “Rendy” is the nickname recited loud in public venues among devoted fans of Yen-Hsun Lu, the also pretty cute rival that day of David Goffin. I was able to eavesdrop together that the father/son party had driven seven hundred miles from Minneapolis, even though they had no other personal connection to Rendy Lu at all. They were “just fans.” The idea was weird to me that those two would don their fishing

Yen-Hsun

Yen-Hsun “Rendy” Lu

caps, get in the family pickup, and follow the tennis career of a thirty-two year old, ninety fourth ranked Taiwanese player around the country. But who am I to judge? Were my reasons for being there so much more relatable? I have to say the father/son co-fans of “Loo!” were inspiring. They liked tennis for tennis sake, and wanted thousands of empty chairs to know about it. Is that not what I want for tennis, for other people to like it too?

I posted pictures on Instagram of every living, serving tennis star I saw, and checked-in on Facebook from every court in Cincinnati, but my effort last week did not make tennis a more popular sport. Professional Tennis is terrible at promoting itself, and yet the economy of sponsorship and prize money is enormous. Total prize money for the Cincinnati open is over five million dollars; U.S. Open thirty-nine million. Maybe that is not as enormous as the economy of the NFL, but then, on a curve, the level of athleticism involved would register just as astronomically far beyond my grasp. Whether other people ever get into tennis is neither something I can effect nor something that makes a difference. All I really care is that the game is there for fans and that my favorite players succeed. Tennis is not meaningful, but it is the stuff that makes life endurable. Fame is a state of the fan’s mind.

1958 Golden Rules of Mixed-Doubles Tennis: You Women

tennisThis Sports Illustrated book on tennis from 1958 has some invaluable tips for you gals allowed to play mixed-doubles with the man. The list is complicated, so I’ll employ some of my masculine leadership and type for you distaff players only what I judge to be the most important advice:

1. Let your partner serve first. It will make him feel that victory depends on him.

4. Wear the most becoming outfit you can find in your wardrobe, but don’t try to be too spectacular looking. The too intriguing costume can be as disconcerting to your partner as your opponent.

6. Compliment your partner generously but uneffusively when he makes a good shot. His ego is the key to his performance.

7. Don’t chat with the other players or bystanders.

8. Play the net uncomplainingly if your partner asks you to. He may have a reason.

9. Always play your best; men prefer to win.

Now, go have fun ladies. I insist.